Newark Symphony Hall: The Soul of Newark

By Brit Harley

Built by Shriners International in 1925 for $2 million as the Salaam Temple (later known as the Mosque Theatre), Symphony Hall is more than just an ornate physical structure—it truly has a soul. Music icons Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and others have performed there. After the Shriners, Symphony Hall changed ownership. According to Preservation New Jersey, the Hall suffered financial troubles after the Great Depression and was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1933 to Prudential Life Insurance Co. However, by 1938 Symphony Hall experienced a 20-year run of great success and critical acclaim.

In July 1964, the municipal council voted to allocate $340,000 to acquire and rehabilitate the venue and a leasing agreement was made between the City of Newark and Symphony Hall. The nonprofit organization included “many of the city’s leaders in the industry, business, finance, and the professions” according to the 1964 New York Times article “Newark Pledges $340,000 To Arts; Mosque Theater Would Be Transformed Into Center.” Fifty-one years after its opening day, on a cold Friday in January 1976, an official press release came from the Newark Public Information Office entitled “City to Seek Ways to Repair and Reopen Symphony Hall.” The auditorium was being closed due to electrical system defects. Despite these challenges, Newark Business Administrator William H. Walls predicted “it will come back bigger and better,” and it did! Newark Symphony Hall was added to The National Registry of Historic Places in 1977.

“Black music is American music,” says current president & CEO Taneisha Nash Laird. “And so, it resonates well beyond us. And I think Symphony Hall is symbolic of that.” Countless legends and cultural icons have graced the venue, including Sarah Vaughn, Amiri Baraka, The Temptations, Patti Labelle, and Alvin Ailey, to name a few.

“The very first Black performer to perform at Symphony Hall was Marian Anderson in 1940. So when you think of Symphony Hall and Black music, it’s not just R&B; it’s opera and classical. It’s Rock with Jimi Hendrix,” said Nash Laird. “One of the most iconic images of Aretha Franklin is at Newark Symphony Hall, sitting at the dressing room mirror. Jimi Hendrix performed at the Hall on April 5, 1968, the day after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Newark Symphony Hall’s true legacy has always been about centering the community. The venue played an essential role in the 1970 election of Newark’s first African American mayor, Kenneth Gibson. “When the late great Amiri Baraka was campaigning for Ken Gibson, had all these people come to Newark Symphony Hall. He had Isaac Hayes, Harry Belafonte, and Dustin Hoffman,” Nash Laird explained. “Newark Symphony Hall was central in the election of our first African-American mayor of a northeastern city. That’s what I think about—the music, of course, but I think about all the things the music helped advance in terms of humanity.” If you rode past this incredible place over the last two decades or so, it would have been easy to miss the legacy that lives within the walls of Symphony Hall. Despite the challenges of the 20th century, the vision pressed on.

Exclusively led by men for more than 90 years, in 2018, Newark Performing Arts Corporation recruited social change agent and former executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton Taneshia Nash Laird to helm another turnaround a century in the making. Nash Laird is the first Black woman to lead one of Newark’s oldest, theater-sized performing arts spaces and the only Black woman leading a performance arts center in New Jersey. “Our mission is all about utilizing our historic venue for economic opportunity and development in Newark. I think that’s definitely a unique mission for a performing arts center. But also, wellness when you think about the arts.” She said.

Nash Laird’s background in the arts started at 13 when she toted her black and white marble composition notebook full of her rhymes everywhere. “So, I’m literally growing up hip hop, in the sense that I was the person who got my start in hip hop. And now I’m running a multimillion-dollar performing arts center.” Nash Laird’s first job was director of media relations at Planet Rock Music. While in college, she hosted a Time Warner cable show called New York Rap. It was there hip hop legend DJ Marley Marl brought hip hop icons Dupré “DoItAll” Kelly, Al’Terik “Mr. Funke” Warrick, and Anthony “Lord Jazz” Colston—Newark’s Lords of The Underground—on their first album’s promotional run. These humble and exciting beginnings were the primer for Nash Laird’s work today. In her first two years as CEO, she bolstered the venue’s programming, responded to community needs, and announced plans to restore the vintage concert hall in a $50 million renovation. The goal is to leverage the renovation for revitalization in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The global lockdown presented unprecedented challenges, navigating grief and loss, even losing a staff member who served the organization for a decade. Like other performance spaces, Symphony Hall faced the huge financial challenge of the disappearance of revenue from event-rentals and ticket sales. In addressing the global economic downturn and advancing its capital campaign in October 2020, Newark Symphony Hall announced a Black-led investment committee whose role is to shape oversight policy and provide fund-management guidance.

While huddled in place during the lockdown, Symphony Hall incubated fresh new initiatives like #EmbraceNewark, an artist-activated initiative featuring photos, footage, and writings by ten local Black artists documenting their pandemic experiences. #EmbraceNewark is responsible for the 2020 creative project “Symphony of Survival.” Under the creative direction of Newark poet and author Jasmine Mans, the project archived mourning, protest, and survival to honor the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were both murdered by police. #EmbraceNewark also facilitates resources for food distribution, personal protective equipment, wellness checks, and online artistic programming designed to engage and inform.

“Newark is predominantly Black and Brown. To be able to provide opportunities in this space, it feels amazing to center the cultural community of Newark in the work that I’m doing,” says Nash Laird. The historical and cultural impact of Newark Symphony Hall is reflected through new opportunities and projects. The Lab is a performing arts business incubator and career accelerator program that will support people in the community to build careers on and off the stage. This summer, registration will open to participate at no cost. Yendor Theatre Company, co-founded by Andrew Binger and the late Rodney Gilbert in Newark, New Jersey, is the first company-in-residence of The Lab initiative where they will be producing Black Terror by award-winning playwright and Newark-born screenwriter Richard Wesley. The play will be co-produced by WACO Theatre Center based in Los Angeles, co-founded by actor Richard Lawson and philanthropist Tina Knowles-Lawson. Andrew Binger, protégé of Rodney Gilbert, will be the artistic director of Black Terror. Binger was also a mentee of Laird through the Victoria Emerging Leaders Program at Rutgers Business School’s Institute for Ethical Leadership. “To be able to kind of put that together and to be that connector, I think that is the role I was meant to play. So, what I feel is pride,” said Nash Laird.

Another new initiative, “The Soul of Newark Symphony Hall,” is a production celebrating the Hall and Black Newark. Directed and curated by Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, the multimedia production will include narration, reenactments of oral histories, music, and cinematic and photographic montage. Per Nash Laird, “‘The Soul of Newark Symphony Hall’ explores the connections between the social, cultural, and political lives of Black Newark, with the transformational space at the hall.”

In April 2021, the Hall launched the interview series “Homegrown,” hosted by creative force Citi Medina. “Homegrown” celebrates and shares the stories of prominent artists and entertainers born and raised in Newark. The series includes Tony® Award-winning actress and longtime R&B recording artist Melba Moore, James Mtume & Tawatha Agee, Robert “Kool” Bell (Kool & the Gang), and next Dupré “DoItAll” Kelly from Lords of the Underground, a direct connection to Laird’s humble beginnings in music.

On Juneteenth, the organization partnered with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity for “Brotherhood Week: A Juneteenth Celebration,” which sought to revive the Black Experience through visual and performing arts. The program was streamed across Symphony Hall’s social media platforms and Newark public access TV. Legendary radio personality and co-founder of Black Music Month Dyana Williams was also honored in a special event in late June.

The restoration of Newark Symphony Hall has been decades in the making. The $50 million effort is a three phase project expected to create 500 jobs and assist 50 local small businesses. The exterior renovation will complete on the 100th-year celebration of the venue in 2025 with plans to reimagine the marquee that was there during the 1960s and 70s.

If it were up to Nash Laird, she would love to have all of the living legends who once performed at Newark Symphony Hall return. “I’m looking forward to us having a full year of celebrating our centennial,” she said. “But I also have this image and vision that we are making future legends. The people we’re going to put on the stage now are the people I hope 50 years later people will say, ‘Oh, my goodness, can you believe so and so performed there?’ I want us to continue the place we’ve always had. I know when the Deltas helped bring the Supremes back to Symphony Hall… in 1967—who would have ever thought I’d be talking about that so many years later? Those are the types of things I want [to do]. I want us to be creating more history.”

Brit Harley is the co-founder of the Newark News & Story Collaborative and a 2020–2021 John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow at Stanford University.