History and heritage: Unity concert series brought everyone to Montclair
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
It is said that one of the great things about living in Montclair is its proximity to the cultural center of the world, New York City. At the same time, it is said that there are so many wonderful things here that you may never feel the need to go to New York.
The Unity Church on Church Street was one of the institutions that brought the world to our doorsteps. The Rev. Edgar Swan Wiers, minister at Unity from 1906 to 1931, believed it was his mission to expose the people of Montclair to worldwide culture and events.
It is safe to say that many Montclairites remember the Unity Concert Series that brought us first-rank classical musicians for 83 seasons, from 1920 to 2003. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every important classical artist of the 20th century appeared onstage here.
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But it wasn’t always the same stage. At first, performances were at the Montclair Theater which stood on Bloomfield Avenue at Valley Road (there is a municipal parking lot there now), or the Wellmont.
If those theaters weren’t available, performances would be held at the First Congregational Church on South Fullerton. Performances were held at the old high school auditorium on Orange Road before it was torn down, and at the Hillside School auditorium.
In the final years most performances were held at the current Montclair High School auditorium on Park Street.
Fritz Kreisler, the legendary violinist, kicked off the series in 1920.
Here is a partial list of performers and speakers who appeared under the Unity banner:
- Fritz Kreisler
- Yehudi Menuhin
- Itzhak Perlman
- Jascha Heifetz
- Nathan Milstein
- Isaac Stern
- Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
- Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Vladimir Horowitz
- Van Cliburn
- Arthur Rubinstein
- Vladimir Ashkenazy
- Alicia de Larrocha
- Andre Watts
- Pablo Casals
- Yo-Yo Ma
Also, the guitarist Andres Segovia; the flautist James Galway; the lutanist Julian Bream; the clarinetist Richard Stolzman, and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Many opera stars appeared over the years:
- Joan Sutherland appeared just before her Met debut in 1961.
- Wagnerian sopranos: Kirsten Flagsted, in April 1936, and Helen Traubel, in 1943.
- “The Great Dane,” Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior, appeared in October 1938, in 1942, and again in 1943.
- Marilyn Horne appeared in 1972 and 1974.
- Luela Wiers, Rev. Wiers’ widow, who carried on in his footsteps as director of the Unity series, tried to coax the great contralto, Marian Anderson, to come to Montclair for years, but Anderson’s management thought she should only appear in larger venues. She finally agreed to come in November 1940.
Jazz artists also appeared:
- The “man with the bent horn,” Dizzy Gillespie, performed.
- Jazz bassist and educator Chris White organized programs to introduce high school students to some of the jazz greats who lived in the area.
- Saxophonist and composer Oliver Lake, who lives in Montclair, did a year-long residency where he encouraged townspeople to collaborate with him by submitting poems.
Many great orchestras performed here, too.
- The New York Symphony, rival to the New York Philharmonic, appeared here somewhere between 18 and 20 times, starting in 1920 and ending in 1929. The New York Symphony merged with the Philharmonic in the 1930s.
- The Boston Symphony was here eight or nine times, first under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, then under Seiji Ozawa.
- The London Symphony, under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, appeared in 1997.
In 1982, after 61 seasons, the concert series became independent of the church. This was done so that it could become a nonprofit able to apply for grants. As grants became scarce or were awarded to other institutions, such as NJPAC in Newark, and competition for performers became tighter, the concert series was forced to end.
Rev. Wiers and his successor, the Rev. Norman Fletcher, were very concerned with civil rights.
Many African-American notables spoke at Unity.
- Booker T. Washington, director of the Tuskegee Institute
- Robert Morton, who followed Washington as director of the Tuskegee Institute
- Frank Chisholm, a professor at Tuskegee
- W.E.B. Du Bois, who spoke in 1910 and again in 1929.
- Langston Hughes
- James Weldon Johnson
- Paul Robeson, who lectured and sang
- Rev. William Lloyd Imes, the African-American pastor of St. James Presbyterian in New York, one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the country, who talked about “Changeless Values in a Changing World” in March 1935.
The ministers also wanted the people of Montclair to understand the issues of the day.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke at the Unity Church in 1940 as a guest of the Optimist Club
- Clarence Darrow, who spoke as a guest of the Unity Forum at Hillside auditorium in 1924
- Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, who spoke in 1921
- Jacob Riis, who exposed corruption in New York City as a police reporter and who gave a lecture on the “housing problem” in 1913.
- Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to the South Pole, and who talked here about his adventures, as did Adm. Richard Byrd, who was the first to fly over the South Pole. His claim to be the first to fly over the North Pole is contested.
- Amelia Earhart, who spoke here before her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean
Literary giants who came to Montclair included:
- Carl Sandburg
- Robert Frost
- Amy Lowell
- Vachel Lindsay
- Sinclair Lewis
- Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis’ wife, a noted foreign correspondent.
The list of important people who spoke or performed under the Unity banner seems inexhaustible.