Theater historians have tendered various explanations for the lavish appointments in America's movie palaces. In her recent work on palaces designed by architect S. Charles Lee, Maggie Valentine contended that "the audience became the focus, and comfort and view became the first considerations" because "support facilities [like those needed in conventional theaters] were reduced to a two-dimensional wall and a projection booth. Thus, the need for an expensive fly tower and wings in which to store scenery was eliminated, as were dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, greenrooms, shops, and storage."(1) While this may have been the case in smaller, more remote movie houses, it was not the case in the major metropolitan de luxe palaces which served as the architectural inspiration for smaller, rural theaters. The Roxy floor plans called for five floors of dressing rooms, an animal room below the stage, a ballet room, a costume department, a laundry, a dry cleaning establishment, a hairdressing salon, a barbershop, and a unicycle garage to facilitate its nightly stage shows. In addition, the Roxy housed a music library of over 10,000 vocal numbers and 50,000 orchestrations, staffed with three full-time librarians, which was billed at the time as the largest music library in the world.

The sheet music was put to good use by the Roxy's 110 piece orchestra which was led by four conductors. Overall, the theater also contained 14 Steinway grand pianos. Orchestra members and pianists performed onstage and in the lobbies and foyers of the Roxy during its opening night celebration, which also featured filmed greetings from the President and Vice President of the United States, the mayor, the governor, Thomas Edison, and 300 patients at Walter Reed Army Hospital arranged on a lawn to spell out Roxy's name. Three organists in green velvet smoking jackets labored simulataneously on gigantic Kimball organ consoles which rose from the orchestra pit; two other organs served the lobby and broadcasting studio.

The organs originally accompanied silent films and often included sound effects to simulate birds, horses, whistles, autos, fire engines, planes, hurricanes, surf, rain, telephones, doorbells, trolley bells, and smashing crockery. The most grandiose organs featured stops reading "Love (Mother)," "Love (Passion)," "Love (Romantic)," "Quietude," "Jealousy," "Suspense," "Happiness," "Hate," "Mysterious," "Ruesome," "Pathetic," and "Riot," lest theatergoers be in doubt about the emotional states of those onscreen.(2) The organ in Denver's Isis Theater even included a lightning machine. In 1926 famed theater organist Jesse Crawford designed what was generally acknowledged to be the "Queen Mother of All Wurlitzers" for the Paramount Theater in Times Square. When John Philip Sousa's band played a week at the Paramount, theater managers stationed trained nurses in the aisles "to assist those overcome by the sheer magnitude of sound when the Sousa Band, the Paramount Grand Orchestra, and Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Crawford at the twin consoles of the Mighty Wurlitzer all joined together in their rendition of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."(3) Crawford's achievement was eclipsed by the triple console organ at the Roxy in 1927, the Moller De Luxe at the Atlanta Fox in 1929, and the massive Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall in 1932. By 1932, however, silent films were a thing of the past, and theater organs were chiefly instruments for congregational singing and for accompanying stage shows.

Sometimes stage shows were standardized traveling shows, the most famous of which were Fanchon and Marco's "Ideas" in the 1920s and '30s. Often, however, individual theater managers developed them to fit thematically with the motion picture playing at the time. When Grauman's Chinese Theater opened with Cecil B. DeMille's 13-reel King of Kings in 1927, theater managers preceded the film with a biblical staged prologue that was, in the words of one critic, "the damndest thing this side of Oberammergau."(4) Other theater managers built shows around the conductors' personalities or around contracted celebrities. Jack Partington was one theater operator who favored this last approach to stage shows. Partington was a former private detective and nickelodeon operator who made it big in 1921 by patenting his "Magic Flying Stages" which allowed performers to ascend, descend, and travel horizontally on electronically moveable sections of the stage. Stages also included elaborate prosceniums and curtains to showcase performers. The curtain at the San Francisco Fox cost $8,900 when workers assembled it out of gold kid, padded lame, 2,500 glass reflectors, and silk rope fringe in 1929.

Stage shows held such appeal that Samuel Rothapfel got the idea to broadcast them over the radio nationwide. Roxy himself narrated the show and the film. His broadcasts proved so popular that they became a separate commercial entity and required the creation of a separate broadcasting room in the theater. People nationwide listened to Roxy's Gang, broadcast from the basement of the Capitol Theater (later moved to the Roxy, along with Roxy himself) with an orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

The advent of talkies spelled the death of elaborate, live stage shows as studio heads found it cheaper to film stage shows and provide theatergoers with 'virtual spectacles' during the economizing years of the Depression.

The Thirties: Depression and Art Deco

Home


Notes

1 Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee, 4.

2 Ben Hall, The Best Remaining Seats, 196.

3 qtd. in Hall, 189.

4 qtd. in Hall, 212.