RED BANK, NJ: I’ve got a real soft spot for the Count Basie Theater Center for the Arts.  My great grandfather, Joseph Oschwald, constructed the first skyscraper in Newark and many of their breweries. 

In 1926 he built this iconic theater.  Initially named “The State Theater,” the initials, “ST” are still carved on the facade of the building.  

The complexity of the architecture was a mixture of art deco and Spanish influence; a magnificent sunburst dome with a huge glass chandelier hanging in the middle illuminated by hundreds of concealed lights, an interior featuring hand-painted murals on the lobby walls, marble stairways and theater walls highlighted by vibrant colors of red and gold.

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The first show opened on November 11, 1926 with a new marquee name: the Carlton Theater, with an awaiting crowd of four thousand.  In 1984, the theater was renamed in honor for “The Red Bank Kid,” Williams James “Count” Basie.

Over the years, some great musical talent has played its historic stage; Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Peter Frampton, and “Count” Basie himself.

The Basie is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America.

Now, like all venues across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has put theaters in serious financial straits.

We spoke with Adam Philipson, President and CEO of the Count Basie Center for the Arts for his take on the future.

TAP:  Tell us what the Count Basie has received in government funding and the challenges you and entertainment/theater industry are facing

Philipson: Though we don’t discuss funding, I can tell you that what the Basie and our sector are facing is unprecedented, and bad enough to close the doors of entertainment venues across the world.  That’s not just a loss of concerts for a community, but a loss of economic activity that ripples across a region’s restaurants, hotels, retail… and, in our case, the schools, students, parents and teachers who depend on our arts education programs as part of their development.

In a normal year, the Basie would reach more than 15,000 students and teachers through its professional development, onsite and in-classroom offerings. 

TAP:  The Count Basie is an anchor for the town of Red Bank.  What do you think the ripple effects will be with you remaining closed?

Philipson: I know restaurants will be hit – perhaps hardest.  We provide a lot of business to hotels, local retail, trades persons, contractors – you name it.  And most of our employees are based in Monmouth County.  We have a tremendous relationship with neighboring businesses, not only as sponsors and friends but drivers of the region’s economic engine.  We all have a sense of responsibility and pride to this place we call home.

TAP:  When the Count Basie is allowed to hold events, what are your plans for social distancing in the theater?  Will these restrictions allow you to at least in a “break-even” in terms of operational costs?

Philipson: We’ll certainly try.  When they say we can host 100 people, we’ll find a way to entertain 100 people.  Our expansion, which was set to launch just as the pandemic really hit, includes a second performance space, the Grunin Arts Education building, new classrooms…,so we’ll host summer camps onsite this summer in accordance with state mandates, but we’re still waiting for the green light on indoor performances.  When that happens, we’re ready – we have a comprehensive plan to maintain social distancing and assure customer and performer safety.
TAP: Being a non-profit organization, do you have plans for fund-raising and, how have your sponsors and donors responded to your situation?

Philipson: We’ve done a number of online broadcasts which people have acted as fundraisers.  We have a limited-edition t-shirt from our friend Bruce Springsteen with a quote on the back about how New Jersey will once again experience everyday life.  About 1,200 of those have sold.  And this past weekend, we held the first of our “Drive -In Live” concerts at Monmouth Park, which sold out quickly and saw support from sponsors like World Subaru, Bank of America, the Monmouth County Freeholders, Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, Saker ShopRites and Tito’s Handmade Vodka.  These are very expensive ventures that don’t create as much revenue as our theater, but it’s something.  And we know from fan reaction that it was something very special to them.

We’ve also launched our annual golf and tennis outing for September 29th at Eagle Oaks in Farmingdale, with Investors bank as a title sponsor – people can visit to sign up for that. And last but absolutely not least, our board is doing its part with emergency donations, which we’ll be asking the public to match in months to come.

So, despite all of this, our mission – to inspire, education and entertain – has continued. We’re treading water, but we can’t give up. 

TAP: On a positive note, the Basie Center held their 2020 Basie Awards online, to honor excellence in Monmouth County High School Theaters.  Talk about that event and how it went

Philipson: The Basie Awards ceremony is our favorite night of the year.  It embodies the community values we stand for, and it creates a community of young performers who go to all sorts of different Monmouth County schools but know each other because of this program.

There was no way we couldn’t do something to keep that tradition alive, so we pivoted held the ceremony online.  Most schools didn’t get a chance to launch their spring productions, so we honored performances from the fall and paid tribute to the hard work students didn’t get to present post-pandemic.

We received support from TONY winners Bernadette Peters and Brian Stokes Mitchell, 2019 TONY winner Dale Franzen (Hadestown) and the director and lead from this year’s Jagged Little Pill, each of whom provided encouragement to our performers.

It was a wonderful broadcast and thousands of people tuned in, but the truth is… we can’t wait until next year’s ceremony, which we’ll hold at the Basie Center’s Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre!

To watch a video of the 2020 Basie Awards, click HERE.

TAPinto Red Bank will keep our readers informed of upcoming events so that this important gem will once again shine with luster.

Because the show must go on!

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