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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.