By Olivia Silvester and Saranya Mandapaty, Staff Writers
101 years of establishment, 101 years of history, 101 years of underclassmen traditions. This is the Princeton Garden Theatre.
What better to add to a historical town besides a historical theater? You may have heard of this establishment, and you’ve definitely seen it while walking around Princeton. The Princeton Garden Theatre was established 101 years ago, in 1920. It is now owned by Princeton University and operated by Renew Theaters.
The Princeton Garden Theatre gets its charming name from a rose garden that historically bloomed in their neighboring building: The Bainbridge House, which is now called The Princeton Historical Society.
When the Garden Theatre first opened, many moons ago, theaters weren’t very common. Instead, films were shown in storefronts known as nickelodeons. Deciding to open the theater was an extremely risky card to play, but a good one, as the theater was a success.
Image Source: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/10204/photos/78258
The Garden Theatre is essential to Princetonian culture. Years of tradition are woven into the playbills of this beautiful theater. While Princetonians have made sure to support their theater as much as possible, they have also been a strong nuisance. In an early issue of the Princetonian, Bill Boyd, a famous actor, described Princeton underclassmen as, “Without doubt, the most immature students I have ever seen.” In 1930, Princeton students fully removed the ticket booth sitting in front of the theater, wires and all, and left it in the middle of Nassau Street. That wasn’t the end of their extreme pranks, as in 1977, the theater was invaded by over two dozen nude streakers, who ended their eventful night by running away from the manager of the theater. I guess Ivy League alumni aren’t the geniuses we make them out to be after all.
Another famous part of the theater was the irreplaceable, “Candy Man,” Harrold “Sonny” Perrine. Sonny was born paralyzed in both his legs and his right arm. Nevertheless, he lived his life in positivity. Sonny was a cheerful man whose shop was his wheelchair. He sat outside of The Garden every day and sold candy straight out of his wheelchair to local Princetonians. Though Sonny passed in the ’90s, his memory lives on forever.
Not everything about the Garden is candy and roses though. In the late ’30s, early ’40s, Princeton changed. A man named Edgar Palmer took one look at an area called Baker Street and had the idea that this land could potentially be the next Rockefeller center. What was once an African American neighborhood, was demolished, establishing what is now Palmer Square. Standing proudly at the front of it, Princeton Garden Theatre. Though the establishment of Palmer Square is a disappointing truth, Palmer Square helped the small business of the theater grow.
For 17 years the Garden Theatre held the spotlight of Nassau Street, but in 1937, competition arrived. Princeton Garden Theatre held a grueling rivalry with The Princeton Playhouse; a tug of war for popularity. The Playhouse was eventually run under the same management as the Garden, and featured popular new films, whereas The Garden focused on smaller films. What set the Garden apart was the fact that they also featured foreign films, which was almost unheard of in the early 1900s.
Though movies weren’t common at the time, The Princeton Garden Theatre managed to turn the tables in just a short amount of time with its undeniable uniqueness. The theatre on its own is a truly magical place; its warm, homey feel is sure to fill you with nostalgia, butterflies, and excitement. Next time you are in the Princeton area, make sure to take a moment to reflect upon the 101 years of history the theater shares. The Princeton Garden Theatre has received its fair share of affection as well as tough love; both of which have truly shaped it and its legacy as New Jersey’s best.