Palace Theatre

1564 Broadway,
New York, NY 10036

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RKO Palace Theatre exterior and Times Square area

The Palace Theatre of New York City, the one that virtually inspired them all, started out as a vaudeville theatre on March 24, 1913. It continued in that use until November of 1932 when it began showing movies under the direction of RKO. This continued until 1966, when it became a legitimate theatre. For most of the memory of those alive today, it was a non-movie theatre, and is, indeed, perhaps best remembered as the “Valhalla of Vaudeville” as it was dubbed in the day and age when to ‘play the Palace’ referred to the acme of aspirations of vaudevillians and to this day a way of saying that one has ‘made it big!’

When the Palace Theatre debuted its 1,733 seats at 1564 Broadway, it was within a ten story office building that was squeezed between previous buildings on some of the most expensive real estate frontage in the world. Architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose of Milwaukee were therefore limited to showing their artistry in the three-level auditorium with its sixteen boxes cascading down the walls toward the stage, while being under a graceful arch forming a stylized sunburst above them on either side. In 1920, a grille in this arch was used to front the new organ chambers for the recently installed 2 manual, 4 rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ to accompany occasional film novelties that would become not so novel in the next decades. The organ was remarkably small in size for so prestigious a house, but perhaps the management of the time did not foresee the future dominance of film and the need that silent movies had for a good sized organ. Projectors had been installed in March, 1915 under a slight remodling by architect James S. Gavigan. The theatre was wired for sound movies in 1929, a pivotal year in many respects.

Just why an architectural firm in far away Milwaukee was selected for the prime Palace Theatre, is not known, since it would be years to come before this team was well known for the movie palaces with which they would grace that and other cities, 10 in Milwaukee alone. Perhaps it was Martin Beck himself, impresario of the Palace Theatre, who was touring his Orpheum Vaudeville theatres across the land and happened to admire the gracefulness of the 2,500-seat Alhambra Theatre there, and resolved to have its architect design his new showplace in a somewhat similar style.

Here in the Palace Theatre, it was also to be a combination of Neo-Classical and Adam periods. A relatively simple styling that did nothing to suggest the movie palaces to come, it was characterized by moldings of such as fruit festoons and bead-and-reel to outline the panels into which the walls and ceiling were divided. Perhaps there were very elaborate draperies on the proscenium, but the only found photos are from 1951 and reflect replacements to accommodate the large movie screen of the era, so that as of then, only simple panels of velour in 50% fullness constitute the grand drapery and the house curtain, any draperies in the boxes having by then been removed. Both sides of the main floor seating also boasted a cascading line of elevated (parquet style) boxes from the balcony line forward to the annunciator frames of the drop-card style. In 1939 the lobby and marquee had been altered, and were later completely redone again. The entire facade was largely demolished in the 1980’s, but the interior is virtually intact.

Why did this one theatre rise to such prominence? It is a long and complicated story, as one might expect of a theatre created at the joining of eras in exhibition, but perhaps it is as claimed in the noteworthy book: “Show Biz: From Vaude to Video” by Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr., that it was the coup in obtaining the appearance of the great French tragedian Mme. Sarah Bernhardt, that capped the very long list of notables of both the Vaudevillian and legitimate stages, as so ably brought out in this book, and in the book: “The Palace” by Marian Spitzer in 1969. This was for years the ‘Flagship’ theatre of the RKO circuit and even once housed the offices of this dominant national theatres/vaudeville circuit.

In recent years, it is often the host to long-running Disney stage epics and other hit musicals, and in that vein may it long continue! The final show to be produced in the theatre in its original location was the musical “SpongBob Square Pants” which closed on September 15, 2018. In a $2.4 billion project the theatre will be raised 29feet and a shopping arcade inserted at street level. The hotel built on top of the theatre will be expanded to 663 rooms, a restaurant and nightclub. A huge wrap-around advertising screen will cover the building.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 260 comments)

stevenj on July 31, 2018 at 4:50 pm

bigjoe59….I don’t have a subscription to Variety online to double check this in their archives but just unearthed my Preston Kauffman hardbound Fabulous Fox book which has every film listed that played there by year (including weekly grosses) from opening to closing of the theatre. The Diary of Anne Frank played there during the 30th and 31st weeks of 1959 – sometime in late July. It was released on March 18, 1959, (the premier was at the Palace?). So wondering if that indeed was a first run engagement. Or if so, it may have been moved over to another smaller theatre. It grossed $12,652 the first week and $10,198 the 2nd, about average for films that played this 4651 seat theatre during a time of declining movie attendance. The highest grossing film that year was The Shaggy Dog which had a $26,151 1st week gross (and played a 3 week run). Throughout the time the Fox was open (1929-1963) 1 and 2 week runs were the norm. The longest running films (at 9 weeks) were The Robe and The King and I.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on July 31, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Variety stated back then that THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK had bombed everywhere except New York and Miami Beach.

bigjoe59 on August 3, 2018 at 2:53 pm


recently I watched TDOAF on blu-ray and its a quite well made touching film. i don’t know if its non- success every place except NYC and Miami is a sign of subliminal anti-semitism or people just didn’t want too see such a depressing film no matter how good is was.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 3, 2018 at 4:51 pm

In Miami Beach it was sold as light comedy, so go figure!

bigjoe59 on August 6, 2018 at 1:08 pm


to Al A.. you have been most helpful with replies to my many questions but I simply can not believe TDOAF was sold in Miami as a light comedy. that would have been an insult to any Holocaust survivors living in the Miami area.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 6, 2018 at 2:58 pm

bigjoe, they used quotes that described the film as “a joyous hit” and “rich in humor”. I am sure the locals knew exactly what that story was about.

bigjoe59 on August 7, 2018 at 12:50 pm


to Al A. I see what you mean by it being sold as a
light comedy based on the critics quotes you quoted.

another question about 55 Days at Peking. you said based on the screening times given in the ad for its run at the Trans Lux 85 St. that theater probably didn’t use an intermission. now the other day I was listening to the 55 Days….. soundtrack album and it does have a track titled “Intermission”. so did the Palace run it with an intermission?

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 7, 2018 at 2:45 pm

There were no newspaper movie clocks then and the RKO listings did not have show times, so I can’t tell.

DavidZornig on November 8, 2018 at 9:19 am

1982 Getty Image, Palace in the background.

Mikeoaklandpark on November 10, 2018 at 1:10 pm

Is there any word or information on how long this theater will be closed to do this really stupid redevelopment. Raising the theater to make retail space underneath is the most stupid idea I ever heard of. I can' only hope the building survives. It is a legend in Times Square.

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