Roxy Theatre (New York City)
The Roxy Theatre, 1927 postcard (the Taft Hotel is on the left)
|Address||153 West 50th St.
New York NY
|Operator||Roxy Theatre Corp.|
|Capacity||5,920 (in 1927)|
|Opened||March 11, 1927|
|Closed||March 29, 1960|
|Architect||Walter W. Ahlschlager|
The Roxy Theatre was a 5,920 seat movie theater located at 153 West 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, just off Times Square in New York City. It opened on March 11, 1927 with the silent film The Love of Sunya, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The huge movie palace was a leading Broadway film showcase through the 1950s and was also noted for its lavish stage shows. It closed and was demolished in 1960.
The Roxy Theatre was originally conceived by film producer Herbert Lubin in mid-1925 as the world's largest and finest motion picture palace. To realize his dream, he brought in the successful and innovative theater operator Samuel L. Rothafel, aka "Roxy", to bring it to fruition, enticing him with a large salary, percentage of the profits, stock options and offering to name the theatre after him. It was intended to be the first of six planned Roxy Theatres in the New York area.
Roxy determined to make his theater the summit of his career and in it realize all of his theatrical design and production ideas. He worked with Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager and decorator Harold Rambusch of Rambusch Decorating Company on every aspect of the theater's design and furnishings.
Roxy's lavish ideas and his many changes ran up costs dramatically. Shortly after the theater's opening, Lubin, who was $2.5 million over budget and near bankruptcy, sold his controlling interest a week before the theater opened to movie mogul and theater owner William Fox for $5 million. The final cost of the theater was $12 million. With Lubin's exit, Roxy's dreams of his own theater circuit also ended. Only one of the projected Roxy chain was built, the planned Roxy Midway Theatre on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, also designed by Ahlschlager. The nearly complete theater was sold to Warner Bros. who opened it as Warner's Beacon in 1929.
Design and innovation
Known as the "Cathedral of the Motion Picture," the Roxy's design by Ahlschlager featured a soaring golden, Spanish-inspired auditorium, and a lobby in the form of a large columned rotunda called the "Grand Foyer," which featured "the world's largest oval rug", manufactured by Mohawk Carpets in Amsterdam NY, plus its own pipe organ on the mezzanine. Off the rotunda was a long entrance lobby that led through the building of the adjacent Manger Hotel to the theater's main entrance at the corner of Seventh Ave. and W. 50th St. The hotel (later called the Taft Hotel) was built at the same time as the theater.
Ahlschlager succeeded in creating an efficient plan for the Roxy's irregular plot of land, which utilized every bit of space by featuring a diagonal auditorium plan with the stage in one corner of the lot. The design maximized the auditorium's size and seating capacity but compromised the function of its triangular stage. The Roxy's stage, while very wide, was not very deep and had limited space off stage.
Despite the stage limitations, the theater boasted lavish support facilities including two stories of private dressing rooms, three floors of chorus dressing rooms, huge rehearsal rooms, a costume department, staff dry-cleaning and laundry rooms, a barber shop and hairdresser, a completely equipped infirmary, dining room, and a menagerie for show animals. There were also myriad offices, a private screening room seating 100, and massive engine rooms for the electrical, ventilating and heating machinery. The Roxy's large staff enjoyed a cafeteria, gymnasium, billiard room, nap room, library and showers.
The theater's stage innovations included a rising orchestra pit which could accommodate an orchestra of 110 and a Kimball theater pipe organ with three consoles which could be played simultaneously. The film projection booth was recessed into the front of the balcony to prevent film distortion caused by the usual angled projection from the top rear wall of a theater. This enabled the Roxy to have the sharpest film image for its time.
Courteous service to the patron was a key part of the Roxy formula. The theater's uniformed corps of male ushers were known for their polite manner, efficiency and military bearing. They went through rigorous training, daily inspections and drill, overseen by a retired Marine officer. The ushers' crisp attire was immortalized by Cole Porter in a verse of the song You're the Top in 1932.
The Roxy presented major Hollywood films in programs that also included a 110-member symphony orchestra (the world's largest permanent orchestra at that time), a solo theater pipe organ, a male chorus, a ballet company and a famous line of female precision dancers, the "Roxyettes". Elaborate stage spectacles were created each week to accompany the feature film, all under the supervision of Rothafel.
The theater's orchestra and performers were also featured in an NBC Radio program with Roxy himself as host. The Roxy Hour, was broadcast live weekly from the theater's own radio studio. Thanks to Roxy's radio popularity, his theater was known to radio listeners nationwide.
The Roxy after "Roxy"
In spite of the theater's fame and success, the financial problems of its majority owner, the Fox Film Corporation, destabilized the Roxy's operations and it was often saddled with inferior films. In 1932, Rothafel left the theater named for him to open the new Radio City Music Hall and RKO Roxy theaters at Rockefeller Center. Most of the Roxy's performers and artistic staff moved with him to the Music Hall, including producer Leon Leonidoff, choreographer Russell Markert, and conductor Erno Rapee. The Roxyettes went on to greater fame at the Music Hall, becoming the Rockettes, as they are still known today. (The RKO Roxy soon changed its name to the Center Theatre after the owners of the original Roxy sued Rockefeller Center for exclusive rights to the Roxy name.)
After Rothafel's departure, the Roxy Theatre never quite regained its former glory but remained a leading New York showcase for film and stage variety shows. In 1942, A. J. Balaban, co-founder of the Balaban & Katz theater chain, began nearly a decade as Executive Director of the Roxy. He came out of retirement to run the theater at the request of Spyros Skouras, the head of the Roxy's parent company National Theatres, as well as 20th Century-Fox Studios. Balaban restored the theater to profitability with access to first-run Fox films, as well as the production and presentation of first-class live shows. Among his innovations were building an ice rink on the Roxy stage, and engaging many noted performers of the era, such as the Nicholas Brothers, Carmen Cavallaro, and The Harmonicats to appear on the Roxy stage. Even classical ballet dancers, such as Leonide Massine, performed there. Balaban invited the New York Philharmonic to the Roxy along with soprano Eileen Farrell for a two week engagement in September 1950. Appearing for the first time as the main attraction at a movie palace, the orchestra played an abbreviated concert program four times a day between showings of the feature film, The Black Rose.
The Roxy's stage was rebuilt twice, in 1948 and 1952, to add the ice surface for skating shows. During the latter refurbishing the stage was extended out into the house over the orchestra pit and had colored neon embedded in the ice. Ice shows were presented, along with the feature film, on and off through the 1950s. In January 1956, skating star Sonja Henie brought her revue to the Roxy in her final New York appearance.
Widescreen CinemaScope was introduced at the Roxy with the world premiere in 1953 of 20th Century-Fox's film The Robe. The Roxy had also introduced the original 70mm widescreen format "Fox Grandeur" in 1930 with the premiere of Fox Films' Happy Days. Due to the Great Depression, however, the Roxy was one of only two theaters equipped for 70mm Grandeur and it never caught on (Grauman's Chinese was the other). Another widescreen format, the three-projector Cinemiracle debuted at the Roxy as well on a curved 110-foot screen with the 1958 film Windjammer.
One of the last big combined shows was in 1959 with feature film This Earth Is Mine starring Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons, followed by The Big Circus starring Victor Mature. On the Roxy stage were Gretchen Wyler, The Blackburn Twins, Jerry Collins, and The Roxy Orchestra. The managing director since 1955 was Robert C. Rothafel, son of the original Roxy. By this time the Roxy's appearance was altered considerably from its golden 1920s design. Part of the proscenium and side walls had been removed to accommodate the huge Cinemiracle screen and much of the rest of the auditorium was covered in heavy drapes. The big orchestra pit was mostly covered by the stage extension with the organ consoles removed. The elegant lobby areas, however, remained largely intact.
The Roxy had been acquired by Rockefeller Center in 1956, and then sold to developer William Zeckendorf. It was Initially purchased to obtain air rights for the Time-Life Building, built to its east, and was finally demolished by Zeckendorf for an expansion of the Taft Hotel and for an office building that is now connected to the Time-Life building. Gloria Swanson was photographed on October 14, 1960 for Life Magazine by photographer Eliot Elisofon in the midst of the ruins during the theater's demolition (see "External links" below).
The spectacular stage and screen programming ideas of the Roxy's founder continued at Radio City Music Hall into the 1970s. Radio City's lavish Christmas stage show, created in 1933 by the Roxy's former producer and choreographer, Leon Leonidoff and Russell Markert, continues to this day as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The Music Hall itself was saved from demolition by a consortium of preservation and commercial interests in 1979 and it remains one of New York's entertainment landmarks. Its restored interior includes the lavish art deco offices created for "Roxy" Rothafel, preserved partly as a tribute to the visionary showman.
- Note: The original advertised capacity of 6,214 was never actually true. The theater's blue prints, as published in American Theatres of Today (1927), reveal the true seating capacity as 5,920.
- Melnick, Ross. Rethinking Rothafel: Roxy's Forgotten Legacy, The Moving Image 3:2, Fall 2003, pp 62-95.
- Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004. p.462
- Ben M. Hall, The Best Remaining Seats. New York: Clarkson N. Potter (1961) p.77
- Hall p.77
- Hall p.123
- Bloom. p.464
- Hall p.87
- Hall p.169
- Hall p.129
- Obituary: Leon Leonidoff, 95 by Richard F. Shepard, The New York Times, August 1, 1989.
- Ben M. Hall, The Best Remaining Seats. New York: Clarkson N. Potter (1961)
- Variety. November 7, 1962.
- Bloom, p.465
- Howard Taubman, "Symohony Opens Run at the Roxy". New York Times, September 2, 1950.
- "Ice Shows and Sousa Mark Roxy Reopening". New York Times, December 23, 1952.
- Bosley Crowther, "Screen: 'The Lieutenant Wore Skirts". New York Times, January 12, 1956.
- Raymond Strait and Leif Henie: Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie. Scarborough House (January 25, 1990), ISBN 0-8128-8518-X.
- David Coles, "Magnified Grandeur". 70mm.com. March 2001.
- "Curtains for the Roxy" TIME, February 29, 1960
- Bloom, Ken (2004). Broadway: Its History, People, and Places an Encyclopedia, Second Edition. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93704-3.
- Hall, Ben M. (1961). The Best Remaining Seats; The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. ISBN 0127782851 Check
- L'Estrange Fawcett: Die Welt des Films. Amalthea Verlag, Zurich, Leipzig, Vienna 1928, p. 42 (German-speaking version, translated from English to German from C. Zell, with additions from S. Walter Fischer)
- History and commentary
- Roxy Theatre Cinema Treasures.com
- Commentary and photos of Roxy auditorium in 1927. Pictureshowman.com.
- Requiem for the Roxy American Theatre Organ Society website, via Internet Archives
- List of Roxy Theatre reference resources, held by the New York Public Library
- Painting and photos