Category Archives: Interior Design

Vanished New York City Art Deco – The Persian Room

The Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel

The Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel, 1934. Image from cooperhewitt.org

At 5:32 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, December 5, 1933,  Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the Constitution. With the requisite three-fourth states majority, prohibition came to an end after 13 years, 10 months and 19 days. The era of the speakeasy was over, the era of swank nightclubs was about to begin and “café society” born.

 

Plaza Hotel, 1907.

The Plaza Hotel looking southwest from 5th Avenue and 60th Street, 1907. Image from mcny.org

The Plaza Hotel opening in 1907 typified the Beaux-Arts style so popular in the first decade of the 20th Century. For the next two and half decades the Plaza represented Edwardian respectability.

 

Small dining room of the Plaza Hotel.

Small dining room in the Plaza Hotel, 1907. Very typical of the Edwardian Era. Image from mcny.org.

1934

Now that prohibition was a thing of the past, the management of the Plaza wanted a new space to attract the night life crowd; a space to compete against nightclubs, like The Stork Club, El Morocco and The Central Park CasinoThe New York Times announced the plan for the nightclub on January 31, 1934:

Hotel Plaza Plans New Cocktail Room

Corner at 5th Av. and 58th St. Will be Fitted Up at Cost of $50,000.

The Plaza Operating Company filed plans with the Building Department yesterday for a new cocktail room in the south corner of the Hotel Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street.  The new room will contain a service bar and dance floor and will cost $50,000.

Four windows will face on the east overlooking the Plaza, from which side there will be a special entrance. Other approaches will be from the lobby of the hotel and from the Palm Court.. The  new room will be known as the Persian Room and will be designed and decorated by the Joseph Urban Associates.

Five murals reminiscent of old Persians miniatures are being designed by Lillian Gaertner Palmedo for this room, which will seat from 250 to 300 persons.  A twenty-seven-foot bar will adorn the west wall and on the south side of the room there will be raised orchestra platform for about fifteen musicians.

 

Lillian Gaertner Palmedo with one of the five murals to adorn the Persian Room.

Lillian Gaertner Palmedo putting the finishing touches on one of the five murals that gave the Persian Room its name. Image from Getty Images.

As the article in the Times reported, Joseph Urban Associates undertook the job of designing the new nightclub. Joseph Urban one of the most famous designers in the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s had designed the Ziegfeld Theatre and The Central Park Casino among many other famous buildings in New York had died the previous May. His company certainly kept his aesthetic alive in the Persian Room. The oval shape of the ceiling as well as the use of black carrara glass and gold panels is more than just a little reminiscent of Urban’s design of the Urban Room in Pittsburgh. Less than four months from the announcement of the new club the room opened to the public.

Herald-Tribune photo of Persian Room mural.

Detail of one of the Persian Room’s murals. Photo from The New York Herald-Tribune, March 18, 1934.

Scheduled for an early April opening, Vogue Magazine of April 1, 1934 described the new night spot this way:

Consider, for instance, the Plaza, which for years has been as nobly aloof from the jazz age as the professionally quaint cab drivers outside its door. Well, the Plaza is stepping out to meet a new life. On the second of April, it is opening a brand-new room, called the Persian Room because of the subtly intricate Persian murals designed by the Joseph Urban Associates. The proceeds of the grand gala will go to the New York Infirmary. In the Persian Room, you will see a New York that is not (thank God!) Lillian-Russell-Bustanoby’s-Diamond-Jim-Brady any more than it is the New York of the speakeasy era.

You can’t describe the atmosphere, because there is nothing with which to compare it. Certainly, the room has nothing to do with the marbled, potted-palm lobby which lies outside its door. The Persian Room is a sport, a freak, an anachronism. Only a very great lady could afford to be so whimsical and so disdainful of tradition. The room is, in short, New York in the spring of 1934. A bar and café and (when the occasion demands) a supper room with space for orchestra and dancing. It overlooks the Plaza and is as modern – with concealed flood-lighting (each table top is specially illuminated), a white-and-red colour scheme, and a metal-and-ebony bar – as you could ask. The lighting alone is worth going a considerable distance to see, and, if the ghost of Mr. Urban ever walks, it might well drop in at the Persian Room and look things over: the chances are it would approve.

 

Entrance to the Persian Room, 1934.

The Persian Room’s interior entrance way from the lobby, 1934. Image from cooperhewitt.org

 

After it’s April 2nd gala opening night, the Persian Room became one of the most successful New York City Night clubs. Many top performers appeared there in the forty-one years it was open. But the original decor would not last even a decade.

 

Seagram Whiskey ad, 1935 featuring the Persian Room.

Seagram’s Whiskey advertisement showing a color rendition of the original Persian Room. From the January 1, 1935 edition of Vogue.

Entrance way to the Persian Room, 1934.

Persian Room entrance way, 1934. Image from nypl.org.

Bergdoff Goodman ad using the Persian Room as a backdrop. Vogue Magazine.

Bergdoff Goodman advertisement using the Persian Room as a backdrop. Vogue Magazine, October 15, 1934.

 

When the Persian Room closed for the summer in 1942, its decor so chic and modern in 1934, seemed very dated. The Art Deco gave way to what we now call “Hollywood Regency”. Gone were four of five murals and black cararra glass. Legendary café society performer Hildegarde reopened the re-modeled Persian Room in late September, 1942. L. L. Stevenson in his syndicated column Lights of New York reported on October 31, 1942 wrote the following about the new decor:

In honor of the advent of Hildegarde, the Persian Room, for the second time since it opened in 1934, has undergone a complete change in decor and minor change in arrangement. The noted Lillian Gaertner Palmedo Persian murals are still over the bandstand, but little else remains of the past. A terrace, with a balustrade and a full-lenght banquette, has been built along the Fifth Avenue side, reducing the capacity of the from 300 to 275, and thus making it that much more intimate.

The 1942 Re-Model

 

Malcolm Johnson’s, September 29, 1942 “Cafe Life in New York” column in The New York Sun had this to say about the new Persian Room:

It is enough to say that its new dress, with egg shell white as the dominant motif, is bright and cheerful and quite unlike any thing the Persian Room has worn before. Only one of the famous murals remains – the one over the bandstand – and the room has been terraced to command a better view of the floor than in the past.

1950

Even this “new” Persian Room would not last a decade. Conrad Hilton purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1943. In 1950 Hilton contacted famed industrial and interior designer Henry Dreyfuss to discuss plans about a complete renovation of the space. Dreyfuss, writing in his 1955 book, Designing for People, said this about his redesign of the Persian Room:

More than appearance is involved in remodeling and redecorating a night club. The industrial designer must think also in terms of air conditioning, lighting, easy access for the waiters through the crowded tables, acoustics, fire exits – but always glamour. The most popular night spots are those in which lighting magically erases wrinkles and double chins, making dowagers look like debutantes and tired merchants feel like Olympic champions.

Our examination of the room recalled the excavations of the site of ancient Troy. Four successive designers over a period of forty years had imposed their ideas on the room, but, unfortunately, the last three had not bothered to remove the previous interiors, which nested one inside the other. In order to enlarge the capacity and satisfy a critical municipal building code and fire department, the four interiors were removed, and we got a fresh start from the brick walls. We settled on a diagonal plan that would give every seat a good view. The bandstand, therefore, was placed in one corner and everything fanned out from it.

Our design was contemporary, but with a Persian motif chosen because of the famous name of the room, and for this we visited museums and haunted the Iranian Institute, reading the lore of Iran and studying Persian temples and miniatures. The Persian Room has eight enormous windows twenty feet high on two of its walls. For these we had curtains woven of deep blue and green with metallic strands.

Alice Hughes in her September 29, 1950 Buffalo Courier Express column wrote:

New York, Sept. 28 – Tonight’s the night when the jogalong horse-and-buggy pace of the Hotel Plaza is jet-propelled into this new electronic world. It’s the night of the opening of the fabulous new Persian Room, the Plaza’s cafe, rebuilt and recreated this past Summer by Henry Dreyfuss. He is the industrial architect whose designs went into the American Export luxury liners Constitution and Independence, also the new 20th Century Limited, also the erstwhile New York World’s Fair exhibits. What he has created for the Persian Room is a secret until tonight. That it will surpass most going night clubs is without doubt for Dreyfuss is a superb designer.

 

The 1950 remodeled Persian Room by Henry Dreyfuss.

Henry Dreyfuss’ remodel of the Persian Room, 1950. image from theplazany.com

 

“Mid-Century Modern” is the best way to describe the new decor. And in this design the Persian Room would thrive for the next decade-and-half. But in the late 1960’s the era of the super club came to an end.  The Persian Room closed for good in 1975. A dress shop went into the space that formerly hosted some of the top entertainers in American show business. Today the Rose Club occupies the space and it fits in nicely with the rest of the Plaza Hotel stylistically.

 

The Rose Club.

The Rose Club at the Plaza Hotel and a return to Edwardian elegance, now occupies the space of the Persian Room. Image from Google.

But lets end with one last look at the original Persian Room. The very short-lived elegant club the ushered in a new era just after the end of Prohibition.

 

The western end of the original Persian Room.

The western side of the original Persian Room showing the 27 foot-long bar and three of the Palmedo murals, 1934. Photo from nypl.org

 

Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)

 

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Reference Library Update – Modern Interior Decoration, Basil Ionides

This reference library installment is an article by Scottish architect and interior designer Basil Ionides (1884-1950). Appearing in the May, 1929 issue of Creative Art magazine, Ionides expounds on his theories of what makes modern design worthwhile and long-lasting. Within the five-page article are photos of the his work at the Savoy and Claridge’s among other interiors.

To read the article click on the magazine cover below.

May, 1929 Creative Art magazine.

Creative Art magazine, May, 1929. Featuring Basil Ionides article on modern interior design.

 

Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)

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Vanished New York City Art Deco: The R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre. Part 2 Interior & Opening Night.

The second installment of Driving For Deco’s series on the R-K-O Roxy Theatre will focus on the interior design and the successful opening of the theatre.

 

R-K-O Roxy marquee detail

R-K-O Roxy, marquee detail. 1932. Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

The Interior

Donald Deskey spent his last $5,000.00 (the equivalent of $88,085.00 in 2016) to present his ideas for the interior design of the theatres in a limited competition held in the spring of 1932. Deskey plans for the theatres were to be a showcase for the entire range of American modernism.

 

 

With only about six months to complete the interior decoration of the two large theatres, Deskey, turned to Eugene Schoen (1880-1957). Schoen, New York University professor of interior architecture, would be responsible for the interiors for the R-K-O Roxy. Schoen, 1931 recipient of the Architectural League’s Gold Medal for general achievements, helped develop the modern movement in the United States.

 

The Grand Foyer

Like the Radio City Music Hall, one entered the R-K-O Roxy through a low ticket foyer, with three ticket booths. This opened up into the grand foyer. While not as large (158 feet long by 22 feet deep) as the Music Hall’s foyer  it was just as striking. Walter Rendell Story in his New York Times article of December 25, 1932 described the effect of moving from the ticket lobby to the Grand Foyer as “The opulent note of the golden walls and fountains of the entrance become subdued and restful in the silver and brown of the main lobby.” Five 24 feet high windows of opaque, sandblasted Corning Glass faced out onto 49th Street. During the day these windows flooded the lobby with natural light. Framing the windows, curtains of red and champagne colored rough silk hang from the ceiling to the floor.

 

R-K-O Roxy Grand Foyer, 1932

R-K-O Roxy Grand Foyer, featuring Corning Glass windows and chandeliers. 1932. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

Six molded Steuben Glass and metal, spherical chandeliers hung from the medium blue painted ceiling. Four lights were flush with the ceiling while the other two hung down. Steuben Glass displayed one of these lights in their Fifth Avenue Showroom.

 

 

Steuben Glass Showroom. 1935

R-K-O Roxy lobby chandelier in the Steuben Glass Showroom, 718 Fifth Avenue, 1935. Photo MCNY.org

Opposite the lobby windows the curved wall followed the line of the mezzanine lounge. Schoen covered the wall in smooth, unbroken wall covering of light hued natural mahogany. Above the wall, at the mezzanine level, vermillion colored leather pillars supported the second and third mezzanines. These pillars were reminiscent of the funnels of an ocean liner. Roxy claimed the inspiration for the pillars were the funnels of the liner Europa. Plum-colored velvet benches with square metal legs and glass inlays lined the 49th Street wall. A carpet of intertwined circles and strips of diagonal black lines and small vermillion squares covered the floor. The massive use of natural materials such as wood and leather gave the foyer a modern Scandinavian flavor.

 

 

R-K-O Roxy wall sconce.

Walter Kantack designed wall sconce for the R-K-O Roxy. Similar floor lamps stood in the Grand Foyer.

 

 

 

Floor lamps designed by Walter Kantack provided additional lighting in the foyer. These tall lamps of black and gold metal with opaque glass wings stood between the frosted glass windows. Similar sconces could be found on the walls between the ticket lobby and the foyer.

 

 

 

 

Silver mask wall sconce. R-K-O Roxy

Walter Kantack and W. A. Welden silver wall sconce modeled by Rene Chambelain. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, 1932. MCNY.org

In collaboration with W. A. Welden, Kantack designed the stairway and corridor wall fixtures. These silver masks, modeled by Rene Chambelian, placed in wall recesses with the light source emanating from behind added an almost surreal touch.

 

 

Above the auditorium doors, metal silhouettes, painted black of classical figures created by Hildreth Meière were inlaid in the curved mahogany wall.

 

The Grand Lounge

Sub-level floor plan of the R-K-O Roxy.

Floor plan of the sub-level of the R-K-O Roxy. Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

 

At the far end of the Grand Foyer a staircase led down to the Grand Lounge. Light parchment leather in three-foot squares, with red leather welting between them covered the walls of the staircase and the lounge. A silver ceiling lit by three large gold ceiling disks covered the lounge. Arthur Crisp’s incised and lacquered linoleum mural Sports occupied the principal position on the lounge wall.  Vermillion red, wine red, black and gold were the principal colors of the mural.

 

Sports, Grand Lounge R-K-O Roxy.

Arthur Crisp’s mural Sports in the Grand Lounge of R-K-O Roxy. 1932. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, MCNY.org

 

The same carpeting from the foyer was also the floor covering of the lounge and the stairs leading down to it. Sofas and chairs covered in Chinese vermillion leather and made of South American marnut (light wood) and East Indian rosewood (dark wood) epitomized modern style. The sofas equipped with built in ash receivers and grouped with chairs in a way to permit conversation. Tables with interwoven metal bands for the base employed bakelite tops with colored glass for decorative inlays.

 

The Grand Lounge, 1932.

The Grand Lounge in the basement of the R-K-O Roxy, 1932. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

Grand Lounge, 1932

Grand Lounge. R-K-O Roxy. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, MCNY.org

Corner of the Grand Lounge of the R-K-O Roxy.

Corner of the R-K-O Roxy’s Grand Lounge. Showing arrangement of sofas, chairs and table, with metal and cylindrical glass lamp. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

The Ladies’ Powder Room

The special Radio City edition of Variety of December 20, 1932 had this to say about the Ladies’ Powder Room:

The entrance from the lounge into ladies’ powder and sitting room is done in serrated planes of silver and gold. At the access of the doorway is a glass pedestal upon which is an abstract sculpture done in chromium metal designed by Isamu Noguchi. 

The vermillion touches of the grand lounge are repeated in the design for the carpeting of blue, with gold and vermillion, for the women’s rooms. The women’s lounge features a mural on glass by Maurice Heaton, commemorating Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic. This decoration, which occupies on wall, is balanced by an expansive mirror on the opposite side, the remainder of the wall space being decorated a chartreuse-lemon color. The walls are covered in chartreuse yellow.

Ladies' Powder Room, R-K-O Roxy. 1932.

Ladies’ Powder Room off the Grand Lounge Chairs upholstered in black and white striped haircloth with a woven gold thread. Image from the Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

Maurice Heaton's glass mural in the ladies' powder room of the R-K-O Roxy. 1932

Maurice Heaton’s illuminated and painted glass mural celebrating Amelia Earhart’s 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic. R-K-O Roxy ladies’ powder room. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, MCNY.org

The adjoining powder room is covered in silver-woven metallic cloth. Mirrors, arranged in a series of triplex dressing tables, flanking a center full-length panel, occupy the entire breadth and height of the wall. Chairs and stools are upholstered with dark burnt-orange silk. Tables are of silver-toned metal tops.

Adjoining powder room.

Adjoining powder room. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

The Men’s Smoking Room

The Variety article continues:

In the men’s smoking room is to be found one of the most interesting decorative schemes employed. The use of photo murals six feet high, made by Edward Steichen from actual aviation scenes photographed by him, give this room a unique character and make it one of historic significance. 

R-K-O Roxy's men's smoking room.

Men’s smoking room in the basement of the R-K-O Roxy. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

Comfortable chairs and sofas upholstered in a greenish-blue leather show wood frames of unusual colors. Sucupira wood (a South American oak) has been combined with a padouk of vermillion mahogany to lend color to this room, dominated by the black-and-white photo murals. The room boasts three large black ebony columns with a low wainscot of yuba wood from California. 

The Upper Mezzanine Lounges

Second mezzanine lounge, R-K-O Roxy, 1932.

R-K-O Roxy, second mezzanine lounge. Mural by Hugo Gellert 1932. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections

 

Silver papering has been used for the basis of the wall treatments of the the upper lounges and stairways and corridors which connect them.  A relationship between walls  and floors has been achieved by the application of various colored glazes which carry out the general color schemes of the rooms and carpeting. 

 

Second mezzanine ladies' powder room.

Second mezzanine ladies’ powder room, R-K-O Roxy. Image from the Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

                                                                            


The walls of the ladies’ powder room are covered with a French Rodier fabric of modern design woven in tans and blues. There are four double dressing tables in the room done in blue with large circular mirrors. There are lamps on all the dressing tables. The furniture is covered in burnt-orange serge silk. There is a chaise lounge covered in satin, and down-cushioned stools similarly covered. There is a table of a combination of metal and glass, of a design and construction never used before.

 

Third Mezzanine Lounge, R-K-O Roxy.

Third mezzanine lounge, R-K-O Roxy, 1932. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

 

The walls of the third floor lounge are done in silver, matted down. The room is modern in design. Ash trays with bakelite tops are attached to the sides of chairs. The furniture is made of rare woods from all over the world – Australian black wood from Australia, and coco-bola from Central America. The materials are all hand woven by the Frank Studios. Rose and wine tones against a silver background provide the color scheme.

 

A harmonizing wall glaze is the setting for a series of unique decorations in vermillion entitled ‘Footprints in the Sands of Time’, which commemorate the exploits of the most daring individuals of the twentieth century. Variety December 20, 1932, pg. 121

Muybridge panel of the "Footprints in the Sands of Time", R-K-O Roxy.

R-K-O Roxy third mezzanine lounge, “Footprints in the Sands of Time” Eadweard Muybridge panel, 1932. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

Third floor mezzanine, Edison & Marconi panels.

Thomas Edison & Guglielmo Marconi panels, third mezzanine, R-K-O Roxy. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

These modenistic, stylized panels also celebrated the achievements of Charles Lindbergh and Admiral Richard Bryd. Inspired by S. L (Roxy) Rothafel and designed by Schoen were presented as an inspiration to youth.

 

Third mezzanine lounge. 1932

Another view of the third mezzanine lounge, R-K-O Roxy, 1932. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

The Auditorium

R-K-O Roxy auditorium, 1932.

R-K-O Roxy auditorium, November, 1932. Samuel H. Gottscho photo from the Library of Congress.

Early plans for the R-K-O Roxy’s auditorium call for telescoping side walls, making it look like a smaller version of the Radio City Music Hall. By early 1932 the design changed to smooth walls and a flat ceiling. The only common design element that remained between the Music Hall and the new Roxy were the three shallow balconies. Originally the auditorium seated 3,510 between curved, ribbed mahogany veneered walls that rose to a height of 65 feet. The curved walls gave an intimacy to the very large space. The use of the mahogany (adhered to a steel backing to make it fireproof) maintained the warm red, brown and beige color scheme of the interior design.

 

Rear and side of the auditorium, 1932.

View of the rear and side of the R-K-O Roxy auditorium. Image from The Motion Picture Herald, December 31, 1932.

This was the first theatre auditorium made entirely of wood. The rear and side walls (the acoustic wall) had a covering in a linen crash of plaid on a scale large enough to match the size of the theatre. Created by a fabric company in Czechoslovakia the wall covering of brown, yellow and orange was a striking backdrop for the auditorium. Set in front of the back and side walls the round support pillars covered in a vermillion leather, matched those of the foyer.

 

R-K-O Roxy seating and carpet.

R-K-O Roxy auditorium seating and carpet. Image from The Motion Picture Herald, November 19, 1932.

The more than 3,500 seats covered in a light terra-cotta velour with black edge piping complemented the auditorium carpeting of light and dark terra-cotta with black and white accents. To make the program easier to read during the show all the orchestra seats backs came equipped with small, push button lights.

 

R-K-O Roxy auditorium in November, 1932.

R-K-O Roxy ceiling, chandelier, organ grill and stage opening. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, November, 1932. MCNY.org

A champagne-colored chenille curtain covered the enormous stage opening occupying the an entire wall. But one feature dominated the auditorium, Variety reported on December 30, 1932:

Largest Chandelier in World

In the auditorium the illumination is obtained principally through the giant chandelier weighing six and half tons, the largest single lighting fixture in the world. It is in three inverted tiers, measures 30 feet in diameter, and is complex in structure. A corps of workmen can enter it through the special room that leads to it near the roof of the building. Wired in four colors of amber, red, green and blue on four controls, it is possible through this central source of illumination to achieve any possible combination of light.

Concealed in the fixture are hundreds of 200-watt floodlight lamps with four dimmer controls. These floodlights serve to throw colored lights onto the ceiling, from whence the light is re-directed to light the auditorium. 

Further, the chandelier contains thirty-six 2,000 watt spotlights. These spotlights serve to illuminate in colors the musicians on the orchestra platform, the foreground of the stage or apron, and the curtain above and below the proscenium. 

On each side of the stage are the organ grills, covered with a scrim, and, like the chandelier system, provided with four colors – green, amber, red and blue.

R-K-O Roxy ceiling and chandelier. 192

Stage curtain, organ grills (built into the mahogany walls) ornamental ceiling and the chandelier. Samuel H. Gottshco photo, November, 1932. MCNY.org

 

Ceiling and Chandelier detail.

Chandelier and ceiling detail. Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

 

Created by the lighting firm of Cox, Nostrand and Gunnison, the chandelier’s 400 floodlights produced so much heat, it required its own ventilating system.

 

The New York Times described the ceiling surrounding the chandelier in the article Roxy’s New Theatre, December 25, 1932:

The ceiling twinkles with what seem to be hundreds of tiny stars, and the decorations of the ceiling are symbolic figures in half relief. Rene P. Chambellan, the sculptor, worked with the Italian sculptor Cronozio Meldarelli, who was brought from Italy for this commission, on the figures of the mythological divinities and creatures. The figures, says Mr. Chambellan, symbolize the forces of love, enjoyment, sport, play and freedom. It is possible for the casual observer to identify members of the old mythology – Akteon, Narcissus, Diana and Phoebus, together with birds, griffins and sundry other creatures.

R-K-O Roxy auditorium and ceiling from the stage.

R-K-O Roxy ceiling and auditorium from the stage. Samuel H. Gottscho photo, November, 1932. MCNY.org

Opening Night

Advertisement from Variety for the R-K-O Roxy's opening night.

Variety advertisement announcing the opening night of the R-K-O Roxy, December 27, 1932.

 

On December 29, 1932 the new showcase of the R-K-O theatre chain opened to the public. The opening night audience was a who’s who of New York society, business and show business.

Motion Picture Herald, January 7, 1933

R-K-O Roxy opening night notables. Motion Picture Herald, January 7, 1933

Major Bowes and wife at the opening of the R-K-O Roxy.

Major Edward Bowes of the Capitol Theatre and later of the radio amateur hour and wife in the ticket lobby at the opening. Getty Images.

At the helm of the R-K-O Roxy as well the Radio City Music Hall, Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel had reached the zenith of his career. The new Roxy proved to be the perfect setting for the moving picture stage show policy he successfully repeated in theatre after theatre for over twenty years. The R-K-O Roxy would have a continuous show policy, running from morning till midnight at popular prices. For the inaugural program The Animal Kingdom (R-K-O Radio Pictures, 1932) would be the main attraction. A special Cubby the Bear cartoon,  Opening Night (Van Beuren, 1932), spoofing the new Roxy also appeared on the bill. The rest of the performance included a newsreel and live acts.

 

 

The R-K-O Roxy’s film and stage show policy was a smash hit, unlike “Roxy’s” attempt to bring back “High Class” two a day vaudeville at the Radio City Music Hall. While the new Roxy was bringing in money to Rockefeller Center, the Music Hall was hemorrhaging it, with a $180,000 loss in its first two weeks.

 

The Music Hall was too big to fail. The successful movie / stage show format would be transferred to the larger theatre one block north. This change impacted the R-K-O Roxy so drastically that it eventually destroyed the theatre.

Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)

 

If you liked this post check out these earlier posts:

Vanished New York City Art Deco: The R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre. Part 1 Construction

Modernist Textiles of Radio City Music Hall

Happy Birthday Radio City Music Hall

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Vanished New York City Art Deco: The R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre. Part 1 Construction.

December 29th marks the 84th anniversary of the R-K-O Roxy Theatre’s opening. To honor the anniversary, Driving For Deco will feature four articles focusing on this magnificent Art Deco Theatre.

 

RKO Roxy Theatre

The R-K-O Roxy Theatre, 6th Avenue & 49th Street. Photo taken shortly before opening in 1932.

Rockefeller Center stands in the middle of Manhattan as a monument to early 1930’s moderne architecture and design. Anyone with even a passing interest in the Art Deco style is familiar with the Radio City Music Hall. Few are aware that the Music Hall had a sister theatre, the R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre. Located at 6th Avenue and 49th street it is often confused with the original Roxy Theatre (1927-1960) or just forgotten. The two Roxys couldn’t have been more different stylistically. The original Roxy, very large and very ornate, epitomized the classic movie palace. Nicknamed the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture”, with a Spanish inspired interior and nearly 6,000 seats it was the largest theatre in the world in 1927.

 

 

1928-1929 Rockefeller City and The Metropolitan Opera

 

The old Metropolitan Opera House

The old Metropolitan Opera House (1883-1966), circa 1932. NYPL Digital Collections.

By the 1920’s the Metropolitan Opera had outgrown its original home at Broadway and 39th Street (1883-1966). The Opera association considered a number of sites around the city, but rejected them for various reasons. What the Metropolitan needed was a new benefactor and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) became that benefactor. Rockefeller leased several blocks in mid Manhattan from Columbia University. By the 1920’s these blocks of brownstone houses were seedy and home to many speakeasies. Rockefeller felt that by providing a new home for the Opera he would also be improving the neighborhood.

 

Future Site of Rockefeller Center

1931 6th Avenue & 48th Street. Future site of the R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre. William J. Roege Photograph – MCNY.org

 

The plans for this site included the new opera house and plaza; also a hotel, an apartment house, a department store and many upscale shops. These buildings of around thirty-five stories in height would surround the theatre. Rockefeller’s idea was to make this the cultural heart of the city and its finest shopping district.

 

 

The stock market crash in October, 1929 radically altered the plans of the Metropolitan Opera and “Rockefeller City”. The New York Herald-Tribune reported on December 6, 1929:

Opera Drops ‘Rockefeller City’ as Site Of New Home

The project of building a new Metropolitan Opera House in “Rockefeller City” has been abandoned, it was announced yesterday.

Both sides rather suddenly agreed that insurmountable obstacles stood in the way of the project which, a few days ago, appeared to be certain of realization. A spokesman for John D. Rockefeller, Jr. said that the plans for the development of the $105,000,000 “Rockefeller City” site, which consists of most of the three blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Forty-eighth and Fifty-first Streets, would proceed. “But the set up will have to be totally changed, ” he said. “Our plans so far have all been based on the idea of the opera house as the center of the development.”

1930

 to the Rescue

With the Metropolitan Opera dropping its plans for a new home, Rockefeller needed to find a new tenant for his project. The Radio Corporation of America turned out to be that client. By 1929 RCA had become the entertainment giant of the world. They were one of the top manufacturers of radio sets and tubes. The parent company of the National Broadcasting Company, which consisted of two nation wide networks, the Red and the Blue, had just branched out into the motion picture industry with the formation of R-K-O Radio Pictures. On February 15, 1930 The New York Times was the first to report on this new venture:

NEW THEATRE SEEKS ROCKEFELLER SITE

ROXY REPORTED AS HEAD

NATIONAL BROADCASTING CO., GENERAL ELECTRIC AND R-K-O SAID TO BE LINKED IN MIDTOWN PROJECT

A large theatrical venture which will exploit television, music radio, talking pictures and plays in one immense building has been proposed to be erected on the site assembled by John D. Rockefeller  Jr. for the new opera house.

Plans for the new development are still nebulous and have not proceeded beyond the preliminary negotiation state. According to the tentative discussion the National Broadcasting Company, General Electric Company  Radio-Keith-Orpheum and other allied groups would unite to form a new type of amusement and theatrical centre.

It is known that the National Broadcasting Company has been ready and willing to equip a theatre for television when conditions were favorable, but to date no suitable place has been found. According to reports of the new venture S. L. Rothafel, “Roxy” would be general director of the enterprise.

Mr. Rothafel declined to discuss a report, saying that he is bound by a contract at the Roxy Theatre for at least two years. Other persons concerned were equally reluctant to discuss the matter. Merlin H. Aylesworth, president of NBC, said he knew nothing of such a plan. Owen D. Young of General Electric decline to discuss the proposal and said: “That is an R-K-O proposition.” Hiram S. Brown, president of R-K-O professed to know nothing of the scheme.

Because the plans are still so nebulous and indefinite there is a possibility that another location may be considered and the union of television, radio, music and theatre carried out on a site other than that controlled by Mr. Rockefeller.

1931 Rockefeller Center model.

Model for Rockefeller Center. March, 1931. Photo from Tumblr.

 

At the time of the above article negotiations had just begun between the interested parties. By June, 1930 most of the details between RCA, NBC & R-K-O and Rockefeller  had been settled upon. The project now became a reality. The New York Times reported on June 17, 1930:

ROCKEFELLER BEGINS WORK IN THE FALL ON 5TH AV. RADIO CITY

Three Square Blocks Will Be Leveled and Project Is to Be Finished in 1933.

Four Theatres Planned

ROXY TO BE THE DIRECTOR

The demolition of three square blocks between Forty-eigth and Fifty-first streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues will begin this Fall, according to a statement issued yesterday for John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a group headed by the Radio Corporation of America, who will erect on the tract a great distribution centre of entertainment and culture.

Four Theatres Planned

As previously reported, the centre is to contain a variety theatre seating 7,000 and a sound motion picture theatre seating 5,000, as well as theatres for musical comedy and legitimate drama, and there is “under consideration” a symphony hall.

Samuel L. Rothafel (Roxy) is scheduled to become managing director of the huge enterprise. Mr. Rothafel would not discuss his appointment yesterday, pointing out that he was still under contract to a film company.  He has taken a leading part in the discussions which led to the formation of the plan.

Specifically in regard to the theatre that would become the R-K-O Roxy, the article continues:

The second theatre, which will have about 5,000 seats, will be especially designed for sound motion pictures and will set new standards, we believe, in this form of entertainment. Theatres built heretofore have been built upon the acoustical and visual principals of the older forms of motion picture entertainment, although sound has since been added to all the larger theatres. This time we shall create a beautiful theatre structure around the radio and electrical developments that have recently revolutionized the motion picture art. It will be a theatre built for the opportunities that sound has brought to the motion picture and the possibilities that may flow from further technical developments.

1932 plan for Rockefeller Center.

1932 rending of Rockefeller Center. Image from Pinterest.

1931 Construction Begins

Indeed work began in the fall of 1930, with the demolition of the brownstones as their leases expired. By the summer of 1931, the land on the Sixth Avenue side of the site was cleared and construction began on the R-K-O Building, the International Music Hall (renamed Radio City Music Hall)  and the R-K-O Roxy.

 

6th Ave. & 49th Street in early 1932.

6th Avenue & 49th Street, early 1932. The start of construction of the R-K-O Roxy behind the brownstones facing the avenue. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

1932 Rockefeller Center under construction.

Rockefeller Center under construction, March 2, 1932. Looking west from 5th Avenue. Steel framework of the R-K-O Roxy at center left. Photo from MCNY collections.

The firm of Reinhardt, Hoffmeister, Hood & Fouilhoux were the architects chosen to make this new center into a cohesive whole. To a new addition of the firm, Edward Durell Stone (1902 – 1978), fell the task of the architectural design of the theatres. Of the four theatres originally proposed, only the Music Hall and the R-K-O Roxy saw completion and on a slightly smaller scale than announced. The variety theatre (the Music Hall) would have just under 6,000 thousand seats (although publicity said 6,200). The motion picture (R-K-O Roxy) theatre being more “intimate” with only 3,510 seats.

 

1932

The Exterior

The Sixth Avenue front of the R-K-O Roxy.

The Sixth Avenue façade, looking east toward 5th Avenue, of the R-K-O Roxy. Summer of 1932. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

 

The façade of the R-K-O Roxy epitomized modern, just like its mirror opposite a block away, the Music Hall. Constructed in limestone, both featured a narrow horizontal marquee and tall vertical signs. Neon lettering in red / orange framed by bands of blue neon on a gray metal background proved very striking.

 

 

Beyond the end of the marquee along the 49th Street side of the theatre, were five large windows. Made by Corning, the frosted glass blocks rose from street level and two had exit doors within them. Above the windows a giant metal and enamel bas-relief, entitled Radio and Television Encompassing the Earth, decorated the façade. Designed by Hildreth Meière (1892-1961), she also designed the bas-reliefs on the 50th Street side of the Radio City Music Hall.

 

Study of Hildreth Meière's Radio and Television Encompassing the Earth. 1932

Study for the metal and enamel sculpture Radio and Television Encompassing the Earth. Hildreth Meière 1932. Photo from the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

A recreation of this sculpture has been in the Rockefeller Center underground concourse since 1988. Though much, much smaller and more dimensional than the original, it is a nice addition and reminder of the Center’s history.

 

1988 concourse recreation of Radio and Television Encompassing the Earth.

1988 recreation of Hildreth Meière’s Radio and Television Encompassing the Earth. Photo from flickr.

 

In Part 2 we will explore the inside of The R-K-O Roxy and its very successful opening.

Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)

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