The Movie Palaces

Most of the Manhattan midtown theaters were ornate palaces built during the heyday of the silent movies. Some dated to before World War One. A few were former legitimate theaters or vaudeville houses that had been converted to use as movie theaters. The largest of the palaces featured stage shows as well as a movie. All were on or near Broadway, running from Times Square northward up to 52nd Street, their lighted marquees and oversized billboards adding to the visual panoply on that avenue. Radio City Music Hall, which had its Easter show and the movie "The Green Years" this week; the Roxy, where "Dragonwyck" was on screen and Connee Boswell headlined; and the Paramount, which drew the biggest name entertainers -- this week it was a new show with comedian Eddie Bracken and crooner Bob Eberly, along with the movie "The Virginian"-- were the top houses.

Going to a movie at one of the midtown palaces was an event. Many people dressed up, maybe not as spiffily as they had back when the palaces were a novelty, but jackets and ties on the men and for the ladies a nice trim-fitting suit were still a common sight for the evening shows. And almost everybody over 25 wore a hat to the theater, although gentlemen were expected to remove them once inside. The younger crowd was more likely to be dressed informally, the boys in shirt sleeves and windbreakers and baggy pants, the girls in “Sloppy Joe” loose-fitting sweaters, long skirts, rolled up bobby sox and saddle shoes. Due to clothing shortages, recent discharged vets might be wearing parts of their uniform and there still were a lot of active duty service men and women in uniform: they got discounts. Manhattan moviegoers would wait on line for two to three hours for the biggest hits and once inside they might have to settle for standing room if a seat were not immediately available.

At some theaters, barkers hyped the attractions out front in case you hadn’t noticed the marquee or the rooftop billboard. The interiors were designed to provide an experience of luxury, like sailing first class on an ocean liner or staying at the Waldorf-Astoria but even grander. The huge lobbies had sweeping staircases and massive chandeliers. Paintings and tapestries hung from the walls. There were statues in niches and murals with mythological themes. Cast iron railings and sconces, marble columns, carved woodwork and gilt were standard ornamentation. You could meet friends or have a smoke in the side lounges or foyers. Inside the mammoth auditoriums, perhaps under a domed ceiling, crisply uniformed ushers led patrons along thick carpets to plush seats. Additional seating was available in loges, mezzanines and tiered balconies, with lobbies on every level. Some theaters had crying rooms for infants. Most had check rooms; an usher at an uptown theater told a New York Times magazine feature writer about an out-of-towner who tried to cash a check at the theater’s check room. The Roxy, perhaps the grandest of them all, at one time had a gym and barber shop. What many of them didn’t have until a few years later were large concession stands which were more usual in the neighborhood theaters. The management did not want patrons spilling sodas or dropping candy wrappers on the upholstery and carpets. They did not want their magnificent auditoriums to reek of popcorn like a cheap burlesque house. Refreshments might be sold from small carts or folding tables to be consumed in the lobby before or after the movie or during an intermission. But no food or drink inside the auditorium, sir.

The Depression proved challenging to the palaces, particularly those not owned by a studio. Some dropped or cut back their stage shows. Meanwhile smaller playhouses switched from plays, revues or vaudeville to movies when money was tight. In some cases the interiors became shabby and worn.

The palaces resumed their stage shows when audiences returned during the war. Radio City hewed closely to the old-school format established by its predecessors but on an even grander scale, employing a large choral ensemble, a full orchestra, a ballet troupe, and, of course, the Rockettes, to which they usually added a soloist or two and a couple of acrobatic troupes and novelty acts. But the theater’s technology was often the true star of the show. Some of the dancers and singers, like Vera-Ellen, Lucille Bremer and Jan Peerce, achieved fame after the Music Hall. But if you wanted to see the big name entertainers of the moment live on stage, the Paramount was the place to go. At the Paramount you could see Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye or Benny Goodman. The success of that format led other midtown palaces to court the younger audiences by booking swing and jive bands and nightclub comedians rather than putting on an elaborate revue.