Friday, December 16, 2011

The Capitol Theatre, Broadway and 51rst Street

On October 25th 1919, the New York Times printed a review not of a movie but of a movie theater.
          "The Capitol, New York's newest, Largest, and most pretentious picture theatre, at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, last night opened its doors to the public. Its vast auditorium was filled with a crowd . . ." the article went on. The crowd filled every seat, 5230 to be exact.  The first theater in the world to go over 5000 seats, the Capitol eventually became one of MGM's premier houses in New York, once Loew's took over in 1924  By this point the theater had paid for itself and the number of people who had been through the theater was equivalent to one fifth the U.S. Population at that time anyway. This is the exterior (obviously) looking towards the south west from 51rst Street and Broadway.

This is the program cover for July 30th, 1922. This palace opened with Douglas Fairbanks starring in "His Majesty, The American". The show was headlined by Arthur Pryor and his band.

Stage shows were part of the package from 1919 until Loews dropped vaudeville from almost all of their theaters. Shows ended, for a while anyway in 1935.  This is a shot of the proscenium taken after a 1959 renovation in which the screen was enlarged and the seating capacity reduced to 4400. 

 This is a color tinted postcard of the original decor.  The following is from the July 30th, 1922 program:

Cleaning the largest theatre in the world is a herculean task, but when the Capitol is opened to the public at 12:30 each morning, every square inch of surface has been made immaculate.
After the last performance each night, the huge task of housecleaning begins. Each one of the 5300 seats is turned up and cleaned, and every discarded program, scrap of paper and forgotten article collected.  At six o'clock in the morning, a small army consisting of fourteen porters and sixten (sic) scrubwomen invade the theatre.  By 12:00 o'clock, thirty minutes before opening time, every corner and surface of the theatre has ben (sic) cleaned and inspected.

The following surfaces are cleaned and polished:
5000 square yards of carpets and draperies.
6000 square feet of tiling.
5000 square feet of marble work
50,000 square feet of walnut woodwork.
600 square feet of bronze doors.
1000 lineal feet of brass railing.
1000 square feet of leaded glass.
2500 square feet of plate glass mirrors.
50,000 electric globes.

A perfumed disinfectant is sent through the ventilating system at definite intervals to clean and purify the air. Before you are invited to enter, the Capital Theatre is made as immaculate as the most up-to-date mechanical appliances, soap, powder, water and the plenty of old fashioned elbow grease can make it.

Walter Roesner leading the house band, The Capitolians, in 1928. In March of 1943, the Capitol returned to the movie and stage show policy.  Stage shows had been dropped, like I said, in 1935. However there was one exception.  In 1939 a special revue with Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney supported the premier  of “The Wizard of Oz.

The stage shows, prior to his departure to his Roxy Theatre, were under the supervision of Roxy himself.  Here he is, directing a rehearsal from the house, a house so big he needed to be amplified to be heard.  He took his own chair with him.  You could smoke in theaters back then. 
Of the post war stage shows that have graced the Capitol stage, the highlights include in 1943 with The Phantom Of the Opera remake premier Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, the Deep River Boys, Peg Leg Bates, Patterson & Jackson, and  Lena Horne. In 1947 the romantic comedy, “Her Husband’s Affairs,” starring Lucille Ball and Franchot Tone, opened at the Capitol as part of the theatre’s 28th anniversary celebration. But the BIG news was on the Capitol’s stage.  With Frank Sinatra, in his first Broadway appearance since becoming synonymous with the rival Paramount Theatre (Sinatra was now under movie contract to MGM, whose parent company ran the Capitol Theatre), was pianist Skitch Henderson & His OrchestraAn extra added stage attraction was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr.  Fore shadowing of things to come?  

In March of 1948 the Capitol Theatre opened what was claimed to be “The Biggest Combination Show” in its history. On screen was Mark Hellinger’s “The Naked City,” an eagerly-awaited Universal-International B&W crime thriller that had been filmed entirely on location in NYC. The show however was tremendous. Glenn Miller alumnus Tex Beneke with his own orchestra and singers and as an “Extra!” was the "Rising comedy team of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis".  The first show started at 9:00am, with the last feature screening at 1:15am. I would have been there all day. Stage shows ended, again but this time for ever, in 1953.

The balcony promenade. As far as the eye can see - promenade.

The outer lobby.

The original lobby. The Capitol was famous for the white marble star case in this inner lobby.

The lobby, again.

Part of the "modernization" of 1959 included running an escalator up the middle of the white marble staircase.

So was curtaining off the balcony to reduce seating (and of course the need to clean this vast expanse).

This is what the vast expanse looked like without the curtains.

In 1962 more modernization. The Cinerama process is installed in the Capitol.  The seating capacity was reduced yet again to 1950. The seat under the balcony overhang were walled off as the Cinerama process would not be effective to people seating there. In addition the the need for the three projection booths, as required by Cinerama as well as the need to have them project almost straight on, propelled this necessity into a reality.  The center booth is in the center of the above picture.   

The last picture to play the Capitol was Stanley Krubick's 2001 in 1968. It was shown in Cinerama. On September 16th 1968, a review appeared of a benefit given on the Capitol stage. Hosted by Ed McMahon as a benefit for The Communications Arts Center of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, performers included Johnny Carson (the Tonight Show was still in New York), Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Alan King and Florence Henderson. Music was provided by the Rascals and the Tonight Show band. This review came almost 49 years after the opening night review. The next day interior furnishings and decorations went on sale and demolition begun.