Day 570: The Crown Jewels Of Cinemas

originally published July 23, 2013

When Samuel Lionel Rothafel first arrived in New York, he had big plans for the place. The year was 1912, and people had been cramming into nickelodeons and converted vaudeville theaters to watch movies for more than a decade. But to Rothafel, movies were more than globs of sideshow kitsch or passing carnival entertainment, like plate-spinners or turtle jugglers. He knew movies were going to be important.

Mr. Rothafel, or ‘Roxy’ as he was known by the world, managed shows, he produced shows and – once radio showed up and became a thing – he had his own show. But were it only for these accomplishments, he’d be little more than a footnote to a footnote in the history of movies, or more importantly, in the history of New York City.

What Roxy unleashed upon the world redefined theatrical architecture, and it redefined the experience of going to the movies, transforming it from a viewing experience into a full-on sensory event. His brilliance resonated in two historic theatres, one of which is still standing (nobly and triumphantly) today.

The Roxy Theatre on 50th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues was to be the flagship of a fleet of six monumental movie palaces in the city. Herbert Lubin, who had been producing movies but saw big money in theatres, was the money. Roxy was to be the brains. The aim was to build something more glamorous than Carnegie Hall, more regal than Madison Square Garden, and more astoundingly grandiose than any movie theatre in the country.

Roxy focused on every aspect of the theatre’s design. As such, he ran construction costs $2.5 million over budget, nearly bankrupting Herbert Lubin and forcing Lubin to sell his share to William Fox of Fox Pictures before the place even opened.  Walter W. Ahlschlager, who would go on to design the Beacon Theatre on Broadway the following year, was the architect. Harold Rambusch was the decorator. But the hands that pulled their strings and had the last say on every little design detail – that was pure Roxy.

The Grand Foyer featured the world’s largest oval rug and had its very own pipe organ. The off-stage area was cramped and impractical, but this was meant to be a movie house first, so that wouldn’t matter. It was built in 1928, which meant it was wired for sound films, but still the space was made for a rising orchestra pit for 110 players, and a massive pipe organ with three consoles. Amenities were in abundance, from the staff nap room to the billiard room to the on-site hairdresser.

And the staff had to work for it. The ushers at the Roxy were famous for their courtesy and discipline, having been trained and supervised by a former marine and facing daily drills and inspections.

Roxy coordinated elaborate theatrical and dance shows for each film, featuring the ‘Roxyettes’, a troupe of female precision dancers. He had his own nationally-syndicated radio show, The Roxy Hour, recorded every week on the premises. It was a dream come true for Roxy. But in 1932, he left the theatre to pursue his next dream.

You know how some of the best photos on the net are the result of exceptional photography, elevating the mundane to the level of exquisite through lighting, exposure and Photoshop? Let me assure you, the interior of Radio City Music Hall is truly knee-quiveringly awesome in person – no photo exaggeration necessary. This was Roxy’s next dream: an art deco masterpiece, but with a ticket price that was geared toward the people. And in 1932, ‘the people’ needed a pretty slim price tag to justify a night out.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. had leased a huge slab of land from Columbia University, with plans to build a sprawling 12-acre complex in midtown Manhattan. The first tenants of the complex were the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA. It is for their empire that the music hall changed its intended name from International Music Hall to Radio City.

Roxy wanted Radio City to be where people went when they couldn’t afford a night out at a Broadway theatre or even a lavish film ‘n dancing show at the Roxy. Not that Roxy had given up on putting on a show. He still had dancers, only now they were called Rockettes.

(the Christmas spectacular is still as much a New York annual tradition as the Macy’s parade and having a homeless guy in a Santa suit throw up on you)

When Radio City Music Hall opened up in 1932, it was the largest movie theatre in the world, with a seating capacity over 6000. The stage hydraulics were so advanced, the US Navy copied them for the inner workings of their aircraft carriers, apparently necessitating a round-the-clock federal guard team at Radio City during WWII, to make sure the enemy didn’t learn their secrets.

Donald Deskey, who should be knighted for his subtle contributions to our culture, took care of the art deco design details. He’s the same guy who designed the Crest toothpaste packaging and the bulls-eye in the heart of the Tide logo.

Every aspect of Radio City, down to the art in the grand lounge to the faucets in the men’s room, is exquisite and deliberate. Roxy’s legacy had been entrenched. He passed away in 1936, leaving behind two unshakable testaments to his panache and showmanship. Well, sort of unshakable.

By the 1950’s, little remained of the glorious opulence of the 1920’s-era Roxy Theatre. The screen had been widened for Cinemiracle movies (a widescreen format that never caught on), and the orchestra pit had been covered up with stage extensions. It wasn’t turning a profit, and it wasn’t quite old enough for anyone to view it as historic yet. The wrecking balls swung in late 1960, and Gloria Swanson, whose 1927 film The Love Of Sunya had christened the theatre a few decades earlier, posed for a series of poignant photographs for Life magazine. The golden age of the movie palace was over.

The site is now home to the largest T.G.I.Fridays in the world. So that’s something.

A few blocks away, Radio City Music Hall wasn’t doing much better. They weren’t getting exclusive bookings, and by the 1970’s they were mostly showing G-rated movies. Not a big draw for the Midtown crowd. By 1979, the theatre was on its way to becoming office space. A grassroots movement – along with a passionate rant by John Belushi on NBC’s Saturday Night Live – led to a renovation instead, and eventually a spot on the US National Register of Historic Places. Now the place is home to the NFL Draft, the Tony Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the occasional movie premiere.

So only one of Roxy’s monuments to the glory of cinema still stand. I’m glad it does.

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