Vanished New York City Art Deco: The R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre – Spectacles, Ice Shows, Television & some Movies

R-K-O Center Theatre, 1934.

R-K-O Center Theatre, 1934. Looking north on Sixth Avenue from 48th Street. Image from Getty Images.

1934

“When Rockefeller still can hoard enough money to let Max Gordon produce his shows – anything goes!”

From the 1934 song Anything Goes by Cole Porter

Max Gordon, 1934

Theater and film producer, Max Gordon, seated at a desk with a script in his hand, smiling *** Local Caption *** Max Gordon; Vanity Fair, 1934.
Getty Images

In 1934 Max Gordon brought over from Europe the operetta Waltzes From Vienna and to stage it needed a large theatre. Gordon planned to use a Broadway house for the show, but could not secure a $40,000 bank loan. This is when he approached Radio City. Since the Center Theatre was not meeting its rent as a picture house under R-K-O operation, the Rockefeller interests saw this as an opportunity to restore prestige to Radio City. Before The Great Waltz (the Broadway title of Waltzes From Vienna) could move into the Center Theatre, structural revision were necessary. The Rockefeller interests took on this investment which cost them $150,000, and gave Cole Porter a pithy line for the song “Anything Goes”.

In an  interview, Hassard Short, director of The Great Waltz explained the problems of the theatre:

“Of course, we have had a very difficult problem with this theatre. ‘The Great Waltz’ is about the Johann Strausses, father and son, and that means the period of the 1840’s. You can see for yourself that there couldn’t be anything more modern than the Center, even if it is rather badly constructed for theatre purposes. We Hope to resolve this incongruity with some extensive remodeling in the theatre.”

“What’s the matter with the Center? Well, simply this: It was built as a ‘presentation’ house, and certain features of it are consequently unsuitable for our purposes. Take the turn table for example. Although the stage width is sixty feet, the diameter of the table is only twenty-five. By cutting ten feet from the width of the stage and adding ten to the diameter of the table, we have greatly increased its utility.”

“When alterations are completed the Center will have lost completely its picture-house appearance. The organ consoles and fluted lofts will be covered with steel and canvas to conform with the fire laws. A new proscenium will cut the eighty-foot height of the stage almost in half and will do away  with the contour curtain.”

New York Herald-Tribune, August 12, 1934, pg. D2

NYT ad for The Great Waltz.

New York Times advertisement for the opening of The Great Waltz. September 22, 1934.

Opening on September 22, 1934, the show received mixed reviews. Some critics felt that The Great Waltz couldn’t last for more than a few weeks. Because of its Rockefeller, RCA & R-K-O connections, it had the strongest publicity and promotion campaign of any legit show. Which resulted in strong patronage from out-of-town visitors.

Postcard for The Great Waltz.

Advertising postcard for The Great Waltz at the Center Theatre, Rockefeller Center, NY. Image from Ebay.

Declining business in late spring of 1935 made the management decide to close the show for a few weeks. It re-opened in early August and closed for good on September 16, 1935. During its run of just about a year The Great Waltz sold over one million tickets and made more money than any Broadway show of the 1934-1935 season.

 

Playbill for The Great Waltz

Playbill from the collection of the author.

 

Scenes from The Great Waltz

All the above images are from MCNY.org

1935

Movies Return to the Center Theatre

After more than a year, the Center Theatre once more became a movie house. Unlike its last painful months as a second run movie theatre a year before, this would be a return to first run films at popular prices. And no elaborate stage shows, just a few musical acts and the orchestra of B. A. Rolfe.

 

New York Times ad for Here's to Romance.

New York Times advertisement, October 2, 1935. The Center Theatre’s return to films.

Typical movie program from the fall of 1935

Just over a month after returning to a movie and band policy, to cut costs, the band and live acts were dropped. At the same time the Radio City management was in negotiations for the Center Theatre’s return to legitimate shows, as reported in Variety on November 6, 1935:

Center Theatre in Radio City goes to straight pix starting today. B. A. Rolfe stage band is out. Lew White alone remains in for his organalog and will do his regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday a.m. broadcasts from the Center console. 

The No. 2 Radio City theatre is also talking of again reverting to legit production. ‘White Horse Tavern’ is again being talked of among Radio City execs, to come in after Jan. 1.

Rolfe’s 25 piece orchestra, plus soloists, working in the pit cost a reported $3,000 weekly, with the nut running $30,000 or over depending on pictures and budget.

Under change in policy house will maintain its present scale of 75 cents top weekdays, 85 cents Sundays and holidays, but drops the first mezz scale from $1.25 to $1.10.

1936

 With the closing of And So They Were Married, starring Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas, on May 19, 1936 once again films were discontinued in the Center Theatre. The Theatre was now preparing for its return to legitimate production. The European operetta White Horse Inn would make its American premiere in the fall. With one exception, films no longer had a venue in the theatre specifically designed to exhibit talking pictures.

 

White Horse Inn

By mid-summer 1936 The Center Theatre was in another transformation to prepare for the White Horse Inn. In the “Gossip Along the Rialto” column of The New York Times on August 9, 1936 it mentioned the changes occurring at The Center Theatre:

The Center Theatre is rebuilt every time it finds itself with a new tenant. For “The Great Waltz” they did everything but have it jump through a hoop, but afterward the movies more or less returned it to the architect’s original idea. Now it is being changed again, this time into something pretty Tyrol, for “White Horse Inn”. Out comes the stage, some sixteen feet into the auditorium, making necessary a new orchestra pit. It will hold sixty musicians when finished.

On both sides of the proscenium arch, and extending into the auditorium, they are building Tyrolean houses, representing the various building units of the actual White Horse Inn. These won’t be just painted scenery, but stuff of solid woodwork so that actors can climb real stairs, look from real windows and have a generally firm time of it. A background of mountains, pine trees and clouds will rise from houses to the ceiling, a matter of some seventy feet. Finally the outer foyer of the theatre also will be decorated in the Tyrolean motif. Total cost, $80,000 plus.

 

Postcard view of the stage production of White Horse Inn.

White Horse Inn postcard. Image from Etsy.

 

The article above mentions the Tyrolean decoration of the main lobby of the Center Theatre, to enhance the audience’s mood from the moment they stepped off the street.

Macy’s $7,000 Assignment For Legit’s ‘Atmosphere’

Main foyer of the Center Theatre, N.Y., will be decorated in the Tyrolean motif by the Macy department store for coming production of ‘White Horse Inn.’ Believed to be the first time such an organization has been active in commercial theatricals.

Theme of the play centers around a fair in the Austrian mountain district. Emporium’s job is to create an atmosphere indigenous to the country. It is not a commercial tie-up, theatre spending $7,000 for idea. Ushers also will be garbed in keeping with production.

Variety, September 9, 1936, pg. 50

Macy's advertisement, New York Sun.

Macy’s Advertisement for the Tyrolean shops in the Center Theatre lobby. New York Sun, October 1, 1936, pg. 14.

 

White Horse Inn starring William Gaxton and Kitty Carlisle opened on October 1, 1936. The show ran for 223 performances and kept the audiences and money coming in to the Center Theatre until April 10, 1937.

Playbill for White Horse Inn

Playbill from the collection of the author.

 

Color photo from Vogue of White Horse Inn.

White Horse Inn with Kitty Carlisle (at left) and chorus. Color photograph from Vogue, October 15, 1936.

 

1937

Virginia

The Center Theatre remained dark from the closing of White Horse Inn until the opening of the musical Virginia in September. In mid-April The New York Times in their “News of the Stage” column ran the following notice:

What is expected to be the Center Theatre’s  next tenant – the Arthur Schwartz-Laurence Stallings musical – entitled “Virginia”; and in keeping with the Center’s reputation for spectacle, one of its settings will be a replica of a street in the Rockefeller-restored town of Williamsburg. The authors arrive next Monday from England on the Queen Mary, and more details should be available then.      

New York Times, April 16, 1937, pg 26

 

Rehearsal for Virginia got underway on July 26th and unlike The Great Waltz and White Horse Inn, the Rockefeller interests took on the production of the show. Borrowing staff from the Radio City Music Hall Leon Leonidoff was placed in charge of the production.

 

Scenes from Virginia

All the above images are from MCNY.org

NY Times ad for Virginia

New York Times advertisement for the opening night of Virginia at the Center Theatre.

Virginia did not meet the success of the previous Center Theatre stage spectacles. Audiences just did not have the same interest in colonial America as they had in 1840’s Vienna or a fanciful version of the Austrian mountains. Virginia closed on October 23rd after only sixty performances, leaving the Center Theatre in the dark.

By early November there were rumors that the directors of Rockefeller Center were thinking about demolishing the unprofitable theatre. Another rumor said they were starting negotiations with Max Gordon to produce another musical at the Center Theatre. To keep revenue coming in, the Rockefeller Center, Inc. rented the theatre out for special shows that ran for one or two performances. The Mask and Wig Club of the University of Pennsylvania gave two shows of their golden jubilee production at the Center Theatre and Dance International had a couple of sold out performances at during the 1937 holiday season.

 

1938 – 1939

A semi-regular tenant came to the Center Theatre with Fortune Gallo’s popular priced San Carlo Opera Company in the Spring of 1938. Their first season was only eleven days long, but it was a success. Bringing Opera to the Center Theatre fulfilled the original concept for Rockefeller Center. The San Carlo Opera would return to the Center Theatre in the mid-1940’s and make their home there till the end of the decade.

 

The American Way

The Center Theatre in 1939.

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

Theatre news in October, 1938 was that a new show was going to be moving into the Center Theatre for an opening early in the new year. But before the new show could move into the Center Theatre, it needed to be renovated. The October 23, 1938 New York Times ran the following:

The Center Theatre is to be rebuilt again. Probably that isn’t news now, for with every show its poor proscenium is shoved hither and yon. But for the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart cavalcade pageant – the working title is said to be “The American Way” – there is to be a $30,000 change, the proscenium being extended some fifteen feet into what now is the orchestra floor. According to reports, the show will cost about $300,000, with Hassard Short in charge of production  details.

Actors Equity Association granted producer Sam Harris a concession to rehearse the show for six weeks instead of five. Harris explained that this new spectacle would have 24 scenes with half of them requiring full stage changes. The cast would consist of 70 principals and 200 extras. He also guaranteed the company would have at least six weeks work, after rehearsals. Rehearsals got under way on December 15th for a late January opening. Also confirmed in December that the show would be co-produced by Sam H. Harris and former The Great Waltz producer Max Gordon.

 

Composer, actor, pianist, author Oscar Levant wrote the score for The American Way. With the reconstruction of the proscenium, a new forestage extended over the orchestra pit. In a large room seven flights above the stage, Levant and the orchestra played, with the music piped down to the auditorium by remote control.

 

 

The American Way opened on January 21, 1939, the New York Times reported earlier that day:

Tonight’s addition to the Broadway list is “The American Way,” which makes its bow at the Center Theatre. This, of course, is the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart panoramic account of American life revolving about the central figures of two immigrants and is the authors’ second spectacular offering this season. The present production has a cast of 250 and represents an investment of more than $200,000.

Fredric March and Florence Eldridge (Mrs. March) play the roles of the immigrant pair, and the remaining cast is headed by McKay Morris and Ruth Morris. Mr. Kaufman has directed the show and Hassard Short has charge of technical details. Sets were designed by Donald Oenslager; costumes by Irene Sharaff. 

Scenes from The American Way

Above images from MCNY.org

 

The American Way proved to be a big hit. The initial run closed on June 10th after 164 performances. Taking advantage of the tourism brought into the city from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, The American Way re-opened at the Center Theatre on July 17th. To attract bigger audiences Fredric March received star billing (he had feature billing in the original run) and the top tickets dropped in price. It closed for good on September 23rd after an additional 88 shows. The last week of the show had sold out houses with standees at all performances and extra seats placed in the orchestra. Because of the gigantic size of the production, the show closed with a loss. Even the sale of the screen rights failed to bring The American Way into the black.

 

Swingin’ The Dream

Following The American Way came Swingin’ the Dream, directed by Erik Charell (who also directed White Horse Inn), a swing, musical version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set on a Louisiana plantation in 1890.  Starring Louis Armstrong as Bottom, Maxine Sullivan as Titania and Butterfly McQueen as Puck, with choreography by Agnes DeMille and had sets by Herbert Andrews and Walter Jagemann that were based on designs by Walt Disney. Musical supervision was by Benny Goodman, whose sextet were part of the show.

 

Swingin’ the Dream playbill. Images from Playbill.com.

 

 

The Hot Mikado, an updated all black version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado had been a huge hit of the previous season, Swingin’ the Dream hoped to meet with the same success. Opening on November 29th, the critical consensus was that there the show had too much Shakespeare and not enough swing. Swingin’ the Dream, a very expensive show to produce, closed after 13 performances on December 9, 1939 with a loss of about $100,000.

 

1939 – 1940

Two New Neighbors

U.S. Rubber

With the demolition of the elevated rail line in early 1939, Sixth Avenue started to undergo a revitalization. Rockefeller Center, Inc. now needed a new tenant to replace the brownstones on Sixth Avenue next to the Center Theatre and finish the complex. In April the brownstones came down and construction of the new building began. The Rockefeller interests convinced U.S. Rubber to leave their building near Columbus Circle and move to Sixth Avenue.

 

The demolition of the brownstones on Sixth Avenue south of the Center Theatre. April, 1939. Images from NYPL Digital Collections.

Driving in the last rivet.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. drives in the last rivet in the U.S. Rubber Building, completing Rockefeller Center. November 12, 1939. Getty Images.

The U.S. Rubber Building under construction at the end of 1939.

The U.S. Rubber Building nearing completion at the end of 1939. Looking west on 48th Street. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.

In early 1940 U. S. Rubber moved into their new building and this completed the initial phase of Rockefeller Center.

 

 

Simon & Schuster

After the U.S. Rubber Building opened the publishing company, Simon & Schuster moved into new offices on the roof of the Center Theatre. The firm of Harriosn & Fouilhous, Reinhard & Hofmeister designed the one story twenty room building. The flat roof cantilevered over the perimeter provided shade in the summer and protected the inside from the winter wind. Edward Durell Stone, the architect of the R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre, designed the Simon & Schuster offices. The use of natural wood and the simply designed furniture for the interior were novel touches for the time.

 

The 1940 Simon & Schuster offices over the Center Theatre.

The Simon & Schuster offices on the roof of the Center Theatre, 1940. Image from Conde Nast.

 

1940

The Last Movie

The following story was reported in The New York Times on January 12, 1940:

Center Theatre to Revert To Films for ‘Pinocchio’

Walt Disney’s second feature-length cartoon, “Pinocchio,” which has been a year and a half in the making, will have its world premiere some time next month, at Radio City’s Center Theatre, it was announced yesterday by Ned Depinet, vice president of RKO Radio, which is releasing the picture. The Center Theatre was last used for motion pictures in April, 1936.

RKO originally had intended to show the cartoon at the Music Hall, but its commitments prevented its managements from guaranteeing “Pinocchio” the minimum engagement of ten weeks which its distributors required. The film will be shown continuously at the 3,200-seat Center Theatre in the expectation of being seen by 1,000,000 person in its first ten weeks. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” played to 800,000 persons in its five weeks’ run at the Music Hall in 1938.

The Center Theatre Pinocchio premiere, 1940.

Pinocchio premiere at the Center Theatre on February 7, 1940. Midgets dress like Pinocchio waving from the marquee. Image from Pinterest.

In preparation for the run of Pinocchio the Center Theatre engaged extra staff, 50 additional ushers, 10 more cashiers, a nurse and 7 projectionists. Pinocchio opened on February 7, 1940 and played for only seven and half weeks, closing on March 31st. This was disappointing for all concerned as expectations for the film were very high. During its run an exhibit of 200 original paintings used during the making of the film were on display in the basement lounge of the Center Theatre. Valued in excess of $12,000  it needed guarding at all times by two special policeman.

 

Color photo of the Center Theatre in 1940.

A rare color photograph of the Center Theatre during the run of Pinocchio in the winter of 1940. Photo from Deja View blogspot.

 

1940 – 1950

Postcard of the Center Theatre.

Postcard view of the Center Theatre in the mid-1940’s.

Sonja Henie, Norman Bel Geddes and Ice

 

In the fall of 1940 the Center Theatre finally found itself through the person of Olympic skating champion and movie star Sonja Henie. Henie in collaboration with Arthur M. Wirtz co-produced a series of ice shows that would play at the Center Theatre for the next ten years. Famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes would design the sets and costumes for the first of these ice spectacles, It Happens On Ice. And typical of any new show coming into the theatre, revisions were made to the interior:

“. . . this time, ten rows of seats in the orchestra will be taken out to allow the construction of a stage apron which, with others changes, will give some 7,000 square feet for ice.”

New York Times, July 22, 1940 pg. 20

Comparison of the original interior vs. modifications for ice shows

R-K-O Roxy auditorium, 1932.

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

Center Theatre during the run of Hats Off to Ice.

Photo of the interior of the Center Theatre taken during the run of Hats Off to Ice, 1945. This photo shows the extended stage, new orchestra pit, dropped proscenium and covered organ grills. Image from the Chicago Tribune.

 

It Happens on Ice in its original and return engagement played at the Center Theatre for nearly a year and half, from October, 1940 – April, 1942. Six more ice shows followed, Stars on Ice, Hats Off to Ice, Icetime, Icetime of 1948, Howdy Mr. Ice and Howdy Mr. Ice of 1950, keeping audiences coming to the Center Theatre.

 

Hats Off to Ice at the Center Theatre, 1945.

Photo taken of the Center Theatre during the run of Hats Off to Ice, circa 1945. Photo from ebay.

 

Hats Off to Ice - "Slavic Rhapsody" number.

“Slavic Rhapsody” number from Hats Off to Ice, 1945. Postcard from MCNY.org

Between the extremely popular ice shows and The San Carlo Opera, the Center Theatre became a viable tenant at Rockefeller Center. But this wouldn’t last forever. Television’s explosion in popularity in the late 1940’s created a crisis for studio space in New York City. NBC desperate for more room starting looking for available places to convert into television studios.

 

1950 – 1954

Toward the end of June, 1950 rumors started that NBC was looking to purchase the Center Theatre and turning it into the largest TV studio in the world. The following month NBC completed the deal and announced their ambitious plans:

NBC Closes Deal For Center Theatre Takeover

NBC last week closed a deal with Rockefeller Center to take over the Center Theatre for use as a television studio. While web* has not indicated which shows will emanate from the theatre, it’s believed it will be used fro variety shows. Center is part of Rockefeller Center. It’s been used in the past for ice shows, opera and ballet. NBC will alter the house for video purposes at a cost estimated from $3,000,000 to $6,000,000.

Variety July 19, 1950, Pg. 27

*Web – a term used by Variety that means network.

After months of study and planning by NBC leased the theatre for three years. The conversion of the Center Theatre to video began in mid-August of 1950 to be ready for broadcasting by the start of the fall television season. The television industry publication Broadcasting wrote:

World’s largest legitimate theatre, with a seating capacity of 3,000, will soon become the world’s largest TV studio, under a lease by which NBC acquires use of the Center Theatre. The fan shape stage for television, covering a space including what once were the first eight rows of orchestra seats, measures 100 ft. across at its widest point and 90 ft. deep, with an overall area of 4,200 square ft. Included is an elaborate elevator in three sections with turntable arrangements.

The Center Theatre is equipped with thousands of square feet of dressing rooms, shops for engineers, carpenters, painters, electricians and other technicians, air conditioning and other facilities, with shops, offices and prop rooms at the basement level. 

The size of the Center Theatre will permit the network to do productions on television heretofore impossible in any other theatrical type of presentation. No other theatre anywhere is equipped to handle the types of presentation planned to originate from the Center Theatre.

August 14, 1950, pg. 51

1950 the Center Theatre during its TV studio conversion.

Late Summer 1950, the Center Theatre being converted into the world’s largest television studio. Image from Cinematreasures.org

 

Scrapping the original plans for a complete renovation of the property in mid-August NBC announced a more modest and less expensive plan:

Lease of the Center Theatre, N.Y. for an expansion of TV studio facilities for a consideration of $250,000 a year, however, considerable more coin will be put into reconverting the theatre for TV purposes. Originally it was intended to do a complete overhaul with the web prepared to spend an approximate $2,000,000 but the Korean situation* cued a change in plans, with only necessary renovations now scheduled. However, the site may eventually be used as the nucleus for a top-budgeted TV studio building. That depends on Korea and its effect on the TV economic picture.

Variety August 16, 1950, pg. 32

*Several U.S. industries were mobilized to supply materials, labor, capital, production facilities, and other services necessary to support the military objectives of the Korean War. Reis, M. (12 May 2014), “WWII and Korean War Industrial Mobilization: History Programs and Related Records“, History Associates, retrieved 17 June 2014.

 

Beside the cut backs in the renovation plans for the theatre, NBC hit another, unforeseen snag. A number of comics who alternated as hosts of the popular NBC shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour and Four Star Revue refused to play the Center Theatre, because of its size. Bob Stahl writing in Variety:

Talent and creative personnel claim they cannot do their best work in the spacious theatres before large studio audiences, and that web execs are buying up theatres only in a vain attempt to control bigtime show business. Webs claim they are desperate for space and must buy or lease any theatre available to meet the demand for facilities for the heavy schedules confronting them. 

Two factions have already begun sparring with each other. Eddie Cantor has nixed NBC’s offer to originate his Sunday night show from the stage of the Center Theatre. According to Cantor, he does not want to play to a studio audience of 3,000. Such comedians as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis have always worked better in a comparatively intimate room like the Copacabana, N.Y. than on the tremendous stage of the Capitol Theatre, N.Y.

Variety August 30, 1950, pgs. 23 & 33.

 

With an investment of over $500,000, NBC had to make the best of the situation with the Center Theatre. Shutting off the top balcony limited the seating to 2,500. The stage received an overhaul with widening of the aprons and cement floors. Because of the enormous size of the stage it was necessary to place 100 microphones above it. During the last week of September, 1950 workmen ripped out the last eight rows of seat in the middle section of the orchestra. Placing the permanent control booth back there replaced the one located up front near the stage. To help audiences enjoy the shows more and to relieve eyestrain, two large (15′ x 19′) projection TV screens were planned for installation above each side of the stage.

 

September 25, 1950

Voice of Firestone opening credit.

Opening credit for The Voice of Firestone, circa 1950. Image from Google.

The Center Theatre inaugurated television and radio broadcasting with The Voice of Firestone. A half hour classical, music show that had been on the air since 1928, it was also one of the first shows to be simulcast on radio and television. The Center Theatre’s new life as a television began with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by New York City Mayor, Vincent R. Impellitteri, Nelson Rockefeller, president of Rockefeller Center, Joseph H. McConnell, president of NBC and Raymond and Russell A. Firestone.

 

Ed Wynn in the early 1950's.

Ed Wynn in the early 1950’s, one of the hosts of NBC’s Four Star Revue. Image from The Twilight Zone Wiki.

The Center Theatre proved successful for musical shows like The Voice of Firestone. And the size of the theatre would be good for spectacular or pageantry type shows. One comedian not intimidated by the size of the theatre was vaudeville, stage, film and radio star Ed Wynn. Wynn one of the rotating hosts of Four Star Revue, started to broadcast from the stage of the Center, even before the installation of the large projection screens.

 

Images from Radio and Television Mirror, March, 1951.

 

 

The Big Show – November 5, 1950

The Center Theatre in November of 1950.

The Big Show originating from the stage of the Center Theatre, November 5, 1950. Photo from Getty Images.

 

Broadcasting out of the Center Theatre, The Big Show, was developed by NBC to be a showcase for the best in radio entertainment. A blockbuster 90 minute variety program hosted by Tallulah Bankhead, would be the only radio show to use the theatre as their New York home base. The Big Show was just that, with numerous guest stars like, Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman, Groucho Marx, Paul Lukas, Jane Powell and it received rave reviews. But it was up opposite CBS’ killer Sunday evening programing that included The Jack Benny Program and Amos and Andy. The Big Show lasted only two seasons.

 

The Center Theatre, December 1950.

The Big Show. December 3, 1950 broadcast from the Center Theatre. Looking west on 49th toward Sixth Avenue. Image from Pintrest.

 

1951

The installation of one (instead of the planned two) gigantic projection TV screen above the stage, was a turning point in performers attitude to the mammoth theatre.

Comics Now Yen Center Theatre

With the studio audience problem at NBC-TV’s Center Theatre, N.Y. apparently solved by the theatre TV screen installed last week, all four comedians who rotate each week on the web’s Wednesday night “Four Star Revue” are expected to move their shows into that house.

Jimmy Durante, who initiated use of the screen last Wednesday night (24), reportedly found it of tremendous help to his program. According to NBC execs, the screen was not distracting to the performers on the stage. And, they said, it achieved the purpose for which it was installed. Laughs from the studio audience were found to be coming much quicker and the yocks were fuller from the back of the house – from the people who could see the screen most easily – than from down front in the orchestra.

Until the theatre TV unit was installed in the theatre, the comics (Durante, Danny Thomas & Jack Carson), except for Ed Wynn, refused to work there, fearing they couldn’t achieve the intimacy required by TV because the house is so tremendous. They claimed the studio audience wouldn’t be able to see their comedy and so might not laugh at the right moments. Big screen unit has been installed over the heads of the performers but tilted at an angle so that it’s in full view of the audience. As a result, those sitting in the theatre can watch the stage while also seeing the show exactly as it’s transmitted over the air.

Variety, January 31, 1951 pgs. 22 & 30. 

1952 – 1953

Mr. Peepers broadcasting out of the Center Theatre.

1952, the Wally Cox situation comedy, Mr. Peepers originates out of the Center Theatre. Photo from Getty Images.

Other shows to make the Center Theatre their home were the situation comedy, Mr. Peepers, starring Wally Cox as the milquetoast science teacher Robinson Peepers. Others in the cast included Tony Randall, Marion Lorne and Jack Warden.

 

The Center Theatre in 1953

The Center Theatre, circa 1953, when Your Show of Shows broadcast from there. NBC has been added to the vertical signs. Photo from Getty Images.

Starting in the fall of 1953 the classic comedy variety program, Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, moved from the International Theatre at Columbus Circle to the Center Theatre. Your Show of Shows only used the Center Theatre for one season. During that season that they did the spoof of the film From Here To Eternity, it is one of the most famous skits ever produced on Your Show of Shows.

 

March 25, 1954

The Academy Awards in Manhattan & Audrey Hepburn

Between 1953-1957 ceremonies for the Academy Awards were held simultaneously in both Hollywood and New York City. This also coincided with the first television broadcasts of the event. With the ceremony taking place on both coasts nominated actors appearing in Broadway shows could receive their awards in person. As was the case of Audrey Hepburn, nominated for Roman Holiday (1953), who in the winter and spring of 1954 was on Broadway in the play Ondine.

The Center Theatre enjoyed one last glamorous night when the New York broadcast of the 26th Academy Awards originated from the theatre. Thomas M. Pryor reporting the next day in The New York Times:

Award Presented Here

With her eyes downcast and tears glistening on her cheeks, Audrey Hepburn last night accepted an “Oscar” designating her the best motion picture actress of 1953 for her performance in “Roman Holiday.”

The 24-year-old girl who a year ago was unknown to Hollywood received the award on the stage of the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center at 10:50 P.M. minutes after she had rushed across town from the Forty-sixth Theatre, where she is appearing on the stage in “Ondine.”

The presentation was made by Fredric March, a two-time “Oscar” winner, before an audience of 2,300 persons including nine other unsuccessful nominees for the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

March 26, 1954, pg. 17

Audrey Hepburn enters the Center Theatre.

Audrey Hepburn adjusts her shoe as she enters the Center Theatre for the 26th Academy Awards. March 25, 1954.

The Ceremony

Post Ceremony

Hepburn heading down to the grand lounge after the ceremony.

After the awards ceremony Audrey Hepburn heads down to the Grand Lounge in the basement. On the wall is one of the mask sconces designed by Walter Kantack & W. A. Weldon.

All the above photos are from Getty Images and are mis-identified as being in the Century Theatre.

 

1954 – 1955

The Center Theatre would not have any more special nights. Several months before this announcement hit the news:

Center Theatre to Be Torn Down; Office Building Set for Radio City

The luxurious Center Theatre at Forty-ninth street and Avenue of the Americas – one of the original units in the Rockefeller Center building program – will come down to make way for a tall air-conditioned office building.

Plans for the nineteen-story $11,000,000 structure were announced yesterday by Laurance S. Rockefeller, chairman of the board of Rockefeller Center, Inc.

Demolition of the well-known modern playhouse will start in May, 1954, upon expiration of the present lease on the theatre held by the National Broadcasting Company.

Thus an imposing building, designed at the outset as one of the “permanent” units in the midtown commercial and amusement development and only twenty-one years old, will bow out of the Manhattan scene even before reaching the prime of its structural life.

The change will permit use of the valuable land for a larger structure to fill the need for additional office quarters in the Rockefeller project and will give the Rockefeller interests a greater income potential from the site.

The new building, designed by Harrison & Abramowitz, architects, will have a limestone exterior and aluminum trim in harmony with the general architectural appearance of the fourteen other Rockefeller Center edifices with completion planned in 1955.

Lee E. Cooper New York Times, October 22, 1953, Pg. 1

U.S. Rubber Building annex.

Architectural rending of the proposed annex of the U.S. Rubber Building. Image from the New York Times, October 22, 1953 Pg. 7

With the planned demolition of both the Center Theatre and International Theatre (to make way for the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle) NBC found itself needing studio space again. After Milton Berle’s last show from the Center Theatre on May 4th, the balance of his shows shifted to NBC’s studios in Burbank, California. Your Shows of Shows and The Martha Raye Show were moved to the Century Theatre (Seventh Avenue & 58th Street) in New York City. Mr. Peepers and The Voice of Firestone transferred across the street to The R.C.A. Building’s studio 8-H.

 

Less than two months after hosting the Academy Awards, the Center Theatre closed and demolition began. The R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre was the only unit in the original Rockefeller Center never to return a profit. Its potential money-making policy sacrificed in early 1933 to save the Radio City Music Hall resulted in the theatre trying to find a consistent profitable policy. Finally, the Rockefeller interests had enough and ordered the theatre to come down.

 

The Center Theatre lobby during demolition.

The Center Theatre lobby on the first day of demolition, May 10, 1954. Photo from The New York Times.

Down in Greenwich Village The Cherry Lane Theatre, at 42 Commerce Street, received a modern facelift with fittings salvaged from the Center Theatre. Chairs, doors, lamps, dressing tables, panels and brass frames taken from the Center, added a modern uptown touch to the off-Broadway house. Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina purchased the revolving stage and the contour curtain, while some of the hanging lights went to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.

 

Exposed framework of the Center Theatre in the summer of 1954.

July 29, 1954 60 percent of the Center Theatre is gone. Looking northeast from 48th Street. Image from The New York Times.

During demolition with most of the steel framework exposed, the demolition boss gave an impromptu performance after uncovering a piano on the second mezzanine. Harry Avirom, superintendent, sat down on a fire extinguisher and began to play popular and classical selections, while tractors and drills were busy bringing the theatre down.

 

Demolition crew of the Center Theatre.

Harry Avriom, superintendent of the Center Theatre demolition crew gives an impromptu concert at a piano found on the second mezzanine. July 29, 1954. Image from The New York Times.

By early autumn the Center Theatre had passed from the New York scene. The demolition left the steel framework supporting the U.S. Rubber Building exposed, making it appear as if being torn down from bottom to top.

U.S. Rubber Building in October, 1954.

Exposed framework of the U.S. Rubber Building after the demolition of the Center Theatre. October 8, 1954. Photo from The New York Times.

Center Theatre site.

The Center Theatre site in the autumn of 1954, just before the construction of the U.S. Rubber Building annex. Image from The New York Times.

The U.S. Rubber Building annex, completed by the end of 1955, blended in well with the existing building and all of Rockefeller Center. So well in fact that it seemed that it was always there and that a theatre never stood on the site.

 

1955 U.S. Rubber Building Annex.

The annex of the U.S. Rubber Building, December, 1955. Image from Rockefeller Center, Inc.

 

Gone

Ceiling and Chandelier detail.

The world’s largest chandelier (weighing six and a half tons) and Rene Paul Chambellan’s ceiling reliefs. Motion Picture Herald, January 14, 1933.

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

Maurice Heaton’s glass mural of Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Photo from MCNY.org.

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

Edward Steichen’s “History of Aviation” photo mural in the men’s smoking room in the basement of the R-K-O Roxy. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections.

The greatest fault of the R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre was its inability to make money. Gone at twenty-one years old was New York’s smartest and most modern playhouse. Today a Loft store stands where the theatre’s entrance once stood. So when visiting Rockefeller Center take a moment to remember the Art Deco masterpiece sacrificed to save the larger theatre one block to the north the Radio City Music Hall.

 

Yesterday & Today

 

 

 

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

For the full history of the R-K-O Roxy / Center Theatre check out these earlier posts:

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

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

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

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