On a recent weeknight in April, Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard was punctuating the band’s nearly two-and-one-half hour set with his signature leg kicks to the great delight of the packed house at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City. Fans had jumped on the PATH train from Manhattan, caravaned up from Asbury Park, and took a quick drive over to the sparkling new venue from Hoboken, Maplewood, New Brunswick, and Saddle River. One couple made their way from Rockland County in New York. And others simply walked up Newark Avenue from their Jersey City digs.
Just one year after the newly restored and renovated historic theater re-opened its doors as a live music and arts venue, White Eagle Hall has become a New Jersey/New York concert venue that is quickly attracting beloved musicians as well as an enthusiastic audience.
The building, which originally opened in 1910, was built by Polish immigrants under the leadership of Father Peter Boleslaus Kwiatowski. The venue’s namesake adorns the façade of the building, a symbol which has represented the Polish nation as far back as the dark ages. After reopening in May 2017, the venue is poised to be an essential stop on the East Coast itinerary of notable bands and performers, and a stalwart supporter of the local community and music scene.
White Eagle Hall is more than ready for its close-up.
If you haven’t experienced a show at WEH as of yet, you can celebrate their one-year anniversary on Saturday, May 5. The free concert (please RSVP for your entrance) will feature Rye Coalition, Will Wood & the Tapeworms, Rock & Roll High Fives, and Long Neck. In addition to live music, expect drink specials, ticket giveaways, merchandise, and other prizes.
During its first year, WEH hosted the likes of Best Coast, Drive-By Truckers, Max Weinberg, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and L7. New Pulp City spoke with Todd Abramson, Talent Buyer for White Eagle Hall, to discuss the process of developing the venue’s lineup over the first year. “You’ve got to build and earn your reputation,” says Abramson. “One of the ways you do that is by building a quality venue and then treating the artist very well once they arrive. That is a good way of getting the word out as well as promoting the shows properly so that they’re well attended.”
Abramson has been pivotal to the storied Jersey scene for decades. He served as the long-time talent buyer for Maxwell’s, the legendary Hoboken music club. In addition to Jersey indie bands such as The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, The Bongos, and The Cucumbers, Maxwell’s hosted the likes of Nirvana, R.E.M., The Replacements, and Sonic Youth. Abramson sometimes booked 200 shows a year and was a constant force — later becoming part owner of the now-shuttered venue.
Abramson, who attended Governor Livingston Regional High School in Berkeley Heights, NJ, recalls his first booking while he was in high school. “The band was called The Zantees,” he says. Early on in his career, he also booked “The Big Combo” series at Folk City, the historic Greenwich Village venue that hosted Bob Dylan’s first live performance when he opened up for John Lee Hooker in 1961.
Thousands of bookings later, he’s been the talent buyer at The Landmark Loew’s Theater in Journal Square, Monty Hall, WFMU’s live performance space, and The Bell House in Brooklyn. He also hosts a weekly show on WFMU, The Todd-O-Phonic Todd Show (Saturdays 3-6 p.m.).
In the next months, expect a schedule that includes seasoned veterans such as Aimee Mann and The Psychedelic Furs, as well as Jenny Lewis and Jersey’s own Real Estate. Abramson discussed how he has worked on assembling WEH’s lineup.
“I think it’s good for a talent buyer to put their personality and personal taste into it because that’s a way of developing a culture for the venue and getting on the map because you’re known for something that’s a bit more specific,” Abramson explains. “At the same time, you’ve got to keep a wider audience in mind and know that there’s a lot of bands out there and a lot of people that don’t have the same tastes that you do. But it’s always kept me excited about my job to have some shows on the calendar that I’m personally excited about.”
When asked about the shows he’s particularly looking forward to, Abramson mentions Superchunk, Alejandro Escovedo, Nick Lowe, Jenny Lewis, and JD McPherson.
The venue’s layout serves as more than just a backdrop for the live shows. WEH has a grand quality which blends with its surprising intimacy. When you first venture in, don’t forget to look up. The ceiling boasts two stunning, hand-crafted stain-glass skylights which were covered with a thick grime before the restoration. According to WEH, one glass “commemorates Frédéric Chopin, the classical music composer, and the other Marcella Sembrich, an internationally renowned opera star – she sang 11 seasons with New York Metropolitan Opera; 1909 was the silver jubilee of her Met debut, which coincided with the construction of WEH.”
The restoration was done by the Ben LoPiccolo Development Group, which paid attention to preserving as much of the space as possible. “Perhaps WEH’s most famous achievement is the facility’s unique contribution to Basketball, the St. Anthony Friars, the basketball team of St. Anthony High School. Bob Hurley, Jersey City native, was the coach of this legendary team,” says Timothy Herrick of White Eagle Hall. “The original wood basketball floor where the Friars had their famous practices are now used as bar counters and balcony flooring.”
In addition to the three bars in the performance venue, the ground floor of the building houses Madame Claude Bis, a Parisian bistro, and Cellar 355, a new bar and restaurant.
The team’s approach includes making sure that WEH preserves Jersey City’s history and is also supportive of the local musicians in Jersey City and nearby areas. Abramson prioritizes using local musicians for showcases and as opening bands for national acts. ”I think it’s partly the responsibility of the venue to nurture local talent as a way of giving back to the community,” he says. “It also makes good business sense. If you’re able to help develop those acts, they’ll start drawing more people for you.”
Jersey City Theater Center, a next-door neighbor to WEH, has also been performing in the new venue. In early 2018, they performed their production of “Hamlet by Bedlam.” On Sunday, May 6, they’ll be presenting “Trekking Mexico.” Tickets for the production are available here.
“I think it’s a pretty healthy scene right now and there’s a lot of support,” adds Abramson. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to create some new traditions.”
White Eagle Hall is located at 337 Newark Avenue in Jersey City. Visit their website for visitor and ticket information. We may just bump into you there soon.