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 275 comments)

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on January 6, 2020 at 10:57 am

1953 photo courtesy Library of Congress.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.200186339.0?st=gallery

bigjoe59
bigjoe59 on January 6, 2020 at 12:55 pm

Hello-

as I asked a while back what changes if any are being
made to the auditorium itself?

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on January 6, 2020 at 7:31 pm

Stripping it down and making it a multiplex.

Just kidding, I believe it’s landmarked, so there will be no interior changes.

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on January 6, 2020 at 8:02 pm

Comment added on photo of roadshow booking of Ben-Hur

bigjoe59
bigjoe59 on January 7, 2020 at 11:55 am

Hello-

I had tickets for a matinee of the Ben-Hur rerelease the day after Judy Garland died. when you entered the lobby right before the theater proper they had portraits of all the great stars that had played the Palace. Garland’s had a black wreath around it.

vindanpar
vindanpar on May 21, 2020 at 1:42 pm

How was that presentation of Ben Hur? Large screen? Excellent 65mm print? Sound? Was screen slightly tilted up as somebody said it was for Kwai? I’ve only seen musicals at the Palace so though it was a movie theater for decades it’s hard for me to imagine it.

First time was 5th row on the center aisle for Bacall in Applause. More than a year after it opened and she played it like it was opening night. Pure electricity. Years later I was helping her in a store and she was kind of unpleasant so I decided not to tell her how great she was. I thought she would have bitten my head off.

bigjoe59
bigjoe59 on October 6, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Hello-

in fact I saw the 10th Anniversary Re-Issue of Ben-Hur twice. I remember the size of the screen was large and the sound was great but I can’t be sure how the picture and sound related to the technical specifics you asked about.

they did sell a souvenir program that was the same as the 1959 original expect is was softcover rather than hardcover.

also this site is acting really odd. you posted your question on May 21 yet I didn’t get the notification from CT until today Oct. 6th.

bigjoe59
bigjoe59 on October 7, 2020 at 11:07 am

Hello-

thanks to Cine Tech for your detailed post. though I saw the 1969 re-issue at the Palace twice I don’t remember how different it was from the Nov. 1959 cut which premiered at the Loews State. was the fact that the June 1969 roadshow re-issue the Palace was an edited version ever mentioned in the publicity prior to the engagement?

bigjoe59
bigjoe59 on October 17, 2020 at 3:09 pm

Hello-

on page 2 of the photo section is an ad for the continuous performances at popular prices engagement of Cleopatra. this was after its lengthy roadshow run at the Rivoli. now the ad does not contain the often used catchphrase “nothing cut but the prices”. so I’m guessing this engagement used the same 3hr. 15min. edit that I saw at the Valentine Theater in the Bronx.

hdtv267
hdtv267 on October 18, 2020 at 2:17 am

the comments below the scanned advert ask those same questions, doesn’t look like there was an answer then.

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