March 30th, 2007

RKO Radio Pictures

2. Let There Be Light

"Be careful, Roxy, [the] Shuberts will want to build a theater there."
Producer and playwright Arthur Hopkins, upon viewing the cavernous orchestra pit at the Roxy

MOTION PICTURES WERE FIRST EXHIBITED IN THE UNITED STATES as acts on a vaudeville bill, in the midst of acrobats, balladeers, and ethnic comedians. The first theater devoted entirely to movies opened on Canal Street in New Orleans in 1896. Rothafel enjoyed a mixture of both, and in his first theater outside Scranton, Pennsylvania, incorporated both moving pictures and live entertainment into a full show. Along with other showmen, he elevated the movies beyond mere vaudeville novelty status, giving them equal billing with live acts or sometimes even better. While he was a stage showman first and foremost, with grand visions of orchestras, dance corps and elaborate production numbers filling his head, he was also a shameless sentimentalist, and knew that while his bally could bring the audience in, what really counted was the human connection. These melodramatic films, fraught with human emotion and displayed on a giant screen, could tell a story to those in the balcony in a far more intimate fashion than a hundred dancers or actors could ever hope to accomplish onstage -- but still, those dancers and all their hoopla couldn't hurt.

So it was with the Roxy Theatre. Cathedral of the Motion Picture it may be, its main attraction would always be heralded by spectacle. Take, for example, the opening night on March 11, 1927. The house lights were already down; Roxy's ushers had led the audience to their seats in almost total darkness.

Those filling the house that night included Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Harold Lloyd, Will Hays (whose notorious code of morality would dictate Hollywood's content from 1930 until the adoption of the MPAA Ratings system in 1965) and New York's favorite speakeasy owner and hostess extraordinare, Texas Guinan. The program began with a single spot focused on a lone figure center stage. It was not Roxy, it was not Gloria Swanson, it was not a tuxedoed emcee. It was a robed monk with a scroll, who intoned a florid, extravagant benediction:

Ye portals bright, high and majestic,
open to our gaze the path to Wonderland,
and show us the realm
where fantasy reigns,
where romance and adventure flourish.

Let every day's toil be forgotten
under thy sheltering roof:
O glorious, mighty hall,
thy magic and thy charm unite us all
To worship at Beauty's throne.


Then, after an undoubtedly dramatic pause, one final phrase: "Let there be light."

And there was light, and the audience saw it, and Collapse )

Next: The Boys and the Girls of the Roxy