The orchestra pit, on that first Wednesday in 1929, had held Arnold Johnson and his orchestra from “The Majestic Theater of the Air.” Blossom Seeley, “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” took the stage, and the first of what would be thousands of movies, So This Is College, offered first-nighters the novelty of sound.
By 1929, Vaudeville, for which the St. George had been built, was more a decorative add-on than a reason for audiences to buy tickets. Song and dance teams, acrobats, singers, animal trainers and the like who traveled on the remaining circuits, were sad figures by the early thirties. On December 26, 1933, an article headlined, “Actors Robbed at St. George.” told of a robbery “...committed between 9 and 10 P.M., while...Vaudeville was in progress.” Performers’ wallets, handbags and jewelry were apparently never recovered. It was likely a lean haul for the thief. The following year, 1934, saw the end of live shows altogether. The theater changed hands, having come close to bankrupting its original owners. The house Wurlitzer, an organ of some stature, entertained patrons for one year beyond the departure of live performers, then went dormant, waiting a half century to be sold off, ending up local sources say, in a pizza parlor in Texas.
In the forties, fifties and beyond, the St. George’s stage was never entirely vacant. Actors sold war bonds, ambitious managers gave away free dishes on “dish night,” and The Great Blackstone floated a mysterious unattached light bulb through a hoop. Elements of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus took the stage in the fifties, according to some clippings and a sign I found: Four Operas Three Dollars. But, mid-twentieth century, movies gave the theater its livelihood, providing a place for mothers to drop their children, with money for soda, candy and popcorn. Later on, for those same growing children, it provided a balcony, and privacy with a hot date — a nest in the dark from which to watch anything and everything on a giant screen from B movies and newsreels to cartoons and The Three Stooges — before, the narrow telescope of TV fractured the waking dream of “the movies.”
Just below the rim of the stage, the orchestra pit, by 1976, was a sad affair. Arnold Johnson, the orchestra leader on opening night, could hardly have raised his baton in such a place. It was a pit of another kind entirely, smelling of aged urine. You could get a whiff if you stood at the central arc of the boards, just past the footlights. When nobody was around, I’d climb the stairs to the stage and look out on all that vacancy. Such was the life of a rookie theater operator in 1976.
There is a happy ending, perhaps not for the movies, but for the St. George — and other surviving 1920‘s palaces. As you may know if you’re a reader of this blog, the St. George was saved by “Mrs. Rosemary,” a local dance teacher who literally mortgaged her house to buy the property. The decades of theater demolition, from 1960, when Rothafel’s Roxy in Manhattan fell and (in ’62) the Paramount in L.A. became a parking lot, through the seventies, eighties and nineties, reduced thousands of palaces to rubble. Yet many more weathered that period, in most cases saved by individuals or passionate local groups. The surviving theaters have mostly traded in their single movie screens and turned once again to their origins in Vaudeville. At the United Palace of Cultural Arts in upper Manhattan, still a home to the Reverend Ike’s congregation, which saved this former Wonder Theater from demolition, a circle -- of African drums on stage -- testifies to the theater's more recent career as a performance space. The Garde, in New London, Ct., has become “The Community’s Parlor,” in the words of Steven Sigel, saved first by a local entrepreneur who owned a paper box company, then by a citzen-led non-profit.
Has Vaudeville returned? Well, almost. For one thing, Classic Rock has entered its twilight phase, with many original talents and their fans still more or less standing. And in this age of niche audiences, Doo-Wop one night followed by Rap the next hardly seems incongruous. Of course, local performance needs a home: in Jacksonville, last summer, I walked into the Florida where a dance school not unlike Mrs. Rosemary’s, was having its yearly fundraiser, replete with ballerinas as snow-flakes (odd in the Florida heat). Finally, a generation or more of performers seem to hark back to their great grandparents, who played the Orpheum Circuit. To quote Scotty Morris of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, now in its 25th year of touring, with over 2800 appearances under its belt, “The money is in performance.” (Apparently, what an individual band member makes from services like Spotify is not enough for more than a week’s worth of coffee). We heard BBVD at the St. George, same place we heard K.D. Lang bring down the house with “Hallelujah.” And Tony Bennett, still on the road after ninety-one birthdays. I’m glad to think of the St. George’s backstage dressing rooms — strewn as they were in ’76 with rubble — full these days of performers’ gear. And no robbers.