Happy 50th, “Ben-Hur”
50th Anniversary — The Roadshow Engagements
Compiled by Michael Coate
Commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1959 production of “Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ,” I would like to present a list of the award-winning film’s original North American roadshow engagements.
The list, created for the sake of nostalgia and historical record, is noteworthy as it represents a breakdown of the first theaters anywhere to have played the film, and, as far as I know, such a list has never before been published. In addition, this (work-in-progress) article is a celebration of the fondly-remembered “Cinema Treasures” in which the film played as much as it is a celebration of the classic film.
The bookings are listed chronologically by premiere date. Duration data has been included for selected entries, many of which are/were a record for a given market or theater.
Many of the roadshow engagements of “Ben-Hur” were presented in 70-millimeter and six-track stereophonic sound, including every booking during the first six months of the film’s release. Thereafter, MGM circulated both 70mm and 35mm prints, and which type of print got booked in a given market was determined on a case-by-case basis. In their handling of “Ben-Hur,” MGM elected not to promote presentation type in its newspaper advertising, opting instead to include only a “Filmed in Camera 65” credit, so as not to create the perception of inferior presentation in those markets screening the 35mm version.
11.18.1959 … New York, NY —– State (74 weeks)
11.23.1959 … Boston, MA —– Saxon (76 weeks; includes moveover to Capri)
11.24.1959 … Los Angeles, CA —– Egyptian (98 weeks)
11.24.1959 … Philadelphia, PA —– Boyd (62 weeks)
12.17.1959 … Montreal, QC —– Alouette (52 weeks)
12.18.1959 … Dallas, TX —– Tower
12.22.1959 … San Francisco, CA —– Coronet (75 weeks)
12.23.1959 … Chicago, IL —– Michael Todd (74 weeks)
12.23.1959 … Miami Beach, FL —– Lincoln
12.23.1959 … Toronto, ON —– University (71 weeks)
12.25.1959 … Atlanta, GA —– Roxy
01.19.1960 … Portland, OR —– Music Box (52 weeks)
01.20.1960 … Pittsburgh, PA —– Warner (48 weeks)
01.28.1960 … Cleveland, OH —– Ohio (46 weeks)
01.28.1960 … Kansas City, MO —– Capri (50 weeks)
02.03.1960 … Seattle, WA —– Blue Mouse (55 weeks)
02.04.1960 … St. Petersburg, FL —– Center (34 weeks)
02.17.1960 … Detroit, MI —– United Artists (65 weeks)
02.19.1960 … Minneapolis, MN —– Academy (49 weeks)
02.19.1960 … Omaha, NE —– Cooper (48 weeks)
02.23.1960 … Indianapolis, IN —– Lyric (36 weeks)
03.02.1960 … Salt Lake City, UT —– Centre (38 weeks)
03.02.1960 … Vancouver, BC —– Stanley (54 weeks)
03.15.1960 … Buffalo, NY —– Teck (40 weeks)
03.15.1960 … Washington, DC —– Warner (44 weeks)
03.16.1960 … Cincinnati, OH —– Capitol (40 weeks)
03.29.1960 … Baltimore, MD —– Town (43 weeks)
04.12.1960 … Denver, CO —– Denham (58 weeks)
04.12.1960 … Milwaukee, WI —– Strand (49 weeks)
04.13.1960 … Ottawa, ON —– Nelson (28 weeks)
04.29.1960 … Houston, TX —– Tower
05.12.1960 … Columbus, OH —– Cinestage
05.13.1960 … Rochester, NY —– Riviera
05.13.1960 … San Antonio, TX —– Broadway (22 weeks)
05.19.1960 … DeWitt (Syracuse), NY —– Shoppingtown (31 weeks)
05.19.1960 … Hartford, CT —– Strand (25 weeks)
05.19.1960 … Louisville, KY —– Brown
05.20.1960 … Youngstown, OH —– State (25 weeks)
05.26.1960 … Asbury Park, NJ —– St. James
05.26.1960 … St. Louis, MO —– Mid-City (27 weeks)
05.27.1960 … Atlantic City, NJ —– Embassy
05.27.1960 … Wildwood, NJ —– Regent
06.09.1960 … Birmingham, AL —– Ritz
06.10.1960 … Charlotte, NC —– Plaza
06.10.1960 … Chattanooga, TN —– Rogers
06.10.1960 … El Paso, TX —– Pershing (15 weeks)
06.15.1960 … Dayton, OH —– McCook
06.15.1960 … Nashville, TN —– Crescent
06.15.1960 … Richmond, VA —– Willow Lawn
06.16.1960 … Charleston, WV —– Capitol
06.16.1960 … San Diego, CA —– Capri (49 weeks)
06.17.1960 … Grand Rapids, MI —– Majestic
06.23.1960 … New Orleans, LA —– Civic
06.23.1960 … Oklahoma City, OK —– Cooper (29 weeks)
06.24.1960 … Providence, RI —– Elmwood
06.29.1960 … Halifax, NS —– Paramount
06.30.1960 … Albuquerque, NM —– Lobo
07.06.1960 … Honolulu, HI —– Kuhio
07.15.1960 … Spokane, WA —– Post (12 weeks)
07.29.1960 … Austin, TX —– Varsity (10 weeks)
07.29.1960 … New Haven, CT —– Whalley (36 weeks)
08.10.1960 … Jacksonville, FL —– Center
08.17.1960 … Winnipeg, MB —– Gaiety (34 weeks)
08.25.1960 … Lexington, KY —– Strand
09.14.1960 … Calgary, AB —– Capitol (8 weeks)
09.23.1960 … Corpus Christi, TX —– Tower (7 weeks)
09.28.1960 … Albany, NY —– Ritz
09.28.1960 … Edmonton, AB —– Paramount (9 weeks)
09.29.1960 … Erie, PA —– Strand
09.29.1960 … Fall River, MA —– Center (10 weeks)
09.29.1960 … Springfield, MA —– Arcade
10.06.1960 … Sacramento, CA —– Alhambra
10.06.1960 … Toledo, OH —– Princess (17 weeks)
10.07.1960 … Lubbock, TX —– Village (11 weeks)
10.12.1960 … Madison, WI —– Strand (9 weeks)
10.13.1960 … Reno, NV —– Crest (6 weeks)
10.14.1960 … Tulsa, OK —– Premiere
10.14.1960 … Worcester, MA —– Warner
10.20.1960 … Eugene, OR —– Heilig (8 weeks)
11.02.1960 … Phoenix, AZ —– Vista
11.03.1960 … Lawton, OK —– Vaska (8 weeks)
11.10.1960 … Abilene, TX —– Queen
11.10.1960 … Cedar Rapids, IA —– World (11 weeks)
11.10.1960 … Des Moines, IA —– Capri
11.10.1960 … Salina, KS —– Strand (5 weeks)
11.10.1960 … Waco, TX —– 25th Street (5 weeks)
11.17.1960 … Altoona, PA —– State (7 weeks)
11.17.1960 … Amarillo, TX —– Esquire (4 weeks)
11.18.1960 … Terre Haute, IN —– Grand
12.21.1960 … Tucson, AZ —– Catalina (11 weeks)
12.23.1960 … Manchester, NH —– State
12.25.1960 … Fredericksburg, VA —– Colonial
12.30.1960 … Lowell, MA —– Strand
01.12.1961 … Nashua, NH —– Daniel Webster
01.25.1961 … Pittsfield, MA —– Berkshire
02.08.1961 … Newark, NJ —– Adams
In addition to the bookings listed above, I believe “Ben-Hur” played roadshow engagements in the markets listed below. Additional research is necessary to verify opening dates and missing theater names.
??.??.1960 … Akron, OH —– State
??.??.1960 … Allentown, PA —– ?
??.??.1960 … Beaumont, TX —– Liberty
??.??.1960 … Fort Wayne, IN —– ?
??.??.1960 … Fargo, ND —– ?
??.??.1960 … Fresno, CA —– Hardy’s
??.??.1960 … Harrisburg, PA —– ?
??.??.1960 … Knoxville, TN —– ?
??.??.1960 … Las Vegas, NV —– ?
??.??.1960 … Little Rock, AR —– Capitol
??.??.1960 … Memphis, TN —– Palace
??.??.1960 … Norfolk, VA —– ?
??.??.1960 … Orlando, FL —– ?
??.??.1960 … Peoria, IL —– ?
??.??.1960 … Rock Island, IL —– Rocket
??.??.1960 … Scranton, PA —– Center
??.??.1960 … Shreveport, LA —– ?
??.??.1960 … Springfield, IL —– ?
??.??.1960 … Springfield, MO —– Tower
??.??.1960 … Utica, NY —– Uptown
??.??.1960 … Wichita, KS —– Palace
??.??.1960 … Wichita Falls, TX —– State
The first international booking (at the Empire in London) commenced in December 1959.
The general release began, in most markets, in 1961.
“Ben-Hur” was re-released in 1968.
The film’s first network television broadcast was in 1971.
References: This (work-in-progress) article was compiled primarily by referencing “Ben-Hur” coverage in film industry trade publications and newspaper promotion.
Thanks: Jerry Alexander, Claude Ayakawa, William Hooper, Mark Huffstetler, Bill Kretzel, Rick Mitchell, Gabriel Neeb, John Stewart, Bob Throop, Vince Young, and the librarians who helped me research information for this project.
Feedback and reminiscences welcome…
Theaters in this post
- 25th Street Theatre
- Adams Theatre
- Alhambra Theatre
- Arcade Theatre
- Barrington Stage
- Blue Mouse Theatre
- Boyd Theatre
- Broadway Theatre
- ByTowne Cinema
- Capitol Center
- Capitol Theater
- Capitol Theatre
- Capitol Theatre
- Capri Theater
- Capri Theatre
- Catalina Theatre
- Center Theatre
- Center Theatre
- Centre Theater
- Cine 1 & 2
- Cineworld Cinema - Leicester Square
- Civic Theatre
- Civic Theatre
- Colonial Theatre
- Colony Theatre
- Cooper 70
- Cooper Cinerama Theatre
- Coronet Theatre
- Crest Theater
- Cutler Majestic Theatre
- Daniel Webster Theatre
- Denham Theatre
- Egyptian Theatre
- Elmwood Theatre
- Embassy Theatre
- Erie Playhouse
- Esquire Theatre
- Everyman Theatre
- Goodale Theatre
- Grand Theatre
- Hardy's Theatre
- Heilig Theatre
- Hunt's Cinestage Theatre
- Kallet Shoppingtown Theatre
- Kuhio 1 & 2 Theatre
- Le Spectrum
- Liberty Theatre
- Lincoln Theatre
- Lobo Theater
- Loew's Crescent Theatre
- Loew's Mid-City Theatre
- Loew's Palace Theatre
- Loew's State Theatre
- Lyric Theatre
- Lyric Theatre
- McCook Theatre
- Michael Todd Theatre
- Mimi Ohio Theatre
- Music Box Theatre
- Palace Theatre
- Paramount Theatre
- Paramount Theatre
- Park Theatre
- Pershing Theater
- Plaza Theater
- Plaza Theatre
- Post Street Theatre
- Princess Theatre
- Queen Theater
- Regent Theatre
- Ritz Theatre
- Ritz Theatre
- Rogers Theatre
- Roxy Theatre
- Schine Riviera Theatre
- Stanley Theatre
- State Theatre
- State Theatre
- State Theatre
- State Theatre
- St. James Theatre
- Strand Theater
- Strand Theater
- Strand Theatre
- Strand Theatre
- Strand Theatre
- Strand Theatre
- Teck Theatre
- Tower Theater
- Tower Theater
- Tower Theatre
- Tower Theatre
- United Artists Theatre
- University Theatre
- Uptown Theatre
- Varsity Theatre
- Vaska Theatre
- Village Theatre
- Vista Theater
- Warner Theatre
- Warner Theatre
- Warner Theatre
- Whalley Theatre
- Willow Lawn Theatre
- W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
- World Theatre
Michael — I just wanted to thank you for another fascinating list and the invaluable service your research provides. Thank you!
I’m going to echo Ross' thank you and appreciation. As (volunteer) President of Friends of the Boyd, Inc. I’m also going to say that Friends of the Boyd, Inc. (www.FriendsOfTheBoyd.org) lack a photo with “Ben Hur” on Philadelphia’s Boyd Theatre marquee and would love one if anyone has one.
Great info, as always. Interesting that there were no northern New Jersey showings until 1961 at the Adams in Newark and no Long Island bookings at all. I guess if you wanted to see it, you made the trip to Manhattan.
Awesome work on the research. And how I pine for the day to see this on the big screen in a true movie palace again, perhaps with me as the projectionist.
The Boston Globe has mentioned a couple of times that Ben-Hur was the longest playing film in the city in the 1950s.
According to Coate’s listings, “This is Cinerama” played longer in Boston in the 1950s.
And it’s equally curious that it opened in Newark at the 2037 seat Adams Theater and not the 2589 seat Loew’s on Broad Street!
Thank you SO much for this excellent piece of research. It is very much appreciated!
The Tower in Springfield, Missouri never had 70mm equipment. It was always 35mm.
Excellent research Michael :)
The first International booking at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London, UK was the longest run of any of the locations, running for 127 weeks.
A new projection box was built in the centre of the orchestra stalls, resulting in a reduction of the seating capacity from 2,778 seats to 1,723 seats. A new screen was installed that was slightly larger than the proscenium arch and had a picture width of 52 feet. The throw from the box to the screen was only 78 feet. It closed at the Empire on 28th May 1961, was transferred the following day to the Royalty Theatre on Kingsway, where it ran exclusively for a few more months. The reason for the transfer was that the Empire was slated to be closed for re-development, into a smaller cinema and dance hall.
Additional information to the above Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London posting; The actual opening date at the Empire was 16th December 1959.
The reason for such a dramatic loss of seating capacity was that as the new projection box was built in the centre of the orchestra stalls, under the front of the balcony, only the front stalls seating was used, with many side seats not sold due to a restricted view. I saw “Ben Hur” here, sitting in the second row of the stalls and was amazed by the size of the screen. Of course seating in the huge balcony gave the best view.
Great work again, Michael!
According to Phil Sheridan’s book THOSE WONDERFUL OLD DOWNTOWN THEATERS, BEN HUR ran for 40 weeks at Hunt’s Cinestage.
Recently, Ben-Hur was shown on TCM HD, although it was a soft zoomed-in SD picture. Hopefully they come out with a bluray release that will preserve the very wide transfer. Great movie too.
“Ben-Hur” was also shown in Portland, Maine at the Strand Theatre on Congress Street, in 70mm anamorphic and full six channel sound. I saw it there on Saturday, November 18, 1960 after seeing it at the Saxon in Boston in February and April of 1960. I don’t remember the opening date for the Portland engagement, but I know it ran for six weeks. I remember that it ran at the Saxon for 53 weeks in 70mm before moving to the Capri (in 35mm and four chanel magnetic).
The Strand is a forgotten theater today, but was notable for accommodating the world premiere of “The Virgin Queen” in 1953,
because Bette Davis lived in Cape Elizabeth (across the harbor from Portland) at the time. The Strand was later upgraded to a full 70mm Todd-AO instalation with a curved screen and six channel sound.
As I say, it is forgotten now except for a few of us film connoisseurs. When I have the time in the next few months, I will try to access the microfilm records of the Portland Press Herald, so that I can supply references.
I also saw first run showings of “The Alamo” (70mm shortened version), “Mutiny on the Bounty” in Ultra-Panavision 70, and “King of Kings” in Super Technirama 70.
It was a great theater in those days. The building is still there, but the theater is long gone.
I think, if you check, that the Ben-Hur rerelease started in Feb 1969. MGM was hoping for a replay of the 70MM Gone With The Wind box office.
Although Ben-Hur played a number of roadshow engagements in early ‘69, the box office did not come anywhere close to GWTW reissue in 1967.
However the souvenir book was released with paper cover. The 1959 book was hardcover and a bit longer.
“Ben-Hur” was re-released in February of 1969. It was also reissued back in theatres as a re-release in selected theatres during part of the 1970’s and 1980’s.(reissue in 1972, 1979, 1980, and 1989).
These were exclusive roadshow enagements during its re-release,but it didn’t come anywhere close to its reissue of “Gone With The Wind” in 1967 and none of the impact when MGM also reissue “2001” in early 1970,and again in 1975 and 1980.
Thanks, everyone, for the compliments and additional info!
As for the re-release and whether it should be listed as ‘68 or '69, I’d like to point out that while researching the project I found that the film opened in Tokyo, Japan during September '68. Hence the '68 reference.
The earliest U.S. re-release bookings were, as Kirk pointed out, in February ‘69. Interestingly, neither Los Angeles or New York were among the earliest bookings of that re-release. L.A. and N.Y. came along during March and June, respectively. It opened first in Miami and a few other locations.
Thanks Michael for the super job. I did not know of the Tokyo dates in 1968.
Neither did I know that the 1969 prints were 165 minutes. What was with MGM cutting “Ben-Hur”!? How depressing.
Kirk: They probably cut the overture, skipped the intermission and its music, and who knows what else. Anything to squeeze in another show. I have seen TV presentations with the entire prologue edited out, along with a few other scenes.
I first saw “Ben-Hur” when I was in the fifth grade, on a special presentation for school. It was an overhwelming experience for me. It instanly became one of my all-time favorites pictures, and still is to this day. The sea battle and the chariot race sequences are masterpieces in their own right. Miklos Rozsa’s score is one of the most beautiful pieces of film music.
I finally saw it on 70 MM at the Cinerama Dome during a 1990 engagement.
And last but not least, my thanks to Michael Coate. You’ve done it again!
The “Ben-Hur” re-issue also opened in Australia during 1968…
I saw “Ben-Hur” (with Charlton Heston signing autographs) in 35MM during the “closing weekend” of the Cinerama Dome when they shut down the complex to build Arclight Hollywood & refurbish the Dome. It was the only time I ever saw a presentation wider than 2:35. I don’t know if we saw a 2:55 or a 2:70 print, but I DO remember the techs at the Dome expanding the side masking to capture more of the picture.
An unforgettable experience and a SPECTACULAR film!
Stephen Boyd (Roman Masalla) – “You’re either for me or against me, you have no other choice!”
Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur) – “If that is the choice……
then I AM AGAINST YOU!"
Jawk Hawkins (Quintus Arius) – “Your eyes are full of hate, No. 41”. That’s good! Hate keeps a man alive, it gives him strength."
“ROW WELL AND LIVE!”
Couldn’t help quoting, even if not meticulously accurate. One of my sons when he was young could recite with perfect impression the last bit of dialogue.
The network television premiere of BEN-HUR was broadcast on CBS-TV as a special presentation in April of 1971. It was a massive ratings hit and it was so popular that CBS continue to show BEN-HUR
on an annual basis until 1976. However,when it was shown on television,only several scenes were edited for broadcast.
The same could be said when the CBS Television Network continue to run classic MGM movies like
THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND on a annual basis with several scenes that were deleted for broadcast during the 1970’s and the early 1980’s.
With all those edits, how the heck can the story make any sense? And how’s the movie supposed to end if the final scene (i.e. Ben-Hur’s return to his mother and sister) is cut out!!??
BEN-HUR opened at the Uptown Theatre in Utica, NY on October 13, 1960 on a reserved seat engagement.
I remember seeing this movie at the State Theatre in Harrisburg, Pa.
I’m very surprised the roadshow engagement bypassed the Tampa market entirely and opened at the Center Theatre in St. Petersburg instead. I assume the reason being the only 70mm venue at the time was the Britton Theatre which may not have been available for the lengthy BEN-HUR engagement.
However, a friend tells me he did see BEN-HUR at the Britton so I can only assume it was probably the 35mm release that followed the roadshow playdates.
It is my understanding that, prior to the first-run of “Ben Hur” at Loews State Theater in NYC, the theater was extensively refurbished. Does anyone know if details of this project are still available anywhere. I never saw the theater prior to that time. Very soon, I would like to post a lengthy recollection of the experience of seeing the film in that venue in December of 1959. Their meticulous attention to many marvelous details, from theater decor, to the screen and sound system, to their dazzling procedure for opening the show, represents an entire approach to film presentation which is seldom if ever seen today. All in all, they were so good at what they were doing that they managed to elicit dramatically audible audience reactions to the technical presentation. I do not exaggerate when I say that we were getting chills up our spines.
One more note: The brilliant new BluRay edition of “Ben Hur” provides me with absolutely the most exciting selection for presentation in a local screening room which I built expressly for doing justice to major widescreen movies. It is not a huge room (seats thirty), but the size of the screen, in relation to the screen size, gives our friends that sense of being engulfed in the picture that was such a big part of the way these films were originally intended to be experienced. This is strictly a personal/recreational facility. Although I don’t offer any screenings to the general public (we merely entertain friends with our shows), I would be delighted to meet and talk to any fellow “Ben Hur” aficionados. If any such individual, who is able to make it to the southwestern Pennsylvania area, might be interested in seeing a giant screen showing of the film, with a fairly amazing sound system, I’d love to arrange this.
Tonight, I completed a written recollection of experiencing a first-run presentation of “Ben Hur” at Loews State in NYC. As the wonder of all this resulted from their attention to a great many details, the account is lengthy. I have sought the advice of a site administrator before forging ahead with typing the whole thing into a posted comment here. As I can’t conceive of a way to shorten the account without diminishing its ability to capture what was special about this, I would welcome any suggestions concerning the whole idea.
Sorry that my effort to complete a written recollection of the “Ben Hur” first-run experience at Loews State took so long. A balky word-processing app. really slowed me down. I was trying figure out how to post a link to the thing (it is definitely lengthy), but I don’t have a web page and my computer skills are limited in regard to establishing one. So please use the following email address to let me know that you are interested and, if my “copy and paste” method works out okay, I should have a viewable version of it on its way to you soon. Again, apologies for the delay. Hope you enjoy the end result. The email address is:
“The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime”
Many classic movies have opened at times when current events have made audiences especially receptive to them. Ben Hur premiered at a time in my life when my age and state of mind magnified the film’s impact to a level greater than any other, before or since.
In the Autumn of 1959, if you lived within an hour’s drive of New York City, you would, sooner or later have seen that giant poster, or billboard created by commercial artist Reynold Brown. The sheer size of those ads, standing by the highway or decorating train and bus stations, with the title spelled out in those massive stone letters really stirred the blood of an already movie-crazy boy in his mid-teens. Perhaps it was that charioteer furiously driving his team straight at you. It may have been the idea that those letters towered so high that crowds of extras perched on top of them seemed no bigger than fly-specks. Whatever the case, that dynamic composition proved so effective that major studios demanded that its style be slavishly imitated in the poster art of many, many subsequent releases. “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime”, proclaimed the title headline at the top. At the base, one could read that this irresistible blockbuster would be found in an “Exclusive Reserved Seat Engagement at Loews State Theater” on the fabled Broadway, in New York. Well, they had me persuaded that I would see this thing if I had to move a mountain to get there!
In 1953, when the Fox Studios’ biblical, The Robe, gave the country its first look at CinemaScope, I was one little kid who received the new format with wild enthusiasm. Three years later, on a less panoramic screen, DeMille’s The Ten Commandments served as an eye-popping confirmation that epics of this type would rate high on my “must-see” list. Occasionally a lesser offering in this genre would suggest to my young mind that Hollywood hype might not always prove entirely trustworthy. Weeks after the Ben Hur premiere in November of ’59, friends tweaked my excited curiosity with word that it was sensational, bigger and grander than anything that had come before.
In December, armed with reserved seat tickets that were an early Christmas present, we rode to New York in a mood of fever-pitch anticipation. From a parking garage, a few blocks away, we headed east on 42nd Street, toward the theater. Rounding the corner onto Times Square, I was assailed by a sight that instantly became a lifelong memory. About halfway up the square, on the far side, gargantuan letters stood out like fireworks, spelling BEN HUR, in countless little twinkling bulbs. They seemed to glitter and dance on the marquee and, as if this wasn’t eye catching enough, the name of the film was also emblazoned in towering lighted letters across several stories of the front of the building above. I can recall, in years to come, colossal billboards appearing thereabouts that exceeded the enormity of those letters, but never can I remember anything bigger or more dramatic spelled out in lights.
The outer lobby of Loews State was a bright, high ceilinged affair with a great expanse of lavish colored marble on its floor and walls. We were too eager to get in to the show to linger there, so my memory of that area is sketchy. In one or another of the venues where I was to see the film later on, I recall massive billboard-sized displays on the walls, loaded with color stills and huge printed raves about the film by the critics. On that first encounter, we were in such haste to get inside that we did not linger here, so I don’t recall if these were found in the Loews State lobby that night.
One look at the inner lobby, a long hallway skirting around the outside of the back wall of the actual seating area, and you could see how extensively they had remodeled the place expressly for this premiere engagement. Facing you, as you entered the space, a long succession of pillars and arches ran down the hall, suggestive of Ancient Rome. I believe there was one, or maybe more, gurgling fountains tucked between the arches. You were walking right into the film.
To try to capture a sense of the Orchestra seating area of that theater, I have to compare it with another famous New York venue. Some years before, I had been to an amazing presentation at that baroque temple, The Roxy. The cavernous auditorium in that theater evoked one of those legendary early 20th Century movie palaces, but on steroids! Multiple balconies were stacked, one after another, upward toward the dizzyingly high, gaudily ornamented ceiling. The screen was framed by a giant, ornate proscenium. Along with a mountainous theater organ, to one side of the stage, I believe that the Roxy also had an orchestra pit. It had a spacious stage in front of the screen where live musical productions could be presented prior to the start of a movie.
When you stepped into the auditorium at Loews State, the sight was dazzling, but altogether different. The room felt elegantly modern, and all-new. The ceiling stood high above you, but not so lofty as the one at the Roxy. Instead of all the gilded plaster cherubs and rococo décor, these walls were architecturally, far simpler, embracing the whole area in long, shallow-curved expanses. An immense, glittering chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. This, along with other less obvious light sources, made the room noticeably brighter than most theater interiors. The whole area was a shining study in gold and beige. The seating space was notably wide, and with a great distance from back to front. The sea of thickly padded chairs swooped downward and then, a few forward rows were raked back up again toward the screen.
Suddenly, I became concerned about those reserved seats. I had learned that, at Cinerama screenings, there was a relatively small area in the theater, near the center, and not to far back, where your feeling of being really immersed in the visuals was optimal. I knew that the tickets to this show assigned you to certain specific seats. You couldn’t make changes. We found our designated location. It seemed well centered, but I saw so many rows in front of us that I feared we were too far back from the screen. I was soon to learn something extraordinary about the combination of the MGM Camera 65 format and the particular screen they had built at Loews State.
A month into the run, Ben Hur was already a very popular movie. It was the Christmas season, and this feature was particularly fitting for the occasion. The huge room was filling up rapidly. We sat gazing about at the elegant setting and leafing through the pages of the souvenir book. People were conversing in tones that suggested that we were not the only ones filled with awe and eager anticipation. In the front of the room, there was no proscenium. The whole front wall was a massive gold curtain. It divulged no indication of the actual shape or size of the screen that stood behind it. The voices of the audience grew louder.
If you are familiar with the Miklos Rozsa score for this production, you will easily imagine what happened next. Suddenly, everyone was startled; fairly stunned by the electrifying musical sting that heralds the start of that rousing overture. That musical jolt raced up your spine like a locomotive. The crowd was silent for a bit and then, after a smattering of nervous laughter, they listened closely to the music. The multi-channel sound system was so clear that you could almost see musicians performing in an invisible orchestra pit. The ring of bells, or a triangle, or the snap of a tambourine seemed to emanate from very precise locations before you. The array of richly theatrical musical themes, in their lush orchestrations, evoked the exotic, ancient world of the film that we were about to see. Furthermore, the composer had managed to continually convey a feeling that this was going to be the most toweringly grand picture you had ever seen.
Eager to have their “make-or break” cinematic gamble pay off, the producers of the film had apparently worked closely with the theater’s management to design a start to the show that would be wondrously memorable. They had placed a cue near the end of the overture for the houselights to begin a very slow dim-out. The music grew more hushed, with instrumental effects that conveyed a tingling, suspenseful sense that it was all just about to start. You could see people looking about, registering that the place was slowly growing dark. This had us all so very primed to see the show begin.
When the room was nearly dark, the same musical sting that had jolted us minutes before was played again, this time, quietly, with a slow, portentous tone. As the music ended, the great gold curtain began to rise. Apparently long chains, suspended from the ceiling, were sewn inside the fabric. They made a faint tinkling sound as they drew the curtain up. As it rose, its bottom edge formed a great scalloped archway that ascended to a surprising height above our heads.
There was a second curtain, a sheer one, behind the one in front. Again came that mighty sting, played this time with vigorous forcefulness, as a still image of the MGM lion appeared through the sheer curtain, which now parted at a stately pace. When that audience got its first look at the vastness of the opening shot in the film, you could hear a great gasp run up all of those many rows like a gust of wind. With a screen that appeared to be nearly as wide as a New York City block, any concern I might have had concerning the location of our seats was, at once, eliminated. It was as if we were sitting inside an immense hangar, and the entire front wall had opened up to confront us with a horizon-spanning panorama of ancient Judea.
The screening of that film was absolutely flawless. Later, I was to learn that the theater had an unusual contractual arrangement with the lab that supplied the prints they showed. It stipulated that they had the right to refuse any print that was discovered to be flawed in any way. It wasn’t until decades later, with the advent of the digital age of High Definition movies, that I would ever again see movies looking so clean and lacking any scratches and emulsion flaws. For a boy of fourteen, that glorious epic, replete with the Star of Bethlehem sequence, the sea battle, the renowned chariot race, and the crucifixion, and all of it, presented in this glorious manner, would prove so astounding that, over a half century later, I have never forgotten the brilliant showmanship that was at play in that theater on that unforgettable night.
By Dave Greene
Under no small amount of pressure from some members, I have posted the whole account above. Hope the sheer size of the thing doesn’t bother any members. Who needs this Heat? Its not like I’m getting paid for this foolishness.
Dave: all I can say is that it was worth waiting for. I was only 5 when Ben-Hur opened at the Loew’s State, and I didn’t get to see it till more than a year later, in 35mm at the Loew’s Jersey City, but reading your wonderful account made me feel like I did see it at the State in its glorious 70mm presentation. You describe everything so well, it was easy to visualize what it must’ve been like. Thanks so much!
I also think it’d be a welcome addition to the Loew’s State page. You should post it again there. I’ve seen posts that were far longer than yours.
I am very, very gratified by the early response to this thing. Regarding duplicating it on the Loews State page, given the size of the piece, it just seems like a mighty FAT file to post on two different pages in the same site. If I had come up with such a notion, I suspect it would be time to see someone about some kind of inflated ego problem.
David, thanks for taking the time to write that up. It’s a great read, and I agree that it should appear on the Loew’s State page, too.
And seriously, quit worrying about the length of a post. NOW. Just drop it. That’s practically a non-issue these days, anyway, ESPECIALLY on a site so magnificently redesigned as this one has been. You obviously have plenty to contribute, so just forget about length or any other restrictions… and go write some more!
David, I loved it. It brought back so many memories of when we went to many roadshows when I was a kid here in Toronto. What an event it seemed to be with the souvenir books, the overture before the beginning and then the eventual parting of the curtains. Thanks again, and enjoyable and memorable read.
David, I am sure there will be members who chastise me for being picky, but it really bothers me that you have misspelled Ben-Hur consistently throughout your posts. Ben-Hur has a hyphen in the title. Ben-Hur does not refer to Benjamin Hur, but Ben-Hur – which is son of Hur. The character is Judah Ben-Hur. I am surprised that Michael Coate himself didn’t point out your error.
Well, after all the care I put into that long account, I’d say the comment above is, indeed, a bit picky, but it’s obviously correct. I got so “inside” this whole project, and the subject matter itself that I don’t know when or how I picked up this quirk of leaving out the hyphen. I actually do appreciate having that error brought to my attention. I have long understood the nature and meaning of that name Ben-Hur, but somehow, dropped the hyphen.
You say that Ben Hur opened in Boston at the Saxon. If I am not mistaken it opened in Boston with a one night gala premiere night at the Music Hall(formerly Metropolitan and now the CitiWang Ctr.)The next day it began its long engagement at the Saxon. I also believe and I may be wrong that when it finally moved over to the Capri that it was in 70mm. I personnally saw Ben Hur on its 2nd day at the Warner in D.C. Too close. Huge headache and stiff neck from having to look up. Later after getting home to Boston i saw it again at the Saxon. Much better experience. Great movie.
Let me correct myself. I don’t think the Capri could handle 70m. Too small and dumpy. I’ve seen bigger TV screens.
The ONLY RESERVED SEAT ENGAGEMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA:
The Plaza Theatre in Charlotte on June 10, 1960.
THE EXCLUSIVE EASTERN ENGAGEMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA:
The Village Theatre in Raleigh on August 19,1960,aka as the Cameron Village Theatre. The Raleigh Premiere was a Eastern North Carolina Engagement Showing. It was not a Reserved Seat Engagement.
Other theatres such as Greensboro, Durham, Wilmington,
Fayetteville and Winston-Salem wouldn’t get the film until December of 1960 OR February of 1961,even though it was released in 1959.
BTW: I have the original ads to where BEN-HUR played first run in both Charlotte and Raleigh. If you need more information,please feel free to e-mail me at
Other cities in North Carolina such as Greensboro, Durham, Wilmington, Winston-Salem, Asheville wouldn’t get the film BEN-HUR until either December of 1960 OR February or March of 1961 as a General Release.
Charlotte was it’s only Reserved Seat Engagement
Raleigh was it’s only Eastern N.C. Exclusive Showing.