‘We were in the magic domain …” wrote the author. When the curtains parted, the silent and darkened room transformed into another realm with a fanfare of music and 20th Century Fox spotlights flashing across an 18-foot screen, once hidden but now revealed by the theater master’s cue and a pull of a chord.
Welcome to one of America’s first home entertainment centers, dating back to 1919.
The movie night described above was from circa 1940. The venue was — and still is — the Kuser farm mansion on Newkirk Avenue, Hamilton; the theater master, Fritz Kuser; and the author mentioned above, Tom Glover, Hamilton Township historian and writer/publisher of the blog known as the Hamilton Scrapbook.
Only a couple hours before the show, the 45-foot-long home-theater room would have been the Kuser family’s dining room. But when it was time for the Sunday night movie, the table would be folded up and set aside, the big oak chairs lined up in rows, folding chairs added as needed, and pillows placed up front for the children.
For almost 60 years, family, friends, and celebrities would gather in the 19th-century, 20-plus room mansion, originally set on a 70-acre farm, to see first-rate films and selected home movies. The Kusers, themselves considered celebrities by many, were prominent business and civic leaders in the greater Trenton area with influences in the automotive, energy, insurance, and film industries, to name a few.
Today, almost 100 years after the Kusers showed their first film, Hamilton Township continues the tradition.
Movies are shown monthly, and visitors can explore the projection room with its original equipment and vintage movie posters almost any weekend during house tours that are offered throughout the year. Upcoming movies include “Down Periscope” on Friday, September 26, and “Sleepy Hollow,” starring Johnny Depp, on Friday, October 24, just in time for Halloween. Future shows are in planning. All shows are free, but reservations are suggested and donations welcomed. Glover will also lead a summer sing along at the gazebo on Sundays, August 17 and 24.
A booklet compiled in 1978 by Fritz’s wife, Edna, traces the Kuser family’s interest in film back to 1915, when the Fox Film Corporation was formed. Fritz’s uncle, Anthony R. Kuser, lent William Fox $200,000 to start the company, and 15 or more Kusers became stockholders. Fritz would eventually join the company in what was called the foreign department, set up to export films.
Within a few years the Kusers were showing Fox Film features on silent movie projectors for family and friends on Sunday nights. Apparently Fritz shared the passion for home entertainment with his father, Fred, and Uncle Anthony. In 1932 Fritz and his brother, Raymond, upgraded the family theater by purchasing and installing two 35mm sound projectors. The family continued showing films during and after Fox Films merged with 20th Century, becoming 20th Century Fox in 1935.
From 1953 on the movies were shown in CinemaScope with a curved screen at the end of the dining room with the projector operators working from a specially constructed room just behind the theater/dining room. The Sunday movies continued through the mid-1970s, and most were shown before public release.
Edna Kuser wrote that the Sunday night shows often attracted 30 to 75 people over the years. Guests included people from the early Fox years and from 20th Century Fox. Among them, head of Fox Film’s foreign department Walter Hutchinson, who showed “Cavalcade” at Buckingham Palace; Charles Einfield, vice president of 20th Century Fox and producer of many of Ingrid Bergman’s films; Earl I. Sponable, the developer of CinemaScope; Jane Froman, star of the Ziegfeld Follies; and Betty Bronson, a Trenton-born film actress who starred in the 1924 film “Peter Pan.”
In addition to the Sunday movies, the family hosted special showings for visiting notables and groups including the Hamilton Township League of Women Voters. Frequent matinees were held for the nuns of various Trenton parishes.
Kuser mansion docents point out guests not mentioned in Edna Kuser’s booklet, including Marilyn Monroe. Glover — the host and lead singer at the Kuser Park summer weekly sing-along nights — says one of his more memorable introductions was with Oscar Hammerstein.
As the Hamilton Township historian, Glover works from an office at the township library where he often meets with inquiring reporters and researchers. At a recent meeting Glover recalled his introduction to the Kuser family. Around 1940, his older brother, Bud, secured a job working at the family’s farm, then run by Fritz and Edna. After working as a helping hand for a few years, Bud accepted the Kusers’ offer to operate their portable 35 millimeter motion picture projectors.
When Bud joined the Navy in 1945, Tom (Glover) and a friend, Don Slabicki, took his place, performing a variety of jobs on the grounds and inside the mansion. Glover helped in the movie projection booth, and Slabicki became the main operator. The duo worked at the farm until the 1950s, when they joined the service and their younger brothers took their places.
Glover says he has seen more major movie premieres than he can remember, but among the hundreds, a few stand out in his mind: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “My Friend Flicka,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Niagara,” and “Twelve O’clock High.”
In the late 1970s, after the Kusers transferred ownership of the farm mansion to the township, the governing body decided to retire the 35mm projectors, keeping them as museum pieces. “That’s unfortunate,” says Glover. The projectors were fine and could still be operated today, he says.
Big name movies weren’t the only form of media entertainment at the Kuser farm. Glover recalls many home movies, and one in particular, a film showing his brother working in the arbor pruning grapes, which would eventually be pressed into wine. The home movies had been stored in the old chicken house until Hamilton Township took over the farm. Soon after that, Glover recalls with a sigh, the home movies mysteriously disappeared.
Among Glover’s historical records is a 1930 article from the Trenton Sunday Times Advertiser by Elma Lawson Johnston who wrote: “Mr. Kuser’s most recent accomplishment as a photographer has been a film telling the complete story of Trenton’s 250th anniversary. It records all the outdoor events, from the air meet to the regatta and fireman’s parade. Mr. Kuser has not only photographed this film, but edited and titled it.” Glover says the movie was given to the Trenton Public Library, and he believes it is still there today.
Johnston mentioned other events filmed by Kuser, among them, the opening of the Mercer Airport, the celebration of the Battle of Trenton, and the arrival of a trans-Atlantic flier, Clarence Chamberlain. She also mentioned other pictures made by Kuser, including industrial films, a wildlife film produced on location in Florida, and a film about the Trenton Country Club.
Glover grew up in Hamilton Township across the street from the Kuser farm. His mother was the family homemaker and his father, an officer at a Bordentown reformatory. Glover, an octogenarian, is a veteran of the U.S. Army Security Agency, and has been married for 60 years to Judy Britton, his sweetheart from Hamilton High School, from which he graduated in 1951. Today he and his wife live in the Bromley section of Hamilton.
Glover is a columnist for the Times of Trenton and blogs for the Historical Society of Hamilton Township, of which he is a member and past president. He has been a member of the amateur radio community since 1975 and a writer for several years, his first column published in the former Mercer Messenger newspaper in 1981.
When not answering questions from visitors, as Hamilton’s historian, Glover focuses on one of his more ambitious projects, archiving his historical collection of news stories spanning several decades. Writing about the Kuser family is one of Glover’s favorite topics, he says, encouraging people to visit the farm mansion.
Guided mansion tours — which include the theater and projection rooms with the original projectors and sound equipment — are offered on weekends. Among the tour staff, Anne Reeves, who has worked at the mansion for 20 years and is a past vice president of the Hamilton Historical Society, leads visitors through the Victorian-style mansion with her husband and tour guide, Jack. The tour features 17 of the 22 rooms in the mansion, including several tiled fireplaces.
Reeves’ tour also includes a brief history of three generations of Kusers and several businesses and organizations they founded or were a part of, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, Interstate Fair, the South Jersey Gas and Electric Lighting, Prudential Life Insurance, Trenton Hygeia Ice Company, Trenton Brewery, Trenton Street Railroad Company, Walter and Mercer automobile companies, the aforementioned Fox Film Corporation, and others.
After the mansion tour, visitors can explore the 22-acre property remaining from the original 70 acres. The current grounds include a gazebo, windmill, small vineyard, tennis court, coach house, barn, garages, and other facilities, including the remaining section of what had been a hanger and runway for Raymond Kuser’s Waco bi-plane. A sign on the property states the mansion’s completion date as 1892, but Glover’s history sleuthing reveals the actual date as 1896.
It is common for an old mansion to have its share of ghost stories, and the Kuser Farm mansion is no exception. In “The Big Book of New Jersey Ghost Stories” authors P.A. Martinelli and C.A. Stansfield Jr. write: “Some visitors to Kuser Mansion … have reported hearing the whir and hiss of filmstrips whipping through a projector in the dining room even when the house is otherwise empty.” On that theme, a ghost investigation, open to the public, will be held at the mansion this October.
But neither Reeves nor Glover reports hearing unexplained noises or seeing strange things. The only thing Reeves feels is friendliness and warmth, she says. If you visit the Kuser Farm mansion, you’re not likely to have a spooky experience. But you just might wonder if you’re entering a magic domain.
Kuser Farm Mansion, 390 Newkirk Avenue, Hamilton Kuser. Free tours (including the projection room) take place Saturday and Sunday from February through October, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the last walk through at 2:30 p.m. Group and school tours are available by appointment.
Summer Sing Along at the Gazebo with Tom Glover, Sundays, August 17 and 24, 6 to 8 p.m.
Down Periscope, Movie Night, Friday, September 26, 7 p.m.
Sleepy Hollow, Movie Night, Friday, October 24, 7 p.m.
Ghost Investigations, Saturday, October 25, 7:30 p.m.
For more about the Kuser mansion and family, plus upcoming events, at the Hamilton Township website: www.hamiltonnj.com/content/83865/83889/84090.aspx. E-mail program coordinator Patty Krzywulak, PKrzywulak@hamiltonnj.com, or call 609-890-3630.
Learn more about the history of Hamilton Township, including the Kuser farm years at Tom Glover’s blogspot: glover320.blogspot.com. Glover can be reached at his Hamilton office, 609-581-4060, ext. 6. For radio operators, his call sign is WA2RVU.