RKO Proctor's 58th Street Theatre

154 East 58th Street,
New York, NY 10022

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RKO 58th Street

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This spectacular Thomas Lamb designed Atmospheric style theatre first opened on December 20, 1928, on the same site as Proctor’s Pleasure Palace Palm Gardens, which dated back to 1895, and was demolished to make way for what F.F. Proctor termed his “Greatest Triumph”.

The theatre had two entrances and two marquees, one on East 58th Street and the other in mid-block on Third Avenue. Tunnel-like lobbies connected them to the theatre’s high-vaulted grand foyer, which had ornate staircases at each end that lead to the mezzanine promenade and balcony. The Spanish Renaissance auditorium with its “midnight sky” ceiling was similar to that of Lamb’s Keith-Albee in Flushing, Queens, which was built simultaneously with the 58th Street and opened five days later. The 58th Street Theatre was especially notable for its huge balcony, which had almost as many seats as the orchestra floor and rose from above the latter’s 12th row to afford good views of the stage attractions. That was unfortunate for patrons sitting further back in the orchestra because they could only see the balcony’s underbelly and were cut off from the sky effects on the main ceiling.

Proctor’s East 58th Street Theatre opened with vaudeville and a feature movie that was first-run for its neighborhood but had already been shown in one of the Broadway-Times Square showcases. There was a complete change of program twice a week. Perhaps because it was the first Atmospheric style theatre to be built in Manhattan, the East 58th Street Theatre drew crowds for several months, but once the novelty wore off, attendance plummeted.

In 1929, the aged F.F. Proctor decided to retire and sold all his theatres to the RKO circuit. Out of respect, RKO kept his name on the 58th Street Theatre, and it remained RKO Proctor’s 58th Street Theatre for a couple of decades before being shortened to the RKO 58th Street Theatre. RKO soon dropped the vaudeville and switched to double features, which were still first-run for that neighborhood. The nearest theatres on the East Side showing the same movies as the 58th Street Theatre were the Academy of Music on 14th Street and the RKO 86th Street Theatre.

Situated in a busy shopping district that included Bloomingdale’s department store, the 58th Street Theatre did good business but rarely enough to fill its 3,163 seats. In 1956, RKO did some modernizing to the plans of architect John J. McNamara, and reduced the seating capacity to about 2,000. However, that was still too large for that area of Third Avenue, where it had to compete with several new art theatres of 600 seats or less. Its operating costs were too high, and the value of its underlying ground was sky-rocketing.

Around 1967, RKO closed the 58th Street Theatre and put a sign on the marquee that said “Go to the RKO 86th Street for the Best in Entertainment”. The 58th Street Theatre was sold and demolished for a 39-story luxury building. To make up for its loss, RKO built a new twin cinema on 59th Street, which is now also ancient history.

Contributed by Warren G. Harris

Recent comments (view all 61 comments)

TonyV
TonyV on May 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm

After a long lapse, let me continue my recollections on RKO 58th, I worked there from 1948 to 1954 as usher and later Chief of Service while going to school. As mentioned in the theater description, the balcony was huge, The lower section were the premium loge seats providing the best view in the house. Ushers were stationed at Loge Left and at night at Loge Right to inspect and seat the premium paying patrons. The loge seats were bigger and softer than the normal orchestra and balcony seats and hence commanded the premium price. Ushers had to be alert to prevent regular patrons from taking loge seats. The upper balcony was normally closed and in fact, when needed because of a hit film, had to be specially cleaned. It was really very high up and very distant from the screen although the Synchro Screen that was installed was much larger than the previous one. The main lobby had a very high ceiling and two chandeliers were suspended from it. Periodically they had to be relamped. The house electrician had to go up in the loft area above it and use two hand-cranked winches to lower them for relamping. These were old and hard to crank and he got into a somewhat jerky way. Yhis set up some vibration and several large pieces of plaster from the ornate ceiling came loose and fell smashing on the lobby floor. It was after closing of course so it scared only the cleaners. Off the lobby on the house left side was the Managers and Chief of Service offices and a stair leading down to the basement area where the changing room for the ushers and the engineering spaces ad storeroom s were. There was also a passage leading to backstage and lots of deserted rooms and spaces. In some of them were stored boxes of large glass projection slides dating back to the forties at least and maybe earlier. These had the words to songs that the organist used to play. Wish I had taken some of them as many had cartoon drawings on them. It was very spooky down there and backstage as well as no one worked or ever went back there. We wereen’t supposed to go back there but the manager left at ten, the assistant manager left after the end of the last showing you had checked balcony and house for sleepers. So after you changed your uniform it was only the cleaners there. One feature of the 58th Street theater was the Lodge Building attached on 58th Street and part of same structure. Various fraternal orders had meeting rooms. It was all very mysterious as there was a doorman there who kept everyone out who had no business there. Although part of the same building and having some ties to it (maybe owned by RKO?) it was still off-limits even to ushers. Backstage, there were a lot of dressing rooms and offices, all empty and full of boxes and debris. It must have been very busy in the heyday of Vaudville. Ushering was mind-numbing most of the time. Daytimes only one usher would be on duty in the loges. Evenings and on weekends one would be on duty on the center aisle (aisle 3) and two in the loges. A doorman took tickets, even more mind-numbing than ushering as he couldn’t see the screen. These were usually retired men. (a Mr. Conti was a long serving doorman) One peculiar duty of the Chief of Service was to go each evening to Loews Lexington Theater and check the house for the number of patrons. You would come back and report it to the manager who called in. Loews didn’t mind and you would go to their doorman and announce you were from RKO and he would admit you. A look at the orchestra, then to the balcony and loges and a long walk back to RKO. Ushers were issued a uniform including a cardboard dickey and cardboard collar held together with a collar pin stud. It took a while to be able to slip a tie and knot it properly. Cardboard collars are not comfortable and chaffed the neck. I saw a lot of movies of course since we showed double-features. Most were forgettable, lots of grade B Westerns mysteries, etc but better than the tripe on TV now. And I will never forget the magnificence of that theater.

TonyV
TonyV on June 3, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Regarding the nightly checking of Loews Lexington for attendance. I seem to remember that Loews did a better business than we did. Loews was tied in with MGM and so had better pictures. We drew a fair number of patrons from Queens who came across the bridge on a trolley or bus later. We did get Disney films though. We did get “stinke-bombed” once, alleged to be done by the projectionist’s union who were in negotiations with the theater chains. It was never proved of course. A bottle with a loose stopper was placed under a seat on orchestra right and then kicked over by the perpetrator as he left. It rolled down several rows spilling as it went. Really bad stuff requiring special cleanup and we were closed for two days as the place was uninhabitable. Theater unions were very strong but unfortunately never got to the ushers level as you could note from the pay scale I quoted in a previous post.

TonyV
TonyV on July 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm

RKO 58th did a steady business but rarely sold out. Occasionally a blockbuster came along like the Robe or House of Wax in 3d. The upper balcony was normally closed and on the few occasions when it became necessary to open it it was a panic operation to dust the seats. On occasion I donned a heavy cape that matched my dark blue uniform with red piping and stood outside on Third Avenue saying: “There is a twenty minute wait for seating” scaled down progressively as needed. Cape was a real show piece, lined and proof against winter winds, with epaulets and gold tassels and you felt like an idiot wearing it. I also stood inside the door where the tickets were taken, no cape there, just the regular usher’s uniform chanting a litany, The best remaining seats are Upstairs Stairway to your left, There is no waiting for seating Upstairs, Stairway to your left" Try repeating that for an hour or two, yo go to sleep that night with it still ringing in your head. You had to modulate your voice so it wouldn’t carry to the orchestra. You got quite a run of characters as patrons. One lady, obviously suffering from paranoia would demand that you opened the candy machine so she could select a candy bar at random, not the next one that would come out the slot. That would have been the poisoned one of course. Another lady would come in a seat herself in the orchestra. After five minutes she would come out and demand that we shut off “the rays” that we directed at her. Don Brown who was Chief of Service when I started at RKO 58th showed me how to satisfy her. He went to a house phone box built into the wall near the dooman. It had many buttons, most going to long disused dressing rooms backstage. He would press a button and then say; “Shut off the Rays – she knows about them”. She would then resume her seat with a triumphant smile having outwitted her special enemies once again. Three D movies were a pain. We had to distribute the polarized spectacles. Some were single use disposable, others had to be collected and sent out for cleaning and sterilization. I endured six years of sleep deprivation between school and working but it was worth it and undertook a long career in airline maintenance. I did not go to a movie again until after I was married.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on July 13, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Great memories TonyV. I still remember calling the local police to help a man who claimed to have been injured by a bullet that somehow escaped from the screen in PLATOON and a lady claimed the staff was bugging her home phone to track her movie-going probabilities.

TonyV
TonyV on July 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I remember some of the promos – Godzilla was coming, or maybe the Beast from 20,000 fathoms, but it breathed fire. A few weeks before hand a large cardboard cutout was erected inside the Orchestra lobby where you would see it after your ticket was taken. Its jaw moved via an electric motor and it breathed smoke. The smoke was generated by a small pan with asbestos? on the bottom. You poured a SMALL" amount of titanium tetrachloride in the pan and it would spontaneously smoke and be blown out when the jaws opened. Inevitable occurred, too much fluid added and some spilled. The resulting cloud was awesome and smoke out the Lady’s Room on the second level. We had to rush Godzilla outside in front of the theater where he fumed and smoked for an hour probably getting more attention than inside. After that he gave up smoking in the house.

I was asked to go around Manhattan schools with two artists from Disney Studios for, was it Alice in Wonderland. I carried easels, large paper books and they would set up on a stage in the school and draw some of the favorites. They were uninhibited characters, took me to lunch and gave me a twenty for helping them. I heard quite a bit about Walt, how he was a genius but a hard boss, etc. Then there was the “Prettiest Baby” promotion. Parents submitted baby pictures which were posted in numbered order. For two weeks each patron was given a paper ballot to vote for the prettiest. Women of course spent twenty minutes studying the pictures before voting. Men weren’t that interested until they saw one bald headed lad, big ears sticking out and an inane smile. They all voted for him. The female vote being split, the prettiest baby was chosen and certainly wasn’t but he had his five minutes of fame.

60s_Usher
60s_Usher on August 26, 2012 at 8:09 am

Well, the theater didn’t close in 1966 because I was working there into November of that year, and it showed no signs of closing. But, alas, after that, I moved on and didn’t go back for decades, and by then it was long long gone. Too often in my life, I have realized too late that I loved something or someone, and had let it go without even saying goodbye. What an amazing place it was — one of the very last of the grand movie palaces/vaudeville houses. Seven stories of unused dressing rooms, a full bank of stage lights controlled by big mechanical rheostats and muscles. By the time I left, the Paramount — perhaps the grandest of all — was gone, the Roxy was gone, and the neighborhood movie palaces were dropping like flies. The RKO 58th was one of the grandest of the grand neighborhood movie palaces. I remember lines around the block for “Cleopatra” and one of the early James Bond flicks. We could accommodate 10,000 patrons a day. But, alas, most of the time the place was nearly empty. It only survived as long as it did because the manager, Nick Constabile, convinced the aging and ossified RKO management that the 3rd avenue area had undergone an early version of gentrification, and that we could double our prices, show one movie, and serve demi-tasse, and compete against the oh-so-chic neighborhood upstarts. But it was just a holding action. I grew up in that theater, and learned lessons about people that have stayed with me all my life. More even than the theater itself, the people I worked with , from a diversity of backgrounds have stayed with me . I have started to write a book about my four summers at the RKO 58th, almost because I must.

rivest266
rivest266 on September 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Grand opening ad uploaded in the photo section for this cinema.

paulnelson
paulnelson on September 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Wow but a bit overblown. Like elaborate theatres but there is a limit. Still should have been saved. Proscenium arch is outstanding and plaster work.

CharmaineZoe
CharmaineZoe on November 16, 2013 at 2:47 am

I have a photo of the original Proctor’s Pleasure Palace Theatre which stood on this site from 1895 to 1928 in my Flickr photostream if anyone is interested.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/charmainezoe/10873852866/

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