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The Center Theatre

            The theater where Pinocchio enjoyed its world premiere in February 1940, New York’s Center Theatre, proved to be a fascinating topic in its own right. If you’ve seen the book, you know that I devoted a sidebar to the Center’s own colorful history. But even in that sidebar, I had only enough space for a quick summary of highlights. Here, in this forum, we can go into a little more detail.
            As noted in the book, the Center began its life under a different name: the RKO Roxy. Its history is inextricably intertwined with that of its larger sister theater, Radio City Music Hall, located one block away in Rockefeller Center. The events of December 1932—the disastrous opening night of the Music Hall and the hasty repurposing of both theaters—have already been recounted, and there’s no need to repeat them here. (Readers interested in the details are again referred to Daniel Okrent’s excellent book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, and especially chapter 15, for a thorough account.)
            As a result of these events, the RKO Roxy found itself at the dawn of 1933 in a precarious position—designed as a world-class movie palace, but with that function suddenly usurped by its larger, higher-profile neighbor. During the next seven years, leading up to the opening of Pinocchio, the theater’s fluctuating fortunes included numerous changes of direction, a name change, and several remodels to accommodate a changing program. Here’s what I found:
6 January 1933: Announcement of the decision to convert Radio City Music Hall to a movie theater and offer stage productions at the RKO Roxy (i.e. effectively reversing the functions that had originally been planned for the two theaters).
11 January 1933: Radio City Music Hall opens its first motion picture: Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Columbia). RKO Roxy continues its engagement of The Animal Kingdom, the RKO feature that had opened there on 29 December 1932.
2 March 1933: Joint opening of King Kong at both Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy.
2 May 1933: Variety predicts that the RKO Roxy will become a vaudeville house “with newsreels” on the 12th. In fact the theater’s film program continues for more than a year afterward.
15 May 1933: Circuit Court ruling that the name “Roxy” belongs to the original Roxy Theater on 7th Avenue. Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the legendary showman behind both theaters (and the Music Hall), is disappointed. His lawyers, and RKO’s, appeal the decision.
26 May 1933: The RKO Roxy officially becomes part of RKO’s circuit of second-run houses, beginning on this date with showing of The Silver Cord.
September 1933: Rothafel and RKO abandon the fight to use the “Roxy” name for the theater, and a new name is announced: the RKO Center Theatre. (Rothafel continues to petition the court to force the original Roxy theater to drop the “Roxy” name, but on 9 October the Supreme Court refuses to review the case, effectively ending the controversy.)
January 1934: Rothafel resigns.
July 1934: After a successful test of acoustics in March, the Center ends its film program and announcement is made that it will reopen in the fall with a program of live musical productions.
23 September 1934: Opening of Max Gordon operetta The Great Waltz.
2 October 1935: Following the 44-week run of The Great Waltz, the Center reverts to showing films, this time as a first-run house, beginning on this date with the opening of 20th Century-Fox’s Here’s to Romance. This policy continues through 19 May of the following year, ending with Columbia’s And So They Were Married.
1 October 1936: A revival of the German operetta White Horse Inn opens on stage.
January 1937: Announcement that a roof garden will be built on the roof of the Center (and another on Radio City Music Hall).
2 September 1937: Opening of the Laurence Stallings-Owen Davis-Arthur Schwartz musical Virginia on stage.
5-15 May 1938: The San Carlo Opera Company presents thirteen performances of opera at popular prices at the Center.
21 January 1939: Opening of George S. Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s The American Way on stage.
7 February 1940: World premiere of Pinocchio. Rockefeller Center’s promotional activities include a large display of original art from the film in the theater’s basement lounge, and another major exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry.
During these years, as the theater was repeatedly remodeled for a changing program, press coverage suggested that its seating capacity expanded and contracted. At the time of the December 1932 opening, estimates ranged from 3600 to 3700 seats (I used the more conservative 3600 in the book). By the time of the Pinocchio premiere in 1940, most reports suggested a smaller capacity. In between, the theater probably reached the zenith of its dimensions in the fall of 1934, preparing for the opening of The Great Waltz. Drama critic Brooks Atkinson, in his column, reported the new house capacity as 3822 seats.
            What remained consistent through all of this was the gargantuan scale of the theater. The RKO Roxy/Center might be smaller than the Music Hall, but it was still a very large space, especially for the purposes of live theatre. Atkinson put it in perspective: “The floor of the Center Theatre can engulf the entire seating capacity of the New Amsterdam and have two hundred seats left over. The floor and balconies of the Center Theatre can hold more than twice as many playgoers as the New Amsterdam.” This was a real liability in mounting plays; the intimacy of a stage presentation could be all too easily lost in such a cavernous space. “In a theatre of that great size and sensuous beauty,” Atkinson wrote, “you can stare at a show without becoming a vicarious part of it.” This outsize scale was a leading factor in the troubled fortunes of the theater, leading to its early demise in the mid-1950s.