Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Roxy Theatre

The Roxy Theatre, Cathedral of the Motion Picture.
Motion Picture news, March 11, 1927.
Exterior of the Roxy, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
New York Times, March 6, 1927.
The Grand Foyer, from Cinema Treasures
Cross section from Cinema Treasures.

The Roxy Theatre at 50th and 7th Avenue opened on a cold and windy Friday, March 11, 1927. Despite the chill thousands of onlookers were there to witness the 6,000 lucky ticket holders arrive. Senators and Congressmen were there as well as Texas Guinan and notable motion picture personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Sam Katz, J.J and Lee Shubert, Irving Berlin, May Allison, and of course Gloria Swanson. Miss Swanson was the star of the opening night picture, The Love of Sunya. The opening night crowd was awed by architect Walter W. Ahlschlager's creation. Inside an invocation by Stephen Wright announced “Let there be Light” and the entire auditorium was lit for all to see, as three organs rose from the orchestra pit. A tone poem led to a scene depicting the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. A film followed with President Coolidge congratulating Roxy on the opening of his new theatre. “A Fantasy of the South” followed by the Roxy Pictorial Review, then a Russian Lullaby, then scenes from Carmen. A prologue entitled Destiny was a preface to the feature, The Love of Sunya. The Roxy was the largest theatre in the world at the time, 5,960 seats, although the publicity department claimed over 6,000 seats, not all of which were in the auditorium. The largest oval rug in the world, weighing two tons, graced the floor of the Grand Foyer. A 110 piece symphony orchestra, a ballet corps, chorus, 80 ushers, and a top price of $2.65. The weekly cost at the beginning was somewhere between $50-70,000.
Film Daily, February 15, 1927.
Gloria Swanson writes " I love you Roxy" in wet plaster. This was gilded over and preserved. From Motion Picture News, February 25, 1927.
Film Daily, March 13, 1927.
From Motion Picture News, August 26, 1927.

The following day the Cathedral of the Motion Picture was opened to the general public, and was fairly successful for a number of years. One of the main financiers of the project, Herbert Lubin sold his interest in the theatre to Fox Films, which insured a steady stream of Fox pictures at the Roxy. Unfortunately Fox films of the late 1920’s and early 30’s were less than spectacular. The beginning of the depression and the lack of better films would hasten Roxy’s exit.  Following Roxy’s resignation on March 29, 1931 the Roxy came under new management. Soon the stage productions were produced by Fanchon and Marco who enlarged the already massive stage out over half the orchestra pit. This move meant that the lifts for the three organs and the orchestra were no longer functional.  Prices were cut to 35¢, and the Roxy became a general admission grind house.
Easter week, 1927, crowd for Ankles Preferred, from Cinema Treasures.
Three of the six box offices at the entrance, from Cinema Treasures.
Color drawing of the Grand Foyer, also known at the Rotunda, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927
Entrance to the auditorium from the Grand Foyer, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Another view of the Grand Foyer, from Marquee magazine, 1st quarter, 1979.
Entrance to the mezzanine stairs from the Grand Foyer, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Auditorium, from Cinema Treasures.
Auditorium, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Auditorium, from Cinema Treasures.
Middle of the auditorium, from Marquee magazine, 1st quarter, 1979.
Stage and proscenium, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Side wall detail, and Choral Loft, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Color drawing of side wall detail, and Choral Loft, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Rear of the balcony, from Motion Picture News, June 24, 1927.
Stage switchboard, from Motion Picture News, February 11, 1927.
Super Simplex projectors in the booth, from Marquee magazine, 1st quarter, 1979.

At the opening the trade publications had special sections, such as this.
Pretty much anybody that had anything to do boasted about it in ads in the trades, above, Film Daily Roxy section, March 13, 1927.

Motion Picture News, April 1, 1927.

The Roxy was struggling financially when this Shirley Temple picture packed the theatre for four weeks. From Film Daily, July 12, 1934.

Over the years changes came.
New marquee, from Box Office, January 8, 1938.
From Motion Picture Daily, September 28, 1943.
Roxyettes selling War Bonds, from Box Office, December 2, 1944.
Box Office, June 26, 1954
7th Avenue side of the marquee and the neighboring Hotel Taft, from Cinema Treasures.
Bus Stop program cover, from Cinema Treasures
Damn Yankees program cover from Cinema Treasures.

As the 30’s wore on the elaborate stage shows became a thing of the past as name entertainers and a few acts of vaude became the norm. A large ice rink was installed on the stage in 1948, which was later expanded. This allowed choreographed ice shows as a prelude to the pictures. Stage shows were dropped entirely in 1953 when CinemaScope was installed. The first CinemaScope picture, The Robe in September 1953 did pretty good biz, but as the 50’s wore on biz was dropping off considerably. A CineMiracle installation for Windjammer in 1958 was a total flop. With each of these wide screen installations chunks of the proscenium and sidewalls were chopped away. Afterwards the damage would be covered with dozens of yards of fabric. The one time “Cathedrial of the Motion Picture” was becoming a Mid-Town dowager. By the late 1950’s, the neighboring Hotel Taft needed room to expand and the owners of the Roxy were losing $1,000 a week. The theatre was sold and the Roxy closed on March 29, 1960.
Final notice, March 29, 1960.
Gloria Swanson in the remains of the Grand Foyer, October 14, 1960 Eliot Elisofon Life Magazine photo

Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel
From Film Daily, March 13, 1927.
Roxy's office library in the Roxy, from Motion Picture news, June 24, 1927.

Samuel Lionel Rothapfel was born in Stillwater Minnesota in 1882, his family moved to New York’s Lower East Side around 1895. After a series of odd jobs he ended up in the Marine Corps, serving for 7 years. Eventually Rothapfel wandered into Northeastern Pennsylvania playing baseball for a team in the Northeast Pennsylvania League during the summer of 1907. It was during his short lived baseball career that he got the nickname Roxy. Once the season ended he got a job selling sets of Stoddard’s Lectures door-to-door.  After another unsuccessful day with few sales he wandered into Freedman Hotel saloon in Forest City Pa. After spying the owner’s daughter Rosa, he decided to get a job in the tavern.  In the back of the tavern was a large room, which Roxy turned into a theatre showing the somewhat new motion pictures. The theatre, named the Family, opened on December 24, 1908. Here Roxy began to perfect the art of motion picture presentation, colored lights, curtains that opened and closed, musical accompaniment for the films. Within a couple years, Roxy now married to Rosa, was booking as many films as the finest New York City nickelodeons. This got the attention of a number of motion picture distributors who made their way to Forest City to see what was going on. By 1910 Roxy was traveling to country improving the motion picture parts of B. F. Keith Vaudeville bills. It was on a train traveling to Chicago Roxy met Herman Fehr owner of the struggling Alhambra Theatre in Milwaukee. Fehr got Roxy to come to Milwaukee to work some magic. On a budget of $5,000 Roxy transformed the Alhambra into a picture house, infuriating Fuhr when he gave away 2,000 tickets. The Roxy magic worked, the Alhambra soon began turning a profit. Heading to New York, in October 1913, Roxy ended up working his magic again, this time at the Regent at 116th Street and 7th Avenue. Word of his success soon filtered down Broadway, where the Mark Brothers had built a huge new theatre at 47th & Broadway.  In December 1913, Mitchell and Moe Mark had a theatre that was almost finished and they had no plan on what exactly they should do with it. The Marks had little trouble luring Roxy away from the Regent. At the Strand, Roxy uniformed a staff of ushers, drilled them as if they were in the Marines, secured a huge orchestra and produced a program that included rapid fire lighting techniques, the Hungarian Rhapsody, excerpts from Rigoletto, all before the feature film began. No one anywhere had seen anything like it, and soon the Strand was the talk of Broadway. Not long after this Roxy dropped the “p” from Rothapfel. Then it was on to the Rialto and then the Rivoli, soon Roxy was rescuing the floundering Capitol at 51st and Broadway. His theatres now had symphony orchestras, ballet corps, and huge overheads that turned huge profits. It was at the Capitol that Western Electric began to broadcast one of the first live remotes over WEAF in 1922, Roxy was now a household name. Success at the Capitol and on the radio led Roxy to begin thinking of building his own theatre. After the Roxy, Roxy oversaw the opening of Radio City Music Hall until 1934. Disputes with management and failing health led to his resignation. Roxy died in his sleep on January 13, 1936, he was 53. Roxy is buried at Linden Hill Cemetery Long Island.
From Motion Picture Daily, January 16, 1936.
From Film Daily, January 15, 1936.
From Film Daily, January 16, 1936.

For more information see:
Ben Hall, The Best Remaining Seats: The Golden Age of the Movie Palace, C. N. Potter, 1961
Marquee Magazine, vol 11 no.1,1st quarter, 1979. Published by the Theatre Historical Society.
David Naylor, American Picture Palaces: the Architecture of Fantasy, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981 (I have an acknowledgement in this one).

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