Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking for a unique gift this holiday season?

A tour can be the perfect gift.  Guests coming in from out of town? Want to show them the town?

Possibly the oldest photograph of the Upper West Side and the Bloomingdale road
The Old Village of Bloomingdale
The criminal and entertainment history of the area between the old Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) and Riverside Drive. Starting at the Cathedral Of Saint John The Devine (the largest gothic structure in the world) tour highlights include Humphrey Bogart's childhood home, Victor Herbert's home, buildings designed by famous New York architects. Former homes of Hollywood legends, legendary writers, legendary composers and even a couple of legendary criminals. See sites that played host to battles during the Revolutionary War, while George Washington escaped north. Approximately 2 and a half to 3 hours.

Lower Manhattan
Since 1609, the world has been attracted to lower Manhattan. The Dutch came, the British came and then the United States government set up shop here. Eventually the American government, with a constitution and a Bill of Rights in place, moved out and commerce (amongst other things) moved in. See the sights of the first congress, where George Washington took the oath of office and became the first president of the United States, The New York Stock Exchange, the Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine, Trinity Church, Saint Paul's Chapel and the World Trade Center site. We can also go to the Brooklyn Bridge.  Approximately 2 and a half hours.

What Do You Want To See in NYC?
As the song says "what street, compares with Mott Street, in July". Only Mott Street in May can compare. I would love to work with guests to our fair city on a tour of some of my favorite things about this town. Together we can personalize a tour of New York that covers what you want to see and do. Do you want to walk the Brooklyn Bridge? Do you want to find the best cheesecake in the world? Do you want to see Humphrey Bogart's childhood home? Do you want to see were John Lennon lived? Do you want to try one of the best restaurants in Chinatown? Do you want to shop? You tell me, we work it out together.  Approximately 5 hours.

My rates are reasonable, I can and do accommodate groups of up to 20.  These are walking tours, meaning I do not provide transportation.  We use the subways when traveling to different areas.  I can be contacted  Include your desired tour dates, what you want to see and how many people.  Many things can effect the length of time on a tour; subway delays, weather, how fast a walker the group is and how much I talk (my wife, kids and most of the tour bus drivers I have worked with say I talk too much).  

The Roxy Theater, one of New York City's greatest lost palaces.

This is the late, great, much missed largest theater in the world (for a while), birth place of what became the Rockettes and "The Cathedral of the Motion Picture". The 5,920 seat Roxy Theatre. This, by the way is the opening of this palace, March 11, 1927 and this is also the north east corner of 50th street and 7th Avenue.

The idea for the largest motion picture theater in the world was brain child of a movie producer named Herbert Lubin. Mr. Lubin wanted to build the largest and most luxurious house in New York City. The Times Square area saw a good deal of movie palace construction in the late teens and early 20's. These were lavish, overblown and beautiful houses catering to audiences that wanted to be entertained in a luxurious environment. With one of the biggest stages ever built for a theater on Broadway, The Strand Theater opened in 1914. At 2989 seats this was one of the earliest movie palaces to hit Broadway, Broadway at 47th street to be specific. Only five years later The Capitol opened in 1919 on 50th street and Broadway at 5230 seats. Both of these theaters were designed by my favorite architect Thomas Lamb.
The movie and stage show combination lasted at these theaters until the early 50's with a few years during the depression that saw no action on those big stages. The shows may have stopped for a while but rest assured, the mighty Wurlitzer organs rose from the depths of their pits to entertain between pictures.

The competition was fierce, each theater had to be the biggest and the best. This is a color rendering done by the decorating firm, The Rambusch Decorating Company, in conjunction with the Roxy's architect Walter Ahlschlager, giving those involved an idea what the finished product would look like. In the days before computer rendering, an oil painting would have to suffice.

 The name "Roxy" was the preferred nickname of Samuel Rothafel. Born in Brooklyn but raised in Minnesota, this former Marine became the showman of the 1920's. He successfully combined motion pictures with vaudeville. He moved to New York City and worked his magic first at the Regent Theater in Harlem. He then moves down to the Times Square area where he performs his wonders at the old Rialto, The Rivoli, The Strand and The Capitol.  His shows are so successful that he eventually gets his own radio show. Broadcasting from the Capitol Theater, Roxy has an audience of over 5 million and receives thousands of fan letters a week.  After so much success with other people's theaters, it was eventually time for Roxy to have his own.

 When Roxy did get his own theater, it was the biggest. Everything about the theater was big. During the silent era it was not un-common for a big palace to have an orchestra play along with the picture in addition to the stage show. In this case the orchestra was a 110 person affair. This is a shot from house left looking down at the orchestra which has risen up from it's depths below to stage level. The largest Kimball organ ever constructed was operated by three consoles rising in the front of the pit.
With the pulpits on either side of the proscenium arch, you can see why this house was referred to as "the cathedral of the motion picture".

The balcony was very step indeed. The auditorium was on the shallow side and the stage was oddly shaped. The stage was a triangle but the center line of the stage did not meet up with the what I guess would be one of the angles that compose a triangle. That angle was off to the side. It was a real pain for set designers.
The plan had been to build the big Roxy and then to build several other "satellite" Roxy's. One such satellite was begun but due to cost overruns and escalating costs with the main Roxy, the unfinished satellite theater was sold and completed by a different owner.  The final cost of the Roxy was 12 million dollars.

 12 million dollars that is. That figure put the idea of satellite Roxy's on a back burner so far back it might as well have been Cleveland. Only one of the satellites was under way and that had to be sold to finish the big Roxy.
The Roxy was staffed by a myriad of professionals all out to produce the biggest and best stage shows. In addition to the master showman, there was producer Leon Leonidoff, choreographer Russell Markert, and conductor Erno Rapee. Almost every week the show was changed (along with the picture) and a new show was produced by Roxy and his producer Leonidoff.

Choreographer Russell Markert came east from the Great Plains with his Missouri Rockets, a line of precision, high kicking dancers. He eventually made it all the way to New York and to Roxy and the Roxy were the Missouri Rockets became the Roxyettes. They joined the Roxy ballet company, the male chorus and lavish support facilities which included five floors of private and chorus dressing rooms, huge rehearsal rooms, a costume department, 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 private screening room seating 100, as well as a cafeteria, gymnasium, billiard room, nap room, library and showers.
This is the view from the stage looking towards house left over the orchestra pit which looks like it might be at the height at which it would have been in to play for the feature picture. The organ consoles are visible at the downstage area of the pit.
Among the many innovations at the Roxy, the projection booth was placed in a cut in the center of the balcony. This allowed for a straight on throw from the booth, instead of the typical angle from a booth all the way up at the back of the balcony.
The stage was very wide; and even with it's two stage elevators it was very shallow.

 I love this picture. It is a very full orchestra pit all the way up to "overture level". Roxy had begun what became a successful radio program on N.B.C. while he was at the Capitol and he carried the show over to his new theater. Another feature of this palace was the radio studio from which "Roxy and his gang" would broadcast from. This made the Roxy Theater even more popular and known nation wide. During the construction period, costs went spiraling out of control. The man behind this idea, Herbert Lubin, 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. This ended the idea or hopes for the "satellite Roxy's" to be built around New York. However, construction had begun on one satellite theater and was almost finished but cash was needed to complete "the cathedral". This theater was sold to Warner Brothers who completed it and opened it as the Warner Beacon in 1929. At 3,154 seats The Beacon, as it is known today, was the largest movie palace left in Manhattan until movies were no longer shown there as of 1986. It was designed by the same architect as the Roxy, Walter W. Ahlschlager.

This is the Grand Rotunda at the Roxy. It contained it's very own Kimball organ (to entertain patrons who were waiting for the next show) and the largest oval rug in the world. Oval, not square or rectangle, but oval. When the Roxy Midway, as it was to be called, was sold to the Warner Brothers, it was partially completed. The framework was in place and theater was physically laid out; the stage, for example is set into a triangle the same exact way the stage at the Roxy was except not as big. It was still wide and shallow and looking in at the loading door on Amsterdam Avenue you are looking almost straight into the house. The auditorium at the Beacon had not yet decorated. Since was no longer going to be part of that Roxy Gang, alterations were made to the design of the auditorium so it looks nothing like the Roxy. The inner lobby was finished however and it is a 1/4 scale version of the "Grand Rotunda" at the Roxy.

 This is the outer lobby and box office area of the Roxy. The outer lobby and box office area and, I believe, all or part of the Grand Rotunda were constructed within the Hotel Taft structure. That hotel was built with the entrance to the Roxy on it's south eastern corner, 50th and Seventh Avenue. A very similar arrangement to the Beacon hotel and the Roxy Midway (now the Beacon Theater). Note the marble floor with the Roxy logo inlaid.  This area is now occupied by "America's Largest Friday's". Now there is an achievement.

This is the same area as pictured below but with people in it. That is a Roxy usher standing at attention on the right. Cole Porter was right when he wrote the lyrics for "You're The Top" , those are some nice pants on that Roxy usher.
It appears that this is a later photo of the outer / box office lobby. The floor has been altered and what looks like a panel of mirrors have replaced the curtained transoms just above the ticket booths.

This is a line heading to the Roxy and all that this "World Famous Theater" showing only "Outstanding Motion Pictures in Stereophonic Sound and in CinemaScope". This is obviously the 1950's and if I remember correctly, this is a line to get into see the first movie in CinemaScope "The Robe" starring Victor Mature. In the old days children, a big picture would open at a handful of theaters. This may have been the only theater in Manhattan, for example, that this picture would have played in before moving on to neighborhood or second run houses.
You would think that with a line like this that the Roxy was forever in the black and reaping in the dough. Not so, as the theater suffered dramatically in it's early years. After William Fox bought out the nearly bankrupt Herbert Lubin, The Roxy was forced to show some very inferior Fox products, movies that would not put them in seats. It was not until 1942, ten years after Roxy's departure from his beloved cathedral that things started to turn around for the big house.
A. J. Balaban, co-founder of the Balaban & Katz theater chain of Chicago, began nearly a ten year term as Executive Director of the Roxy. He had been retired from the business but coaxed into the job by Spyros Skouras, the head of the Roxy's parent company National Theatres, as well as 20th Century-Fox Studios. Now superior 20th Century -Fox product would open at the Roxy. Mr. Balaban also turned his attention to the stage shows presented at the Roxy. The Roxy held on to the movie and stage show combination long after most theaters discontinued the practice.

In addition to installing ice on the stage Mr. Balaban would engage popular acts such as The Nicholas Brothers, Milton Berle, Cab Calloway and "The Poet of the Piano" Carmen Cavallaro. This is a photo of one Mr. Balaban's more interesting engagements. For two weeks in September of 1950, the New York Philharmonic along with soprano Eileen Farrell, were the show. Four times a day between showings of the 20th Century Fox feature, The Black Rose starring Orson Welles and Tyrone Power.
The orchestra appears to be on the pit lift which looks as if it is at stage level. Except for a few empty rows on the sides of the balcony and loge, the house looks pretty full. This photo affords a great view of how and where the projection booth was situated.

This all star blockbuster opened in December of 1950. Big openings were not just the realm of Hollywood. Mr. Balaban knew how to throw a premiere.
After Roxy left, he went over to work on the opening of Radio City Music Hall. He took his production staff with when he headed east to 6th Avenue. Originally planned to be called The International Music Hall, Radio City Music Hall opened to the public on December 27, 1932 with a huge stage show featuring Ray Bolger and Martha Graham. The opening was meant to be a return to high-class vaudeville. The new format was not a success. The program was incredibly long and individual acts were lost in this enormous very deep (as opposed to the shallow more intimate Roxy) hall. On January 11, 1933, the Music Hall converted to the then familiar format of a feature film with a spectacular stage show perfected by Rothafel and produced by Leon Leonidoff at the Roxy Theatre. It was this production staff that left a legacy that includes the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. Musical Director Erno Rappe worked continuously that first year. He also drove the Radio City Music Hall orchestra with one iron fist holding the baton and the other holding a bull whip. A story handed down to me by my father about Rappe is when asked for a day off from one of the pit musicians who had been working for almost a year without a break, Rappe replied "You can take a week off, you can take a month off, but if you miss one day of work you're fired".

In 1950, CBS asked Lucille Ball to take her popular radio show My Favorite Husband to television. She saw this possible television show as a great opportunity to work with Desi Arnaz to whom she had been married to since 1940. It would keep them both in Hollywood and perhaps save their shaky marriage. Lucy insisted that Desi play her husband. CBS was reluctant because Arnaz was Cuban. Network executives believed that audiences would not accept the marriage between an all-American girl and a Latin man. To prove CBS wrong, the couple developed a vaudeville act, written by Bob Caroll and Madeline Pugh, writers on the My Favorite Husband program who went on to write (or be part of the team that wrote) every I Love Lucy episode. They took this act on the road with Arnaz's orchestra, playing the big picture houses as the stage show. The act was a hit and convinced CBS executives that a Ball-Arnaz pairing would be a worthwhile venture. One of the stops on this tour was The Roxy, obviously. In fact, that's Desi in the white blazer under the marquee.
Desi was appearing with his orchestra here at the Roxy in 1940 when Lucy came east from Hollywood. On November 30th 1940, Lucy and Desi went to Connecticut (there was no waiting period once you had a marriage license) got married and headed back to New York where she was introduced as Mrs. Desi Arnaz on stage at the Roxy.

This is the center console of the Roxy Theater Kimball Organ. When Rothafel moved over to the Radio City Music Hall, the new Roxy management decided to extend the stage apron out over the orchestra pit. When this architectural miscarriage was committed, not only was the pit elevator immobilized, this act of vandalism left the consoles entombed in the basement. In addition, New York City fire codes required that the fireproofing between the house and the stage go up to the apron line. To do this, the massive organ pipes behind grilles on either side of the proscenium had to be walled up behind cinder blocks. A valiant effort to save the organ was made. The new management team talked about relocating the pipework. The Kimball people suggested that all the pipework be placed on one side of the auditorium. An estimate was obtained but the Roxy management balked at the cost of the work so the organ fell silent and the three consoles were moved to a warehouse.
Then came the happy order to move the master console from the warehouse back to the theater. When the console arrived, it was placed up in a little balcony on the left side of the proscenium, where it remained until the early 1950's. The organ had to be amplified due the cinder blocking. So the worst possible amplification system was employed; the organ sounded strangely muffled as it was amplified through the house public address system. The distortion and limited frequency response of the PA system. In addition, this system could hardly do justice to the big Kimball sound... but at least it was organ music.

This is the death of The Roxy. The big house closed on March 30th 1960 and demolition begun not long after. This is a picture of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of what appears to be the Grand Rotunda. She was there at the beginning, her picture The Love of Sunya opened the cathedral so it is fitting that she is there at the end.
As I have said, everything about this place was over-sized. The tuned tubular bells, the longest at 21 feet and so large they had to be installed while the house was under construction, fell victim to the wrecking ball. Not much could be recycled, except for part of the organ and the center console, which is now in Las Vegas. Once the rubble was cleared, a nondescript office building rose in it's place.
As for Roxy, the master showman, he passed away in 1936. His magic all used up, he could not save the gigantic Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia. The man who helped move movies out of the nickelodeons, who created a special atmosphere in every theater that he touched, the man who told the New York Central Railroad that their 20th Century Limited should have a red carpet rolled out to meet the train both coming in and going out (they listened), faded into the history books of show business.
This photo, the inspiration for the musical Follies, ends my Roxy revere.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Regent Theater, 116th Street and Seventh Avenue.

This was the Regent Theater.  It is (notice I am saying "is") on 116th street where 7th avenue is crossed over by Saint Nicholas Avenue. When the theater was built in late 1912, opening in 1913, the area was predominately a German Jewish enclave. Being that they were well to do, successful Western European types, they deserved a luxurious neighborhood theater. Notice the friendly policeman waving at the camera.  The Regent was designed by, you guessed it, Thomas Lamb. It is his first motion picture specific house. There was a stage built with the house just in case movies did not work out. The exterior was designed to look like the Doge's Palace in Venice.  The Regent sat 1800 in a Spanish Baroque setting, with tones of red, gold, blue and a mural over the proscenium depicting “The Surrender of Granada”.
Built by Biograph Studio founder Henry Marvin, the theater was designed to make movies respectable. A luxurious theater with a large orchestra, large theater organ, ushers in fancy uniforms and programs should have attracted the crowds. The place was initially a failure.

How could such a beautiful theater fail? I don't know either but Mr. Marvin hired Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel to work his magic, successfully combining vaudeville with movies.  Roxy also moved the projection booth down to the orchestra level.  He put the musicians on the stage in a setting surrounding the screen reminiscent of a baroque Spanish courtyard.  However in this picture the orchestra is still in the pit and what appears to be the fire curtain is down. This picture might have been taken just before opening by the architect's firm as a record of their work.
The theater became a success and was so for the next 5 decades, one of the more important movie theaters in Harlem.

This photo was taken in 1941, the double feature playing at the RKO Regent are from that year. "My Life With Caroline" starring Ronald Coleman is a RKO picture, "Bad Men of Missouri" starring the still sort of newlywed Mrs. Ronald Reagan (Jane Wyman) is a Warner Brother picture. I am guessing that the Regent was not a first run house at this point.
In the first picture of the Regent I put up there is a banner at the top of the building announcing that the "B.S. Moss Regent Theatre" is in the business of presenting "Vaudeville & Feature Films". B.S. Moss was eventually taken over by RKO. The vaudeville acts were Keith-Albee acts. Even after RKO took over, Keith-Albee continued to supply the acts, the "K" in "RKO" stood for "Keith" as in "Keith-Albee". RKO was born out of an unholy alliance between RCA and Keith-Orpheum (Orpheum was the west coast equivalent of the east coast Keith-Albee - the two companies merged and the new name was Keith-Orpheum). This alliance was orchestrated by Joesph Kennedy (JFK's father) who wanted a studio for his girlfriend Gloria Swanson. What is even scarier is that Keith-Orpheum possessed, once the merger happened in 1928, over one million seats in their combined motion picture and vaudeville houses. You are looking at the facade of 1800 out of that million.

This is the Regent now, but it is called The First Corinthian Baptist Church. It is a New York City Landmark and cannot be altered. There had been "modernizations" done during the '40's and '50's when RKO owned the theater. Nothing too terrible. The satin wall panels that once adorned the theater had been removed and painted over.

The interior today. Well, the boxes are still intact.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Star Theater in East Harlem.

This is The Star Theater on Lexington Avenue between 107th and 108th streets. At almost 2300 seats, it was one of William Fox's earliest ventures.  Developed by a Mr. Henry Jackson, the theater was leased to Fox in 1908.  Built as a vaudeville / movie house the Star Theatre was in competition with the big deluxe houses on 86th street, notably Proctor's 86th.

This is obviously during the 1930's. The Star has been reduced to a second run house by this point. Even Lexington Avenue has streetcars (note the tracks). There was a car barn for these trolleys than covered the entire block of 99th to 100th streets from Lexington to Park Avenue.
The theater used existing structures (it appears to be a small commercial building on the corner and a brownstone next to that) as the space for the outer lobby. This set up was not uncommon. The land on the avenue was more expensive than the side street.  On 42nd Street, for example, very often an existing brownstone was used (or the plot of land that the house stood on was used) as the lobby structure. The land on 42nd Street was a good deal more expensive than land on 41rst Street or 43rd Street. Long thin lobbies on 42nd lead to big beautiful theaters built on the cheaper land.  The auditorium was built on the site of a skating rink - or at least that's what is on a map of the area from the late 19th century.
The map also shows a road which no longer existed when the map was published in 1897, the Eastern Post Road, which ran north - south at the western end of the auditorium.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Washington Theatre on Amsterdam Avenue and 149th Street.

This is the Washington Theater on Amsterdam Avenue between 149th and 150th streets. With a seating capacity of 1432, the Washington opened in August of 1910. It is considered to be the oldest surviving theater designed by, you guessed it, Thomas Lamb. The Washington still stands today as the New Covenant Temple and is, according to rumors, intact.

View from the stage.  Look at all those footlights.

View towards the stage, the house left boxes and the mural on the sound board above the proscenium. It appears that the fire curtain has been lowered.

This is looking at the house left boxes. Thomas Lamb was a genius and always used cantilevered balconies in his theaters. I do not recall one of his houses that had support columns under the balcony ruining the view. The boxes on orchestra level are separated from the orchestra section with a small partition. A real delineation between the box seats and the rest of the world. I know that Lamb's Capitol Theater (the largest theater in the world for a few years) and the Hamilton had boxes very similar to these. I know that I mentioned this before but Mr. lamb was never a licensed architect. Surprising for a guy who was a building inspector for the City of New York.

This is the theater now. In mid May of 2011 the church that owns the theater put it up for sale. There are no Landmark Restrictions and they are asking only 11.5 million dollars. If the rumors that it is intact are true, it should be saved.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More Harlem, more theaters.

This is 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater had, depending on which of my sources is correct, either 600 or 2200 seats (which in 1935 expanded to 2300 which could indicate that an orchestra pit was covered over to add more seating but that is a great many seats to cover over an orchestra pit with). I am going with the source that lists the larger capacity because the smaller capacity source lists the theater as active only until 1922. The picture playing when this photo was taken is a Fox picture, directed by the great Raoul Walsh, from 1927. Around the corner, like the sign says, is the entrance to the Cotton Club.
In a space once used as a club by the legendary African American boxer Jack Johnson, The Cotton Club opened in 1923 after gangster bootlegger hoodlum Owney Madden muscled his way in and forced Johnson's Club DeLuxe out. Although the club launched the careers of too numerous to mention here African American entertainers, the Cotton Club originally had a "Whites Only" policy. Duke Ellington was the club's orchestra leader from 1927 to 1931, replacing the great Fletcher Henderson (if it weren't for him, Benny Goodman would never have become the "King of Swing"). During Ellington's tenure, the racist policy was relaxed. After Ellington left, Cab Calloway took over as the orchestra leader.
Eventually the club moved south, to 47th street in a building just north of Duffy Square (were the TKTS booth is located). The Cotton Club closed in 1940 and then Lou Walters Latin Quarter moved in. The building was torn down in 1989 for a hotel.

I know that this is a stretch and really this is Washington Heights but I am including it here because it is another theater lost and a loss to African American history. It was William Fox's Audubon Theatre of 1912. It was designed by the one and only Thomas Lamb. Named in honor of the naturalist James Audubon, this 2368 seat theater boasted a mural over the proscenium of George Washington leading the battle of Washington Heights. By the end of World War II the name of the theater and the language of the pictures changed. The San Juan had a Spanish Language film policy until it stopped showing movies some time in the late 1960's. It was ultimately torn down by Columbia University when they were expanding their medical facility. The facade was saved and restored and used in the new structure.

The Audubon Theatre had a ballroom in the building. The entrance was on the side. Even though the theater changed it's name, the ballroom remained the Audubon Ballroom and was forever etched in history in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated here while giving a speech.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Yet another lost theater on 125th Street

Harlem really starting developing in the late 19th century, as information about were the new subway was to be routed was leaked to those in the development arena. A great deal of Harlem, especially west of the New York Central tracks, was built nice. Like I have said the area close to 125th street, had a large number of theaters. There were theaters that are long gone in east Harlem, theaters that have survived as churches and theaters that are just sealed up. 125th Street was the magnet for all things entertainment. Oscar Hammerstein invested in this uptown theater district. His Harlem Opera House, discussed in earlier posts, opened in 1899 as a legit house, ultimately succumbing to vaudeville, movies and eventually the wrecking ball.
This is the Orient Theater. Located on 125th street just west of Lenox Avenue, it was in operation as early as 1915. It had a seating capacity of only 585. Usually, and I stress usually, a theater with a seating capacity of that size was not built with a stage. However, since my information on this theater is sketchy, it could have been built for legit then went over to motion picture exhibition. By the late 19th century and into the early 20th century you do not find many legit houses that size. There are exceptions and this not a hard and fast rule. There certainly were smaller legit and vaudeville houses and there were theaters with very large seating capacities that were built with out stages.
The picture playing at the Orient is Exclusive Story, starring The Group Theater's very own Franchot Tone. It is an MGM picture released in 1936. Loew's owned MGM but perhaps not this theater. It could have been a second run independent house.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

New York Tours By Gary: Loew's Victoria on West 125th Street. A treasure w...

New York Tours By Gary: Loew's Victoria on West 125th Street. A treasure w...: 125th street was lined with theaters. Most of these houses where built for live entertainment. This is the Loews Victoria, built for va...

Loew's Victoria on West 125th Street. A treasure waiting for renewal.

125th street was lined with theaters. Most of these houses where built for live entertainment. This is the Loews Victoria, built for vaudeville and moving pictures. This theater opened in 1917 and it was designed by Thomas Lamb.
West 125th was not only the major commercial strip of the area it was also the border between white and black Harlem. The theaters along 125th catered to a white audience. In the early 20th century one never saw a person of color going into the Alhambra or the Harlem Opera House. 125th street was euphemistically referred to as "The Great White Way", "white" being the operative word. After some time, African Americans were admitted to the balconies. Very Jim Crow southern (not to mention reprehensible and out of step with the very nature of New York) in practice.
Eventually the neighborhood changed. The early 20th century saw some massive construction projects. The original 1904 subway line was being built and that sparked development were there had been not much before.  A large number of speculatively built brownstones and apartment buildings went up all over the Upper West Side and Harlem. In addition to the subway, the late great Pennsylvania Station was under way. The loss of a middle class African American neighborhood that had been displaced by the construction of the old Pennsylvania Station and the blocks close to the subway lines that would open along Lenox Avenue being extensively developed helped turn the tides and shifted the population. Landlords could not fill the apartments or sell off the brownstones.  A forward thinking African American real estate broker convinced the landlords of these big beautiful buildings, buildings that they could not fill as Harlem became over-built to a degree, to rent to African Americans. The landlords needed tenants, the displaced and newly arrived African Americans needed to be tenants.

This is the house left wall. These images were probably taken in the early 1990's. The theater was a single screen for most of it's life. In 1972 the house underwent a renovation and began to show first run films. In December of 1972 "Across 110th Street' starring Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto opened at the Victoria. Other similar pictures followed. In 1977 the Death of Loews Victoria was reported in The Amsterdam News. Loews could no longer operate the Victoria profitably and put it up for sale. After a multi-million dollar plan to restore the Victoria fell apart in 1988, it was not until 1992 that the Victoria was used again.
Retired New York City police detective, and owner of the landmarked James Bailey house on Saint Nicholas Place, Warren Blake took over and after another "face lift" reopened the Victoria as The Harlem 5. Mr. Blake, sensitive to the historical and irreplaceable aspects of this theater, had partitions put in to create 5 auditoriums that would leave no scars and could be easily removed.

Detail of the house right mural. The white sections are areas where there is water damage.

The house right boxes. The Victoria was built with, in addition to vaudeville, motion pictures in mind so the boxes were designed to not interfere with the image on the screen. When wide screen pictures became the norm, the stage was wide enough to accommodate a wider screen. The situation was the same at Loew's 83rd, the boxes remained until the theater was turned into a "quad" ; then they were in the way and had to go.

The projection booth. Unlike the Hamilton, the booth in the Victoria was part of the original plan and does not stick out like sore thumb/projection booth. The Victoria was built 4 years later and during that time, people accepted motion pictures as an inevitability.

This is the dome over the auditorium of the Loew's Victoria. It is missing it's chandelier but it could have been removed much before this picture was taken. In 1972, a benefit performance was held at he newly refurbished Victoria for the Dance Theater of Harlem. In a New York Times article about this star studded celeb-filled, sold out event called "They Came To Harlem in Ermine And Pearls And Jeans" there is a reference to the chandelier lowered slightly to give the theater a more intimate feeling. The Victoria remained in the hands of Loew's until 1977.

This is a very recent photo of the inner lobby (the same space as the picture below. The marble floor is being preserved with a covering of carpet. Warren Blake was the man who did the last renovation on this space and he was sensitive to historic preservation. In the ceiling, on the left and right sides of the center dome, there are decorative panels, probably stain glass panels covering the recessed lighting fixtures that appear ever so faintly in the previous picture but are missing here. I am hoping that Mr. Blake removed them, along with the auditorium chandelier and put them somewhere safe. I vividly remember round stain glass panels used extensively in Thomas Lamb's Loew's 83rd, particularly under the balcony overhang in the orchestra section, casting a subtle amber glow during the Movie.
In the picture is New York State Assembly Member Keith Wright. There has been much talk over the past few years about what to do with the Victoria. There was an attempt to include the Victoria in the renovation of the Apollo. There have been rumblings of a high rise hotel going up on the site that would include, depending on which version one hears and believes, different things. In one scheme, the entire auditorium would be saved and the space turned over to one of a cornucopia of non-profit arts group in return for tax breaks and zoning rules waved. In another plan, part of the theater would be saved and used as part of the lobby of the new hotel (this would also include saving the facade). The last and worst idea is just to save the facade and incorporate it into the new structure.

 This is the lobby earlier than the above picture.

The outer lobby with it's chandelier still there but not working. Harlem has seen a great deal of redevelopment over the past few years. However nice it is to have a Marshall's, Staples, an H & M and an Old Navy very close by, one must evaluate the cost. The price Harlem has paid is the loss of some historically important buildings, a loss to not only theater history but African American history as well. Always remember that "we will not be judged by what we have built, but by what we have destroyed".

 I found this picture while looking for more interior photos of the Victoria. The caption of this undated photo stated that this was at the Victoria, a Jitterbug performance. Given the eagle and flags in the background I would guess World War Two era.

Monday, November 7, 2011

More 125th Street and Weber & Fields West End Theater

Weber & Fields were very much part of the vaudeville and variety show world for decades. Both men were born in New York in 1867, both men were Jewish performers who removed (or tried to anyway) any trace of ethnicity from their names (Moses Schoenfeld became Lew Fields and Joseph Morris Weber dropped the Morris), teamed up and became one of the most successful acts of the 19th century. After many years of touring in circuses, variety shows and vaudeville, the duo the duo settled back in New York. Lew Fields had a theater named for him by Oscar Hammerstein (it was to be his final Times Square project) in 1904. Fields did open the theater with a successful production of Victor Herbert's It Happened In Nordland but the theater was a flop. Badly designed, cramped and full of building code violations, the theater changed hands too many times to mention. It was here, however, when the theater was owned by Harry Frazee, that Lynn Fontanne played her first starring role in 1921. Harry Frazee was not only a producer and theatrical agent but he owned the Boston Red Sox and traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. He claimed, then later denied, he did this to finance the Broadway production My Lady Friends which was the play upon which No No Nanette was based.  The trade by Frazee of Babe Ruth to the Yankees gave birth to The Curse of the Bambino which prevented a World Series win by the Red Sox for 86 years.

This is the West End Theatre. It was at the western end of the Harlem's Broadway, 125th street. It was built by a man named Meyer R. Bimberg, who was known popularly as “Bim the Button Man” for supplying customized buttons and banners to political candidates. The West End opened on November 3, 1902, in what was then a largely German Jewish and Irish Neighborhood. It was the built on the northern border of "white Harlem" and along the principle commercial street in the area and one of the world's most important entertainment meccas ever created. Within months of opening, Bimberg was been arrested for embezzlement and the theater was sold to the vaudeville team of Weber and Fields.
Never a hugely profitable venue, the West End was a high end vaudeville and subway circuit house. A large number of theaters in Harlem were on the subway circuit. In the early 20th century, before sound movies, way before TV, live theatrical presentations were the thing. To satisfy an ever increasing demand for new shows and to further and to satisfy the entertainment needs of the rest of the country, a Broadway show would play it's 300 performances then would move out to a neighborhood house (the previously mentioned Riviera on 97th street and Broadway for example) then would go out on the road. The Shuberts were among the big time Broadway producers who had lease deals with various theaters around New York City. According to the Shubert Archives, the West End was leased by United States Amusement Company, a Shubert-Erlanger vaudeville venture in 1907-08. From 1908 to 1912 it was booked as a part of the Shubert's "subway circuit" by the Sam S. Shubert Booking Agency.
Early headliners at the West End included the Four Cohans (which included George M.), the great African-American vaudeville team of Bert Williams (who W.C. Fields called "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew") and George Walker and, in her final New York appearance in November of 1903, Adelina Patti, the Italian soprano.

This the West End Theatre today, however it is now known as the LaGree Baptist Church. I have peeked in through the doors on several occasions and the interior seems to be in good shape. As with too much of Harlem, a building such as this is not landmarked.
The West End stopped showing pictures in 1975. In the years prior to that, it was home to an African American repertory company (in the 1920's), in 1937 underwent a renovation and reopened with vaudeville and movies.
There was a Weber & Fields Theater in Times Square. It stood on 44th street between Broadway and 8th Avenue.  It did not last long as Weber & Fields. The Shuberts bought it and renamed the 44th Street Theater in 1913. The Marx Brothers performed Animal Crackers here in 1928 while shooting their first picture Coconuts during the day out at what is now Kaufman Astoria.