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As so many of you are interested in the various widescreen processes, the projection ratios, the flat and curved screen, and what wide screen films premiered where, how, why and when, may I suggest you go to Widescreenmuseum.com. or widescreenmuseumlobby.com. It’s a great site and one that you will undoubtedly go and stay until someone sends a posse out to look for you.
Absolutely. Here’s the deal. The idea was to give patrons approximately 3 hours of entertainment. The stage show portion would run anywhere from 22 minutes (with a 2 hr 30 minute film like “The Greatest Show on Earth,” or “The Nun’s Story,” or “Sayonara.”). If the film was only 75 to 90 minutes or so, as with many of the films during the 1930s, the stage show could run up to an hour. The balance of the screen time would be filled with either The March of Time (18 minutes), the newest Walt Disney cartoon, or one or even two 10 minute shorts, and a newsreel(their own compliation). Sometimes all were included in the program, added or removed during the course of the day, depending on where the management needed to fill or gain time. Only The March of Time or the Disney cartoon would ever get credit in the printed program. The organ breaks would also be used to fill time (to the great joy of the patrons). Sunday morning was the best time for an extended organ concert, as the house opened almost an hour before the feature began, and the organist would often play for a half hour.
As a regular patron of the Music Hall during the late 1940s and 1950s, (and an usher in the 1950s)and going regularly as a subscriber (reserved seats) with my parents, I have no memory of the screen enlarging for climactic scenes (something that would stand out as special)at any of the films that played there. Yes, the screen enlarged after the credits as when such films as “Shane,” and a few others played there (that didn’t last long), notwithstanding all the wide screen films after “Knights of the Roundtable,” that otherwise made no fuss in presentation over the the film that was shown in wide-screen format. But getting back to the Rivoli, that theater was always at the forefront of presentation. I especially remember “Samson and Delilah” (which played day and date with the Paramount)being shown on some new type of screen (anyone know what that was?,) as well as a special surround sound going back to “Portrait of Jenny.”
As mjc wants to know about the differences between the Roxy and RCMH projection booths, may I suggest that he contact both The League of Historic American Theaters (lhat.com) and The Theater Historical Society of America (http://www2.hawaii.edu/~angell/thsa/. Also the definitive Roxy info can be found in “The Best Remaining Seats” by Ben Hall. It is out of print, but libraries and buffs are sure to have it.
Getting back to the stage shows:
Getting back to the stage shows: Does anyone remember “Dancing Waters,” the gorgeous water falls display that was introduced (in a stage show called “Many Waters”)at the Music Hall with the film “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Dancing waters was also used to spectacular effect in a French themed show that recreated The Gardens of Versaille with “The Reluctant Debutante.” Speaking of unusual stage shows (but down the block)…The Roxy had the entire New York Philharmonic four times a day on stage with “The Black Rose.”
With such films as “Sayonarra,” and “Auntie Mame,” (both 2 ½ hours) the stage show NEVER topped 30 minutes. Regular stage shows ran from 40 to 55 minutes. The show could never run past 3 hours total thus allowing for 4 stage shows and five films…except during Christmas and Easter Week. For “Sayonarra” and “Auntie Mame,” the doors opened (except Sunday) at 6:45 am with the picture starting at 7 am. Can you imagine getting your family up and dressed and over to the Music Hall at that time of day? But if you didn’t, you could depend on standing in line for three hours. For those that didn’t like lines or stage shows, you could go to the Music Hall (during the 1940s and early 1950s) and see a midnight showing of the movie alone (it followed the normal last showing of the complete stage and film show) that began with the stage show around 9:20 with the film at 10:10. I think the worst Christmas picture that ever had was “The Impossible Years,” (1968)with David Niven. Yet it broke attendance records.
“Streetcar…” wasn’t the only film originally expected to open at the RCMH but nixed (It went to the Warner…previously the Strand)after it was screened by the executives. “A Place in the Sun” was also removed (too sexy) from the year’s roster…it went instead to the Capitol. Anyone know why “Annie Get Your Gun” went to Loew’s State instead of RCMH. RCMH chose “Father of the Bride.” Annie seems so much more a Hall picture and “Father…” more typical of the Loew’s State fare. Interesting trivia: “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (Jennifer Jones) was the first film (although a good one)to gross under $100,000 in its opening week in more than 20 years.
Here’s another stage show for the books. I believe I saw it with “Home Before Dark” with Jean Simmons (don’t hold me to this one). The finale was danced to the ballet music from “Faust.” It was a Dante’s Inferno number during which huge flames shot up from various holes in the stage floor as the entire company including the dancers (corps de ballet and the Rockettes) whirled around in a sort of orgiastic frenzy until (once again) the stage was engulfed in smoke. This was an unusual number in that the curtain didn’t descend during the climactic moment but the cast came forward for bows. The curtain came down after the bows. Can anyone remember any other really bizarre stage shows? I know a mini-opera version of “Madama Butterfly” was staged during the mid-1930s and held for a second week with a change of the film. I believe that was the only time a stage show was held over but not the film. The Paramount would do that on occasion.
Yes, I was there for the “The Great Nome Fire,” in which a replica of the town was engulfed in flames (I believe the Japanese are masters of on-stage fires, and they were also in charge of the burning of Atlanta in the London stage production of “Gone With The Wind”). The finale had fire engines racing through the town across the great stage spraying water on the fire with giant hoses as smoke billowed up and engulfed the entire stage from floor to rafters. The curtain came down as the smoke cleared showing the destroyed building. There were brighter moments during the first part of the show that included the Rockettes, as dance hall girls. It was a rather impressive but short display, as “The Nun’s Story” was 2 hours and 30 minutes leaving only twenty minutes for a stage show. The other shortest stage show (22 minutes)in my memory was for “The Greatest Show on Earth,” (2 hrs 32 mins). It had a circus theme. But when it comes to short stage shows, we can’t forget the 15 minutes devoted to the ice show (American Indian theme) that accompanied “Giant” (3 hrs 20 min at the Roxy. The running time for the entire show was just under 4 hours includidng breaks.
A slight digression from the Music Hall: The common practice of saturation booking policy by the studios explains the demise of all the single screen cinemas with 1,200 seats or more. The Ziegfeld Theater no longer gets the “exclusive” except perhaps for one week prior to general release. And the 1,500 seat Loew’s on 45th St is closing to become a retail store.
Interesting that Bill would mention those two films above. Although critically acclaimed, neither one did extraordinary business: 4 & 5 weeks respectively under a guarantee. Granted that those films attracted a mature audience, they were hard to sell to the typical Music Hall audience. Curiously, the Hall attracted a more mature audience during its first two decades notably “Randam Harvest” (ll weeks) and “Sunset Boulevard” in 1950 (7 weeks). I guess the dumbing down began right after “Days…” and “…Mockingbird.” That tells us something…maybe about the drinking water.
I wonder if Ron3853, or anyone, has found a website that has compiled the weekly grosses that Variety has only on microfilm.
I believe the theater that “Camden” is referring to is the Guild. It was a classy little art house operation (about 500 seats)that specialized in British films. It was very comfortable and posh during its heyday and had a lovely lounge one level below the theater in which coffee and small cakes were served to patrons waiting for the film to end. Like the Music Hall it used its trailer curtain effectively opening and closing between the news and the feature. One of its greatest and longest running hits was the documentary “A Queen is Crowned” that ran for six months and had long lines. Also “Gate of Hell,” was another smash hit from Japan (played about six months or more)and is considered was the breakthrough film from Japan. Its breathtaking use of Technicolor and portait quality cinematography are landmarks in film making. The Boulting Brothers comedys from the U.K. were great favorites. The Guild enjoyed its greatest success during the 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes there was a long line waiting to get into the Guild while the Music Hall had immediate seating. Patrons arriving from 5th Avenue would get confused when they saw the line and had to be told to continue walking toward 6th Avenue to the Music Hall entrance.
Let’s remember that many of the old movie palaces, at least those that were known as “presentation houses” were a phenomenon. For the first time (from the 1920s thru 1950s) middle class and poor people could experience “classical” music played by a symphony orchestra, world class ballet, the great arias and cantatas sung by a renowned singer and a choral ensemble, all with a film and at popular prices and in a city near you. It raised the consciousness of the nation and brought an unexpected shower of culture to people that could only imagine it through the radio. Even the theaters that catered to the “Big Bands” reached millions that could only hear them on the radio. Like it or not, the era has passed and the dumming down of America has had its effect. The pop/rap scene has virtually eradicated classical culture from our society. Only the elite and wealthy are privileged to enjoy it nowadays. The cost of producing a show that would please Vincent at the Music Hall would be prohibitive. As it is, tickets to the Christmas show now can run as high as $90. Ridiculous. My question: Does anyone know if there are any filmed records of complete Music Hall shows of the 1930s, 40s, & 50s? Also I’ve tried to find the archived records of the grosses of the New York Theaters on the web…without going to micro-film. Is that possible?
Thank you Will for the compliments. Remember that I was only at the Roxy (1956 – 57) and Music Hall (1958-59)during the last of the glory days, but also well after the days that you describe above. Yes, the ushers at both the Roxy and Music Hall were trained to exceptional standards to handle large crowds, assist patrons and help in keeping the theater running smoothly and efficiently. We had morning inspections and evening inspections. An in-house tailor shop regularly cleaned and repaired all uniforms and good grooming was essential. I was only 18 years old when I started at the Roxy on the evening and weekend shifts and went to college during the day. The most difficult thing about the job was standing erect and still for long periods of time. No slouching or leaning was tolerated. Neither was conversation with other ushers. Our assignments were given by the captain before we went on the floor. They included an aisle or foyer assignment, center rotunda or near the front lobby. Only doormen (you had to be over 6ft) worked the outer lobby and street. Most everyone preferred the orchestra as the upper mezzanine rarely had the action or flow of patrons. Our uniforms were season specific i.e. white jackets in summer and black jackets in winter. and included a white dicky and black bow tie. We carried flashlights and learned complicated hand signals that came in very handy when relaying messages across such a huge expanse. We had house phones on every level to use reach head ushers and asst managers when needed. The most important function was to keep tabs on seat availability and let those handling the lines (whether inside or out) know how many seats were available and in what location. There was always an usher at the auditorium entrance with a notebook counting the number of patrons (called a spill)that entered every 10 minutes. This gave us a clue as to when seats would become available after 3 hours. No patrons were ever seated during the overture but had to stay in the standing room section in rear of orchestra. Also no seating was allowed during the Nativity or Glory of Easter pageants. To answer you questions above: we did not have sport teams (bummer)or sing. But I did participate with my fellow ushers as escorts for the Rockettes (they rode on a float until we got to Macy’s)the first time they appeared in the Thanksgiving Day parade. To digress just a bit: It was the movie studios that were responsible for the downward spiral of the Music Hall. The studios would not guarantee the Music Hall an exclusive run prior to regular release. The growing number of poor G rated films and the growing number of excellent films with R ratings also hurt.The 1960s introduced the mass multiple run openings across the country. I’m sure you’ve all read enough about that. And NO, I never dated a Rockette.
Correction: Previous sentence should read: Also no short or cartoon ever started WITHOUT the traveler opening and closing. Sorry.
I believe the decline of the Music Hall during the 1960s is well documented. HOwever, those of us who worked there, as well as at the Roxy, will never forget what a class operation they were from managment to the service personel. How a film was presented was of paramount importantance. A patron never saw a blank screen. The film (or studio logo)would begin as the contour curtain lifted and the traveler curtain opened simultaneously. The contour curtain would begin its descent timed perfectly to hit the stage as the film ended. Also no short or cartoon ever started with the traveler opening and closing. Also the organist would pick up on the last note off the sound track and then seque into his medley. If’s fun to remember and hear the responses.
Another bit of trivia about RCMH: trailers of the next attraction were shown, however, there was a one minute “announcement” of the next attraction shown on the screen in which a few lines describing the film would appear over a grey background with live organ accompaniment. It began “The Radio City Music Hall is proud to present as its next distinquished attraction the world premiere of XXXXX. Also on the great stage a new spectacle produced by (either) Leon Leonidoff or Russell Markert. Also the latest Walt Disney cartoon would get a spot on the program if the film were not more than 110 minutes long. One more bit of info: During the 1950s, a film had to gross $88,000 in the four day period from Thursday thru Sunday to warrent a holdover. A good opening week was around $145,000 and would suggest a four week run. The only film I know that didn’t break the $100,000 barrier during its opening week in the 1950s was "The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” It grossed a paltry $85,000 for the entire week, but it was held for 2 weeks, the miniumum run in that decade.
Bravo to Bob Ketler’s home page salute to RCMH. Here are a few very minor corrections. Except during Christmas and Easter week when the doors would open 7:45 am, and on one Christmas occasion at 6:45 am (due to the length of “Sayonara” and to allow 5 shows), the normal house opening was at 10:15 am with the feature beginning at 10:30 on weekdays. Last stage show was always between 9:15 and 9:30, except on Sundays which strangly had a late stage show around 10:15. Also let’s get the seating capacity right. Both the Roxy and RCMH claimed to have 6,000 seats when in reality the Roxy had 5,800 and the Music Hall 5,945. But whose counting right? Has anyone noticed that the new contour curtain (since the magnificent restoration) hangs rigidly on the stage floor and only when it begins to rise does it show the folds. I understand the process, but I remember that the original gold curtain still displayed a hint of a swagger…or am I dreaming. Oh yes, the prices. Throughout the 1950s, or until “Rosemarie” opened as the first Cinemascope film and they raised the admission price by 10 cents the prices were as follows: Weekdays Opening to noon .80; noon to 6pm 1.25 and 6 to closing 1.50. Saturdays .95 to noon; 1.25 to 3pm and 1.50 to close; Sundays 1.25 from opening to 1pm and 1.50 1pm to close. Reserved seats (1st mezzanine)1.80 for matiness and 2.40 evenings and holidays. Reserved seat “subsciption” tickets were also available during the first two weeks of every show. This was very popular among the elite during the 1940s and 1950s and the crowd in the first mezzanine looked like the grand tier set at the Met.
Yes, Leibert was a supurb musician, but he was not alone in keeping the break pealing with the sounds of the great organ. Ashley Miller and Raymond F. Bohr Jr. alternated (as well as in concert)with him. Jim: I am a member of THS and have gone on about six conclaves.
As a former RCMH usher (1958 – 1959), I am delighted to find so many fans of the theater out there, notwithstanding those with such authoritative knowledge…technical and otherwise. One issue that was never brought up, but is interesting to consider is why huge single screen theaters are no longer practical for films is this: We all know how most films are shown today: i.e. not continuous, but rather with an admission to one particular showing. The theater is emptied and swept between performances in most multi-plexes. In the days of the movie palaces, such as RCMH, a 3,000 to 6,000 seater would have patrons entering and exiting at any time from morning to last show. Except for road shows, patrons would not tolerate being kept from entering a theater (except when SRO) at their discretion even if the film was a mystery and in the middle. At RCMH, it took a full hour with four cashiers going (sometimes five plus the reserved seat window)to fill the 6,000 seats on those days (especially during holidays)when the theater expected a “tight initial” (house filled before the start of the first feature). The Music Hall, as did others with thousands of seats to fill, only had a five to ten minute (maximum)break between film and stage shows. Except for the lucky few hundred patrons waiting in the lobby, those in the street line had little hope of getting into the theater before the start of the feature. It didn’t matter to them. We have changed our movie going habits and would not tolerate a film starting before we were in our seats. Except at the Paramount on Times Square during the 1940s(where police actually helped clear the theater of screaming teens who wanted to stay all day), the big theaters counted on a constant flow of traffic. I remember when “All About Eve” opened at the Roxy, the managment tried to seat patrons only during the 30 minute break between shows. It failed because irate patrons were unwilling to wait if there were empty seats inside. Also the problem of getting 6,000 people into their seats in 30 minutes proved next to impossible. That lasted one week and the film went back to continuous showings. Another interesting point is that the Music Hall was not designed for standing lobby crowds (only a couple of hundred would fit without blocking critical exits from the auditorium). The theater was obliged to keep most patrons in the street. However, once the line moved it moved swiftly and 1,500 people could be inside within fifteen minutes. In contrast, The Roxy could hold 2,000 people in the rotunda. That is also why you rarely saw a street line at the Roxy. (I also ush-ed at the Roxy from 1956 – 1957). One of my favorite assignments as an RCMH usher to to do a spot check of number of patrons at the Roxy when a new film opened. I suspect it had to do with a bit of rivalry but also to see if the grosses reported in Variety were credible based on attendance. My wife loves my picture in my RCMH uniform. I also had a thrill watching a FOX newsreel on TCM one night when they showed the opening night crowd of “Anastasia” (ROXY). And there I am…immortalized and standing proudly in the rotunda as the stars pass by.