Palace Theatre

1564 Broadway,
New York, NY 10036

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RKO Palace Theatre exterior and Times Square area

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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 two manual, four 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 remolding 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, ten 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.

Today, it is often the host to long-running Disney stage epics and other hit musicals, and in that vein may it long continue!

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 235 comments)

Mikeoaklandpark on January 29, 2016 at 1:15 pm

NYer I agree 100% about the marquee.

DavidZornig on November 18, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Circa 1926 photo added, credit Duke University Collection.

Mikeoaklandpark on December 27, 2016 at 3:55 am

Thank you HDTV267. Awesome history of a great theater.

DavidZornig on August 29, 2017 at 7:42 pm

1940 photo added courtesy of David Kroger.

lazydave on October 25, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Haven’t seen any reports since 2015 about the proposed renovation, but apparently the project is still alive. Unlike others who have commented, I quite like the proposal. The only part of the original Palace still extant is the auditorium, and it will be not only preserved but also restored to its original condition. So what if it is raised 29 feet? Retail space at street level in that area is enormously valuable, so it makes perfect sense for the owners to access that value. It is wonderful that they are willing to invest big bucks to save the Palace for ages to come.

bigjoe59 on October 26, 2017 at 12:06 pm


to lazydave- why can’t they simply renovate the Palace to its original condition as is? otherwise I have this picture in my head of the theater collapsing onto 7th Avenue.

NYer on October 26, 2017 at 12:17 pm

SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical begins previews on November 6, 2017 and opens December 4, 2017 for an opened engagement. So as long as this show is playing here, nothing will happen.

Mikeoaklandpark on October 26, 2017 at 1:21 pm

I still think the idea is stupid. Bigjoe59 I know they did a lot of renovations while they were closed from 88-91. I still would like to see the prior marquees restored

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on October 26, 2017 at 1:47 pm

During that last renovation, they scrapped the original Seventh Ave facade entirely (marquee and office building above the entry foyer included) and incorporated it into the facade of the new high rise hotel that was constructed above and around the theater at the corner of W 47th. So, a recreation of the original marquee is probably not in the cards. It would actually look entirely incongruous with the rest of the facade, frankly.

NYer on October 27, 2017 at 3:26 am

I would agree Ed, but with the introduction of LED signs on marquees at The Amsterdam and The Music Box, it eliminates the need for expensive painted plastics for each engagement and they can advertise other shows at their theaters at the same time. I wonder if they will try do something if they can.

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