Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Riverside and Riviera Theater - An Entertainment Meca On The Upper West Side.

In 1911 William Fox, a theater owner and pioneering film producer is finishing construction of a large Vaudeville house on 96th street and Broadway. He is approached by agents of the uber - powerful
Keith Albee company - the largest Vaudeville circuit on the East Coast. They want to buy the practically finished 1710 seat Riverside Theater.  Mr. Fox says at first says no but then threatened with the loss of all Keith performers for his already established theaters, he sells.  The Riverside Theater was built for high end Vaudeville (only 2 shows per day). The great Sarah Bernhardt even played B.F. Keith’s Riverside.   On the right is the standard early 1920's program cover for the Keith circuit.  I found another east coast theater using the same art work on the program cover, the Orpheum (in Boston I believe) that was proud to be presenting Houdini live on stage. What a smart couple, all dressed up for an evening at the Riverside.  On the left is part of the program from January 22, 1923.


At the time of this programs publication composer and bandleader Julius Lenzberg was the orchestra leader at the Riverside.  This is the Riverside Orchestra, Julius is the guy with the violin.  Born January 3 1878 in Baltimore, Lenzberg began his career accompanying dancing lessons at the piano. By 1903, with a couple of published compositions to his credit, he got himself married and moved to New York City, eventually settling in Queens.  Thus began a long stint serving as orchestra leader at various vaudeville houses in Manhattan and in the summer, he led a band out on Long Island. 
In 1919, Lenzberg served as director of the George White Scandals of 1919 and also led the house band at the Riverside Theater in New York. That year, Lenzberg  and the Riverside Orchestra began to make records for Edison, and though Lenzberg's recording activity ended in 1922, he was prolific, ultimately producing more than 50 sides for Edison.  Lenzberg continued to lead a band and appear on radio once it emerged, into the 1930s, but the depression knocked him out of the performing end of the business. By the last time Lenzberg is heard from in the early 1940s, he was working as a booking agent.  He passed away in April 1956.  I recently received an email from a gentleman who worked at the theater through out the 1940's and 1950's.  Among the tales of the Riverside and Riviera next door, he wrote that legendary Hollywood composer, the man who gave us the soundtrack to Gone With The Wind, Max Steiner, had also served for a time as the conductor of the Riverside Theatre Orchestra.  

Not long after giving up the Riverside Theatre, Mr. Fox buys the lots next door and builds the Riviera Theatre.  This is obviously a very early in it's life picture of the original entrance to the Riviera.  The Riviera was built as a legit house, and was on the subway circuit. What is the "Subway Circuit"?  I will tell you.  A show played its 300 or so performances downtown on Broadway then moved to a neighborhood theater before going on the road. This was good, runs of shows did not have go on forever, or 25 plus years.  There was another show waiting in the wings.  Records in the Shubert Archives indicate that from 1918 to 1931, the Shubert’s had a profit-sharing contract with Fox. The Riviera became the Shubert Riviera in 1923. In one of her first Broadway appearances, Bette Davis came through the Riviera in a show that had been on the road. In this case the road was a railroad.   

A theater located at 96th and Broadway was ideally situated with a rail link two blocks west. A vaudeville show often traveled as a package, and by train. Up until recently, theatrical scenery flats were built to fit into railroad boxcars. Prior to the great depression and the WPA, 96th street ended at the Hudson River. There was no Westside highway. Access to the river and the New York Central freight line was as simple as crossing a street. The tracks under Riverside Park, built along what was the natural edge of Manhattan (the rest of the park and highway is landfill) have been there since the early railroad days of a pre-civil war New York. There had even been a passenger stop (not a station) at Stryker's Bay (96th street) for many years just before and after the civil war. During the Great Depression, the Westside Improvement created the rest of Riverside park, the highway and covered over the tracks, thanks to Robert Moses and his persuasiveness with the WPA.

This is 96th street prior to the Westside Improvement.  The top picture is looking south, the building in the background is 230 Riverside Drive at 95th street and the kids crossing the tracks are really old now.  The third rail in the foreground is the same used today on the Metro North railroad (the LIRR and the NYC subway system use a different type).

This is looking north from just south of 96th street. The train in the background is being pulled by an electric locomotive. Curiously, there is a passenger car at the back end. Passenger service on that part of the Hudson Line had ended decades earlier.  It was not unusual to see a passenger car as part of the consist of a freight train.  A very bad accident along this line in the mid 1960's involving a head on collision near 147th street, a photograph from the New York Times does show a passenger car amongst the wreckage.  They were used for the crew.

These are the original house right boxes in the Riverside Theatre. 

Early in the life of the Riverside. This photograph has been mislabeled as The Regent Theater, which still stands today as The First Corinthian Baptist Church on 116th and 7th Avenue.  The architect of the Regent, Riverside and Riviera is the same person.

The lobby leading into the Riverside. On the right that appears to be an elevator.  This elevator has a lock on it, but is it to keep people from going into or coming out of the elevator?  There were two floors above the lobby in what was called a "taxpayer" structure.  The rental revenue collected on the retail establishments, the much missed Chess City for example, would defray the costs of taxes on the land and structure. So the elevator must have served those upper floors, bringing up ping pong tables and countless number of ping pong balls. 

The Dome over the Riverside auditorium. Probably not the original chandelier.

The mural in the soundboard, above the proscenium appears to be Columbus discovering America (maybe New York - how "urbocentric").

Detail from the ceiling of the Riverside Theatre. It appears to be Christopher Columbus asking for financing for his voyage west. 

Toward the stage at the Riverside from house right balcony.  As a vaudeville house, the Riverside only presented high class acts and originally only 2 shows a day.  Before opera singer Rosa Ponselle was Rosa Ponselle, she was part of a vaudeville act called The Italian Girls - Carmella and Rosa Ponzillo.  They appeared as one of 9 acts at the Riverside beginning the week of September 3 1917.  Belle Baker "Incomparable Delineator of Character Songs" was the headliner, the Italian Girls were second billed.  Although she was proud to have played The Palace and did not talk too much about her life in vaudeville, Rosa Ponzillo's appearance at the Riverside was the one she did. It was here that she was heard by voice teacher / agent William Thorner and her path to the Metropolitan Opera, divaness and a less ethnic last name began.   

Balcony, house left.  Everyone who was anyone in vaudeville went through The Riverside. Bert Lahr, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, The Marx Brothers are luminaries among the names of those who played the Riverside.  Even more, whose careers began and ended in vaudeville, people whose stardom has been lost to the ages and dusty booking ledgers, for a shining moment tread the boards of the Riverside stage.

 From the Stage towards house right.

Detail of the proscenium at the Riverside.

Both houses underwent renovations in the 1950's. It was at this time that the Skouras Brothers owned the theaters.

The brothers Skouras started in St. Louis with distribution and exhibition as their business and eventually went into production. Spyros Skouras became president of 20th Century Fox in 1942 and was instrumental in introducing Cinemascope. With this new wide screen process came the removal of boxes in many theaters across the country. Somewhere there is a pile of old discarded boxes.

 The Skouras brothers were notorious "modernizers". As you can see in these photos, there are not only no more boxes but no more orchestra pits as well. Very often orchestra pits were covered over to add an extra row or two of seats. In some cases, the Mighty Wurlitzer (or similar organ) would be left on it's lift, at the basement level, covered over by concrete slabs. The organ for the Riverside Theatre was a Wurlitzer with a manufactured date of August 8, 1928.  I am not sure what happened to it or where it ended up. 


The Riviera was built with a revenue generating office building and another theater above the Riviera designed for this new fangled motion picture thing, the 1579 seat Japanese Gardens. In part, due to it’s heavy Japanese motif, this theater closed after “The Day That Shall Live In Infamy”. The other reason that this theater probably closed in early 1942 was that the fire escapes on the south side of the building went back into the building. Accessible by one staircase and two elevators, this was a tragedy in formation.

 Early in the life of the Riviera.  According to the New York chapter of the Theater Organ Society of America, there had been an organ installed in the Riviera Theatre. It was built in 1917 by M.P. Möller of Hagerstown, Md. and was one of the firm's standard theatre organ models having three manuals and 16 ranks.  The Riviera had been built for legit theater, it was not unusual for such a house to have an organ installed. 

 Just behind the orchestra section. Notice the dirt around the vents in the ceiling. Normally, none of this would have been visible but because it was picture day, the theater were brighter than usual and we can see more.  I do not remember these theaters being so brightly lit.  I do remember the perpetually closed balconies.  
The Shuberts ended their relationship with the Riviera in the late 1920's. During the 1931 and 1932 seasons, the Chamberlain Brown players called the Riviera home.  A former actor turned agent and producer, Chamberlain Brown claimed to have discovered Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt, Rudolph Valentino, Leslie Howard, Jeannette MacDonald, Jack Haley, Don Ameche, Preston Foster, Robert Walker, Glenda Farrell, Carlotta Monterey (eventually Mrs Eugene O'Neill), Conrad Nagel, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Menken (the first Mrs. Humphrey Bogart), Harry K. Morton, Nita Naldi and many others. The Brown agency represented such theater notables as John Carradine, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ruth Chatterton, Constance Collier, Glenda Farrell, Dorothy Gish, Hal Holbrook, Miriam Hopkins, Otto Kruger, Fritzi Scheff, Spencer Tracy, and Tom Ewell (once an agency employee) among others.

The screen is lit quite possibly by the projector and by footlights. I have often wondered if the footlights were original.  The red curtains cover the damage done by the removal of the boxes.  In 1931, Jean Arthur had returned from Hollywood.  Her success in the pictures would be greater after her return to the New York Stage.  By this point, the Riviera was home to the company run by   Chamberlain Brown.  He was sufficiently impressed with her work that he cast her a production of Lysistrata that opened in January of 1932.  In the cast, a relatively unknown Sidney Greenstreet.   In Febrary of 1932 Mr. Brown presented Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" which will be followed by the Theater Guild Success "Elizabeth the Queen".

This is the mural on the sound board above the proscenium arch. Due to the terrible lighting it is hard to make out what it represents in this picture.
On March 9th 1932, a review appeared in the Columbia Spectator: "A talented actress named Kathryn Civney made her New York debut in "The Vinegar Tree" at the Riviera Theatre last Monday night and proceeded to make the audience forget that Mary Boland had ever had Gotham chuckling uproariously at her interpretation of the leading role in "The Vinegar Tree" last season".  Other companies, as well as dance companies, used the theater during this era.  Eventually economics would give way and the Riviera would become a the movie house we all knew and loved.

 Looking towards house right from the house left balcony.  The red curtains cover the damage done by the removal of the boxes.  Both houses underwent renovations in the 1950's when the Skouras Brothers owned the theaters.

Once there were boxes  . . .  I like this picture. It is amazing how intact the Riviera seems to be given it will soon be gone.

When it announced that a developer was going to tear down the theaters and put up a 30 story apartment tower (consisting of only studios and one bedrooms) I was devastated. They only managed to knock a hole in the side of the Riverside before running out of money. It was almost shocking to see the red velvet curtain hanging in shreds behind the now battered proscenium arch. The enormous balcony was collapsing. 

Then the whole thing did collapse, out onto 96th street (several parked cars were crushed) and inward. The fire and police departments searched and dug for days, looking for crushed junkies that supposedly lived in the shell of the Riverside. I remember seeing a hysterical woman on the news screaming that her daughter with a drug problem was in there. No bodies were found, at that time anyway.

This is an un - enhanced picture taken as the Riviera is beginning it's final fade out.  The image is from a slide and once I scanned them into my iPhoto, I became convinced that there was more to the pictures than what I was seeing.  The theaters were photographed as discussion about their demise was bandied about.  Various community groups wanted space within the Riviera Building. Alexanders had expressed a great deal of interest in the site for a new store, apartment tower and new single screen theater.  Gimbel's had offered pretty much the same deal.  However, neighborhood opposition to creating an overwhelmingly commercial area, at 96th and Broadway, scaled back the development to a 30 story tower of studios and one bedrooms (as the developer said - to meet the need of an ever growing swinging singles segment of society since the city was attracting a younger, less family oriented population and families were moving to the suburbs - or so the developer believed). However, there were cries about preservation which fell on deaf ears.

This is a digitally enhanced picture.  The wood frame structure on the stage was probably for the movie screen. The speaker horns are clearly visible behind the wooden frame. Obviously, demolition has begun, the lighting is quite possibly just natural light.

The mural on the sound board appears to be one of those life at Versailles pastoral images. Very Rococo. This mural, along with the murals in the Riverside, was probably not saved. This was in the pre-Urban Archeology days and nothing was saved or recycled.  It kills me that the red velvet curtains at both theaters where still hanging during demolition.

Looking to house right, light is coming on to the stage from 97th street.

House right about to be house no more. So much original detail that survived the decades was about to be reduced to rubble only to be put into a landfill some where.

This is an un-enhanced view of the stage.  I do not believe that these photos were taken by the photographer of the "before" pictures. He was just an enthusiastic amateur theater historian, as far as I can tell, and the condition of the Riviera looks precarious.

Un-enhanced view of the sound board mural.  The architect of both theaters was the great Thomas Lamb. Before calling himself an architect, Mr. Lamb had served as a building inspector for the City of New York. He had gotten himself into Cooper Union where he majored in mechanical drawings and acoustics.  In the un-miked world he designed for, he needed to have a complete understanding of acoustics.  Somebody had to sing over an orchestra to a 1700 seat house and the structure had to help.

The projection booth, like the one at the Hamilton Theater on 146th street were not original to the structure and were added later.

In case you were wondering how a balcony was constructed . . .

 This is the south wall of the Riviera Theater and the Riviera Building after the collapse and demolition of the Riverside Theater. I remember thinking, as a small child, that the balcony for the Riviera must be incredibly high, not knowing that there was a long closed theater up there.

I read a story written by the man who took the "before"photos.  His real quest that day was to not only photograph these two theaters but also to photograph the Japanese Gardens above the Riviera.  The two elevators that went up there were had been out of commission for years. The stair case that went up to the Gardens from the elevator lobby had been sealed off long ago. According to the floor plans for the Riviera Building, there were no connections between the theaters and the office building. The only way they found to get into the Japanese Gardens was through 5 floors of Riviera dressing rooms, described as dark, dank and musty.

 This is the only picture of the Japanese Gardens that I have found so far.

 In an earlier post, I cryptically stated that after the Riverside collapsed and emergency personnel had dug through the debris for days, that no bodies were found - at that time.  The two theaters were built a year apart, the Riverside (which had a longer construction period) in opening in 1912 and The Riviera in 1913, and were entirely separate buildings. There were connections made in the basement at some point between the two buildings.  It was during the demolition of the Riviera that, according to local legend and lore, two bodies were found in what was left of a connector passage between the still standing Riviera and the no longer with us Riverside.

The last of the Riviera. The derelict Riviera Theater and Riviera building became a haven for the fringes of society.  After much complaining from locals, demolition on the Riviera began a few years after the collapse of the Riverside. "We will be judged not by what we have built, but by what we have destroyed" said the New York Times in an editorial about the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station.  How sad and true.  The site, which almost played host to Gimbel's West, was a garden for many years. When the building that eventually went up on the site was built, the displaced garden moved to Riverside Park as is called the Community Garden.  The site is now home to one of the least attractive buildings on the upper west side.  

 What was once an elegant entertainment complex, a mecca that could seat almost 5000 at any given moment was certainly a gift.  The entire complex was designed by Thomas Lamb, whose career is slowly being obliterated in the name of progress.