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.
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.
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.
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.