A postcard view of the War Memorial when it opened in 1932.

The War Memorial's magnificent stage as it looks today.

A decorative motif: The "naked lady."

ALSO IN 1931

* The George Washington Bridge, with its distinctive twin towers of uncovered steel, opened between Fort Lee and Manhattan. John A. Roebling’s Sons of Trenton got the hefty contract to craft the suspension bridge’s 107,000 miles of wire — a record — which provided a lift to the city’s economy during the pits of the Great Depression.

* Another great feat of engineering, the Empire State Building, opened in midtown New York. At 102 stories, the skyscraper was the tallest in the world.

* In West Orange, Thomas Edison died. The "Wizard of Menlo Park,’’ who invented the light bulb, phonograph, dictaphone and motion-picture camera in New Jesey, was 84.

* Japan invaded Manchuria, its first step on the way to creating a puppet state of Manchukuo and naming the dethroned emperor of China — Henry Pu Yi — as figurehead ruler. The aggression would help bring about America’s entry into World War II a decade later.

* Eugene O’Neill wrote "Mourning Becomes Electra,’’ Pearl S. Buck published "The Good Earth’’ and cartoonist Chester Gould launched the career of the most famous detective comic in history... Dick Tracy.

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1931: Temple for Trenton's arts
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
Jitterbugging, fox-trotting or circling cheek-to-cheek, the teenagers from a bygone Trenton took their dance night seriously. The time was 9 p.m. to midnight, Thursdays and Sundays, and the place was the ballroom of the War Memorial.

Mickey Palmer's orchestra would kick up the opening strains of "Sentimental Journey" or "Moonlight Serenade," men would take ladies by the waist and the hardwood floor would swirl with swing.

"All of Trenton was there for dance night," said Anthony Cardelli, who was one of those young men in the late '40s. "Before the dance, we'd be hanging out in our own groups. South Trenton kids stuck together. The West End, the Wilbur Section, North Trenton, they had their groups. Then we'd dance together.

"The floor was waxed and it felt like you were gliding along. Eleven p.m. and we'd break for intermission and hang out a little at the soda fountain. Afterward we'd go to DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies and dance some more."

The youthful hoofers of Cardelli's generation were only a few of the visitors who helped make Trenton's War Memorial Building a center for culture and entertainment since its austere, Greek temple-like form began to emerge in 1931.

Sinatra and Springsteen sang here. So did the Elks and the Catholic Girls Club. Paul Robeson played Othello on its stage. Thirteen New Jersey governors took the oath of office in the ornate auditorium, and Harry Truman dodged a rotten egg while giving 'em hell in a campaign speech on its steps.

The idea of a community performing arts center took hold in the early '20s. Arts lovers thought it was a shame that Trenton should have a dozen movie theaters and vaudeville houses, but no hall for opera, ballet and music recitals.

It might have been the "Peace Memorial." Trenton Times editor James Kerney, the chairman of the building committee, was appalled at glorifying war. He thought the project should be dedicated "rather to emphasize the nobler side of usefulness and service on the part of patriotic citizens."

His proposal never went anywhere. World War I was fresh in everyone's mind, and Mayor Frederick Donnelly endorsed the idea of making the theater building a monument to Trenton's veterans. In 1924, he set up a "War Memorial Committee;" the center was officially designated the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial Building.

For a building site, the state of Mew Jersey donated an acre of land on the southern side of Lafayette Street, in what was then part of Stacy Park. A sawmill had once been there, but for the most part it was green space sloping gently downward from the State House.

Raising money for the construction was harder. The city and Mercer County granted a combined half of the $926,000 construction cost: The rest came from private donors, including schoolkids who gathered $87,000 in coins.

On New Year's Eve, 1930, the War Memorial cornerstone was laid. Over the course of 1931, concrete foundations were poured, buff Indiana limestone was hauled into place and the vision of architects William Klemann and Louis Kaplan took shape.

Trenton's great arts palace was to be an Italian Renaissance building, 248 feet long, 144 feet wide. To get in, you would walk past four stone columns and under the glazed, terra cotta ceiling of Memorial Court.

Memorial Court, the passage toward the lobby, was built as a dual shrine to soldiery and the arts. Names of every Trentonian who died in the World War were inscribed on a set of four bronze tablets. "We shall never war except for peace," reads an inscription.

Past the bronze doors of the lobby was the center
piece of the War Memorial: the 1,926-seat theater, twice as big as anything in Trenton at the time. Chestnut paneling covered the walls and the ceiling shone in cool turquoise and gold tiles. To either side of the theater, a pair of wings housed a 700-seat assembly room, smoking room and ballroom.

The architects had a sense of humor about the place. The wrought-iron gates on the ticket booth had a breezy, Art Deco style. Fish appeared on mosaics above the water fountains. The form of a classical nude danced on the mezzanine railing, inspiring ticket-buyers to call her "the naked lady."

After being elected governor in 1931, A. Harry Moore began a New Jersey tradition by choosing to be sworn in at the War Memorial. Every governor since then has followed his example.

On Jan. 19, 1932, the War Memorial debuted and 45,000 cheered the swearing-in of Moore. At the ceremonies, a photographer's flashbulb exploded and the glass flew into someone's face. The injured man, governor's aide William Kelly, laughed it off. "I have been struck with the first volley of the war," he said.

At a time when people everywhere were reeling and demoralized from the Great Depression, the War Memorial boosted pride in the Capital City.

Not all Trentonians were highbrow enough to love classical music -- but they could thrill to know a celebrity composer was in town.

On Feb. 5, 1933, Ignace Paderewski gave a piano recital of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10. Then he warmed the hearts of his Trenton hosts by proclaiming the auditorium as the most perfect in which he'd ever played.

Princeton-born Robeson gave his acclaimed performance as Othello at the War Memorial in 1944. Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton and Spike Jones came too.

The Trenton Symphony Orchestra, with its conductor, Guglielmo Sabatini, made the War Memorial home immediately after it opened. High schools staged graduations there; the Kiwanis and Elks clubs put on amateur productions. The ballroom, of course, was set aside for a generation of dancing bobby-soxers.

Politicians found the War Memorial's piazza to be the perfect place for campaign rallies, and presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Truman all spoke on its steps. When Truman came in 1952, someone hurled an egg at him from the crowd. His Secret Service men never found who did it.

Sally Lane was 6 when she visited the War Memorial for the first time on St. Patrick's Day, 1955. She had no idea that her great-grandfather, James Kerney, had helped erect the building. All she knew was that the featured performer, Roy Rogers, was the same famous, singing cowboy she watched on her brand-new television set.

Rogers didn't disappoint, as Lane now remembers, and neither did the War Memorial itself. "It was like walking into some palace," Lane said. "I would look up at the ceiling and see these tiles. It was a wonderful, intense blue."

Then came Rogers' performance. "He rode around the stage on Trigger and sang a bunch of cowboy songs on his guitar. My uncle had some sort of business connection with Rogers in Arizona, and he was able to get us backstage passes ... and the one thing I remember most was getting to shake hands with Trigger."

You didn't need to be famous - or even talented - to perform at the War Memorial. The Trenton Police Department proved it in the '40s when they first staged their annual charity fund-raiser, "Anything May Happen." It was a raucous farce in which patrolmen and detectives dressed in drag, danced in a chorus line and spritzed each other with seltzer water.

After selling out every year, the show ended in 1989. "It's a more macho generation of cops, I guess," lamented officer George Muschal, who produced the show. "They don't want to put on dresses or look crazy."

As the curtains closed on Trenton's cop comedy show, the War Memorial itself was in trouble. The roof leaked, the seat upholstery wore away and the magnificent audiforium ceiling began to crack and peel. The city and county were losing $200,000 a year maintaining the building.

In 1988, during his State of the State address at the War Memorial, Gov. Tom. Kean made a dramatic offer. Let the state take over the building and make the needed renovations, he said. The city enthusiastically agreed.

The promised facelift began under Gov. Whitman's watch, in 1994. Metal furnishings were buffed, frayed electric wires replaced, faded colors restored. The huge bronze eagle perching above the piazza from a 150-foot flagpole was taken down and polished.

Meanwhile, Mayor Doug Palmer pressed a plan to further revitalize the Lafayette Street block by building a four-star hotel adjacent to the theater building. Groundbreaking could take place this summer if all goes well.

Last Dec. 13, the War Memorial began its second life. Before a crowd of carpenters, masons, electricians and others who took part in'the renovation, the Trenton Symphony Orchestra played a Christmas concert featuring "O Holy Night" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

For Fred Buddenbaun, a carpenter watching the show, the theater had a fresh aroma and a good feeling. "Normally I'm not into this stuff, but I'm really enjoying this," he said.

Today, the orchestra will stage its "rededication concert" to mark its first regular season at the refurbished War Memorial. In the audience will be Sally Lane - the one-time Roy Rogers fan who is now director of the Trenton Visitors Bureau.

On her way out through Memorial Court, she said, she'll pause at the bronze bas-relief that depicts her great- grandfather, James Kerney, and carry out a family tradition: rubbing Kerney's nose.

"It's something my grandmother started," Lane explained. "Keep the nose polished."