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Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre

By Gary Wien

One of the most impressive buildings along the Jersey Shore has got to be where Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre converge on Asbury Park’s boardwalk.  The complex was built by architects Warren and Wetmore who were also the designers of New York’s Grand Central Station.  It opened on July 11, 1930 with a show at the Paramount Theatre featuring the Marx Brothers and Ginger Rogers.

Since its inception, many of the biggest names in music have brought their shows to either the grandiose Convention Hall or the more intimate Paramount Theatre.  Convention Hall can hold up to 3,500 people, including a large standing room only general admission area, while the Paramount Theatre has seating for about 1,500.

In addition to concerts, Convention Hall has hosted many conventions, wrestling events and basketball games throughout its history.  Recently, several of the area’s top high school basketball teams took part in a local tournament here and Monmouth University (in nearby West Long Branch) played their first game in Asbury Park in decades.

“Convention Hall had major acts forever,” said Lee Mrowicki.  “Back in the 40s they had the big bands, the 50s had doo-wop rock and roll bands.  I think the first concert I ever went to at Convention Hall was in 1966-67 and it was Vanilla Fudge.  There was a major promoter named Moe Septek who always promoted the acts at Convention Hall.”

Moe Septek was an incredible promoter who always managed to bring the top musical acts in the world to Asbury Park.  Names like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and the Who are just a few of the bands Septek brought to the area.  After a long run of booking the bands, Septek found himself in a battle with John Scher, who started booking acts at the Casino.  Septek ultimately retired, feeling that rock and roll promotion was a young man’s game and Scher took over as Asbury Park’s main promoter.

The fact that Asbury Park was able to bring so many great bands to town is rather amazing when the size of the city is considered.  Asbury’s population is under 20,000, hardly in the same ballpark as the other cities found covered by the bands on their tours.  Geography had a lot to do with it.  Asbury Park’s location in the center of New Jersey was a perfect place for a show in between dates in New York or Philadelphia or for bands heading up to Boston or down to DC.  It was rather easy to get to from any of the other cities and the bands knew they could always draw well in Asbury.

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“It was just like fascinating for my friends and I,” explained David Mieras who grew up one town over in Ocean Grove.  “It ended up almost being expected.  It’s like Asbury’s the place to be if you like music.”

Shows at Convention Hall are still remembered by many of the fans in attendance.  Asbury had a knack for catching bands on their way up.  Many of the top acts in the world played Convention Hall during their first or second world tours.

“There were so many great shows there and a lot of them kind of run together as to who was the opening act for who,” remembered Tom Matthews, who saw many shows at Convention Hall.  “Led Zeppelin touring right after their first album came out was pretty great.  I remember Jimmy Page playing the guitar with a bow during ‘Dazed and Confused.’ I think I was a bit dazed and confused myself.

“Emerson, Lake and Palmer I saw there a couple of times,” continued Matthews.  “Keith Emerson’s synthesizer found all the resonant frequencies of that old building.  And an unlikely combination, but enjoyable just the same, was Yes when Rick Wakeman was still with the group and the Eagles on their first nationwide tour as the opening act.”

“My uncle Henry Vaccaro was on the City Council so I knew I had first row seats on the weekend,” said Tony Amato.  “I caught the Rolling Stones, the Rascals, Moby Grape.  I think the first show I saw there was the Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five.  The best show was Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull.”

Tom Matthews and his friends didn’t always have the money to get into the shows, but that never stopped them from trying to see the bands.  “There were a few shows that I didn’t actually see that were memorable just the same,” said Matthews.  “One that we tried to sneak into by elaborate means was Mott the Hoople and Ten Years After.  We entered through a steel door in the sidewalk on Ocean Avenue.  Then we climbed up from the basement of the Paramount Theatre and across catwalks above the ceiling until we reached the roof.  Finally we ran across to the Convention Hall side and came down behind the stage just as Mott the Hoople were finishing their set.  We were bumping into the band as we tried to make it down from the stage and into the crowd but several large roadies intercepted us and showed us to the back door.

“Then there was the Jefferson Airplane show a week or so after the race riots in Asbury Park,” added Matthews.  “I guess we wanted to show that we white kids could raise some hell too, so we spread the rumor that there would be a riot at the show.  We assembled a few hundred folks on the north side of the hall.  I think it was while they were playing ‘Volunteers’ inside that we tried to rush the place.  The cops with their newly acquired riot gear were there to greet us.  When they fired a shotgun blast above our heads, the crowd trying to climb from the beach back to the boardwalk ripped loose about a block or two worth of railing.”

Of course, one of the most unusual aspects of concerts held at Convention Hall is that the sound can be clearly heard from outside the building.  Lots of times crowds of people will hang out on the beach or the boardwalk and listen to the show for free.  In fact, some music fans actually prefer being outside the building and listening to the show while relaxing on the beach during a hot summer night. When Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band performed a bunch of benefit shows to rehearse for The Rising Tour, hundreds of fans that couldn’t get inside hung out and sang along with the band as if it was a giant listening party.

In recent years, Springsteen has used Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre several times for benefits and rehearsal shows.  His first Christmas Show benefit in 2000 attracted fans from all over the world.  Bruce did his part in trumpeting Asbury Park’s revival by encouraging people to visit the downtown shops.  One fan that traveled all the way from Europe to be at the show was the music journalist, Maggie Powell.

“I was so lucky to get a ticket and the whole trip was totally last minute that I didn’t really have time to think about it,” said Powell. “The surprise element went through the roof! If anyone had ever told me that I would see all of my favorite Jersey Shore musicians playing together on the same stage in Asbury Park, I would never have believed them.  But they were all there... Bruce, Little Steven, Southside Johnny... I mean, this was akin to seeing the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Jersey Shore rock and roll!’ And to hear songs like ‘Kitty’s Back’ and ‘For You’ with Bruce at the piano... wow, it was awesome!

“I think the most poignant moment of the night happened when Bruce performed ‘My City Of Ruins’ for the very first time,” Powell continued.  “He dedicated it to Kate Mellina whose efforts to revitalize Asbury Park are an inspiration to everyone who knows her.  I was standing about six feet away from Bruce when he sang it.  The song quite literally moved me to tears and I felt so incredibly privileged to be part of an audience that was witnessing something so uniquely wonderful.”

Although the glory days of Asbury Park shows are generally thought of as the concerts held during the 60s and 70s, the music never stopped.  In the 80s acts as Peter Gabriel, the Clash and Elvis Costello came to town.  And, in the 90s, such bands as No Doubt, Crowded House and the Goo Goo Dolls played here.  More recently, shows by the Counting Crows and Jimmy Eat World once again made Asbury Park the place to be.  In addition, Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre have been home to several festivals including those for punk rock and heavy metal bands as well as the first ever Asbury Music Festival, the creation of Tony Palligrosi, a former member of the Asbury Jukes.

From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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originally published: 01/26/2012

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