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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)