Theater Comes to the Former Bell Labs Complex

New Jersey's newest theater was once the birthplace of revolutionary advancements in telecommunications.

Image of large building filled with lights and place on vast greenery strip
The theater is in the New Jersey building once known as Bell Labs. Courtesy Bell Works

For decades, a two-million-square-foot building in New Jersey’s Holmdel township was the telecommunications innovation headquarters of the world. Researchers working for Bell Laboratories amassed nine Nobel Prizes, pioneering innovations in fiber optic systems, transistors, lasers and the Big Bang theory. Used by more than 6,000 employees working for AT&T’s research and development operations, the facility was designed in 1958 by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and operated continuously between the 1960s and 2007. But when holding company Alcatel-Lucent stopped using Bell Labs for research, the vast facility was sold, rechristened Bell Works and reimagined as a mixed-use hub instead of science, complete with retail spaces, offices and restaurants. As of next month, Bell Works will have its own theater.

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“People said it was functionally obsolete,” Ralph Zucker, president of the developer behind Bell Works, told Observer. “We felt there was absolutely more use to the spaces.” Somerset Development officially acquired the facility in 2013.

Located in the modernist building’s former lecture hall, Bell Theater will offer Broadway-quality performances by veteran talents of theater, dance, music and film. The addition is part of an overarching plan to take advantage of the space’s large size and human-centric design to create a cultural center in an unassuming location. “We’ve created a ‘metroburb,’ a small metropolis in a great suburban location,” said Zucker.

Large building atrium surrounded by various stories of floors.
A view of the interior of Bell Works. Courtesy Bell Works

A decade later, Bell Works is about 98 percent leased. In addition to more than one million square feet of workspace and nine different eateries, it reopened to the public with a library and healthcare facilities, fitness options and even arts workshops. “You can have your kids watched, you can have them brought to the doctor, you can have a facelift, you can do cryogenics, you have four different health clubs—everything under the sun,” said Zucker. Some will recognize the facility from Apple TV+’s Severance, in which it served as the backdrop to the mysterious corporation that anchors the show.

Cultural programming in the basement of the former science research facility

Bell Theater came about through a partnership between Bell Works and New Jersey’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Discussions with Axelrod began before the Covid-19 pandemic according to Paola Zamudio, the lead designer and creative director behind Bell Works. “It’s been a conversation for a few years, but now it’s actually happening,” she tells Observer. Axelrod, which runs the Axelrod Performing Arts Academy and the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater in Bell Works, will operate the theater in the building’s basement with financial support from philanthropist Sheldon Vogel and a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Opening officially on May 16, Bell Theater’s programming for 2024 will include musicals like the rock-focused East Carson Street and jukebox show Million Dollar Quartet, in addition to performances from Michael Cavanaugh, the star of Broadway’s recent Billy Joel musical, and Tony Award-winning actor and singer LaChanze. “It’s definitely one of the crowning jewels of everything we’ve done,” says Zucker.

Theatre stage
A rendering of Bell Theater. Courtesy Bell Works

Despite its shifting use, relics of the history of Bell Labs remain. The first-ever underwater fiber optic cable, for example, is sealed in a room on the building’s concourse level. And through a collaboration with textile artist Sebastien Courty, an installation of totems at Bell Works showcases different cables saved from the space throughout the years—with each representing a different Nobel Prize-winning innovation that came out of the building.

The technological achievements from Bell Labs are ironically the same innovations that have led to the decline of such in-person facilities, according to Zucker.  “Fiber optic, cellular technology—the fact that you don’t have to be in your office to work, you could be at a Starbucks—it came right out of here,” he says. “The building contributed to its own demise.”

Yet it’s the unique design of the facility itself that now allows for its second life as a so-called metroburb. Saarinen, who was commissioned to create a building that would foster interaction between employees, specifically designed Bell Labs with large walkways through its perimeter and a light-filled atrium that measures three football fields in length. These distinctive features foster connectivity and gathering, according to Zucker, who hopes the human-centric building and its offerings will draw in suburban theater lovers who typically travel to New York City for cultural performances. “The idea is to create our own little planet with its own gravitation pull so you don’t have to spend an hour and a half going into the city.”

Theater Comes to the Former Bell Labs Complex