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 it was good.
|Image courtesy the Theatre Historical Society of America. Click to enlarge.|
|The theater itself was the first act. As the audience got its first view of the auditorium in its full majesty, the orchestra rose from below the stage on an elevated platform and played The Star-Spangled Banner, superfluously guaranteeing a standing ovation. The cyclorama behind the orchestra displayed a bright orange sunset which faded into the vision of an American flag over majestic clouds. Roxy would tell The New York Times that he had the inspiration for this scene while leaning over the rail of a steamship during an Atlantic crossing. This was apparently a favorite story of his as he would use it again, five years later, this time to explain the Art Deco "sunburst" proscenium of a theater he'd just built for Rockefeller Center. You'll hear the story told, even today, when you tour Radio City Music Hall.|
The opening night program included Roxy's ballet dancers, whose ranks onstage started out small, then grew to over a hundred during their performance. An enormous choir sang selections from the Stephen Foster catalog, and it must have been interesting to see what sentimental effect "My Old Kentucky Home" had on the metropolitan New Yorkers.
Instead of the typical bombastic speeches from various luminaries, Roxy projected their congratulatory telegram messages onto the theatre's gigantic movie screen. The missive from New York mayor Jimmy Walker (also in attendance, also very, very corrupt) wished him "every possible congratulation" and noted that Roxy's entertainment endeavors, both in the theater and on radio "...have made millions of friends for you." Governor Alfred E. Smith wrote "You are soon to realize your ambition in furtherance of the pleasures of the public and I send hearty congratulations on the opening of the new Roxy Theatre together with the very best of good wishes for its future success."
President Calvin Coolidge, never one for sentiment, decided to forego congratulations and predictions of success but instead praised Roxy for his charity work, as the proceeds of the opening night gala were to go entirely to the purchase of radios and installation of radio stations for the benefit of institutionalized veterans of World War I. "I wish to express my appreciation of what you have done to give real pleasure to the veterans in the Walter Reed and other hospitals," Coolidge wrote, "...[and] I am glad to learn that you are continuing your interest in this charitable work."
Gloria Swanson's film, The Love of Sunya, was the first feature film to be shown at the Roxy. Swanson's heroine is given the chance to gaze into a crystal ball and divine her future as she ponders which of three men to marry: a European opera impresario who promises to make her a diva, a wealthy businessman who promises to save her father from financial ruin, or her earnest, diligent suitor Paul. Given the nature of melodrama, it is probably not difficult to predict which man Sunya eventually chooses. Swanson herself arrived at the theater to a mob scene but was assisted by an entourage of ushers, who formed a protective circle around her and escorted her to her seat.
There was even a screening of a short feature with sound. While The Jazz Singer is often regarded as the first feature-length "talkie", premiering in October 1927, there had been many screenings in the 1920s of short films with a synchronized soundtrack. Of the Roxy's musical presentation on this particular March night, the Times wrote:
The efforts of the musicians were greeted with hearty applause and then Giovanni Martinelli and Jeanne Gordon were heard and seen (on the screen) in this scene from "Carmen." Signor Martinelli's rendition was as fine as his initial presentation, "Vesta la giubbia," from "I Pagliacci." His voice burst from the screen with splendid synchronization with the movements of his lips. It rang through the great theatre as if he had himself been on the stage. Miss Gordon's part in this performance was also striking.The gala was an unmitigated success. In the next two days, the Roxy Theatre would entertain over 51,000 paying customers. Rothafel, who would always consider the opening to be the greatest night of his life, had every reason to be proud.