Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hymn for a Sunday morning

It's safe to say that I'm
sick of daylight saving time.
Especially as we near the Spring,
to have Darkness back to do its thing
As I trudge to work in early mourn
once again feeling so forlorn
to wend through darkness I must pass
and blow this savings time out my ass.

This morning does have a saving grace or two. It's my day off. And it's the birthday of Douglas Adams, who left us all to soon. I still rue the day I sold my hardcover first editions of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy (I had all five books) to do something so mundane as keep the electricity on and pay the rent. I first discovered the series when I was living in New York City and episode one debuted on our local public broadcasting radio station. I was heartbroken when the series ended (also far too soon), and was replaced with a "Prairie Home Companion", which is the main reason I never much cared for that program. Adams' works have a particular effect on me: they make me giggle. I become a veritable puddle of giggle. I start giggling just thinking about Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, or Zaphod Beeblebrox. It is a quote from Adams which gets me through the semiannual injection of daylight savings: "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so". 

And, it was on this day in 1927 that the Roxy Theatre opened. It wasn't just a movie theater. It was THE movie theater. It's advertising called it "The Cathedral of the Motion Picture". Depending on the source you read, it had anywhere from 5,920 to 6,200+ seats. And it regularly filled them all. That's about half the population of Brattleboro at one go. It was just up from Times Square, between 6th and 7th Avenues at 50th Street, its marquee and entrance attached to the Hotel Taft.

It was conceived by early silent movie producer Herbert Lubin. The enormous popularity of the movies had encouraged exhibitors to build lavish theatres which would be as much an attraction as the movies themselves. In New York City, that meant hiring Samuel Rothafel, who created and managed most of the great "movie palaces" in the Times Square area. Lubin hired him for a large salary, stock options, a percentage of the gross, and promised to name the theatre after him. Roxy was Rathafel's nickname.

The Roxy had an orchestra pit that seated 110 musicians and rose on hydraulic lifts to stage level. It had the largest theatre organ ever built, a Kimball  pipe organ which had three consoles (also on hydraulic lifts) which could be played simultaneously. There was a separate organ in the main lobby. There were stage shows before the movie. These included a ballet troupe, a precision dancing group of chorus girls named the Roxyettes, vaudeville and radio stars, and a male chorus, all in a program usually tied to the theme of the movie. The show changed every week when the movie changed. In order to produce it, the theater had the largest music library in the world (with three curators to run it), two stories of private dressing rooms, three stories of chorus dressing rooms,  rehearsal halls, a private screening room of 100 seats, a private infirmary with staff, a costume department,  a barber shop, hairdressers, cafeteria, a gym, showers & etc. The etcetera, by the way, included a menagerie for animal acts. 

There were uniformed ushers, trained by an ex Marine officer, so famous in their own right that they were mentioned in Cole Porter's song, "You're the Top". The ushers would show you to your seat, and hand you the weekly program. 

You entered under the huge marquee at 50th and 7th, bought your ticket at one of the booths, and made your way through the entrance foyer, then into a rotunda with the world's largest oval rug, and to the brass doors leading into the auditorium. The auditorium itself was a plush dream in red velvet and gold. The projection booth, in a move completely different from any other theater, was built into the front of the first balcony. The Roxy did not have to boast - it projected the best quality image in town. 

Oh, did I mention that there was a weekly radio program hosted by Roxy and broadcast live from the theater's own studio?

The rotunda in 1927. One of the theater's pipe organs can be seen n the balcony.

Roxy contemplates the main organ console
Pre-construction architect's rendering of the auditorium

By the time the time the theatre opened with a Gloria Swanson picture ("The Love of Sunya"), the Roxy was $2.5 million over budget, and cost over $12 million 1927 dollars, which today would be about $153 million. Lubin sold his controlling interest to movie mogul and theater owner William Fox for $5 million dollars. Plans for a circuit of Roxy theatres were scrapped; the only one built, the Roxy Midway on the Upper West Side, was sold to Warner Bros. It opened in 1929 as The Beacon. Rothaphel moved on to a new project, Radio City Music Hall. The Roxyettes went with him and were renamed the Rockettes.

The Roxy remained one of the premier movie theatres in the world. In the 1950's, new management reconstructed parts of the theatre for new widescreen processes. They rebuilt the stage to accommodate an ice rink for use in their stage shows. Eventually, it simply cost too much in a changing world, and the Roxy closed on March the 29th, 1960 with a Dirk Bogarde picture, "The Wind Cannot Read". The wreaking crews moved in. Where the outer lobby and entrance to the grand rotunda once stood, there is now a TGIFridays. On the site of the theatre itself, there is a nondescript office building. On October the 14th, 1960,  photographer Eliot Elisofon photographed Gloria Swanson in the rubble of what was thought to be the grand rotunda. Published in Life magazine, it inspired a musical about chorus girls reuniting in a theatre about to be town down, Follies by Stephen Sondheim. The show helped start a movement to save New York City's theaters. In 1979, the Radio City Music Hall was saved and is still in use today as a performance venue, as is The Beacon. 

1 comment:

Austan said...

My parents and uncles talked about the Roxy. Now I see why. What a shame we've lost these incredible buildings.