Wednesday, March 30, 2011

sic transit gloria mundi

A few days ago, I spent at least 8 hours over 2 days trying to find one particular photo I know I have, or at least I think I have. And which seems to be lost in some file folder somewhere, spread over 3 hard drives and a few hundred gigabytes of storage space.

The picture I can't find may not really exist. I have a memory of bumping into it and saving it, but after that everything grows dim. The picture was proof that an old Hollywood Myth type of story was true. The story went that when the 1963 Fox Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton "Cleopatra" opened on Broadway in New York City, there had been so much publicity due to scandals, cost overruns, nearly causing Twentieth Century Fox to go out of business, and etc. that the theatre didn't even bother putting anything on the marquee. They just put up a really huge billboard of Taylor and Burton - and that was all that was needed.

I did find a pic in my files that could be used to help describe what I mean when I say the sign was "huge". See, the exhibition and selling of movies was done very differently then.

Back then, there were "Event" movies. They were big budget extravaganzas which opened in only one theatre. Tickets were mostly purchased in advance, and were for reserved seats. Going to one was a special occasion that called for one's Sunday best, meaning ya got dressed up like the day your picture was gonna be taken at school. When the extravaganza's ticket growth slowed, the film would move on to second run houses, and then out into the "neighborhood"  (read - "small town") theaters. The big city theatres where these 'roadshow' pictures opened were usually movie palaces where there were "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams"

The long gone Paramount in Times Square. If this is what a movie palace looked like from the outside, you can imagine what one looked like inside.
An example of a movie palace lobby. It's a bit stripped down - there should be paintings, sculpture and palms. The design above was copied from a Boston movie palace which had a theme based on the Paris Opera House. There should be someone selling souvenir booklets on the stand at the left. A staff of ushers should be flitting about, assisting patrons to their seats, etc.

The 1963 "Cleopatra" opened at the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway and ran for over 60 weeks. The Rivoli may have been a smaller capacity movie palace at a little over 2,200 seats (4,000 to 6,000 was the norm) but it had the largest indoor screen ever built. In the 1950's, the theater was outfitted for the new Todd-AO 70mm wide screen process. The 'Todd' was Mike Todd - Taylor's husband. Her contract for "Cleopatra" stipulated that it be filmed in Todd-AO. It seems that after his untimely death, Taylor owned Todd-AO.

The Rivoli's Broadway entrance was meant to invoke a Grecian Temple.

Postcard view of the Rivoli's interior when it opened in 1917.

The Rivoli newly fitted for Todd-AO. The screen was deeply curved to give viewers the perception of peripheral vision.

Just to convey the size of the screen, the above is from the Todd-AO introduction in Los Angeles. The Rivoli screen was larger.
 Okay, getting back to the giant billboard story. It did exist, sort of. The Rivoli's entrance was on Broadway. The back of the theater was on 7th Avenue. That's where the billboard was. And it was just Taylor and Burton, and no title or credits.

Now, as it happened, Rex Harrison's contract stipulated that every time Burton's image was used in promotional materials, his own image must be included. After Cleopatra opened, Harrison went to court over the billboard and won. At first, they added a temporary portrait on the upper right hand corner.

For an idea of the size of this billboard, look just a bit above the Rex Harrison portrait. That's one of the sign painters.

The original artist, Howard Terpning, was called back and the painting was revised.

As for the Rivoli, it was eventually sold to the United Artists chain and was converted into a twin screen in the mid 1980's. The sculpted figures in the pediment were chipped away, the columns were cemented over, and the theatre did not get an historic site designation.  In June 1987, after two weeks of "Munchies" and "Creepshow 2", the theater closed. A week later, it was torn down to make way for a gray glass skyscraper.

The other day, as I was writing much of this, there was a post on ibrattleboro which noted that the Kipling, a local multi-screen house that would have been at home in any mall of the mid 1990's, had closed. It started life as a Jerry Lewis Twin. Getting from there to here is a longish but very interesting story. I'll try to remember to get back to it some day. It involves all sorts of colorful characters, right up to and including a Very Important Vice President of a major movie studio.

In fact , most of what I've mentioned, from Todd-AO to the days when movie theatres were the stuff that dreams were made of, deserves and will hopefully get other posts.

Cleopatra even had special tickets.