- Historic Sites
The Best Ree-maining Seats
For gilt, gimcrack glamour, and gaudy décor the movie place of the 1920’s had no equal
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
The Kubla Khan of Fiftieth Street summoned Rambusch to talk decorating while the theater was still under construction. The interview was brief. “Harold, I see my Theater like the Inside of a Great Bronze Bowl,” he said, speaking in Roxian Upper Case. “Everything in tones of Antique Gold. Warm. Very, very Rich. Gorgeous.”
Pondering this dictum, Rambusch returned to his studio, and after carefully studying Ahlschlager’s drawings for the interior, asked his associate, Leif Neandross, to make a rendering to submit to Roxy. Their reward was a grunt, a sigh, and a silent embrace. Soon Rambusch artisans were transforming the theater interior into the biggest bronze bowl in Christendom.
Of course, the bronze bowl effect applied only to the burnished metallic color scheme Roxy had specified. Ahlschlager’s breathtaking structure had been inspired, inside and out, by the plateresque—an exuberant grafting of Renaissance details on Gothic forms with fanciful Moorish overtones. The style took its name from the early Spanish plateros —silversmiths whose designs were marked by lavish detail.
It was a little bit of Salamanca on Seventh Avenue.
Rambusch heightened the mood through his use of forests of gold leaf in many tones, deep crimson hangings, and warm amber lights everywhere. Carpeting for the aisles was a problem at first; none of his designs seemed to please Roxy. Finally he was inspired by a Paisley shawl he saw on somebody’s baby grand one day. Roxy was delighted, and miles of Paisley broadloom went rolling up the aisles. The famous Rotunda rug—fifty-eight by forty-one feet, weighing four tons, and described as “the largest oval rug in the world”—was inspired by something else Rambusch might have seen on a baby grand: a microphone of the old style with holes around its face like a telephone dial. Roxy was proud of his radio fame (his “Gang” was the family tree from which Arthur and all the Little Godfreys later sprang), and the Rotunda rug, with a monogrammed microphone wreathed in movie film as its central theme, was just the thing.
SIDEBAR: THE MIGHTY WURLITZER
Getting the Roxy Theater finished in time for the opening on March 11, 1927, required the twenty-four-hour services of an army of plasterers, upholsterers, glaziers, drapers, and carpet-layers. The last week was something Rambusch, thirty-four years later, would still like to forget. Whirling through the confusion, like a tornado in a circus tent, was Roxy himself—screaming at contractors, cajoling musicians, countermanding his own orders while they were still echoing from the crags of the balcony.
One afternoon remains particularly memorable. Hammers were crashing through imported mirrors, paint was dribbling down tapestries, fuses were blowing like popcorn. Down on the stage, a baritone was singing ”… just a Rus-sian lullaby,” while the corps de ballet was prancing a disorganized pas de trente-et-deux to the beat of an exhausted pianist. High above this Donnybrook, on a scaffold cantilevered out over the Rotunda, Rambusch was trying to soothe a crew of edgy plasterers as they gingerly surfaced the dome. He remembers hearing Roxy shout from below that he was coming up with a visitor. Up the ladder and out the swaying catwalk teetered Gloria Swanson, followed by the impresario himself, explaining that since the opening attraction was going to be Gloria’s new picture, The Love of Sunya, he was giving her a personally conducted tour of the premises. Then, before Rambusch could say anything, Gloria danced out past the dumfounded plasterers, picked up a stick, and wrote: “Dear Roxy—I love you—Gloria,” in the wet plaster of the dome.
Roxy was so touched by Gloria’s prank that he gave instructions that it should be left there forever. A wrecking crew, in the summer of 1960, blasted the goldleafed autograph to smithereens. Sic transit Gloria.
Although Ahlschlager’s plateresque masterpiece gave definition to a style that came to be known as “Roxy Renaissance”—and though it was slavishly copied as long as there were movie palaces being built, there was another school of theater design in the United States that was equally influential. This was the “atmospheric” style, created by John Eberson.
In an Eberson theater, the auditorium was (to quote him) “a magnificent amphitheater under a glorious moonlit sky … an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio, or a mystic Egyptian temple-yard … where friendly stars twinkled and wisps of cloud drifted.” The effect of this sort of thing on rain-soaked movie-goers who entered an Italo-Eberson garden to find themselves high and dry beneath a Mediterranean sky was startling—and wonderful box office. No wonder he was one of the busiest architects of the Golden Age.
The Austrian-born Eberson had a European’s awareness of the great American penchant for make-believe. His theaters were pure escape—plaster of paris Beulah Lands where the skies were always blue, the vines forever green, and the fountains never dry. In composing a scenario for a new theater, he proved that he could write as colorfully as he could design. This is how he described a project in 1926: