Edmondo Schwartz grew up in Englewood and fondly recalls attending shows at the John Harms Center with his family. Schwartz still sees shows there, though the venerable old theater is now the Bergen Performing Arts Center, or bergenPAC for short. In fact, Schwartz, who calls Alpine home, is now the chairman of the board of trustees for the not-for-profit entertainment and arts education school.
"I loved the place, and had been going there since I was a child, but I didn't even know it was a not-for-profit theater," says Schwartz, who is president and chairman of EMS Enterprises, through which he develops, owns and operates residential and commercial real estate across the country. "I wish I could remember the first thing I saw there. It may have been a movie. They no longer play there, but we're talking about changing that. We've been making a lot of changes, trying all different strategies."
Schwartz helped found bergenPAC in 2003. The John Harms Center had closed, and a group of six businessmen got together and decided to reopen it as a public-private partnership for the arts.
Schwartz – who "always has a soft spot" in his heart for the '70s and '80s rock bands that frequently play at bergenPAC – took over as chairman in 2010 after Frank Huttle III resigned upon becoming the mayor of Englewood.
Since then, Schwartz has tackled myriad challenges, chief among them the economy. There has also been the complex task of assembling a schedule of events that will appeal to the diverse market, a subscriber base, and visitors who venture out once or twice a year in hopes of making each time a special night out. It's why current and upcoming shows span from Smokey Robinson and Supertramp to Marvin Hamlisch and Capitol Steps to "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro, The National Circus of the People's Republic of China, and Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
"It is quite difficult, as you can imagine," Schwartz says. "In 2003, we put on 60 shows a year and opened a dance school, by 2007 we had 75 shows a year and then in 2008 the economy fell apart, which dramatically affected donations to bergenPAC. As a result, we curtailed our programming and went through a very difficult period. The good news is that since then, we've consolidated and refinanced all our underlying debt through North Jersey Community Bank. We have also released the county from backing our bond. I am proud to say that we are now a stand-alone organization. We're hoping to have 150 shows this year, and the goal is to have 200 shows booked for 2014."
Frank Sorrentino III, chairman and CEO of North Jersey Community Bank, is very proud of the bank's relationship with Schwartz and bergenPAC.
"Ed has been very progressive about understanding that bergenPAC is a vital part of the community in Englewood," Sorrentino says. "The vibrancy that occurs when there is a show in town is just dramatic. Restaurants and shops are busy – the arts center is an incredible magnet in downtown Englewood, a great venue to see shows."
"As a banking institution in this local community we've stepped up because we believe in the organization, in Ed and what this means to the community."
—FRANK SORRENTINO III
Sorrentino points to the rise in quality of the shows and believes Schwartz has been a big part of attracting tremendous talent to the facility.
"The quality and quantity of the shows has increased, and it's Ed's plan to increase even further," Sorrentino says. "The center has done incredible good for the community at large. I'm not even sure they realize how much."
Schwartz speaks with great pride about bergenPAC, but he saves his strongest enthusiasm for when the conversation turns to the organization's education component. Part of the mission statement at bergenPAC is to expose as many children as possible to the arts and to provide a place where kids can learn and experience the arts.
Children meet and interact with actors, musicians and behind-the-scenes talent, including playwrights and directors. There are after-school events on current topics, such as bullying. Many of the arts programs taught by bergenPAC teachers tie directly into the English and history curriculums at eight public schools in the area, and the goal is to reach 30 schools next year.
"Arts programs are often the first to get cut in public schools," Schwartz says. "Every member of the board at bergenPAC believes that it is critical to not only expose kids to the arts but to have them taught in a professional environment. Beyond Education consists of programs that provide arts education for a wide range of students, from infants to adults, within four schools: Beyond Theater, Beyond Stage, Beyond Dance and Music Speaks. Currently, Beyond Education provides programming for 30,000 kids a year, and we are hoping to increase that number to 50,000 kids in 2013. For me, what is most important is reaching out to as many children as possible."