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I worked at the Hillcrest Theatre as a relief projectionist in the late ‘60’s/early '70’s before coming to New York. The theatre opened in the Hillcrest Shopping Center in the Summer of 1967, just a week or so before the Meadowview in Kankakee opened. I was the first projectionist at the Meadowview and it was my full time job unitl I came here, but Leo O'Connor, who was the Joliet business agent and full time projectionist at the Hillcrest would frequently use me in several of his theatres. The Hillcrest was operated by ABC/Plitt theatres when it opened, and its competition was L & M in the downtown theatres including the Rialto. In Kankakee the situation was just reversed with Plitt operating the Paramount downtown and L & M the Luna downtown and the Meadowview in the Meadowview Shopping Center. I don’t know about the Hillcrest being haunted, but it did have some quirks. When the booth exhaust fan was on a vacuum would develop which was strong enough to cause the lobby doors to open if the booth door was opened. That could lead to the booth getting extremely hot, even in Winter. Both the Hillcrest and the Meadowview were the first new theatres to be opened in their respective cities in years, and their operating companies shared a (now illegal) policy of splitting product which guarenteed a pretty even split in playing the top films. I find it ironic that a theatre which created such excitement when it opened has already ceased to exist, while the Rialto, which was getting pretty run down in the '70’s has been restored to its former glory.
I like to think of it as the DeMille since it was a big deal when they changed the name, and it was during that period that it ran its big roadshows. I’m not sure about the DVD version of “Psycho” but I have the Special Edition on Laserdisc, and you can see the DeMille marquee which covered the whole entrance (before the donut shop and other shops were cut into the lobby). There’s also “No one admitted after the start of the film” promo which features the theatre. I have seen shots of the Mayfair that included that huge wraparound billboard which is now segmented. They didn’t need a large marquee with that sign with special displays for each attraction. The only routinely bigger one was the block long display that stretched between the Astor and Victoria on Broadway. That wraparound display gave the theatre as much presence as any of the theatres in the area even though it was on 7th and not Broadway.
Look on the bright side — the plans to make it a porn house with live (who would want to see dead?) strippers never materialized. One of the most beautiful restorations I’ve ever seen is of the Rapp and Rapp Orpheum in Galesburg, Illinois. I spend time there every summer researching its history and I think its ironic that it started with a live symphony orchestra and is now home to the Central Illinois symphony so its come full circle, but at one point it did run porn. So did the Art in Champaign, Illinois after a run as one the most successful art and foreign film theatres in the country. Now its been restored as a major venue for the city by a private investor. Those changes in policy at least kept the theatres from being bulldozed. Hopefully, the fact that the Embassy 2-3-4 hasn’t been torn down yet may help it to survive long enough for someone to find an appropriate and profitable use for it.
While I was Head Projectionist at Radio City, like most projectionists in those days, I would also work other jobs when I had the time. In a number of cases, I think the Union sent me on jobs where there had been a problem with a relief projectionist and the Union would send in “the Head Projectionist at Radio City” as a peace offering. Thus I ended up working in a number of Peter Elson houses in Manhattan. At one point he requested me for all relief assginments in all of his theatres. Thus I worked the Forum (which was co-operated by Elson and B.S. Moss at the time), the original Embassy and the Embassy 2-3-4. In reference to the Embassy 2-3-4, it was the flagship house of the Walter Reade chain when they operated it. Porter Faulkner might be better at describing the archictural detail than I, but it was quite ornate, and a major Broadway showcase. The ornamentation inside matched the style on the outside above the first floor. “Psycho” premiered there, and I believe it was the Broadway house that premiered “Spartacus” in its roadshow 70mm run. I remember that because it was the first house in the U.S. to use Cinemeccanica X 70mm projectors and the man who ran the company that imported them was instrumental in getting me out of broadcasting and into projection. Those machines were still there and operating when I worked there in the late ‘70’s. It was also the house that ran the Russian “War and Peace” in two four hour segments. I’m sure Warren could supply a list of some of the big attractions that played there and Michael Coate undoubtedly has a list of the 70mm roadshow attractions. When the Ziegfeld opened Reade had his office there, and it replaced the Embassy 2-3-4 (the DeMille in those days) as the Reade flagship house. When I started working as a relief operator at the Ziegfeld the company was in bankruptcy so that might have played a role in pulling out of the larger venue. Sheldon Gunsberg headed up Reade in those days and was probably the last of the really nice knowledgable theatre operators in the city. At some point I should ask his daughter about what happened with the DeMille as she worked for Reade handling special events at the time the DeMille was closed. She would be a great resource about the theatre’s history in the Reade days since she would have been very close to the decisions made about it. I might quibble about the statement that the volume downstairs was loud to mask the sound from the upstairs theatres. Those theatres’ walls really were pretty well built, and they only had small mono sound systems. In fact one of the speakers was hand built at Radio City. Some members of the sound crew at Radio City were experimenting with building a small theatre speaker to compete with the Altec A-7, and my friend who was doing the projection work in the triplex came up one speaker short when they were triplexing the place and asked the head of the sound department at Radio City, who he worked with on outside projects if he could help him out. Thus one of the “experimental” speakers got moved over to the balcony house at the Embassy. If the downstairs volume was too loud it was probably beacuse the staff wasn’t paying attention, and as I’ve mentioned the booth crew pretty much stayed in the booth because of the arduous climb and really had no way of knowing how loud the sound was in the downstairs house other than by communicating with the staff. As a relief operator I didn’t have to carry film up to the booth, and I doubt that the projectionists did in those days either. The union had a rule about not carrying film to the booth to protect the older operators, since most theatre had ushers or other younger staff members more able to make the trek. Since the Reade DeMille was a Broadway house, most of the projectionists were those who had seniority or were requested, and probably would have gone into cardiac arrest if they had to carry film up that far. (They did have the use of the elevator in the office portion of the building for a time, and that would have gotten the film up to one level below the booth, and I suppose they could have dropped a line down the fire ladder and hoisted the film up that way, I’m not sure which would have been harder!) I don’t remember whether the the paint job was black or dark blue, but I do remember the house being lit in gold light (much like Radio City) when I saw “Fisherman” there. The booth light board was taken out when they triplexed the house, but it did run pretty much across the width of the booth at one end, and had quite a few dimmers, so the house lighting was really attractive.
Porter Faulkner: The fire was set (one rumor was that it was by a disgruntled projectionist) probably in the back of the balcony (that’s where I remember the smoke damage when I was in the house when it was the single screen dollar house and during the triplexing.) One of the men on my crew at Radio City was working there as a relief projectionist at the time, and said that they had stayed to convert the three projectors over to 70mm since they were going to start the move-over run of “That’s Entertainment” from the Ziegfeld the next day. There was enough smoke and soot to cause the theatre to close, and that was when Walter Reade walked away from it. Perhaps their lease was up and they realized the difficulty of keeping a venue of that size going. The damage (at least what I could see) didn’t appear to be great, although the north end of the back of the balcony was smoked when the house reopened as a low-price theatre. The projectionist’s union gave them a reduced rate with the caveat that the balcony remain closed, thus reducing the seating capacity to match the lower booth cost. There were people in the balcony when I was there, but I suspect they just wanted to sit there and snuck up, the house certainly wasn’t full.
I was in the house once when it was run by Walter Reade and was their showcase house. I was still living in the Midwest and came up from a technical conference in Washington D.C. to spend the weekend in New York. “Shoes of the Fisherman” had just opened and was running roadshow in 70mm. Reade even had a VIP section in one corner of the orchestra completely walled off from the rest of the seating area which had its own speakers and which may have been vented to allow smoking. At intermission I also went up to the booth. As you have pointed out, there was no stage presentation (or much of a stage) and the house lighting and stage lighting board was in the booth (as it was at the Criterion in its one screen days.) Thus there were two projectionists and a stagehand since the lighting was under the jurisdiction of Local #1. The theatre was really beautiful in those days.
The reason I didn’t go into the orchestra when I worked there was that when I came in I headed directly up to the booth. As I mentioned that is a very large climb, and once I got there I stayed there, although I did go into one of the balcony auditoriums to see what Wharhol’s “Frankenstein” looked like in 3-D (quite bad as it turned out). You don’t see a lot of the auditorium from the booth — the projection and viewing ports are cut into the decorative molding you noticed around the top of the theatre, and it curve out and down, so it looks like you’re watching the screen through a tunnel even when they were running 70. One thing Elson did do was to keep the curtain in the downstairs house, and it had to be closed and opened at end and start of every show. If Wednesday White Man gets the house and lowers those hanging speakers and if the lines they are anchored by are anchored by are tied to building steel above the auditorium ceiling he’ll have the lines for a good sized lighting truss for his shows. Let’s hope someone can the place open again — there aren’t many spaces like that left in New York these days.
Porter Faulkner: I think it must have been the Columbia that Ben Olevsky was talking about when he said the auditorium was reversed. Before he was Head Projectionist at the Hall he worked in a lot of other theatres in the city so may have actually worked at the Columbia. The idea of it being gutted and revised is what I was asking about in the above post. Was the office building wrapped around it as it is now and were the original auditorium walls retained in the construction? I was in and out of the theatre a number of times during the triplexing, but when I worked there I don’t remember ever going into the downstairs auditorium and only saw it from the booth. I do remember the architectural details remaining the same during the triplexing. I was also in the theatre a couple of times in between the time Walter Reade operated it and the time it became the Mark 1-2-3 when it was operated as an impossibly cheap dollar house. At that time the smoke damage from the fire was still evident in the balcony. Another feature from its roadshow days that was still there was a set of five huge Altec A4 speaker systems hung above the proscenium. They were installed when the “Concert for Bangledesh” was played in 70mm and the producers wanted better sound coverage in the upper balcony area for the filmed rock concert. Apparently it was considered too much trouble or too expensive to get them down since they were still hanging up there when I worked there. Its possible the black or dark blue paint was put on to cover the smoke damage up. I doubt that Peter had any plans to add another screen. I think it was his first multiple screen theatre and he only inherited it when the plans for the porno/striptease venue fell through. It would certainly be great to see it restored and put to theatrical use again.
I’ve always wondered about Ben’s story of the auditorium being reversed as well, but apparently the plans the contractor came up with supported that idea. Perhaps Warren could tell us if the Mayfair did stage presentations, or was strictly a film house. If you look at the front of the building on the 7th Avenue side, the first set of windows above the arches over the marquee are the current booth windows. That’s several floors up, so they could have had a good sized screen at that end, and if they weren’t doing stage shows could have used a travelling title curtain which wouldn’t have required a stage house and fly foor or grid. At some point they may have revised the house to accomodate stage presentations. The stage area as it now exists isn’t very deep. The projectionist’s union office looked down on the building for a time, and seen from there the offices are wrapped around the auditorium. At one point the city wouldn’t allow a structure to be built over an auditorium for safety reasons, so the Mayfair auditorium space is clearly visible from above. Warren, any clues from your material to indicate a significant remodeling at some point under the various management of the theatre?
There would have been some problems with constructing a booth downstairs. The balcony is very deep and might have limited the height of the picture on screen. In addition, there was a runway put in the center of the house for the strippers, so additional seating would have been sacrificed. There might also have been a requirement for another projection crew downstairs as the State and the former Strand had. (This was the first house in New York to use Pott’s platters rather than Christie — the concept was still pretty new.) As a practical note: Short of climbing from the orchestra of the Music Hall to the booth (the Hall has an elevator to that level), the booth in the DeMille requires the most arduous cllimb of any booth I’ve worked in. The balcony is very steep, and even when you get to the top lobby level, there are another set of stairs going up to get to the booth (you can see the booth windows from 7th Avenue and get an idea of the climb). At one point the projectionists could go into the office building entrance on the street side of the building and take the office elevator to a level just below the booth, then enter a closet and climb the emergency booth exit ladder up one flight to the booth. Eventually the office building management rescinded that courtesy and the crew had to climb up from the street level entrance. Once you got up there you didn’t want to leave until your shift was over!
The Mayfair/DeMille/Embassy 2-3-4 entrance may well have changed from the side street to 7th Avenue. A friend of mine did the projection installation when they triplexed the theatre, and I worked a number of relief shifts there when Peter Elson had it. Ben Olevsky at the Music Hall told me once that at one time the auditorium was exactly reversed from the way it is now, with the stage and screen at the 7th Avenue end. I mentioned this to the contractor when it was being triplexed and he said, “That explains it.” Apparently none of the architctural drawings they could find made any sense because they were from the earlier (Mayfair?) era. A couple of other notes: Originally the triplex was to be a porno/strip tease house, and at one point construction had gotten far enough that there was a runway down the center of the orchestra and dressing rooms for the girls had been constructed backstage. Then the city said “no more porno houses in Times Square”, and the theatres went to conventional fare. The balcony actually has two walls added for the triplex, with a “light tunnel” in between them so the #2 projector continued to shoot down to the screen as it had in the DeMille. The other two machines were moved left and right to former spot/lighting ports for the upstairs houses. Unfortunately the tunnel limited the width of the downstairs screen, but no one saw this as a problem since porno is not usually wider than 1.85 or 1.37. When they started running regular fare, Peter wanted to run 70mm since all of the projectors could. What they couldn’t do was run it wider than the l.85 image because of the narrownes of the tunnel between the upstairs houses. Had the upstairs walls been put a little farther apart or the screen moved back toward the rear of the house a little more the image in the orchestra could have been the same as in the DeMille roadshow days.
The Trans Lux New York Experience was located on the lower level of the McGraw-Hill Building on 6th Avenue a couple of blocks south of the Music Hall. I worked there as a relief projectionist for several years. Since it was close to my home base at the Music Hall I could actually go underground through the Rockefeller Center concourse from the Experience to the Hall and back. The theatre had a longer run than the Seaport Experience, opening before 1974 when I started at the Hall. After closing, the space became a theatre for Chinese arts and performances, and may be unused now.
One of my big disappointments was that Gance couldn’t make it to New York. Bob Harris had suggested that he would have Gance autograph a “Napoleon” poster for me and that would have certainly been one of the highlights of my career. Bob walked out on stage after the second night’s screening with a phone. Gance’s nurse woke him up so he could hear the applause. It was certainly one of the most memorable moments I had at the Hall.
Michael, “Napoleon” was never done in 70mm at the Hall in the time I was there. There were a lot of press items that were simply wrong because they didn’t understand the process. I saw Larry Shaw of Boston Light & Sound who supplied the interlocking equipment yesterday, and we discussed “Napoleon”. Larry remembered bringing in the three 30' fast folds for the second showing of the film we did. And as I mentioned above, we did one set of screenings with the above mentioned Milan Orchestra on 35mm mag film interlocked to the 35mm print. I talked to Bob Harris about the Cinerama Dome’s presentation, and the triptych could have been in 70mm there. Check with Bob or Larry or Chapin Cutler at B.L. & S. for details, as they did the “Napoleon” screenings in the States and in Italy (the British screenings used a score by Carl Davis and were done somewhat differently with all of the projectors running at “silent” speed). I was Head Projectionist at the Hall for all of the screenings we did of “Napoleon”, and was in the booth for every one of them. It may have run somewhere else in N.Y. with a 70mm triptych at some point that I wasn’t aware of, and again Bob Harris will have the details. I have some great photos that Chapin’s wife took during the second run we did of the film which include a shot of the booth from the orchestra during the triptych with light coming from all three projector ports and another of the picture on the 90' screen. Perhpas some day they can be posted on this site.
It’s hard to recogize a Rockette if she’s one part of a 36 segment worm (although the legs are the same). One of the issues with the sound on “Black Cauldron” was that the preceding film “Return to Oz” was mixed with three channels behind the screen, and left and right surround channels. Walter Murch who is one of the top sound designers and editors to this day was the director, and he was very aware of sound issues. “Black Cauldron” was mixed as a standard six channel 70mm print with five channels behind the screen. The problem was that Disney had brought in a sound system for “Oz” that only had three channels behind the screen, so that when the dialogue was panned across the screen there were holes in the coverage where the additional channels would have been between the Left and Right and Center speakers. The speakers on the Choral stairs were actually the Altec A-7’s which were usually used for the house 70mm sound system behind the screen. Disney and Murch set the levels which were loud. The musicians complained about the bass level they had to listen to when they were in the pit waiting to come up for the stage show. (We found that Walter had boosted the bass equalization all the way for “Oz”, and corrected that for “Cauldron”.) If you thought “Cauldron” was depressing, you should have seen “Oz” — a very dark version of an Oz story.
There was definitely a stage show with “Return To Oz”, and “The Black Cauldron”. The same stage show was used for both films and was rather controversial. Disney had four-walled the house (our paychecks during that time came from Disney, not Radio City) and didn’t want to use the Rockettes in the show they were producing. The Rockettes' union leadership could be quite active in pursuing the girls' interests and protested. Finally Disney did use them — as segments of the worm from “Alice In Wonderland”! I think they also appeared in the finale. Disney didn’t try to do a show without them after that, and they were in the “Disney’s Magical Moments” show they produced to accompany “The Lion King”.
Mike: if you have access to a list of the shows which appeared with 70mm releases at the Hall, you might want to add the stage show that played with a re-issue of “The Sound of Music” which we did in the ‘70’s. The 70mm print we played became an archival print in the Fox library. I have a complete list at home and will try to remember to look it up if you don’t have it. (My list came from the Publicity Department, and has the names of the shows, but no details about them. It is inclusive however.)
Re: Napoleon at RCMH. Mike, All of the presentations of Napoleon at the Hall were 35mm using all five of the Hall’s projectors. Projectors 1-3-5 were used for the triptych, and 2-4 for the rest of the film which was mounted on 4 6,000' reels; two for the first half and two for the second. Boston Light and Sound did supply the interlocking equipment (the Hall was the first time they did Napoleon, although later they travelled around the country and in some places in Europe with it.) I had a choice of three suppliers when we started looking at people who could do interlocking, and had worked with BL&S at Astoria Studios and was impressed with their work. They brought in their own projector motors with 3-D selsyns mounted on them. We swapped out the house motors on the interlock machines, and they had control for all three machines mounted on the motor bracket for the center #3 machine. When the crew took their dinner break after the load-in Larry Shaw and I swapped out the motors, and had three loops of target film running in sync on the three machines by the time the dinner break was over. The first time we did the show it was on the house sheet which limited the image to 70' for the triptych. We actually ran the first half material a little larger than the second half to give the biggest 1.33 image possible. Then we swapped lenses for the regular machines for the second half so that when we hit the triptych the center panel remained the same size. The next time we did the show, BL&S brought in three 30' wide fast fold screens, and put strips of screen material where the frames butted together in the center. This gave us a 90'+ image. The three screens were bolted together and flown on a pipe just upstage of our regular screen with the First Entrance house blacks used as side masking pulled open by the stage crew at the triptych cue. We never did the triptych in 70mm. When Bob Harris came in he brought the first 70mm test reel, and found that the lab had printed three separate panels rather than butting them together, so we never even tried it. We did do the show without the orchestra, but the track was 35mm mag run on dubbers (one of which had to be switched from the #2 machine feed to the #3 shaft encoder for the triptych. I also wired the sound changeover for that machine so that it would changeover to the #2 machine input so we could use two dubbers for both the regular and the triptych footage. I know of no other screening in New York which might have used the 70mm print, but maybe one slipped by me. I did see it projected that way at the Ocean State Theatre in Providence, R. I. (Formerly the Loews). Napoleon is still my favorite projection experience in 25 years at the Hall, even though a bit nerve wracking. You kind of figure if that triptych doesn’t come off after the audience has been waiting for it for almost four hours, they’re going to LYNCH you!
The theatre you’re thinking of TJ was the Cine Lido which occupied the site of the Latin Quarter. It was a porno house along with the Lido East on the East side around the corner from the Baronet/Coronet. I was in it briefly once on business, and while the house was dark for the film, it looked as if they hadn’t changed the decor of the Latin Quarter at all. Loews Cine was the balcony house of the Loews on 86th St. I worked as a relief projectionist in the Cine 42 before they added the second house in the building next door, and it was probably just another office space before the conversion. The theatre was on the top floors. What was probably the floor of the top floor was half cut away to make a balcony, with the booth at the back right under the roof. There was a ladder on the back wall of the booth which opened out onto the roof. It was a long narrow building, so there was only one aisle in the balcony which split the booth area, with the projectors on one side, and on the other side of the aisle a small closet for the xenon rectifiers. Since most of the 42nd Street theatres had three machines, they had shoe horned a third machine into the booth so close to the wall, that there was no viewing port on the operating side of the projector, and the motor and changeover controls were placed next to the #2 machine controls under the viewing port for that projector. I believe they knocked a hole in that wall for a door that led into the next building across a catwalk between the buildings for the access to the booth for the second theatre when they added it. I never stopped to look at the “orchestra” level one floor down other than from the front of the “balcony”. It was one of those theatres where the ports had to be sealed with tape to keep the pot fumes out of the booth, but even at 10 A.M. there were people there waiting for their kung-fu fix.
The Music Hall had two screening rooms: Preview A and Preview B. Preview A was large enough that they could do staff screenings for the Rockettes and stage crew on the supper break (when “Gone With the Wind” opened they screened one half each night for two nights, since it was too long for the staff to catch on a dinner break). Screening new features each night for the staff may not have been entirely altruistic on the part of management — it kept the crew out of bars during the long break! The smaller room was the RKO screening room when the company occupied the office building built over the lobby. There was a common lobby area outside the two rooms with steps leading down to a set of doors on the Music Hall roof which opened out on a short walk which led to doors into the RKO
building, so RKO staff could cross over into the Hall for screenings without having to go down to street level. It probably was in one of those two screening rooms that “Citizen Kane” was first screened in New York. Robert Wise, who was the editor, recalls hand carrying the film to the Hall for a screening for select press members. Both rooms eventually became Cine-Mix an early film re-recording and mixing facility, and then became idle when Cine-Mix got too big for the space. I frequently screened shorts for Charles Hacker, the Hall’s Chief Operating Officer and Frederic Kellers in Previw B, as well as worked on film effects for the stage shows in that room. We were able to keep copies of a number of shorts that the Hall played, and if it was a quiet day, Fred would ask if we could go up and screen something. When I left, the rooms were being used as offices, but the booths were still there used for storage (they are nitrate capable booths and therefore built like bunkers). One of the projectors with a lamphouse used in the Rear Projection booth backstage is now on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
“White Christmas” was the only film to run in horizontal VistaVision at the Hall. Century did produce a VistaVision projector with an optical soundhead in the usual position, althouth the feed reel was under the soundhead. I had the oportunity to run a Century VistaVision projector (without the soundhead) to do effect dailies on “Men In Black”,“Jungle 2 Jungle” and “Michael”. It was an interesting experience, since a misframe looks like a split screen, and framing is left to right rather than up and down. The Hall had 35mm mag capabilities from the start of CinemaScope, although weak on the surround channel. There were actually two complete mag systems installed as well as two optical systems with a switch that literally switched between optical system #1 and #2 and mag system #1 and #2. The Hall was always big on back-up. I have a picture of Ben Olevsky in his office with a wall of RCA sound racks installed behind him. All four projectors had mag penthouses installed. When the fifth projector was installed (where one of the VistaVision projectors had been placed), it didn’t have mag capability, but we still had the three 35/70mm machines and retained the 35mm penthouse on the #1 projector. In the VistaVision section of the American Widescreen Museum site, I think there’s a picture of one of the VistaVision projectors at the Hall, and you can just see the gel changer on one of the high-intensity effects spots next to it.
Frederic Kellers, who was Vice President of House Operations for the Hall, and involved with the film selection, told me that the most complaints they ever received about a film were about “Charade” particularly as a Christmas show. He said the most mentioned scene was where James Coburn takes out a pin and stabs the corpse of Hepburn’s husband while it is lying in state in the church.
According to Ben Olevsky, the Hall ran the pre-Christmas run of “White Christmas” in horizontal VistaVision with the track run interlocked on one of the four projectors in the booth. (The VistaVision projectors were put on either side of the booth in the slide projector/effect spots openings. This created a sound problem, since those rooms also contained follow spots, and there was no glass in the ports. They put Duveteen over the openings which was used to cut down the noise. According to Ben, you could hear the machines running as you came up to the booth on the Executive elevator when it reached the First Mezzanine! He didn’t mention the sound being Perspecta, although I had Perspecta schematics in my filing cabinet, and some perspecta test reels. It probably was used for MGM releases at the time rather than “White Christmas”. Since the VistaVision heads were put together in very little time, the intermittents which were running at double speed (180'/minute)took a beating, and Ben said Larry Davee from Century was in almost every day with a replacement. The machines were removed at the end of the “White Christmas” run. According to Theo Gluck of Disney in a paper he wrote on wide screen processes there is some evidence to suggest that horizontal VistaVision prints (including some Hitchcock pictures) were run in London after we had stopped using the machines here in the States for theatrical exhibition.
The Ziegfeld ran “A Star Is Born” in 70mm with 6 Dolby A encoded magnetic tracks. I was working there as a relief projectionist at the time.
Dolby used Radio City as a test site for their single channel Dolby A decoder and equalizer in 1974. Our Christmas film that year was “The Little Prince” which was three track mag, Dolby A encoded, using three of the mono units. Later we borrowed three more so that we would have the E.Q. section available when we ran 70mm, even though the tracks weren’t encoded. Our first stereo/optical film was “Mr. Billion” which Fox may have done as a warm-up to “Star Wars” in 1977 — it did precede the “Star Wars” opening at the Astor Plaza. The Ziegfeld also had 6 track Dolby equipment installed for “Close Encounters” and “Apocalypse Now” in 1977. Ioan Allen of Dolby says there were some split surround 70mm prints of “Superman” made in 70mm but none were played that way in cinemas, probably making “Apocalypse” the first wide release in 70mm with the reconfigured 6 track layout with split surrounds and only three channels behind the screen.
I was Head Projectionist at Radio City in 1989 when we did the 50th Anniversary screenings of GWTW. The two prints we had were full 1.37 aspect ratio prints, one of which had been pulled two points lighter (as was common) for Radio City projection. Unfortunately, that print had an optical stereo track, and everyone from MOMA and the West Coast felt the mono track simply sounded better than the stereo track run in mono, which we decided to do for the sake of authenticity. The color balance was slightly different on that print as it was done for a video transfer, but we put the same reel up from both prints and ran them together with “split” aperture plates, so the pictures could be compared directly side by side. They actually were very close, and of course used the full 1.37 frame without the necessity for deanamorphosis.
A couple of notes: “The Bells of St. Mary’s” was the 1945 Christmas Show, but ran for nine weeks, starting 12/6/45 and ending 2/6/46. The stage show was “The Nativity” and “Heigh Ho!” produced by Leon Leonidoff, for four weeks and just “Heigh Ho!” for the remaining five weeks of the run. While in the twenty-two years of the Hall’s life, 109 out of 348 films were from RKO, “Bells” was the only RKO film played in 1945.
The fire curtain referred to in an earlier e-mail is (or was when I was there) asbestos. It is in two huge sections that completely seal off the 60' x 100' proscenium opening. It was brought in every morning before the first show and evening after the last show by motor in the movie/stage show days. Far more dramatic however, is when it is cut loose in a “fire drop”. Then the curtain comes hurtling at the stage with a roar in free fall until a short distance above the deck when hydraulic pistons hit fluid which slows it to a stop. Nothing is supposed to be placed on the fire curtain line which is marked on the deck with brads. Rumor has it that one person did leave his briefcase on the line just before a test drop and it was crushed! The curtain was tested in free fall mode before every concert load-in, and the test was dramatic enough that everything stopped on stage (for safety reasons)and everyone watched. When we did the 50th Anniversary show, it started with the curtain down, and the 50th Anniversary logo projected on it from a loop of 35mm film in the booth.