New York, NY 10020
Date Opened: 11th March 1927.
Seating capacity: 5920
Opening film: “The Loves of Sunya” starring Gloria Swanson
Architect: Walter W Ahlschlager.
Interior decoration: Harold W. Rambusch
Date Closed: 29th March 1960. Building demolished.
One of the most luxurious and well appointed cinema houses of all time was the Roxy in New York. It took eleven months to construct and had seating for nearly six thousand patrons. In addition it had lobby space for four thousand more in the queues.
Construction began on March 22, 1926 and opened its doors on 11th March 1927. Designed by Walter W Ahlschlager of Chicago.
Film producer Herbert Lubin planned this gigantic theatre in mid 1925. He wanted it to be the largest and most splendid of all motion picture palaces in the world. He sought the help of the innovative theatre operator Samuel Lionel Rothafel “Roxy”, regarded as the greatest showman of that time, to bring his plans into reality. With promises of a large salary, stock options, percentage of the profits and naming the venture after him, Samuel was on board!
However, Samuel’s numerous changes and lavish ideas put Herbert Lubin in serious financial difficulties, so much so that he was more than $2.5 million overspent with the banks snapping at his heels. The total cost was believed to be in excess of $12 million, an astronomical sum back in the 1920s.
A week before the opening of the Roxy, Lubin had little option but to sell his controlling interest for $5 million to the movie mogul and theatre owner William Fox. This ended Samuel Rothafel’s ambition of having his own circuit of theatres.
The theatre was situated at 153 West 50th Street. With its 5920 seats and multi-tiered balconies, the Roxy Theatre was the showplace of New York City and of the nation. A world film premiere presentation of United Artists silent movie “The Loves of Sunya” starring Gloria Swanson opened the theatre.
The Roxy’s design by Walter Ahlschlager featured a soaring golden, Spanish-inspired auditorium, earning a description of the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture” .
A long entrance lobby led through the building of the adjacent Manger Hotel to the theater’s main entrance at the corner of Seventh Avenue and W. 50th Street. This massive rotunda entrance hall known as the “Grand Foyer” was equipped with it’s own pipe organ that was placed on the mezzanine. The opulent decorations included “the world’s largest oval rug”.
A well thought out plan made full use of the odd shaped plot of land that the theatre was built on. Every inch of space was utilized by Ahlschlager. The diagonal shaped auditorium with the stage in a corner of the layout. This help maximize the enormous theatre and seating availability, but caused problems with the stage area. The Roxy’s stage, while very wide, was not very deep and had limited space in it’s off stage area. However, this did not affect the support facilities which included two stories of lavish dressing rooms with a further three levels of chorus dressing rooms.
There were numerous offices, a 100 seat private viewing cinema. Integral to the building were large rehearsal rooms, wardrobes departments. Staff facilities included hairdressing shops, a fully equipped infirmary, dry-cleaning/laundry, cafeteria, gym, billiard room, library and showers. The areas set aside for power plant, such as heating, power and ventilation were immense.
The orchestra pit was on an elevator so that 110 piece orchestra and three organs appeared and disappeared at the touch of a button.
The ROXY was claimed to have had the world’s largest permanent symphony orchestra of that time conducted by Erno Rapee. A male chorus, a ballet company and a famous line of female precision dancers, the ROXYETTES. Their name was later changed to the Rockettes.
Elaborate stage productions were created each week to accompany the feature film, all under the supervision of Samuel Lionel “Roxy” Rothafel
NBC Radio broadcast a weekly programme from the theatre’s own radio studio, featuring the performers and orchestra with Roxy hosting “The Roxy Hour” himself.
The theatre was known nationwide thanks to this programme.
Theatre pipe organs of the ROXY
The Roxy Theatre was equipped with three Kimball organs. The auditorium organ had 29 ranks installed under the stage and 3 ‘fanfare’ ranks above the proscenium. This magnificent instrument had three consoles. The main console had 5 manuals and was opened by organist C.A.J. Parmentier, while the two 3 manual consoles were opened by organists Dezso Von D’Antalffy and Emile Velazco.
There was also a Kimball organ in the Grand Foyer Rotunda which had 3 manuals and was opened by organist Lew White.
A 2 manual Kimball organ was located in the theatres’ recording studio located on the roof above the proscenium.
The film projection room was recessed into the front of the balcony to prevent film distortion caused by the steeply angled projection from the top rear wall of a theatre. This enabled the Roxy to have the clearest image possible for its time. In the operating box were three Simplex type A projectors on five point pedestals and were enameled maroon with nickel plated fittings. The light source was provided by Hall and Connolly continuous feed high intensity lamps, which operated at 120 amps each and each lamp was controlled by a 200 ampere ironclad switch allowing the arc to be struck on low amperage.
Two projectors were fitted with Vitaphone equipment, which could be attached and unattached in a few minutes. The third projector was fitted with the Fox ‘Movietone’ device, which was somewhat similar in operation to the ‘Phonofilms’ equipment. Each machine was fitted with the Powers speed indicator equipment and electrically operated ‘cut offs’ for the changeovers. There were large section pipes to conduct the heat and fumes from the high intensity lamp-houses direct to a large duct running along the rear of the projection box, at one end of which a large fan was in operation to draw of the gases.
Unlike many projection areas the Roxy box wasn’t hot and stuffy. The box and adjoining areas were kept cool and bearable by a system of fans and ventilation shafts. The spotlights on the box were 150 amp Brenkert and there were four of them. In addition there were two Brenkert special effects projectors and a double dissolving stereopticon. All the conduit was concealed and there were special fittings were for projection room lighting.
The operating room floor was laid with substantial covering of rubber, somewhat similar to ‘Terrazo’. There were several other rooms used by the projection team. They consisted of six rooms including a rheostat room, a rectifier room, rewind room and a room for the comfort of the operators, which included a shower. The screen was known as The Raven half tone screen, a product of the Raven Screen Corporation.
The projection throw was was just over one hundred feet and the picture size just a few inches over twenty five feet by nineteen feet The Roxy could easily cater for live stage presentations. On the stage was another projection room, which was situated at the apex and was a permanent fixture as part of the stage The small concrete box,known as a pill box housed another Simplex machine with a powerlite reflector type projection lamp, which was used for rear projection of special animated settings and for novel effects, which only Roxy and his gang could devise, upon a trans Lux patent translucent screen.
The stage was also equipped with a great sounding board cyclorama, which was fifty feet in height and weighed almost four tons. The main switchboard was on the stage and controlled every circuit in the building and there were over a thousand switches and was considered to be the largest switchboard in the world. One of the greatest, if not the greatest cinema closed their doors on 29th March 1960 and was demolished the same year.
The name ‘Roxy’ has since adorned cinemas, dance halls, nightclubs, restaurants and numerous other types of businesses worldwide all attempting to give their customers what Roxy always brought to his own establishments~ quality service and entertainment.
David A Ellis/ Peter Davies©chestercinemas.co.uk