Most know Jay Leno as the former host of the Tonight Show – or at least as a car enthusiast who can still be found doing shows on television and on the internet.
But no matter what level of fame he achieved throughout his career, Leno always has said he’s still just a comic on the circuit, willfully make the rounds at clubs and venues of all shapes and sizes across the country. It’s the reason Leno was so eager to celebrate the re-opening of the refurbished Bergen Performing Arts Center Saturday night in Englewood.
Leno, who has played Bergen PAC before – joining other greats to do so, such as Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles – said the need for arts and entertainment venues such as Bergen PAC has never been greater.
In an unusually serious note for him, Leno said the pandemic showed the need for human interaction.
“It’s wonderful to save something like this in an era where people communicate via email,” he said. “To have people gather in a central place and communicate and enjoy something, enjoy a program as a group, it’s really a lot of fun.”
Such interactions will be far better at Bergen PAC, following numerous upgrades during a $10 million renovation of a facility that opened in 1926, including:
· Restoration of the main hall to its original brilliance while blending the main hall with the front of the house for a new modern décor;
· Technology upgrades to create state-of-the-art sound, audio and lighting throughout the house, with one of the largest moving light systems in the region;
· New lobby and concession stand as well as new comfortable seating and carpeting.
Frank Huttle, the founder and member of the board of trustees, said the venue is better than ever, acknowledging the efforts of DMR Architects and Ray Reduce Development to make it so.
“The artists are all saying they love it, that it’s remarkable and they love to perform on the stage,” Huttle said. “This is what it’s all about.”
And while Saturday night marked the grand re-opening, Huttle said there is still work to be done.
“The future is here today, but not the end,” he said.
Bergen PAC aims to raise an additional $5 million to better help the arts and education institution to serve the community for generations to come – including the venue’s performing arts school (which mentors more than 1,000 students in a variety of disciplines) and an education outreach program that impacts over 15,000 students across this area.
Much of this will be done under the direction of Bergen PAC’s new executive director, Alexander Diaz, who Huttle praised.
Nonprofit venues such as Bergen PAC need sponsors, too. That’s why Huttle said Leno deserved a big shout out for his personal support of the project, too.
“From the depths of the pandemic, when our nation was shuttered and this theater was closed, it was Jay Leno with his passionate support for Bergen PAC during our virtual 2021 Gala,” Huttle said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“He stood high and strong from his garage in California to save our stage. And guess what, Jay, we did it.”
Leno did his thing, too.
He started the day at the home of one of the venue’s top donors, the Benzel-Busch Mercedes dealership in Englewood. Leno, who never misses the chance to play with luxury cars, posed with a Mercedes-Benz 1955 Gulfwing and the all-new AMG EQS Sedan.
He ended it doing what he loves most: Stand-up.
Leno made jokes about the pandemic: He said he bought a discounted COVID test only to find it was a written exam – and poked fun at his friend Tom Selleck, saying he was the first person to actually be turned down for a reverse mortgage.
Leno followed a variety of musical and dance acts from local performers.
It was the kind of night officials at Bergen PAC have had in mind since the venue underwent its first major transformation in 2003, when a group of arts patrons (led by Huttle) brought the former John Harms Center back to life.
Valerie Vainieri Huttle, the former Assemblywomen and Bergen County Freeholder who now serves as chair of Bergen PAC, told the nearly 1,400 in attendance that the re-opening – or Renaissance, as she called it – was a testament to the efforts of those who care about the arts.
“We should all be proud and take a bow as we celebrate all that we accomplished working together to benefit our community,” she said. “Let’s continue to keep the arts alive here in Bergen County and beyond by supporting this jewel of a theater, Bergen PAC, because our home is your home.”