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Black History Month: The Rise, Decline And Rise Again Of Newark Symphony Hall

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) - Newark Symphony Hall was a venue that was open to African American artists when segregation didn't allow many places for them to perform.

Over the years the city stopped investing in the institution, but all that has begun to change, reports CBSN New York's Aundrea Cline-Thomas reports.

The venue was once a fixture on Broad Street in Newark.

"That was like going to the Waldorf Astoria for us," said theater manager Jos El-Amin. "I mean they would go all-out.

One step inside Newark Symphony Hall and its 95-year history begins to unfold.

"I came to an OJ's concert here," said El-Amin. "I remember my mom coming to a LaBelle concert in 1975."

Built in 1925 by the Shriners for its Masonic rituals, Symphony Hall opened for public use after the Great Depression. It wasn't until 1940 when Marian Anderson performed that the doors opened to other African American artists, including the legendary Sarah Vaughn for whom the concert hall is named after.

"You had here on this very stage people like Isaac Hayes, like Nina Simone," said President & CEO Newark Symphony Hall Taneshia Nash Laird.

More than a music venue, Symphony Hall has always been a community gathering place. It was integral in the 1970 election of Kenneth Gibson, the first African American mayor of a major Northeastern city.

It wasn't immune to the unrest and the city's eventual decline years after the racially motivated uprising.

"We were the home for the ballet, and for the orchestra, and for the opera and eventually all of them left," said Nash Laird. "At some point in the '80s, there was a decision to no longer invest in Symphony Hall and build a brand new facility here called NJ PAC."

For so long the iconic moments there happened in the past, but that all began to change within the last year.

In December the lines were out the door as BET held a casting call at Symphony Hall's Black Box Theatre for a new miniseries. Months earlier, the MTV Video Music Awards rented out the entire facility.

"Missy Elliott, Normani, Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Wyclef - everybody rehearsed here, and there was also a commercial shot here for the VMAs," said Nash Laird.

She has only been president and CEO since the fall of 2018. She's leading the revitalization efforts which includes raising $40 million for a renovation.

"Newark Symphony Hall is going to be a national model for what you can do to revitalize an institution, really, and make sure you do it so that everybody benefits," she said.

Nash Laird is intent on making sure the diversity and African American culture that sustained the facility when
everyone left is never lost, even as the community in Newark continues to evolve.

She believes the greatest days are still ahead.

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