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This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A century ago this month, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel converted the Strand Theatre at 47th Street and Broadway from a proposed musical venue into a movie theater, a move that eventually would transform the area around Times Square into the nation’s most celebrated moviegoing mecca for millions and usher in a heyday of grand movie palace construction.
Within six years, Rothafel opened the Rialto and Rivoli theaters and took over the 5,300-seat Capitol Theatre (all were located on Broadway between 42nd and 50th streets). Later, the impresario’s national celebrity helped finance the 5,920-seat Roxy (at 50th Street and 7th Avenue) in 1927, built at a staggering $12 million. A 110-piece orchestra was one attraction, along with precision dancers, the Roxyettes (later known as the Rockettes), who went with him to Rockefeller Center for the opening of Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre in 1932, which was backed by RKO. The palaces, Rothafel once said, let the moviegoer “release his imagination — where light and music and color paint the pictures of a delightful world.”
Cameras captured gala premieres, and scenes of crowds and gowned starlets were splashed across newspapers. Cinemas named Strand, Capitol or Roxy became ubiquitous the world over as exhibitors hoped to bring a little Times Square excitement to their towns.
By the late ’50s, though, declining attendance, suburban migration and TV began to impact the enormously expensive theaters. Life photographed Gloria Swanson in the ruins of the Roxy in 1960. Following it into nostalgic oblivion was the Capitol in 1968. The survivors of the economic decline of the 1970s and 1980s could not escape a real estate boom over the past quarter-century. Of the area’s palaces, only Radio City remains. Midtown’s 1,131-seat Ziegfeld theater, built in 1969 near the site of a much-grander previous Ziegfeld, now reigns as the film biz’s top spot for big premieres.
Moviegoing still is big in Manhattan. It’s the theaters that got small.
Ross Melnick is the author of the Samuel Rothafel biography American Showman.
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