A long time ago, in a township not so far away, there was a theater.
“It started in 1924 as a vaudeville theater,” said L. Manuel Hirshblond,Toms River. “In 1927, they started talkies.”
Hirshblond should know, “I was practically born and raised there,” Hirshblond said with a chuckle.
His father, Isadore, “was the principal owner of the Traco Theater Company, the Toms River Amusement Company. It had a regular board of directors made up of the bank president, some attorneys.” It operated as a theater until the late 1950s; then, it became a drugstore. The building stood where the parking lot adjacent to the Sovereign Bank branch on Washington Street is now.
Hirshblond described his less-than-glamorous start in show biz. “I made popcorn, scraped gum off the floor. I could have run the projector but they already had people doing it.”
Hirshblond went on to manage the Traco as well as the Community Theaters in Toms River, eventually becoming the southern division manager supervising theaters in the southern part of New Jersey before resigning to become Toms River Township clerk and clerk-administrator.
Before all of that, there was the Traco at the center of his hometown. “People would come into town on a Friday or a Saturday night,” Hirshblond said. “Stores would be open ‘til 9 o’clock. People would come into the soda fountains and have a soda or a sandwich and the movie. That was sort of the centerpiece of the whole area back then. The population was only five or six or seven thousand people back then. Everybody knew everybody. They’d come to the theater and call each other by their first name. They’d stop and chat. It was all very neighborly.”
That feeling of community is at the heart of plans to reopen the Traco Theater. Kim Ratto, proprietor of the Cookie Cab on Washington Street, hopes to open a small theater in the vacant building adjacent to her business. Her plan is to show smaller films that usually don’t make it to Toms River, similar to the films that can be found at the Red Bank Art Cinema.
Ratto’s hope is that such a venue will entice more people to seek out downtown Toms River, encouraging more restaurants, artistic venues and retail shops to open downtown, leading to an overdue revitalization of the area.
Hirshblond remembered the excitement at the theater on opening night. “As a young kid about six or seven [years of age], I remember ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Toms River was one of the first places it opened. It was a hard ticket with reserved seating. My dad was in a tuxedo, everyone was dressed up. At the end of the picture, when Clark Gable said, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ everybody in the theater went crazy.”
Unique to the Traco was its beginning as a vaudeville theater. “The theater had a fly stage which means that everything goes up in the air. Dressing rooms down below the stage, an orchestra pit out in front,” said Hirshblond.
Hirshblond described how his father would book acts. “He’d book in the vaudeville shows mid-week, particularly in the summertime when they were on their way to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City where they did weekend shows. My dad was able to get them on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, either on their way to Atlantic City or on their way back to New York from Atlantic City. They were all there, Abbott and Costello. In fact, I have a picture of him with Abbott and Costello. He paid them $15 for three shows.”
Briefly before talkies came in, the Traco featured silent films. “Near the end of vaudeville,” Hirshblond explained, “Silents came in with the piano playing. I have some of the sheet music used. Piano players sat down in the front in the orchestra pit and played the piano.”
Not only was the Traco the only theater in town during those early days, it was one of the few theaters around. “There was one in Barnegat and one in Tuckerton. And, of course, Lakewood. They were our nearest competitor,” Hirshblond explained.
However, the Traco enjoyed one competitive advantage over its nearest rival. “In those days, Lakewood booked their films out of New York and my dad booked his films out of Philadelphia, two different distribution areas. Philadelphia was always about a week ahead of New York. First runs were out in Philadelphia before New York. So he was always ahead of Lakewood by about a week or five days for first run movies.”
When competition came to town, that competitive advantage continued for the Traco. “When Walter Reade came into town, he built the Community Theater up the street from the Traco in 1937,” Hirshblond said. “He was going to run my father out of town but Walter Reade was booking films out of New York and my father was still able to book out of Philadelphia so eventually they formed a partnership.”
What started as a rivalry became a partnership. “In the 50s, when television came into its own and theater business started to go down, Hollywood was not making good first run movies so we sold the Traco and operated the Community,” said Hirshblond.
Hirshblond further described the feeling of community that surrounded the theater, saying, “The Traco was sort of the center piece of the whole area. People would come into town, they’d take in a movie; we’d have Bank night on Wednesday night where they’d give away $25 or $50 just for being there in the audience. We’d have amateur nights. We gave away dishes, of course. Every week, he’d give away a cup and a saucer. Or a cup this week and a saucer the next. Just to bring people back.”
Of course, every good marketing idea has to be implemented on the back of some put-upon youngster, or so it seemed. “I remember they used to come packed in these big barrels of sawdust. I’d have to clean ‘em out as a kid. Wash ‘em, clean ‘em.”
Of Ratto’s idea to reopen the Traco Theater, Hirshblond said he couldn’t be happier. “I think it’s great. It’s always been a question in my mind whether the types of films she’s going to show would be a success. However, there are a lot of people who go to Red Bank, when certain pictures don’t come to Toms River. She’s going to make a success of it. She’s a real go-getter and she has a lot of good ideas and hopefully it’ll work.”
Hirshblond was so encouraged by Ratto’s plans, he has given her a number of personal photographs of the Traco from its heyday. “I’ve given Kim a lot of memorabilia from the theater. My dad with Abbott and Costello, me with Petey the dog from the Our Gang comedies.”
Let’s hope we all get to see those photographs hanging in the lobby of the newly reopened Traco Theater real soon.