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Count Basie Theatre In Red Bank Announces $20 Million Expansion

By Danny Coleman

originally published: 10/30/2015

(RED BANK, NJ) - "The Future Is Now," read the marquis on the revamped and revitalized former "Carlton" movie theater turned entertainment venue known simply as "The Basie" as it welcomed media, alumni and guests to an press conference on Monday October 26.

The historic Red Bank landmark is primed for a change; a change that will not only enhance the allure of the beautiful old building but the entire block and community it serves as well. "The Future," is a massive expansion project which includes a makeover and east and west additions to the existing property including a new glass walled lobby, an upgrade for the backstage area, a second "Multi-use venue for up and coming artists" and a new spot for the area arts nonprofits, partner programs and the Performing Arts Academy. In the words of the theatre's board of directors and trustees Chairman Tom Widener, "We are here to unveil our plans to transform The Basie into a regional center for arts and education."

Honorary campaign co-chairs Maureen and Steven Van Zandt both have a long association with the famed stage and are now the faces of the project which will take an estimated $20,000,000 to complete.

"I danced The Nutcracker on this stage, back in the days when my knees still worked," joked an enthusiastic Maureen. "Just a couple of months ago I performed in a production of The Who's Tommy done by the 'RockIt' program which is an amazing program for young musicians here."

Quickly turning the podium over to her favorite E Street Band member and guitarist; Maureen stepped back and Steven wasted no time recounting the reasons why he is solidly behind the expansion. Speaking of his mother marrying "Wild Bill Van Zandt" and as a child moving to New Jersey from Boston, MA; Steven took a trip down memory lane.

"New Monmouth was still kind of rural and so this was our big city; you know, Red Bank," said Steven. "This is where we went quite a ways away or it felt like it when you were young. This is where we came; this is where I bought my first guitar in Jack's Music Store; which is still there incredibly. That's where I bought all my records and this is where we came to the movies; this was the movie theater; called The Carlton back then. You know, where I saw Hard Days Night, Help and the real Nutty Professor movie. So it's meant a lot to me growing up and we're very happy to see the plan for this thing; it's really quite exciting.

"We've been involved, as Maureen mentioned, with the 'RockIt' kids program for the last few years and that is a really remarkable accomplishment already and a wonderful example for what's going to happen going forward in an even bigger way with the Performing Arts Center and all the plans. Basically it's really a very exciting time and I think it's going to be a great example of what should happen in every community across this country in terms of the city, the civilians if you will, creating a performing arts center so that we're not dependent on anybody else to do it. This is something that is separate from schools, separate from government if you will and more dependent on private support and more consistent; you're more in control of your own destiny."

Fundraising efforts are already in full swing with "several major donations" already in place including a generous gift of $1,000,000 from board member and philanthropist Nancy Mulheren and her family.

"We know it's ambitious but we also feel very optimistic," says Basie President and CEO Adam Philipson. "When I arrived which was almost three years ago to the day, I was shown a photo and I was asked; how do we make this happen? We didn't have the land to the west, that was one big piece; we knew the west was the back of our house and one of our biggest issues. The plan was to finish the back of the house and then raise a lot of money for the interior and then the facade of the building fell off and when that happened they had to stop work on that part and take care of the facade but we knew we had the back of the house. We had issues, trucks couldn't get in appropriately, there were some big shows that we wanted to do, some Broadway shows and they'd look at our technical specs and they'd say, 'I'm sorry we can't fit' and if you've gone back there we have the old hemp rope system, it's antiquated, it hasn't been touched since 1926. So we knew we wanted to do all of that, it was just a matter of taking care of a lot of issues internally; getting a unified board, getting a unified team, becoming really transparent with our desire and getting people on board.

"We have a lot of money to raise," he continued. "And a lot of these things happen based on momentum and people have already expressed their interest and that's before we even went public. What's really great about our venue is that we have more than 200,000 people a year, so our goal was to be public because we never know who's sitting in here or who says, I want to help. The plan that the board has expressed is that we're going to be conservative and we're only going to build to what we've raised. We have seven commitments now and they'll be announced when the time comes but for now I can not say who that is; there's a nice chunk that's come in already but we'd rather not say just yet or exactly how much. We can't get any better help from the community, especially the music community like having Steven Van Zandt on our board. Steven has expressed not only will he be involved with helping us but he's decided to artistically and creatively help us; so we'll leave it at that for the moment. I mean, really, we are so thrilled that he and Maureen wanted to be involved and be our honorary chairs."

The economic impact of this project has current Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna glowing with excitement over the possibilities that await his city. "The facility will be enhanced and we have to enhance the parking situation. The Basie provides almost a quarter of a million visitors to Red Bank; it's amazing. Now you're not going to have a quarter of a million people going out to dinner every night but you will have ten percent of the flow at the theatre going to dinner, or for a drink, or a coffee and that drives the local economy; so the arts are a driving force for that. We're never going to get manufacturing back to the extent that we had in the 1950's, fortunately most of the factories have been converted to office space or eating establishments and this is it; extraordinarily so. The current estimated economic impact that The Basie provides is approximately $17,000,000 and that will rise to approximately $30,000,000 upon the project's completion and more than 100 new jobs; that is a positive, positive for our entire area."

New stage and lighting technologies, a hydraulic orchestra pit, modernized and contemporary dressing and gathering areas for the artists and performers, along with an improved loading dock/load in area will vastly increase the size and types of productions which the building can host. Since the theatre, when complete will encompass almost, if not the entire city block on which it sits; the value as an entertainment complex has risen dramatically. A second multi-use space for an educational facility and a "Smaller cabaret-style venue" with an anticipated standing room capacity of 550 are also planned as part of the expansion. The latter hosting smaller music shows, culinary events, film festivals and various other arts related soirees; all of which have piqued the interest of Mr. Van Zandt.

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"What's going on across the country is that all of the great clubs are closing, live music is really becoming an endangered species," said Steven. "It's terrible. I was just in L.A. the other day where 'House Of Blues,' one of the most beautiful clubs in the country is closing to make room for yet another high rise; just what we need in the world. It's happening all over. We lost the Bottom Line years ago in New York and so many others. So to actually have a club here and what that will be with something like a capacity of 350 to 500 or so for rock shows once you take the seats out; it's extremely important to have a place like that especially somewhere that kids can develop and perform."

One of those "Kids" now a young adult is Jacquie Lee, who after participating in The Basie "Rockit" program went on to be declared "2nd Place" in Season 5 of The Voice. Lee spoke fondly of being a "Brace face" kid performing Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There" and how far she's come thanks to The Basie and its programs.

"This is obviously an amazing day," said Lee. "Everything is expanding and getting bigger, more resources; hopefully the program will just continue to grow and do great in the future and inspire more kids just like it did for me." Now an Atlantic Records recording artist with a tour under her belt; Lee plans on continuing the career built off of her Basie foundation. "It was a really good ride, a lot of fun. I learned a lot, I gained a lot of experience from doing the show and now I am just happy to be home and working on a new album; things are great!"

With the Theatre's centennial celebration only a decade away; hope is that the expansion will be completed in plenty of time but for now the fundraising efforts, awareness and performances continue as scheduled. A venue without a "bad seat in the house" and a stage that has handled the likes of Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Ringo Starr, Melissa Etheridge and Tony Bennett to name a few can only continue to enhance its value to the entertainment and area communities with this undertaking and just like the man whose name it bears, the late, great, William James "Count" Basie; it may just become legendary.


Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 7:000pm EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.



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