Center Theatre

1236 Sixth Avenue,
New York, NY 10020

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theatreorganmana
theatreorganmana on December 10, 2005 at 10:20 am

Betty Gould and Raymond Bohr were among the organists to preside at the Center’s large Wurlitzer organ.

theatreorganmana
theatreorganmana on December 10, 2005 at 10:17 am

The Ford Motor Company’s 50th Anniversay TV Special was broadcast from the Center Theatre on June 15, 1953. Among the stars in the show were Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Marian Anderson. But two great ladies of the stage stole the show that evening: Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. Fortunately, a little over twenty minutes of this broadcast (actually aired jointly over CBS and NBC!) are available in a DVD (From a Kinescope transfer) currently on the market. It is sad to note that in a little less than a year, the Center would be gone, even after such star-studded personages as Merman and Martin had trod its stage.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on August 31, 2005 at 8:47 am

Here’s a somewhat murky view of the interior after conversion to ice shows. Front rows of the orchestra seats were removed to extend the thrust of the skating rink. The stage opening was changed into a circusy tent with side boxes for chorus and musicians. The rest of the front walls seem to have been covered over with a mural or scenery. Though it might look that way from this camera angle, the central chandelier was NOT attached to the top of the stage canopy:
www.i8.photobucket.com/albums/a18/Warrengwhiz/136-3656_IMG.jpg

stepale2
stepale2 on August 7, 2005 at 12:02 pm

Thanks Warren for the link to the FLASH pages :–) The picture of the Center’s auditorium was interesting as one can see the contour curtain when it is down. Too bad they did not publish a matching shot of the Music Hall on the opposite page. Too late now….

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on August 7, 2005 at 7:04 am

From the RKO house organ FLASH, here’s a montage of images of the two Rockefeller Center showplaces when they first opened:
www.i8.photobucket.com/albums/a18/Warrengwhiz/132-3233_IMG.jpg

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on July 24, 2005 at 6:51 am

Circa 1933, the Center was also running “move-overs” from RCMH, but sans stage shows. During Christmas week, the Center showed “Little Women.” This was followed by “Flying Down to Rio” as soon as it finished its Christmas holiday run at RCMH. The Center bookings were simultaneous with the RKO Albee in downtown Brooklyn, which still presented vaudeville with its movies.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on July 18, 2005 at 12:35 pm

Here’s a night image from 1933, by which time the New Roxy had been re-named The Center and was showing single first-run features without stage revues:
www.i8.photobucket.com/albums/a18/Warrengwhiz/127-2755_IMG.jpg

stepale2
stepale2 on May 26, 2005 at 6:33 pm

And below were some of the movies that played at the Center:

The film version of Philip Barry’s play The Animal Kingdom, plus a vaudeville show was the opening attraction, but within six months, the “New” Roxy, as the theater was being advertised, dropped vaudeville as to not compete with the Radio City Music Hall.

Among the new movies to open at the “New” Roxy were No Other Woman, Song of the Eagle, and Diplomaniacs. Although King Kong opened at both Rockefeller Center theaters simultaneously, the RKO/New Roxy was soon reduced to showing second-runs. Little Women and State Fair moved over from the Music Hall and to add to the New Roxy’s problems, the owners of the “old” Roxy (on Seventh Avenue) sued to force the “New” Roxy on Sixth Avenue to change its name — a judge ruled that the Roxy name belonged to the theater, not the man! So the RKO Roxy became the RKO Center until RKO studios went into receivership in 1934. Then the the letters “RKO” were removed from the marquee and the Center became a legitimate theater.

stepale2
stepale2 on May 26, 2005 at 6:19 pm

As we know from the posts above, the Center (a/k/a RKO Roxy) was built as a movie theater but it was also home to musicals, operettas, ice shows, operas, ballet and for one play, in addition to being an NBC Radio and television studio in the 1950s.
(The list below comes from the Internet Broadway Database.)

The Great Waltz
Musical
Lyrics by Desmond Carter; Book by Moss Hart; Music by Johann Strauss, Jr. & Johann Strauss, Sr.. Sep 22, 1934

The Great Waltz
Musical (with its re-written book)
Book by Caswell Garth, Ernst Marischka, Moss Hart, A. M. Willner and Heinz Reichert;
Lyrics by Desmond Carter; Music by Johann Strauss, Jr. and Johann Strauss, Sr..
Aug 5, 1935

White Horse Inn
Musical
Book by Hans Mueller; Lyrics by Irving Caesar; Music by Ralph Benatsky.
Oct 1, 1936

Virginia
Musical
Music by Arthur Schwartz; Book by Laurence Stallings and Owen Davis; Lyrics by Albert Stillman. Sep 2, 1937

The American Way
Play
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Jan 21, 1939

The American Way
Play,
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart;
Background music by Oscar Levant.
Jul 17, 1939

Swingin' The Dream
Musical
Book by Gilbert Seldes and Erik Charell; Lyrics for “Oh, You Crazy Moon” by Johnny Burke; Lyrics for “Jeepers Creepers” by Johnny Mercer; Music by Jimmy Van Heusen; Lyrics by Eddie de Lange; Lyrics for “Hold Tight-Hold Tight” by Willie Spotswood; Lyrics for “My Melancholy Baby” by George A. Norton; Lyrics for “Way Down Younder in New Orleans” by Larry Clinton; Lyrics for “Ol' Man Mose” by Zilner T. Randolph.
Nov 29, 1939

Gizelle
Special, Original, Broadway Jan 12, 1940

It Happens on Ice
Special, Original, Broadway
Music by Vernon Duke, Fred E. Ahlert and Peter De Rose; Lyrics by Albert Stillman.
Oct 10, 1940

It Happens on Ice
Music by Vernon Duke, Fred E. Ahlert and Peter De Rose; Lyrics by Albert Stillman.
Jul 15, 1941

Stars on Ice
Ice revue
Jul 2, 1942

Carmen
Opera
Music by Georges Bizet. Apr 26, 1944

La Traviata
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Apr 27, 1944

Aida
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni.
Apr 28, 1944

Faust
Opera
Music by Charles Gounod.
Apr 29, 1944

Rigoletto
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Apr 29, 1944

La Bohème
Opera
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
Apr 30, 1944

Il Trovatore
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.
Apr 30, 1944

La Tosca
Opera
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
May 1944

Cavalleria Rusticana
Opera
Music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni; Libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci.
May 1944

Pagliacci
Opera
Music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni; Libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci.
May 1944

Hats Off to Ice
Ice revue
Music by John Fortis and James Littlefield; Lyrics by John Fortis and James Littlefield. Jun 22, 1944

Icetime
Ice revue
Music by John Fortis and James Littlefield; Lyrics by John Fortis and James Littlefield. Jun 20, 1946

Icetime of 1948
Ice revue
Music by John Fortis and James Littlefield; Lyrics by John Fortis and James Littlefield. May 28, 1947

Carmen
Opera
Music by Georges Bizet; Libretto by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac.
Apr 14, 1948

La Traviata
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Apr 14, 1948

Rigoletto
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Apr 14, 1948

Madame Butterfly
Opera
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Apr 14, 1948

La Bohème
Oprea
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
Apr 14, 1948

The Barber of Seville
Opera
Music by Gioacchino Rossini; Libretto by Cesare Sterbini.
Apr 14, 1948

Aida
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni.
Apr 14, 1948

Il Trovatore
Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.
Apr 14, 1948

La Tosca
Opera
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
Apr 14, 1948

Cavalleria Rusticana
Opera
Music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni; Libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci.
Apr 14, 1948

Pagliacci
Opera
Music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni; Libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci.
Apr 14, 1948

Faust
Opera
Music by Charles Gounod.
Apr 14, 1948

Howdy, Mr. Ice
Ice revue
Music by Alan Moran and Albert Stillman; Lyrics by Alan Moran and Albert Stillman.
Jun 24, 1948

Howdy, Mr. Ice of 1950
Ice revue
Music by Alan Moran and Albert Stillman; Lyrics by Alan Moran and Albert Stillman.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on February 14, 2005 at 12:36 pm

During the engagement of Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the children’s admission price every day of the week was 25 cents until 1 PM, and 40 cents thereafter. Adult prices were scaled from 40 cents to a top of 99 cents on weekends. Variety claimed that at those prices, the Center could gross $70,000 per week at full capacity. However, in its first week, “Pinocchio” grossed only $45,000, and $36,600 in the second week. I don’t know how long the booking lasted after that, but in mid-March “Pinocchio” moved to the RKO circuit, with “The Saint’s Double Trouble” as second feature.

unique79d
unique79d on February 3, 2005 at 7:53 pm

I have in my possession letters from 1938 of a radio personal reviewing the presentation of “aida” on may 24th with the Brema girls(opera)Sylvia and madam Zanitello (opera). There are letters written by George Cohen(composer)to Sylvia Brema which ties into Florence,Italy’s Maggio Musicale 1938 with Maria Brema(opera). I am looking for information regarding these written letters which George Cohen ties into a marrige with Sylvia Brema and resides on Shakespear Avenue in Bronx, New York and later residing in Brooklyn. Parents on wedding announcement are listed as Mrs. Carph Berman and Mrs. Julius Cohen with children Sylvia and George to be held on Sundaqy the 15th of August 1943. I would like to know if anyone knows any information on these individuals whom were in the presentation of “Aida” back in 1938 at the Center Theatre in New York City. Sylvia’s letter’s also has her residing in Florence,Italy. Reporter’s letter of May 24th,1924 states how Sylvia’s blue eyes, throbbing notes and enthralling loveliness and Hungarian Enro Rappee overtures at Radio City Music Hall. I am trying to find out what if any historical value these letters may have or hold. Please
e-mail me if you have any information regarding these letters at unique79d. Thank you for your time.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on February 1, 2005 at 3:10 pm

The Center was converted into a cinema again in February, 1940, with the New York premiere engagement of Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.” I don’t know how long the booking lasted or whether there were more films after that before the Center returned to the “legit” fold.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on January 25, 2005 at 6:03 pm

In March, 1942, while RCMH was presenting DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind” and its annual Easter show, the Center, then described as “America’s First Ice Theatre,” was presenting the 2nd edition of “It Happened on Ice,” produced by Sonja Henie and Arthur Wirtz. During Easter week, there were two shows daily, at 2:40 PM and 8:40 PM, but normally there was a nightly show at 8:40, with matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:40 (the house always went dark on Mondays). The price scale for an all “live” show was not much higher than at RCMH: 50 cents, $1 and $1.50 (plus tax). At every performance, evening or matinee, 501 seats were priced at 50 cents.

Benjamin
Benjamin on January 16, 2005 at 9:55 pm

Chapter XIII of Carol Krinsky’s book, “Rockefeller Center” has very detailed info and lots of great pictures about the history and development of both Radio City Music Hall and the Center Theater.

The portion of the chapter dealing with the Center Theater, pg. 187 to 195, has photos of the early clay models that were used to judge various proposed designs of both the interior of the auditorium (two photos) and the Sixth Ave. marquee (three photos). It also has a picture of the grand foyer, the women’s lounge (two photos) and the men’s lounge (two photos).

On page 195 there is a spectacular picture of the Simon and Schuster offices that were built on the roof: “In 1940 the roof of the theater was rented to Simon & Schuster, publishers, for twenty offices and reception rooms. Harrison & Fouilhoux, Reinhard & Hofmeister designed a one-story building there with a flat slab roof cantilevered over thin piers. Much of the building perimeter was made of 250 feet of plate glass, but the roof overhang of about three or four feet was great enough to shield the interior from the unpleasant effects of summer sun and winter wind. The tenants loved their rooftop perch and the charming views, through glass walls, of planting on the pavement around them. They admitred Edward Durrell Stone’s simply-designed furniture which was finished in carefully-oiled natural tones of wood; such fittings were novel in corporate directors' offices at the time.”

On page 109 there is a picture looking west along 49th St. showing the office building and the ground floor showrooms that replaced the Center Theater.

On pgs. 98 and 99 there are terrific before and after photos that show that the Center Theater before and after the neighboring U.S. Rubber Building was built to the south. So in the “before” photo you see a row of brownstones along Sixth Ave. “hemmed in” by the large blank walls of the ticket lobby “pavilion” (to the north) and the large auditorium (to the east). The “after” photo shows how seamlessly the design of the new U.S. Rubber Building worked with the existing Center Theater — the ticket lobby “pavilion” of the Center Theater looks like a northern wing built to match a southern wing on the northeast corner of 48th St.

In the David Loth book, “The City Within a City,” the endpapers have a map of Rockefeller Center that show the outlines of the Center Theater (where it now says “U.S. Rubber Co. Building Addition”).

I believe the garage that was built in Rockefeller Center is NOT part of the building that replaced the Center Theater, the U.S. Rubber Co. Building Addition, but part of the Eastern Airlines Building to the east, instead. Krinsky describes how the garage came to be (pgs. 96-97): “The building [on the site of the Eastern Airlines Building] was to have a garage located between the office space and the Center Theater, an idea put forward as early as November 1936, taking advantage of a Zoning Resolution amendment of the preceding year which permitted certain parking garage construction in the Midtown retail zone. The garage was built for eight hundred cars, housed on three stories underground and three above. It used space that was hard to sell, and it halped to make visiting the Center easier for those who could not use mass transit.”

Loth (pg. 140-141) also describes how the garage came to be: “[zoning] Negotiations finally won a variance in 1938. Six floors of space above and below ground had been left for a garage in the Eastern Air Lines Building, then under construction as next to last of the original structures planned for the Center … . Here room for seven hundred autombiles was provided early in 1939, an innovation for a New York office building.” (He then goes on to describe how the garage had firemen’s poles so the garage attendant’s could get quickly down to the lower level. There’s also a picture!)

There’s also a great picture of the Center Theater in “New York 1960” by Stern, Mellins and Fishman. This photo (page 1102) looks eastward down 49th St. and shows what appear to be the five frosted and etched in relief(?) large glass windows of the foyer that fronted on 49th St. (These windows seem to be the exteriors of the windows shown on page 190 of Krinsky.)

The Center Theater is also mentioned in the WPA Guide to New York (1939) and gets about 17 lines — compared to only 5 lines for the original Roxy!.

johnlauter
johnlauter on January 14, 2005 at 1:00 am

The Center theatre had a single console Wurlitzer organ of 4 manuals, 34 ranks. Radio City Music Hall has the two-console organ. The Center Wurlitzer had an Art Deco style console, not unlike RCMH, but had a rosewood veneer natural finish rather than the “Steinway Black” of RCMH. The organ was removed in the early 1950’s and was installed in a roller skating rink in Alexandra, VA, where it remained for years. It was installed “unenclosed”, meaning the pipes were out in the open, not enclosed in a chamber as is normal theatre organ practice. This made it LOUD for the skaters. It was removed in the late 70’s-early 80’s and sold to a collector in Phoenix, AZ. The instrument was broken up some time after that, and the console is now in the Berkley community auditorium, in Berkley, CA—controling a spectacular instrument based on the Toledo, OH, Paramount Wurlitzer, with choice Wurlitzer ranks added. The BCH is a “depression modern” auditorium, and the Center console fits that interior to a “T”.

BoxOfficeBill
BoxOfficeBill on December 31, 2004 at 9:30 am

C—I surmised that you might have been confused about the location.
Warren— The Center’s proscenium opening was 60', so, yes, the screen likely covered the entire proscenium and was masked for movie ratio at, say, 36' x 27'. In my comment on 15 Dec above, I recounted my memory of a see-through scrim during an ice show there in ‘46. That scrim could well have been the movie screen. RCMH used its screen for see-through effects achieved through back lighting: e.g., the beginning of the Nativity with cloud-projection pierced by the back-lit angel singing “O Holy Night,” and the entire Underseas Ballet with wave-projection fronting the back lit dance ensemble.

chconnol
chconnol on December 31, 2004 at 9:01 am

BoxOfficeBill: For some reason, I thought the box office/lobby was on the SE corner of 48th and 6th, not 49th. On THAT corner (48th and 6th) there is a completely unremarkable building so I thought that was where The Center was. Also what made me confused was that the building on 49th (where you say The Center was) looks just like all the building’s in Rock Center. When I looked at both areas, I thought that maybe it was on 49th because the plot looks larger. But you explained this and now I understand.

Good thing it’s the holidays and I can afford to wander off my job a check this stuff out.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on December 30, 2004 at 3:41 pm

I recently read some news coverage of the opening of the RKO Roxy that said that the screen measured 60 feet wide by 30 feet high. I guess that was overall, and that it was “masked” to suit the aspect ratio of the movie being projected.

BoxOfficeBill
BoxOfficeBill on December 30, 2004 at 3:29 pm

It’s hardly a tiny plot of land. The ticket lobby on the SE corner of 6 Avenue and E. 49 Street (79'7" x 45'4", reverse symmetrical with the entrance of RCMH a block north) fed into a Grand Foyer rather narrower than that of RCMH. After the theater’s demolition, this space became a large glass-walled demonstration room for RCA products. The length from far wall of the Foyer to the rear wall of the stage was the standard city block of 200'8". The stage wall abutted E. 48 Street, and measured 158' along the street beginning 79'7" from 6 Avenue. After demolition, it became a public garage and was topped by several stories of new office space. The reconstruction merged seamlessly with materials and style of the older building.

chconnol
chconnol on December 30, 2004 at 2:22 pm

I got a good look at the former location of this theater and I’ve got ask again: how did they get such a grand theater on such a tiny piece of land? I’d love to see the blueprints of this place to see how it fit. They must’ve worked hard to get it in there…

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 21, 2004 at 8:08 am

Somewhere around my house I have a copy of a magazine from about 1930, called Creative Art. It is an issue devoted to architecture and planning in New York City, and it contains sketches of early proposals for the Rockefeller Center site. At least one sketch does feature a new house for the Metropolitan Opera as the centerpiece of the design.

In another proposal, there would have been a 100' wide avenue opened about midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, to have run from 42nd Street to Central Park. The new opera house would have fronted on this thoroughfare. Hardly any of the proposals featured in the magazine ever got built. Instead, there was Robert Moses.

Benjamin
Benjamin on December 16, 2004 at 8:11 pm

P.S. — Sorry, I meant the Earl Carroll Theater, not the George Carroll Theater. By the way, this magnificent art deco theater, which I believe was built for revues along the lines of the Ziegfeld Follies, stood across the street from the (original) Roxy and was only relatively recently torn down. (For many years after it closed, its ground floor held a Woolworth’s while the upper stories may have held a parking garage or been sealed off.) There are pictures of this theater, which I don’t believe ever was a movie theater, in “Lost New York” and, maybe, “Lost Broadway” by Hoogstraten (which someone else mentioned above). (I think Hoogstraten or Christopher Grey, from the New York Times, talked the owners into letting him see the ghostly interior of the theater before it was torn down

Benjamin
Benjamin on December 16, 2004 at 7:49 pm

I could not follow the link posted by Warren (Hi! from Benjamin of the Nostalgia Boards) on Sept. 19th about this theater supposedly being intended to be the new home of the Metropolitan Opera, so I can’t comment on the info on that website. BUT having read a number of histories of Rockefeller Center, I believe this is very much a mistake — this theater was NOT designed to be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera.

(Two good books and a monograph I’ve read are 1) a popular history of Rockerfeller Center by … (the name escapes me for the moment, but it was written in the 1960s); 2) a more scholarly one by Carol Krinsky (from the mid-1970s); and 3) a scholarly monography by James Marston Fitch of the Historic Preservation program at Columbia. (Plus there is a relatively new comprehensive history, the Okrent book(?), which I haven’t looked at yet.)

My guess, is that the misundertanding boils down to differing interpretations of the meaning of the phrase “built for.”

The generally accepted story is that the original impetus for the ENTIRE CENTER was the desire of the Metropolitan Opera to have a new home. They got John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to buy up the leases on the land for them (he was to sell part of it and donate part of it, I believe) so they could build a grand opera house with a plaza in front (like the Paris Opera) and arcades and stores, etc. to provide a grand setting. But for a variety of reasons, including the stock market crash of 1929, this scheme didn’t work out. So John D. Rockefeller who had already started working on this scheme — and was left holding the bag, so to speak — had to “fish or cut bait” and he decided to build Rockefeller Center instead of just letting the property just stay as it was (“low rent”) while he was shelling out a premium to get all those leases under one ownership.

Had the original plans been followed, the Metropolitan Opera House would likely have been designed to stand on what was to become the centrally located site of the GE (originally RCA) Building — facing a magnificent, large public square (which would have been located where the ice skating rink is today).

By the time plans were developed for Radio City Music Hall and the Center Theater at Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan was long, long gone from the picture and these theater were designed with different objectives in mind — and at locations more in keeping with their functions. Remember, although the Sixth Ave. “el” was scheduled to be torn down, Sixth Ave. was still a very seedy street — not the greatest location for an opera house, while a location behind a large public square facing Fifth Ave. would have been considered ideal for an opera house.

As I understand it, the Center Theater was originally designed to function as Radio City Music Hall ultimately functioned during its heyday (a film interspersed with a stage show), and Radio City Music Hall was originally intended to be just that, an enormous “music hall,” along the lines of the fabled “Palace Theater” (or the 3,000 seat, or so, George Carroll Theater, just a block down the street from Radio City Music Hall).

When the Music Hall flopped as a “music hall,” it took over the film/stage show function and the Center Theater was left to search for a new format/use.

P.S. — Carol Krinsky is trained as an art historian and, if I remember correctly, her book has nice little histories and pictures of Radio City Music Hall and the Center Theater.

RobertR
RobertR on December 15, 2004 at 4:19 pm

CConnolly
Sad the Guild could not have stayed open. It was a good house but had gotten run down. After the Music Hall stopped showing movies they picked up alot of the Disney Films.

Rob