Vanished New York City Art Deco: R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre Part 3. Change of Policy, Name & Fortune.

The R-K-O Center Theatre, January, 1934.

January, 1934 – The R-K-O Roxy name changed to the R-K-O Center Theatre. 49th Street looking west toward Sixth Avenue. Samuel H. Gottshco photo, MCNY.org

Change of Policy

January, 1933

To save the failing Radio CIty Music Hall the directors of Rockefeller Center and RKO decided to shift the successful movie / stage show policy of the R-K-O Roxy to the larger theatre. This left the future of the R-K-O Roxy uncertain. Original plans for Rockefeller Center included a legitimate theatre. With no plans to build any additional theatres in the center, it seemed that the new Roxy would become that venue.

The New York Evening Post reported on January 5, 1933:

New Music Hall To Shift to Films

Movie-Stage Show Policy Will Start Wednesday-RKO-Roxy to Offer Plays

The elaborate and expensive variety show at Radio City Music Hall will close Tuesday and a combination motion picture and stage show will be substituted for it. M. H. Aylesworth, president of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation, announced today. 

The smaller “intimate” RKO Roxy which seats only 3,700 persons will be transformed from a movie house into a theatre for “presentation of stage productions made by famous producers here and abroad.”

This change is being made because of the success of the RKO-Roxy, Mr. Aylesworth said, though he added that the music hall in its first week grossed $112,000. This policy change is made because the picture stage show policy established in the RKO Roxy, the other of the Radio City theatres, has been completely successful. Under the new policy the Radio City Music Hall will have four shows daily and five on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Under the new plan the first picture will be “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”, with Barbara Stanwyck. The stage show has been laid out by Roxy’s associates, who spent most of yesterday consulting with him in the hospital. 

The RKO-Roxy hereafter will be devoted to the presentation of stage productions . . .the initial attraction for the RKO-Roxy will be announced shortly. In the meantime the present show, consisting of the motion picture “The Animal Kingdom” with Roxy’s stage presentation, will continue indefinitely.

NY Herald Tribune ad announcing the Music Hall's policy change.

New York Herald-Tribune advertisement announcing the change in policy at the Radio City Music Hall. January 10, 1933.

The nervous and confused state of mind of the Rockefeller Center and R-K-O management could not have been more apparent as they tried to salvage the financial mess of the Radio City Music Hall. In less than ten days they reversed their decision to convert the R-K-O Roxy into a legitimate theatre. The theatrical newspaper Billboard reported on January 14, 1933:

The RKO Roxy will continue with its opening program despite the rumored closing, prompted by the posting of a protective closing notice. For the initial and is continuing to do excellent business. As long as similar patronage continues RKO intends to keep the current show in, which will probably be for about three more weeks. Picture is Animal Kingdom and the stage portion comprises Dave Apollon, Emile Boreo, Von Grona, Gambarelli, Willie Robyn and the singing and dancing ensembles. 

February, 1933

After its conversion to a movie stage show house it was the Music Hall’s film policy to play a new film every week. Therefore a picture doing good business at the end of its week would transfer over to the R-K-O Roxy for an extended run as shown in the advertisement below from the New York Herald-Tribune  of February 3, 1933:

 

NY Herald-Tribune Ad.

State Fair moves over the R-K-O Roxy from the Music Hall. NY Herald-Tribune, 2/3/1933

 

Samuel L. (Roxy) Rothafel had other ideas for the R-K-O Roxy. It seems he could not let the idea of a large-scale revival of vaudeville go. According to the February 21, 1933 Variety:

Roxy is reported to have worked out a straight vaudeville scheme for the RKO Roxy stage in Radio City. He has set the scale for the new policy as 40-55-75 in the morning, afternoon and evening, with one price all over the house at all times. No other entertainment other than vaudeville is intended. 

With the failure of the two-a-day vaudeville at the Radio City Music Hall, trying to sell another vaudeville policy to the R-K-O Theatre management would be difficult. A week after “Roxy’s” plan another announcement of policy changes hit the papers.

‘Kong’ Day-Date Both R.C. Houses Is No. 3 Policy for RKO Roxy

Apparently unwilling to accept Roxy’s (Rothafel) idea of spotting the RKO Roxy as a straight vaude spot, Harold B. Franklin as the directing genius of Radio City, is experimenting still further with a policy on the smaller of the two R.C. houses. Although it’s two months since R.C. opened, no permanent policy has so far been effected for the RKO Roxy.

The new idea comes with the showing of ‘King Kong’, which is slated to play simultaneously, day and date, at both the Music Hall and the RKO Roxy, beginning Thursday March, 2.

This marks the third change in policy for the RKO Roxy since Franklin’s operating committee took charge and of which he is the head. Outside of its first two weeks, which were previous to the committee’s handling, the RKO Roxy has been in the black maybe only one week.

Variety, February 28, 1933.

March, 1933

NY Herald-Tribune ad for King Kong.

KIng Kong playing at both Radio City Theatres. Advertisement from New York Herald-Tribune, March 2, 1933.

 

It did not take long to realize that two huge theatres under the same corporate umbrella and only one city block apart cannot be profitable with the same policy. So once again the new Roxy faced changes. March 14, 1933 Variety reported that Paul Whiteman and his orchestra would be kicking off a new band policy for the theatre. Starting on March 24, 1933 Albert Johnson a stage designer from the legitimate theatre would create specially produced stage shows for the R-K-O Roxy and admission prices cut to a 55 cent top on weekdays and 75 cent top on Saturday and Sundays. Russell Market’s Roxyettes (the Rockettes) would continue at the R-K-O Roxy despite the new changes. This plan would take the smaller theatre out of competition with the Radio City Music Hall.

 

But the new band policy did not start until the 31st of March and did not feature the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Unfortunately the first stage show directed by Johnson (the week of March 24th) turned out to be a huge disappointment. The review in Billboard (April 1, 1933) spelled out in detail the trouble the theatre was still in:

 

NY Herald-Tribune 03/24/1933.

New York Herald Tribune advertisement. March 24, 1933.

Albert Johnson is one of the foremost scenic designers in the world today; therefore, it was only natural that the gentlemen in charge of Radio City should immediately set him to producing a show. The result was what might have been expected by anyone but a super-showman, since scenic designing and producing differ as much as they do. The show was bad, so bad that by the time this reporter got to the house in the afternoon it had been hacked apart. Naturally, you can’t tell anything from the show as it stood when caught. It’s due to be changed; it has to be.

April, 1933

On the last day of March the new “band policy” kicked off with Horace Heidt and his orchestra. In reality it was a vaudeville layout of nine acts, some production values and a band act to wrap up the show. The Roxyettes renamed the “New Roxy Theatre Streamline Rockets” for this show proved to be as popular as ever. This show worked.

” . . . nothing like the stale and punchless presentation shows that have featured the theatre’s stage policy since the opening. If anything were needed to clinch the advantages of a vaude layout over a Roxy presentation this change of bill has furnished it.”

Billboard, April 8, 1933

 

The Roxy Varieties.

The Roxy Varieties with Horace Heidt. Starting the week of March 31, 1933. Advertisement from The New York Herald-Tribune.

 

With a successful new policy, the future of the R-K-O Roxy seemed secure. But it still did not eliminate the root of the problem. As Variety pointed out in their review on April 4th:

The new Roxy is still scaled at 75 cents, same as the Music Hall, and it’s still a picture house even under this scheme of things of ballyhooing the variety phase and billing Heidt and the stage show over the picture. And so long as both the RKO Roxy and the Radio City Music Hall offer first-run features, they’re still in direct competish, placing a further handicap on the Roxy through the same 75 cent scaling. This element is said to come from a Rockefeller mandate not to go under the six bits as a means  not to cheapen the aura of enterprises in which the Rockefellers are so vitally identified.”

The solution to the direct competition issue would be to convert the R-K-O Roxy into a second run movie theatre with a vaudeville stage show changing twice a week as proposed by the R-K-O management. But once again R-K-O gave in to the Rockefeller interests, which were insistent of keeping a high standard even if it meant the theatre would be losing money. The split week policy would have gone into effect during the last week of April. Instead R-K-O kept the first run policy for films and for the stage show put in a tab version (a condensed version of a Broadway musical) of George White’s operetta Melody.

 

Ad featuring the tab version of Melody.

Advertisement for the R-K-O Roxy featuring the “tab show” version of Melody on the stage. New York Herald-Tribune April 28, 1933.

 

May, 1933

Melody incurred one of the biggest losses the theatre had so far, just over $20,000. By early May the future policy of the theatre was still up in the air. After the closing of Melody, the stage show Tabloid moved from the Radio City Music Hall to the new Roxy. Samuel Rothafel, collapsing after the disastrous opening night at the Music Hall in December,  returned to work in early May as the managing director of the two Radio CIty Theatres. Rothafel was suggesting again to convert the R-K-O Roxy into a vaudeville house. Conferring with R-K-O management, his plan would close the theatre for a week in mid-May re-opening a week later. This new policy would consist of 15 vaudeville acts and newsreels, with four performances daily. Roxy proposed a $15,000 weekly budget for booking the acts alone. 15 acts for $15,000 proved to be impossible. To make it work a 12 act version replaced the 15 act plan. The R-K-O booking office and the NBC’s artists bureau went to work to find the acts. Variety reported on May 23rd:

12 Acts for $15,000 – Try and Get ‘Em, Sez RKO-NBC; 

R.C.’s Vaude Cold; Roxy So Far Lost 200G

After the RKO booking office and NBC’s artist bureau, combined spent two weeks in an attempt to line up a couple of 12-act shows in advance for the RKO Roxy in Radio City, the boys gave it up as a bad job and forced abandonment of a straight vaudeville grind policy for the house. Instead, the 3,700-seater in Sixth Avenue goes straight films, second run, at 40 cent top on or about May 27. With the new policy it will be known as the Radio Theatre.

Under the 12-act policy the house would have had a weekly overhead of around $42,000, inclusive of the $15,000 for the vaude. On the subsequent-run straight sound policy the house will have a weekly nut of something like $11,000, before the rent. Altogether the weekly budget may run to around $18,000 or more.

Announced in the same issue of Variety, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel would be leaving as the manager of the R-K-O Roxy. Harold B. Franklin would take over running the theatre and place it on the regular R-K-O circuit. This latest development in policy coincided with the proposed name change for the theatre. Now the R-K-O executive committee could put in place the most economical policy for the theatre, an all film program. The new plan was announced on May 20th and reported in Billboard on the 27th:

RKO ROXY to Straight Pix

Starts May 27 – day-and-date with circuit-named Radio Theatre-flesh cold

The RKO Roxy’s straight vaude policy, which was to start May 29, was suddenly thrown to the winds early this week. The circuit’s executive cabinet decided on a new policy which will definitely start next Saturday (May 27). will use straight pictures, playing day and date with the circuit and changing twice a week (Saturdays and Wednesdays). With the new policy the name of the theatre will be changed to the Radio Theatre.

New summer policy newspaper advertisement, May 1933

Newspaper advertisement announcing the all film summer policy. New York Herald-Tribune, May 26, 1933.

The general opinion is that the new policy will have a short life, inasmuch as it is in opposition to neighborhood houses and gets pictures after the Music Hall and Palace. The house If it fails to click in a few weeks’ time, the house will probably go dark for the balance of the summer.

Also mentioned in the above article was another problem plaguing the theatre even before it opened, its name. The original Roxy Theatre did not want another theatre, especially one two blocks away, to share its name. And “Roxy” Rothafel did not want the older theatre to continue to use his nickname.

 

Change of Name

Old Roxy vs. New Roxy

By the fall of 1932, with construction of the R-K-O Roxy nearly complete, litigation over the name was in court.  In mid-December the court ruled in favor of Samuel L. Rothafel and R-K-O for the use of the name “Roxy”. The Roxy Theatre corporation, operator of the Seventh Avenue Roxy announced it would take the case to the Court of Appeals. Concurrently R-K-O and Rothafel planned to fight for a court order to restrain the Seventh Avenue theatre from displaying the name “Roxy”.

The Court of Appeals reversed the earlier court decision on the use of the Roxy name in May of 1933.

RKO Theatre Loses Right to Name of ‘Roxy’

The right to the use of the name Roxy was restored yesterday by decision of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals to the Roxy Theatre Corporation. As a result of the decision the new RKO-Roxy Theatre in Radio City loses the use of the name Roxy.

New York Herald-Tribune, May 16, 1933.

With Rothafel’s departure as manager and the court ruling in favor of the original Roxy,  a new name had to be chosen. R-K-O and the Rockefellers decided upon the unfortunate name  of Radio Theatre.  Apparently it never occurred to them that two theatres named Radio within a block of each could be very confusing. Luckily this name never went into effect.

 

In September S. L. Rothafel finally abandoned his fight to retain the use of his nickname for the R-K-O Roxy. On September 6, 1933 the New York Times reported that in the near future the theatre’s new name would be the R-K-O Center. The actual name change did not occur until mid-December, during the extended Radio City holiday run of Little Women.

 

December 21, 1933 New York Times advertisement.

New York Times advertisment announcing that the R-K-O Roxy is now the R-K-O Center Theatre. December 21, 1933

 

The Modernistic Lettering Removed and Junked from the marquee

 

The December 30, 1933 Billboard carried this small piece on the name change:

RKO Roxy Now Center

New York, Dec. 23. – Beginning next week, the RKO Roxy Theatre will be known as RKO Center. The original Roxy won the use of the name thru court action. It is understood that the original Roxy was solicited to buy the modernistic signs which will be removed from the Center, but showed no interest. They’ll be sold for junk.

The New Marquee

 

Returning to second run movies in early 1934, the theatre continued to lose money. Max Gordon bringing the spectacle operetta Waltzes From Vienna from Europe needed a large theatre to produce the show. The R-K-O Center Theatre, with its elaborate stage, that included lifts and a turntable, was the only theatre in New York capable for producing Gordon’s show. July 8, 1934 the last second run film closed in preparation for The Great Waltz (the new title of Waltzes From Vienna). When it reopened as a legitimate theater in September, the letters “R-K-O” came off the marquee. It would remain The Center Theatre until demolished twenty years later.

 

The Center Theatre in 1939.

The Center Theatre, Sixth Avenue and 49th Street, 1939.

 

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

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