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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.
An easy way to reach that “Happy 50th Ben Hur” page is to return to the top of this page, click on blog, and type in the name of the page in the search bar on the blog page. By the way, does anyone know if the grand movie palace, where movies are presented with style and elegance, has definitely gone the way of the horse and buggy? I once tried to get some people in my locale to consider establishing a new venue of that type, but pressure from a giant cineplex corporation doing business in the area killed the idea.
“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
Just a footnote: I really miss Loews State. The thought that I will probably never again see such brilliant movie presentations as one could once see there is a sad comment on theaters in our present age.
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.
Well, this guy asked for it, so I posted it on the “Happy 50th Ben Hur ” blog page. I am not going to clutter this site up with TWO posts of the same voluminous document. It’s on that page now. I hope you enjoy the thing. Whew!
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.
Sorry for the holdup. (Although I posted this same message last night, it strangely vanished.) I was attempting to post a link to the article about “Ben Hur” at Loews State. As I do not have a web site, this was not possible. Here is an email address:
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:
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.
Tonight, I completed a long-contemplated written account of the unforgettable experience of the first-run presentation of “Ben Hur” at Loews State Theater in New York. As the wondrous nature of this experience resulted from a host of fine details which all contributed to the whole impact, my account is really lengthy. I have endeavored to contact a Cinema Treasures site administrator for advice as to whether to proceed with posting such a thing. On the advice of a member identifying himself as “Coate”, I will probably place this on the “Happy 50th, "Ben Hur” page if there is no substantial objection to my proceeding with this.
I was delighted to read this article; although I was sure that the seat upholstery fabric was primarily gold colored. This was a half-century ago, so I could well be wrong. I am sure that, when I complete and post my recollection of the first-run experience of “Ben Hur” at Loews State, someone is going to dispute some of the details which I recall. Such is life, and the limitations of human memory.
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.
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.
In a few days, I will definitely put together an account of the Loews State “Ben Hur' first-run experience. I wish I could find reliable info about that enormous refurbishing that they did on the theater for this premiere run. I had not seen the interior of the theater before I saw this film there, but I understand that they made major changes.
– Dave Greene
I tried to set down a reasonably brief description of the first-run experience of “Ben Hur” at Loew’s State. There were just too many details that I deem to be essential to communicating the magic of that experience. I felt that the amount of text this description would require would be so great as to almost certainly violate some rule governing how much you could post in any one comment. I am nevertheless determined to set it all down in writing. The whole thing was just too unique in all my years of moviegoing, and I am still thrilled by the memory. If anyone knows a way that I might pass along the completed account to anyone that might be interested, I would be only too pleased to share the thing. I’ll monitor this site for suggestions.
I positively “haunted” this theater during the first-run engagement of “Ben Hur”. The remodeling of the theater for that show, together with the brilliant customization of their presentation of the film absolutely enchanted me at age 14. William Wyler’s renowned meticulous attention to details seemed to have been carried over to the way this theater handled the screening. This is a lost art. I have long considered writing a detailed account of the experience they provided as the modern Cineplex has made so much of that sort of finesse extinct.