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Jessica Sporn and Janeece Freeman Clark give a tour of the space. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Soon, the vintage-1920s Old Mogul Theatre will become The Vanguard. 

The lease for the 4,500 square-foot second-floor theater space was signed by the Vanguard Theater Company in March, but renovations of the building at 180 Bloomfield Ave. could not start until this summer due to COVID-19. 

Kaz Mirza, Montclair High School class of 2003, administers the building with his family. His parents, Sayeed and Nassim, bought the property in 1991.

Vanguard Theater Company’s mission, according to its materials, is “to address the lack of diversity in traditional theater casting and training.” Vanguard offers performance opportunities and training to children ages 6 to 18 from New Jersey and the tri-state area.

“[The building] was always a community center,” Mirza said. “It was downtown, and in the Fourth Ward. It was always a public gathering space. It was previously a dance hall.”

Now, the five-year-old theater company has taken on the task of renovating and bringing back to life Montclair’s oldest professional proscenium stage.

The building is full of history. A grid of squares on the wall near the door is where gentlemen checked their top hats, according to Vanguard co-founder and Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark. Musicians sat on the proscenium stage. 

Currently, Premiere Dance Theatre occupies the third floor, and a Brazilian restaurant, Brazil Paradise and Grill, and First Choice Women’s Center, a nonprofit that helps pregnant women with medical services, occupy the first. Premiere Dance has been in the building since 1992, when it was founded by the late James Wiggins Jr. and Shirlise McKinley-Wiggins. 

For most of its existence, according to township historian Mike Farrelly, the building was owned by Charles Rosenberg. For a while, the second-floor space was the studio of artist Don Miller, who painted the Martin Luther King Freedom Mural there. The mural is 7 feet high and 56 feet long and is now at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., after having been commissioned by the National Library. Miller was in the studio when the Mirzas bought the property. 

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READ: VANGUARD’S ‘RUNAWAYS’ BUILDS EMPATHY

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“Getting the mural out was quite an ordeal,” Mirza said. The mural was larger than the doorway, which had to be cut, and the mural lifted out by crane.

After Miller left, sometime in the mid-1990s, the second floor began to be used as an event space, Mirza said.

In 2015, Joann Smalls, who had worked with The Wellmont and Montclair Center Stage, teamed with Mirza to refurbish the space to present concerts there until about 2017. 

Smalls said she’s excited the space will be used again. Among the hundreds of performers she presented there were the Montclair band Pinegrove and Manny Cabo from the TV show “The Voice,” as well as many events from Montclair School of Rock. Mirza and Smalls named the space “The Old Mogul Theatre.” 

“The building is in a community center. My father had a dream of always bringing the community alive,” Mirza said. “He was big into the arts. He would be very happy. He passed away in 2017, but he would be happy to know that Vanguard Theater is occupying the space now.”

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The company plans to have a large central, flexible space in the Old Mogul Theater space, as well as studios. COURTESY VANGUARD THEATER COMPANY

When finished, the former Old Mogul Theatre will have a main theater, two studio spaces for classes, four restrooms, a sound/lighting booth and a finishing kitchen. VTC has expanded the apron of the stage, which is now 700 square feet. 

With the kitchen, the company will also be able to rent out the space for weddings and events, Freeman Clark said to an invited group of Township Council and press members who came to a “hard hat” tour on Oct. 2. 

Construction in the Old Mogul space is expected to be finished in mid-November, and classes and performances will begin. For now, performances will take place with strict social distancing.

“We are moving toward creating an environment for healing,” Kwanzaa King, vice president of the VTC board, said.

For seated events around tables, the space can hold up to 175 people. Arranged as a theater, using folding chairs, it can seat about 200. The space is zoned for 400 people standing, Freeman Clark said.

The space will also be available to other arts organizations, including those that, like the Montclair Operetta Club, lost their performance space at the Westminster Arts Center when Bloomfield College decided to reserve the space for its own use. 

“Dream” is an important word for Vanguard Theater: Its mission is “changing the narrative through theater dedicated to DREAM: Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism and Mentorship.” Managing Director Jessica Sporn said that the company intends to also align its work with the new arts space at Seymour Arts Project.

For more information and to see a video tour of the new space, visit Vanguardtheatercompany.org.

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Renovations continue at 180 Bloomfield Ave. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL