October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
For gilt, gimcrack glamour, and gaudy décor the movie place of the 1920’s had no equal
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon had nothing on our balcony …” This flourish from the opening fanfare of a Midwest movie palace sometime around 1928 posed interesting questions. Was it Twenty Degrees Cooler inside the Hanging Gardens? Were they tended by platoons of dragoons armed with flashlights and smelling salts? Was there a Mighty Wurlitzer to soothe the savage breast? Did stars twinkle reassuringly, and clouds drift lazily overhead no matter what the weather did outside?
The Hanging Gardens hang no more … and, alas, the movie palaces are just hanging on. Parking lots, supermarkets, garages, and bowling alleys now mark the sites of the once-proud Grands, Strands, Rivolis, Tivolis, and Rialtos. The dwindling number that still open their doors are finding the going tough, and only in the largest cities do they operate on anything like a palatial scale.
Nearly all the movie palaces were built within the span of a single decade. Like many another fondly recalled institution of the period—mah-jongg, rumble seats, home brew, and doo-wack-a-doo—the deluxe motion-picture theater brought an element of sorely needed make-believe into the disturbing era that began with Prohibition and ended with the Depression.
It could only have happened then.
The twenties were a time of great extremes—extremes in wealth and poverty, culture and vulgarity, ambition and what-the-hell. The massive leveling processes of the thirties had not yet begun to bulldoze away the social and economic differences that set people apart. The bastions of Society were still unsealed by the masses: a name like Vanderbilt meant a Fifth Avenue mansion, not an etiquette book.
The urge to see how the other hall lived was somehow much stronger on the part of hoi polloi (Jacob Riis notwithstanding) than of the haut monde. Everywhere there was a thirsty curiosity about the lives of the rich and the surroundings those lives were lived in. Hollywood knew this, and rags-to-riches was filmdom’s bread and butter.
In the decades before the twenties, the movies began to create their own glamorous climate, and smart exhibitors sought to capitalize on it. Audiences grew bigger as movies became more pretentious. And theaters, with their peep-show days scarcely ten years behind them, were growing in sophistication with their audiences. Films were Art, and the theaters strove to keep pace with each new celluloid extravagance. Already, in the cities, the finest legitimate houses were being equipped with hastily built projection booths atop their precipitous galleries; in towns and villages, opera houses and grange halls were hanging picture sheets behind their roll-up curtains. The movies were big business, and the business was getting bigger every day.
The time was ripe, then, for the Golden Age of the Movie Palace. Showmen, inspired by booming attendance, soon started to build theaters designed specially for films—spacious cloud castles with wide, sweeping balconies and comfortable seats. And ventilation. Here anyone with a little loose change might dwell in marble halls for a couple of magic hours. And the keener the competition, the more marble the halls became; exhibitors vied for audiences with the energy and enthusiasm of peacocks in a mating dance. Façades were emblazoned with electric signs six stories high, with colored lights racing around their ornate borders; in summer entire theater fronts were frosted over like the ice compartments of neglected Frigidaires, to tout the arctic chill within. If the Majestic hired a giant in a gendarme’s uniform to guard the box office, the Imperial promptly dressed a midget as a Keystone Kop to patrol the foyer, and the doorman at the Palace joined the Foreign Legion.
Movie-goers loved it. After all, it was for them that this gaudy, outrageous, and lovely world existed, and they thoroughly enjoyed being spoiled by indulgent entrepreneurs. Ladies from cold-water flats could drop in at the movie palace after a tough day in the bargain basements and become queens to command. Budgets and bunions were forgotten as noses were powdered in boîtes de poudre worthy of Madame Pompadour. From a telephone booth disguised as a sedan chair, Mama could call home to say she’d be a little late and don’t let the stew boil over.
For Mama, another world lay beyond the solid bronze box office where the marcelled blonde sat (beside the rose in the bud vase) and zipped out tickets, made change, read Photoplay, and buffed her nails —without interrupting her telephone conversation. Heaven only knew what exotic promise waited behind the velvet ropes in the lobby, what ecstasy was to be tasted in the perfumed half-darkness of the loges.
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.
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:
I am working on a French interpretation of an atmospheric theater—the Garden of the Tuileries. We picture a Louis sending a message through the Land calling for painters, sculptors, gardeners, artisans of all kinds. And he gives the command to transform the spacious lawns lying in front of his palace into a festive ground, as he is going to entertain his grandees and dames at a glorious magic night feast.
Months and months of artful effort and vast energy are devoted to the transformation and the festive decoration of the lawns. Gigantic arches, enchanting colonades, illuminated lattice garden houses, mystic pyrotechnic effects all silhouetted against the entrancing moonlight sky of a beautiful summer night. Surprises, illuminated fountains, music niches, lovers’ lanes—a marvelous setting for a fantastic artful dance, the frills of the satin-and-silk-gowned nobles, the coquettish silk and ruffle-covered damsels, the air laden with jasmine.
This tempting Gallic romp finally found embodiment as the Paradise Theater in Chicago. Lorado Taft created the sculpture of the horses of the Sun King’s chariot bolting out over the proscenium, an effect that gave pause to many an orchestra leader below. There were angels blowing trumpets over the organ grilles from whence spoke the Mighty Wurlitzer, its five-manual console a-crawl with cherubim. The sky overhead was not only equipped with the standard Eberson stars and clouds; it could achieve striking dawn and sunset effects at the push of a button. The Paradise was considered by many to be Eberson’s masterpiece. It was, unfortunately, demolished in cold blood by Balaban & Katz in 1956.
After coming to the United States, Eberson’s first architectural assignment was not a theater at all; it was a porch for a lady named Mrs. Sheehan of Hamilton, Ohio—a three-sided Ionic affair tacked on to her Victorian dwelling. This was in 1908, and his commission was twenty dollars. It was not until the early twenties, after he was well established in the theater field, that he pulled his ace card: the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas—the first “atmospheric.”
In an era when one or two movie palaces were opening every week, Eberson was bored by the sameness of their French baroque, Spanish baroque, or Aztec baroque interiors. Theater architecture seemed to be in a red plush rut, and builders kept piling in more crystal chandeliers, more gilded didos, and more coffered ceilings every time a new foundation was dug.
Eberson’s plan for the Majestic literally blew the roof off all the old ideas; so far as Houstonians of that more innocent day could tell, the new theater had no roof at all. They sat in an Italian garden, its travertine walls topped by pergolas, classic temples, and—shades of Mrs. Sheehan—the Porch of the Maidens. Arbutus trailed all over everything, and a stuffed peacock or two paused to be admired atop the organ grilles. The proscenium arch, done like a huge gateway, had a real tile roof. And everybody was too dazzled by the plaster firmament with its electric stars and magic-lantern clouds to notice the fans at the edge of the balcony.
John Eberson’s slogan was, “Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses—Please Patrons—Pay Profits,” and he lived up to his word, and then some. He designed nearly one hundred atmospheric theaters before the Depression called a halt to most construction not blessed by the WPA. Regardless of the lilting alliteration of Eberson’s “nine little P’s,” to call lush and imaginative theaters “pretty playhouses” was to do them a great disservice. But they did please patrons, and they did pay profits.
For, with all their Persian-carpeted flights of fancy, they cost about one-fourth as much to build and maintain as the standard crystal-and-damask models. The simple plaster dome of the ceiling, with its Brenograph-projected clouds and sprinkling of low-wattage stars, was economical in comparison with orthodox domes and vaultings, ornamental lacunars, and stupendous chandeliers. Most of Eberson’s decorative architectural forms—gazebos, trellises, columns, arches, and cherubs—were made of cast plaster. And many stock models of these details (supplied by Michelangelo Studios, John Eberson, Proprietor), popped up time after time in atmospherics around the country, differing only in the peacocks they supported or the amount of wisteria that entwined them. The popularity of the atmospheric theater with movie-palace operators was not so much a matter of aesthetics as of hard cash.
But, by 1930 or thereabouts, dust began to settle on the garden walls, and by the time prosperity had chased the Depression back around the corner, the public’s appreciation for fanciful architecture had vanished in a hard-bitten new maturity of popular taste. The few movie houses that were built in the midthirties bore a tedious resemblance to the Hall of Transport and Travel at the Chicago World’s Fair. Suddenly everything was blue mirrors and chromium stair rails; light fixtures were shards of jagged frosted glass, and cubism was espoused by the carpetmakers.
The follow-the-bouncing-ball spirit of earlier audiences had given way to a try-and-make-me-laugh philosophy. The Vitaphone literally blew theater orchestras right out of the pit—for good. There was a chill settling over the loges that didn’t come from the air conditioning, and as live talent disappeared from the stages, going to the movies became a lonely experience though every seat might be filled. Theater operators turned from showmanship to candy butchering. There was popcorn in paradise.
The Golden Age of the movie palace is but a tarnished—if fragrant—memory. The Roxy has been leveled—fallow ground where nothing but an office building will grow. A few of the grand old relicts have had their faces lifted by uninspired architects whose idea of theatrical cosmetic surgery is to blanket every vestige of ornament, from proscenium to projection booth, in miles of neutral-colored nylon. In New York the graceful French curve of the Paramount’s marquee has been supplanted by a frosted glass trapezoid with plastic letters; an escalator now runs right up the middle of the Capitol’s white-marble lobby stairs. The Chicago Theater’s French Moroccan lower promenade has been transformed into a créole midway with imitation brick wainscoting, fake New Orleans ironwork, and a kitchen-linoleum floor. Out in Hollywood the foliated gold interior of the Pantages now resembles a yard-goods department.
Movie attendance is no longer a matter of habit, no longer a weekly event for all the family, who knew that even if the picture was a bore, it would never last more than an hour and a quarter. And then there would be the overture, the newsreel, the lavish stage presentation, the two-reel comedy, the travelogue, the organlogue, and the prologue to settle back and enjoy.
Still, going to the movies hasn’t lost all its appeal. Last year saw a pickup in theater attendance as families—tired of sitting in living rooms munching TeeVeeSnax while other people did their laughing and applauding for them—began to turn from the tiny screen back to the big, big one.
In many cases the remodelings and refurbishings have paid off as theater managers learned to lure back some of the lost audience with the promise of different surroundings. Even a few new theaters are appearing. They may be smaller than the gardens of the Sun King, and there’s not a rising orchestra pit in the whole lot, but they are being built once again.
And if new stars should twinkle over new balconies once more, perhaps the voice of the Head Usher may again be heard in the land, chanting, “For the best ree-maining seats, take the Grand Staircase to the Left.”