RKO Proctor's 58th Street Theatre

154 East 58th Street,
New York, NY 10022

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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/

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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 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.

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on July 13, 2012 at 10:06 am

New link to a 1956 trade article about exterior and lobby renovations. Manhattan’s largest “atmospheric” auditorium apparently escaped changes at the time:boxoffice

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.

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on June 3, 2011 at 10:21 am

Status needs to be changed from “Closed” to “Demolished.”… Tony V, many thanks for sharing your wonderful memories. When you checked attendance at Loew’s Lexington, how did it usually compare to that RKO 58th?

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.

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on May 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm

The brownish building in the current 58th Street street view occupies the space once taken up by the theatre’s huge atmospheric auditorium.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on February 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

This closed as a movie theatre in mid-May 1967 and the last films were indeed “The Viscount” and “The Cool Ones”.

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on February 2, 2010 at 9:11 am

This is probably the main floor candy counter installed in the 1950s, but verification is needed. The design tries to blend modern with the original baroque: : View link

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 31, 2009 at 2:46 am

Here’s a link to a scan of an article about the RKO 58th Street in Boxoffice, August 6, 1956. There are photos of the John J. McNamara-designed remodeling job, and a couple of “before” shots.

AlexNYC
AlexNYC on September 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Thanks for that fascinating recollection of an amazing era when movie theaters were the ultimate in entertainment. You have amazing memory on all the technical details. Like many theaters in New York, the loss of the RKO Theater was a shame, architecturally and culturally. I only learned about this theater on this site, it was gone before I could see it in person.

I wonder how the ½ cent of the 62 ½ per an hour worked? LOL

TonyV
TonyV on June 7, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Hi. Just found this site. I worked at RKO 58th St Theatre from 1948 to 1954 after school and weekends. Started as an Usher, became Chief of Service – started at 45 cents per hour for 22 hour week, then 55 cents per hour for forty hour week after school and weekends, then 62 ½ cents per hour as chief.
Lavish decor. The stage was set up for vaudeville acts so had elevators built in it, whole attached building of dressing rooms and large areas storage. Curtains and drops were hung above the stage, lots of rigging, hoists, pulleys, etc up there. You could go up about forty, fifty feet and be on a catwalk where they suspended everything from. Very scary. There was a long open vertical ladder going up sidewall of stage that ushers used to climb as a ritual of passage – open ladder, steel built into wall – very long way up. Very spooky, you imagined meeting the Phantom of the Opera there. The basement had a tank for seals, heavy cages for lions/tigers and stalls for horses.
The sky had been projected on the huge ceiling over the orchestra and balcony. It was pierced with holes for “stars” to shine through – projectors on the sides hidden in plaster decorations sent up images of clouds drifting across the sky. Ceiling was only mesh and plaster on metal framework Steel catwalks criss-crossed above the ceiling allowed you to walk up there, look through “star” holes way, way down at seats – that was really bad.
Had a huge pipe organ with console that rose on elevator. Pipes of course hidden in sidewalls with trumpets, drums, etc. The house electrician, a bit crazy put in fuses one night and fired up organ – it still worked somewhat after years of inactivity – dust it blew out took a week to settle though.
We used to help the electrician change the signage on the two marquees, erected scaffolding, go up and shuffle letters. They were steel sheets that fit in tracks, had cutout for the white porcelain letters. Got five bucks for helping him, not bad for two hours of work when you are making 55 cents per hour ushering. Course this occurred after midnite, got home 2:30 and off to school in AM. Yawn. Marquee layout of lettering was a real art, had to layout the letters and spaces of the signs, get it approved by Manager. There were blank spacers, ¼, ½, full space. it had to look balanced and right. Had to replace burned out bulbs which often broke. would then used base of another bulb and jam it into busted one and screw it out. Electrician used to stick his knuckles into sockets to check if they were live – it was 110 volts DC power, original Thomas Edison system which was used in lower Manhattan until the late 1950’s. not AC – most of movie house had DC power as this was in older part of Manhattan – There was also some AC power in the house, never knew which was in a particular outlet, Lot of equipment couldn’t use DC power, burned out the new butter dispenser for the pocorn at the refreshment stand that way, also first freezer for the ice cream.
Theatre had one of the earlier Carrier air-conditioning systems. Had a huge DC motor driving compressor, Frankenstein style switches with heavy carbon pads instead of knife contacts, The house engineer had to use a starting technique. “Never look at the switch” he would say. It drew brilliant arc for they were also circuit breakers and would snap open. Like looking at a welding arc. To start he would grab the handles of two switches and slam them home. BANG – they immediately popped open and the big motor would rumble and turn over slightly, they he would quickly slam them home again and they would BANG and brilliant arc, but motor now was turning a bit faster, quickly again and same results but motor was reving a bit, and again – five-six times and the switch breakers would stay in and motor would be running, They he went off to the circulating pumps for this system chilled water, They would start easier and then he had to manipulate valves, etc to control refrigerant. The air for the theatre was heated in winter by NY Steam piped in from street, no furnaces in the house. When cooling needed, the chilled water was sent into a big room where the air was blowing though – it actually sprayed in there, cooling the air but also humidifying it – went to a drying chamber to eliminate actual fog droplets and then up into the house for distribution.
I was there when the Sychro Screen was installed, they had to upgrade the projectors and used the ones for drive-ins. A lot of people didn’t like them as they thought the picture didn’t fit the whole screen but I thought it was more restful to the eye. Had to shut down for couple of days for that installation and for the later Cinemascope screen. Had to shut down too after the first showing of the Robe in Cinemascope. When projectionist rewound it after first showing, the DC motors on the rewinder garbled the magnetic sound track on the film. Had to get new cans of film. Refunded a lot of tickets that day. Projectionists were king of the place though, made as much as the manager.
Manager then was A.E. Arnstein, his assistant was Mrs. Wachtel, the Porter was Felix Bell a retired boxer, Mrs. McNally was the Matron. They did use both box offices whole time I was there, the 58th St one opened into the theatre office. They closed the 58th St office early leaving the 3rd Avenue one open.

AlexNYC
AlexNYC on May 24, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Great photos. Thanks Warren.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on April 22, 2009 at 9:09 am

Here are new links to exterior views. The first two show the entrances on Third Avenue and around the corner on 58th Street. The one on 58th Street was the original, but reduced to an auxiliary entrance when the Third Avenue was added. The third view shows the modernized Third Avenue entrance:
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Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on April 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

Here are new links to auditorium views. Please note that Proctor’s 58th was built simultaneously with Thomas Lamb’s atmospheric Keith-Albee in Flushing, Queens, but had about 200 more seats:
View link
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Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on February 6, 2009 at 1:42 pm

In this classic ad from November, 1933, a legendary star appears to be fondling at least one of her precious assets: View link

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on February 5, 2009 at 6:54 am

Check rooms for pets were not unusual for important theatres in New York’s classier neighborhoods. On the East Side, the RKO 86th Street and Loew’s 72nd Street also had them, but all fell victim to the Depression, when they became too expensive to operate. They required a full-time attendant, and food and water also had to be provided for the animals, which I would guess were canines only.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on February 5, 2009 at 6:34 am

Here is one I never heard before:

From the New York Times 1928 regarding the New Proctor 58th St.

“The new playhouse will have…an "animal room” where, it is announced, patrons may check their pets while attending performances."

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on December 8, 2008 at 8:10 am

This noteworthy ad from Tuesday, February 8, 1949, shows how major circuits like RKO countered midweek doldrums with two-day bookings of new “B” movies or old favorites. Some of the theatres also presented vaudeville or special events with the films:
View link