By Subir Ghosh
Production and distribution were only two pegs to the films busines. But the movie moguls of early Hollywood knew that the money actually entered the industry from the third – exhibition. If ‘Hollywood’ was initially a group of California-based studios and offices for distribution throughout the world, it also came to include a cluster of movie palaces situated on the main streets of the big American cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The modern movie palace era started during the silent phase of the film industry. Much credit for this goes to Samuel Lionel Rothapfel, better known as “Roxy” (1882 – 1936), an American theatrical impressario and entrepreneur. He is noted for developing the lavish presentation of silent films in the deluxe movie palace theatres of the 1910s and 1920s.
As they say, in the beginning it was The Strand. Roxy’s rule commenced with the opening of the 3,000-seat Strand in 1914 in New York. The Mark Strand Theatre, as it was called, was built as part of the chain of movie theatres owned by the Mark Brothers, Mitchell and Moe. It cost $1 million to build and may have been the first lavish movie palace built only to show motion pictures. It was designed by Thomas W Lamb and served as a model for many other similar theatres built at the time. To manage the theatre, Mitchell Mark personally hired Roxy Rothafel.
Roxy combined a live vaudeville show with films. His vaudeville presentation offered a little something extra that attracted audiences away from more ordinary film theatres down the street. Roxy’s shows opened with a house orchestra of 50 musicians playing the national anthem. Then came a newsreel, a travelogue, and a comic short, followed by a live stage show. Finally, the audience got to see the film. Roxy’s strategy worked.
The Strand went on to be renamed first as the Warner Theatre in 1951, the Warner Cinerama Theatre in 1953, and in the 1980s as the RKO Warner Twin. The building closed in February 1987 to make way for the Morgan Stanley Building, part of the redevelopment of Times Square.
Roxy’s greatest achievement was the eponymous Roxy Theatre, a 5,920-seat theatre, just off Times Square in New York City, in March 1927. The huge movie palace was a leading Broadway film showcase through the 1950s and was also noted for its lavish stage shows. It finally closed down and was demolished in 1960.
The Roxy Theatre was originally conceived by film producer Herbert Lubin in mid-1925 as the world’s largest and finest motion picture palace. Lubin roped in showman Rothapfel with an astronomical salary, a percentage of the profits, stock options, and even offering to name the theatre after him. It was intended to be the first of six Roxy Theatres in the New York area. Roxy worked closely with Chicago architect Walter W Ahlschlager and decorator Harold Rambusch of Rambusch Decorating Company on every aspect of the theater’s design and furnishings.
The theatre boasted lavish support facilities including two stories of private dressing rooms, three floors of chorus dressing rooms, huge rehearsal rooms, a costume department, staff dry-cleaning and laundry rooms, a barber shop and hairdresser, a completely equipped infirmary, dining room, and a menagerie for show animals. There were also many offices, a private screening room seating 100, and massive engine rooms for the electrical, ventilating and heating machinery. The Roxy’s own staff enjoyed a cafeteria, gymnasium, billiard room, nap room, library and showers.
The theatre’s stage innovations included a rising orchestra pit which could accommodate an orchestra of 110. The film projection booth was recessed into the front of the balcony to prevent film distortion caused by the usual angled projection from the top rear wall of a theater. This enabled the Roxy to have the sharpest film image for its time. Courteous service to the patron was key to the Roxy formula. The theatre’s uniformed corps of male ushers were known for their polite manner, efficiency and military bearing. They went through rigorous training, daily inspections and drill, overseen by a retired Marine officer. Film-watching was an experience.
Roxy’s ambitious and outlandish ideas made the budget shoot up over $2.5 million over the planned costs, and pushed Lubin to sell his own controlling interest to movie mogul and theater owner William Fox for $5 million. The final cost of the theatre was $12 million. But by this time, Roxy had shot himself in the foot – by making Lubin go almost bankrupt. His own film career ended soon after, and none of the other planned Roxy theatres were built.
Samuel Rothapfel, nevertheless, had created the concept before he vanished into oblivion. Hungarian-born Adolph Zukor, who had already established Famous Players-Lasky with director Jesse Lasky, was quick to catch on to Roxy’s ideas. He quickly purchased a string of movie palace theatres across the United States, thus gaining control of a fully integrated system of film production, distribution and exhibition. Zukor’s corporation merged with Chicago’s Balaban & Katz, to form Paramount Pictures in 1925.
The show had finally begun.