THE CATHEDRAL OF THE MOTION PICTURE

 


I love watching this scene from KING OF JAZZ (1930).And the way the Paul Whiteman band come together at the end.

Russell Markert’s dancers, who were first known as The Roxyettes, became the world famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

  • The  Rockettes made their debut in St.Louis and were originally called The Missouri  Rockets.  They were formed in 1925 by Russell Markert who was inspired by the British Tiller Girls who were active from 1895 with their precision dancing.
  • When the Missouri Rockets came to New York, they were seen by entrepreneur S.L. ‘Roxy’ Rothafel who booked them for the opening night in December 1932 of The Radio City Music  Hall. And renamed them The Roxyettes.

S.L. ‘Roxy’ Rothafel

Prior to the opening  of  The Radio City Music Hall, Rothafel  had opened The Roxy Theatre at 7th Avenue and 50th Street   in 1927.

The Roxy became known as The Cathedral of Motion Pictures. It’s auditorium sat 5,900 , it had an orchestra pit for 110 musicians and three organs!  It became famous for the elaborate stage shows each week, which accompanied the major Hollywood feature film.

 

The Roxy

Costing $12 million, it really was a movie palace and Rothafel sparred no expense with his stockholders’ money. 
The building was designed by architect Ahlschlager and had a golden Spanish inspired auditorium and a lobby in the form of a large, columned rotunda called the Grand Foyer, with the world’s largest oval rug. 
What a palace to walk into! And all for 35 cents to 75 cents. 

 

 

The picture below gives you  an idea of the sheer size of the auditorium. 

 

 

 

Described as the world’s largest theatre.

 

 

When you see the Roxy program, it’s as if the feature film is almost an afterthought!  An organ recital, the Roxy symphony orchestra, the 32 Roxyettes and dancer Harriet Hoctor, plus a cartoon and newsreel before the big feature!

Still, with four (de luxe) performances a day, lasting two hours, I guess they made a profit. 

 

 

Gloria Swanson at the Roxy demolition, in the remains of the Grand Foyer.

The Roxy had opened in 1927 with a Gloria Swanson silent feature, LOVE OF SUNYA. it seemed appropriate that when the Roxy was demolished in 1960, it was Gloria who was photographed for Life magazine among the ruins of the interior. 
The Roxy’s final film was Dirk Bogarde’s The Wind Cannot  Read.

 

When controlling interest in the Roxy was sold to the movie mogul, William Fox, ‘Roxy’ Rothafel moved on and created Radio City Music Hall which opened in 1932. Most of the Roxy’s artistic staff moved with him.  And he opened another Roxy theatre, now called The RKO Roxy which didn’t last as long as the original Roxy. It only had an orchestra of 50!

Rothafel brought the same spectacular show to Radio City and in 1934, the Roxyettes became The Rockettes and continue to this day. Amongst former alumni are Lucille Bremer and Vera-Ellen.

If you want to see some stunning Rockette routines, visit Rockettes.com  Their “March of the Wooden  Soldiers “ is a sight to behold.


‘Roxy’ Rothafel retired in 1971. What a legacy he left. 
So famous did he make his Roxy theatre that it was quoted in songs. Cole Porter , commenting on the ushers’ crisp attire, wrote  in You’re The Top – ”you’re the pants of a Roxy usher…”

And in Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS, for the title song, Loesser wrote – “What’s playing at the Roxy, I’ll tell you what’s playing at the Roxy, A picture about a Minnesota man so in love with a Mississippi gal that he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi,

That’s what’s playing at the Roxy…”

Fame indeed. Such a pity the Roxy didn’t survive.

19 responses »

  1. In the photograph taken from behind the orchestra I was puzzled by the jagged line across the top … then I realised it was the bottom of the stage curtain.

    Love the fire notice in the programme, and that the have midnight performances daily.

    Do we know why it eventually closed and what replaced it on the site?

    • I hadn’t noticed the wording on the fire notice – “Do not try to beat your neighbor to the street”.
      According Wikipedia, after the Roxy was bulldozed, an extension to the neighbouring Taft Hotel was built, plus a new office building.

  2. What a fascinating entry to your site. Before this I knew of the Roxy only from the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, in addition to the two songs you mention. It’s also intriguing to read of the Taft Hotel, where I stayed during high school theatre trips to NYC in the early 70s and alas, long gone also.

    • It’s a song called “At the Roxy Music Hall” and is I believe from “I Married an Angel” (1938), though in their superb score of the previous year, “Babes in Arms”, I think the Roxy is also mentioned; that original stage musical was also notable for having an anti-segregationist element in its libretto (also by Hart). He wrote so many lyrics with the highly driven Mr. Rodgers, I seem to recall mention of the Roxy in at least one more song and will share if I find it.

      • Thanks so much. I know the song. I adore Rodgers and Hart songs ( much more that Rodgers & Hammerstein. Must look up the lyrics .

  3. And thank you for mentioning the Taft. It was a huge old place but my room faced the Winter Garden Theatre’s stage door, all three years I stayed there. Such excitement seeing nine or ten shows in one week.

    • Would love to hear what shows you saw in New York. I love musical comedy. One of my top ten shows is On Your Toes. Saw it in London. The unforgettable ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.’ I’ve spoken in the past about the pretty awful film version with a non-dancing Eddie Albert.

      • Your comments truly do open a flood of memories! so much so that I do indeed feel “I Could Write a Book” – Hart’s favorite song from “Pal Joey”. I will reply better than this later, but for now must say that my first real acquaintance with their work was also the London “On Your Toes”, in the then beautifully redecorated (in blue; had been a horrid pink before) Palace Theatre, late ’83 or early ’84 and directed by George Abbot: a splendid production and seemingly right after curtain-up, with “Too Good for the Average Man” I was suddenly in awe that here was a U.S. lyricist worthy of Noel Coward. Within a few years he eclipsed even Coward and Porter as my favorite lyricist; the latter mentions him fondly in his lyric “like Rodgers, without the Hart” and I was delighted to learn Hart was also Berlin’s favorite.
        And this long answer is to only ONE of your questions! I’m so delighted by our mutual interest and will answer the others when I have more time. Thanks so much and yes – what a bad film though I did always think Albert a good actor in other things!

  4. Meant to add I just love the combination of Richard Rodgers’ music and the ingenious Lorenz Hart lyrics. I listen to so much of their songs eg ‘She Could Shake The Maracas’ from “Too Many Girls” or ‘I Like to Recognise the Tune.’ ( also from Too Many Girls.”)
    I was fortunate to visit London in the 1980s when there was a wonderful stage series called “ Discover The Lost Musicals”.

  5. Opening line of Guys And Dolls ‘Whats playing at the Roxy? I’ll tell you what’s playing at the Roxy.’ Hal Prince remembered the famous Swanson photo when preparing the musical Follies which inspired the visual look of the show.

  6. Gregory, the Palace On Your Toes was in 1984. I saw it several times. Loved Tim Flavin. I didn’t see Makarova but Doreen Wells was very good. I remember Honor Blackman too.
    And I loved the Princess Xenobia ballet.
    I’ve been listening to At The Roxy Music Hall sung by Audrey Christie.

  7. Again what a dazzle of memories you bring back! Makarova and Flavin were so excitingly good, I was shocked to learn an elderly friend liked Bolger even better, in the first (’36) production. I also loved Honor Blackman and others – especially the woman who sang “Glad to be Unhappy”, presented with utmost simplicity in front of the blue proscenium curtain. A lyric that good needs nothing else.
    Apropos Swanson and Prince – and also your question about my frenzied ’71-3 NY theatre-going – I remember seeing her in “Butterflies Are Free”, having replaced Eileen Heckart and conveying the performance in a style best described as Magnified Norma Desmond (though I do think she deserved to have won the Oscar for that); this style continued after the curtain calls, during which a bevy of photographers rushed forward from “Time” etc., to the front of the orchestra section as the matinee ended. Miss Swanson grandly explained that it was her birthday, and that box office receipts for the day would go to I think, UNICEF. And all the while the flashbulbs popped!
    The Winter Garden’s rear faced my hotel, and housed the original production of “Follies” which I enjoyed with Rod McKuen also in the audience; Prince’s production of “A Little Night Music” I enjoyed even more, two years later in a box seat that cost all of eight dollars. It was still the time when stars of musicals weren’t necessarily great (i.e., generic) singers or dancers – yet were unique personalities who truly put their stamp on a role. Glynis Johns achieved this in spades, with a unique yet stylish dancing and I will never forget her pearl beads bouncing up and down as she hopped. It was one of finest productions of those years.
    Other treats were “The Country Girl” with Maureen Stapleton, underrated George Grizzard and Jason Robards and my first trek to the Billy Rose, B’way’s southernmost theatre); the brilliant revival of “No, No Nanette” with a great cast, notably Helen Gallagher (currently teaching at HB Studio at 94) and Bobby Van; and the most deeply moving version I have ever seen of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Rosemary Harris at Lincoln Center. Also fun were “6 Rms Rv View” with Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander (first visit to the Lunt-Fontanne); “The Fantastiks” with producer Lore Noto as one of the dads (“Plant a Radish”) and as fresh in its 12th year as though it were opening night; “The Sunshine Boys” soon after its opening with Sam Levene and Jack Albertson, and many other grand memories from when theatre-going still had an aura of glamour.

      • Thanks Steve! Really appreciate your comment. After writing that I thought of still more things such as working with Helen Gallagher once, but didn’t want to sound too silly or whatever. So great to know someone found my nutty old memories interesting! I was too young to fully appreciate “Follies” but loved “Night Music” two years later: truly magical and unforgettable.

  8. Love all your reflections, Gregory. Lucky you seeing Gloria Swanson and the “No No Nanette” revival. I loved the “Irene” revival in London.
    And how amazing you knew someone who saw Ray Bolger in On Your Toes! You mentioning you were too young to appreciate “Follies” reminds me I didn’t appreciate “Company” in London in the 70s, with the great Stritch.
    I did love Follies when I saw it in the West End, with a great cast including Dolores Gray and Diana Rigg and Daniel Massey.
    It was Siobban McCarthy who sang ‘Glad To Be UnHappy’ in On Your Toes.
    Another favourite of mine is “On The Twentieth Century.” Saw it with Keith Michel and Julia McKenzie

    • Your own memories, have spawned a literal “chain reaction” of so many, from me. Thank you for allowing me to share these. I will do so very soon. Everyone I know comments on my remarkable memory and you confirm this. I don’t want to bore anyone but have to say that my next entry here will indeed be a long one. But these memories are certainly totally honest, however “name-droppy” they may sound. Thanks again for allowing me to share them and I will do so the first moment I can. Greg

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