The Maurice Levin Theater at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange — with its state-of-the-art makeover and increased accommodations for people with mobility challenges — has won the Innovator Award from the Cultural Access Network Project and the NJ State Council on the Arts.
In a June 21 ceremony at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, JCC MetroWest was cited for “outstanding leadership, dedication, and commitment to cultural access” for its renovation project.
The project involved removing old seats to make widely spaced rows so that 42 people with mobility issues can sit comfortably alongside their walkers and create spots for 14 patrons using wheelchairs.
“This is a project that we are extremely proud of,” JCC executive director Alan Feldman told NJ Jewish News two days after receiving the award. “We are proud that we allowed our conceptual thinking and our moral commitments to guide us in a way you don’t often have the opportunity to do when most decisions are guided by financial concerns.”
What made the $280,000 redesign possible were grants from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Wallerstein Foundation for Geriatric Life Improvement, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Essex County Community Development Block Grant, and several private donations.
The project began with an idea from Sharon Gordon, director of the JCC MetroWest’s Center for Adult Enrichment. During her 13 years at the JCC, Gordon has worked with seniors in hundreds of programs at the theater. “When I started here it wasn’t much of an issue,” she told NJJN. “But as the years went on, I got more and more nervous.”
What was troubling Gordon was the increasing frailty of her constituents. More and more of them needed wheelchairs or walkers.
“These seniors did not have easy access to the theater,” said Feldman. “And when you don’t have your legs because all the walkers and wheelchairs had to be left out in the lobby because there was no room for them inside, the people had feelings of discomfort and anxiety should they need to get up and leave.”
In addition, said Gordon, audience members needed to use stairs to reach the theater’s one emergency exit, “a troubling prospect for people who cannot walk unassisted.”
To make matters worse, noted Healthcare Foundation executive director Marsha Atkind, that exit “was in the back of the theater, where you enter.”
A multi-faceted approach was taken. “We talked about creating special rows where people could keep their walkers with them,” said Gordon. “We talked about increasing the number of wheelchair-and-companion seating in a convenient place. And we talked about emergency egress on the side of the theater.” All aspects of the plan were implemented.
The renovation also included floor lighting along the aisles — a safety requirement for new theaters that was not in place when the JCC opened in 1966. In addition, new seats replaced old ones with sagging springs.
The Healthcare Foundation gave the JCC a $163,000 grant, which financed the wheelchair and walker access, the new emergency exit, and new aisle lighting.
“One of the things we noted was not how many more people, but how many fewer people came to the theater,” said Feldman. “Most theaters look to expand their seating, but we were willing to diminish our capacity in order to provide wheelchair and walker access. Our theater used to seat 460 people. It now seats 380. But now we get more people with wheelchairs and walkers who can participate in our events.
“Numbers are not always the criteria for judging effectiveness,” Feldman said. “The effectiveness is now we can put 45 to 50 people with walkers into the theater safely…. Previously there were only six places for people with walkers and three or four people with wheelchairs. We now can seat 18. This isn’t about the more; this is about the merrier.”
The theater reopened after four months of construction work in December of 2012 with a concert by local cantors. As she sat in the audience, Atkind said, she was thrilled.
“Before the program began, I saw all these seniors saying, ‘Oh, look at all the space for our walkers. Isn’t than fantastic?’ It made me kvell,” she said.
“People were so impressed when we won the Innovator Award,” said Gordon. “They said, ‘We saw into the future for baby boomers aging in place.’ But for us it was a current need that will continue to be a future need. Maybe 10 years down the road, other places are going to get to the same place where we are today.”