From: The Record, Wednesday, January 2, 2002, p.1
A Place For Troops, Troupes, Hoops
Teaneck Armory Still Vital
By Tom Davis
Connie Hawkins shot three-point baskets there. David Bowie used the site for rehearsals. John F. Kennedy stopped by to campaign for presidents in 1960. Movies have been filmed there. And professional wrestlers have slugged it out at the Teaneck Armory.
Currently, members of the New Jersey National Guard sleep there in between 12-hour shifts patrolling the George Washington Bridge.
Completed in 1936 at a cost of nearly $1 million, the Teaneck Armory -- with its 37-foot-high arching roof -- has played a valuable role not just in the current war on terrorism, but also during peacetime.
Sitting on 13.66 acres, the brick-and-stone structure was built by Depression-era laborers. They each spent only two days a week on the job because the government stretched the project to keep people employed as long as possible.
"It took two years to complete," said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Bammert of the National Guard's 50'th Main Support Battalion. "They didn't want to rush it."
Around the same time, New Jersey and New York built similar armories in Jersey City, Brooklyn, and elsewhere.
Because armories tend to have vast floors, high ceilings, and few obstructions, many have become popular among filmmakers shooting indoor scenes.
in recent years the Teaneck site has been in especially high demand because it's close to Manhattan, and its presence in a quite residential neighborhood allows producers to make their films in relative peace.
"There are things you can't fin in Manhattan," said Helen Robin, line producer for Perdido Productions, Woody Allen's production company. The acclaimed filmmaker shot "Sweet and Lowdown," starring Sian Penn, at the Teaneck Armory. It was released in 1999.
But the film industry was far from anyone's mind when the armory was erected for the 104th Engineers Battalion of the New Jersey Army National Guard, which provided emergence assistance during hurricanes, floods, storms, and bridge collapses.
When members of the 104th were involved in World War II, the New Jersey Militia occupied the space. "The militia walked around neighborhoods, making sure people turned out their lights" to save energy, Bammert said.
The 104th disbanded in 1993, and now the 50th, which is the state's largest guard unit and was formerly headquartered in Lodi, is based at the site. The unit includes about 1,000 people who have civilian jobs but train throughout the year in case they are needed to provide medical assistance, truck hauling, food service, or cargo handling in an emergency.
Recently, guard members have been deployed to provide medical assistance to detectives at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, where the remains of the World Trade Center are being investigated. The battalion also operated a warehouse in Bayonne that stored donations for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Recently, the armory has also been used by soccer leagues that play indoors on an artificial grass rug.
Over the years, the armory has fallen in and out of favor as a site for non-military events. It was especially busy through the 1960s. Auto racers drove midget cars inside at 110 mph. The Rev. Billy Graham visited.
In 1938, 8,000 boxing fans saw 16 bouts in one night. In 1949, Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll allowed roller derby, and the Jersey Jolters beat the Washington Generals, 16-13, before a crowd of 4,000. The Harlem Globetrotters used their trademark basketball trickery to trounce the Philadelphia Sphas, 72-51, in a 1955 game.
A 1957 article in The Record called the armory "Bergen's own Madison Square Garden," and focused on a dog show by the Kennel Club of Northern New Jersey.
A turning point for the armory was in 1967-1968 when the New Jersey Americans, who would later become the Nets, played on the the 36,500square-foot drill floor before crowds of just over 2,000 per game.
The Americans were forced to forfeit a pivotal playoff game because a circus group rented the drill floor space that week and there was no other venue available.
Teaneck Mayor Paul Ostrow said he has fond memories of the Americans, the American Basketball Association team that finished its only season in Teaneck with a record of 36 wins and 43 losses, tying for fourth place in the Eastern Division. Discounts allowed Teaneck school students to pay only $1 for tickets, and see visiting superstars such as Hawkins.
Ostrow said he recalled the armory's custodians taping a three-point line to the drill floor prior to the games. The ABA popularized the three-point line, which was dismissed for years by the basketball establishment as a gimmick before it became a widely accepted part of the game at all levels.
"It was so unique to have this high-class professional sports team that we could go see," said Ostrow, who was 16 when he attended Americans games. "The New York Knicks were too expensive and too far away."
In 1968, the Americans moved to Long Island and changed their name to the New York Nets. That same year, Teaneck officials ordered a halt to nonmilitary exhibitions, saying the lack of fire protection devices and safety exits made it unsafe for public assembly.
That began a period of decline for the armory in which the structure deteriorated and was considered unsuitable for sports or entertainment.
But starting in the late 1980s, the state changed its policy on the armory and again encouraged non-military exhibitions to take place, hoping the revenue generated in fees could be put back into the facility.
The strategy worked, many believe. The state got enough money to install fire alarms, exit doors, and a new roof, and purchase new boilers to replace the building's inefficient heating system, Bammert said.
Bowie's rehearsals for his 1990 tour were considered a sign of a revival.
"We gave him a National Guard jacket that he wore on tour," said Bammert, who has been at the armory since 1972.
In recent years, Mariah Carey rehearsed inside, and Woody Allen and others filmed there and turned classrooms into fitting rooms.
Three years ago, indoor scenes from "You've Got Mail," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, were shot on the drill floor under the arching roof.
Col. John Dwyer, a spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, couldn't specify how much money and armory generates in leases to movie production companies, but said the amount is significant. He said a "good movie filmed there will pay the armory's utilities for an entire year."
While the armory generates no tax revenue for the township. Ostrow said Teaneck officials now welcome its presence and do collect some permit fees.
Ostrow said he anticipates the armory continuing to serve non-military functions.
"In the 1990s, there was a resurgence in the use of it. It was like, hey, we're a part of the community. Let's open our doors," he said.