The Best Ree-maining Seats

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As she entered the Grand Lobby and surrendered her ticket to the generalissimo at the door, Mama could feel, more than hear, the rumbling majesty of the Mighty Wurlitzer in the still-distant auditorium. Not to be fooled by the dashing grenadier who chanted, “For the best ree-maining seats, take the Grand Staircase to the Left,” she would tighten her grip on her shopping bag and forge ahead to the orchestra seats. Here she would be greeted by a cadet from the court of Franz Josef, who would usher her into the auditorium with a deference usually reserved for within-the-ribbons guests at society weddings. Down the aisle he would escort her until just the right seat was found. Then, with a smile and a quick salute, the usher would vanish and leave Mama to settle back in the violet dimness, slip off her Enna Jetticks, and lose herself—body and soul—in the never-never land.

Never-never land was no accident. Architects and decorators worked untiringly together to create just the right effect of awe mingled with well-being upon the absorbent psyches of movie-goers. Once the architect had watched the structure grow from a deep hole to a huge and almost-finished theater, and had seen that it was good, the decorator and his crew moved in to bring the place to life. One of the best-known of these furbishing establishments was that of Harold Rambusch and his associates of New York. Past masters of polychrome, wizards of the well-placed amber light, they gilded scores of architectural lilies all over the country during the twenties. Du Barry boudoirs with seats for three thousand, pipe-organ grilles modeled after the baldachin in St. Peter’s, mezzanines inspired by the Hall of Mirrors—these were all in a day’s work.

“In our big modern movie palaces there are collected the most gorgeous rugs, furniture and fixtures that money can produce,” wrote Rambusch, with an insight rare for 1929. “No kings or emperors have wandered through more luxurious surroundings. In a sense, these theaters are social safety valves in that the public can partake of the same luxuries as the rich and use them to the same full extent.”

When, on the corner of New York’s Seventh Avenue and Fiftieth Street, did Samuel L. Rothafel a stately pleasure dome decree, Rambusch was called in to handle the decorating. “Roxy” (as Rothafel was known to millions of radio and movie fans) had already instructed his architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager of Chicago, that his new theater must be something the likes of which man had never before beheld. Rambusch and Ahlschlager would see to this, always remembering that it must, at all costs (eventually nearly twelve million Coolidge dollars) be as far a cry as possible from Rothafel’s first theater of sixteen years before—the back room of a saloon in Forest City, Pennsylvania, equipped with folding chairs borrowed (and in constant danger of recall) from the local undertaker.

In 1927 the Roxy Theater’s 6,214 seats made it the largest in the world, large enough to shelter the entire population of a small city, including visiting firemen. Its orchestra pit alone could support a symphony orchestra of 110 musicians. There was also room in the pit for three—count ’em—three organ consoles. The whole works rose and fell on hydraulic lifts, four times a day, with tidal regularity.

On either side of the yawning proscenium were great somewhat-Gothic arches sheltering ornamental pulpits on various levels connected by twisting golden stairs. Here a tenor might appear, to sing with the orchestra below. And here the renowned Roxyettes cavorted—or, garbed as nuns, wound stageward bearing candles on more solemn occasions. The Roxy wasn’t called “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture” for nothing.

Before entering the nave, one passed through the enormous marble-columned Rotunda (ushers were sacked for calling it the “lobby”) beneath a crystal chandelier big—and bright—enough to light Grand Central Station, and over an oval carpet so vast that it required a squad of porters to give it its daily vacuum cleaning and chewing-gum removal. On a musician’s gallery over the street entrance was another pipe organ, quite independent of the Hydra-headed monster in the auditorium and, for that matter, of the third organ in Roxy’s broadcasting studio backstage. This organ was played to entertain patrons as they waited for seats, but it was put to special use every evening when it snorted out martial airs for the memorable “changing of the ushers” ceremony.

The Roxy ushers, hand-recruited for manly bearing, devotion to duty, and freedom from acne, were marched, 125-strong, out into the Rotunda each evening at six by the ex-Marine colonel and sergeant who were their drillmasters. After executing several intricate maneuvers with a precision rivaled only by their on-stage auxiliary, the Roxyettes, the daytime ushers in their smart dress blues surrendered their flashlights and emergency kits (contents: smelling salts, pad and pencil for messages and accident reports, a tin of Maillard’s Venetian Mint pastilles, a spare pair of clean white gloves) to the evening ushers in white tie and gold-braided mess jackets. Patrons who had thronged the Grand Staircase around the Rotunda to witness the ceremony could then go to their seats, secure in the knowledge that the Roxy’s ramparts were being watched by the brave and the true.