Here’s a wee trivia question: What do the following theaters have in common?: The Metro Cinema in Kolkata, India, the Midland Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach, Fl. The Metro in Cairo, Egypt, the Empire Theatre in London, the Lake Theatre in Oak Park, Il., the Capitol Theatre Windsor in Windsor Ontario, and the Bric Arts Media House in Brooklyn, New York? There are more houses that could be listed in this chain (approximately 36), but time and space preclude. The answer: they were all designed by Thomas W. Lamb, who designed more than 300 theaters starting in 1909 with the City Theatre on 14th Street in New York City, where many of his first and best theaters opened their doors, then going international, as the above list indicates, as far away as India. He even submitted a design for the proposed Palace of the Soviets in Moscow — never built, despite his prize-winning “panic-proof” palace idea, with enough exits to permit 20,000 Russians a quick emergency escape, presumably in case of a siege.
Lamb, born in Scotland, was arguably the dean of an illustrious fraternity of movie palace architects, most of whom seem to have immigrated to the United States to ply their trade. Of his many New York City theaters most are either gone or have been reduced to elements of a facade. The Regent in Harlem, boasted an arcade meant to emulate the Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona. The Strand offered what Ben M. Hall of The Best Remaining Seats describes as “a huge Wedgewood bowl of a dome,” and Corinthian columns flanking the proscenium, the Rialto sported dimmable “color harmony” lighting, and The Rivoli re-created the Parthenon out of white glazed terra cotta. New York’s real estate, except in outlying areas (Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Inwood) is, for the most part, too bloody valuable. So rest in peace, old palaces: Strand, Roxy, Hippodrome, and hundreds of others.
Remember The Music Man? Professor Harold Hill travels the country selling small towns on the civic virtues of a marching band, a plot that has it parallels in the theater business. One John Eberson, an Austrian immigrant and an architect, traveled the Midwest from around 1910 to 1922, with his partner, a promoter who would first sell citizens on the merits of an opera house, which Eberson, “Opera House John,” would then build. By 1922, he’d graduated to his next big gig, the “atmospheric theater,” which he more or less invented. Holblitzelle’s Majestic in Houston, Texas, was the world’s first. The deal here was “no chandelier required” — at the savings of a lot of electricity — as the dome became a “sky” lit by the occasional star or moon. All the architecture in an atmospheric is on the sides, in Eberson’s own words, “a magnificent amphitheater under a glorious moonlit sky...a Persian court, a Spanish patio...where friendly stars twinkle and wisps of clouds drift.”
Chicago’s Rapp brothers (Rapp & Rapp) were the P.T. Barnums of their trade. “Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shopgirl...who sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens,” George Rapp boasted in 1925. Nothing is more opulent than one of their theaters, including the imperiled and leaking but still extant Uptown Theatre in Chicago, which, at 46,000 square feet, is bigger than Radio City Music Hall, Loew’s Kings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, one of five original “Wonder Theaters,” newly restored to its full gilded opulence, as this writer can testify, and the Brooklyn Paramount, currently the world’s fanciest basketball court. From a list of around 50 theaters that are or were R & R creations, I choose the Corn Palace, a Moorish Revival building in MItchell, South Dakota as the brothers’ most astonishing accomplishment.
If you’re looking for intact, lovingly-preserved theaters, the best place to find them is the left coast, specifically L.A., home of the movies. They take care of their palaces there, notably the most famous Graumann theaters — Chinese (TCL these days) and Egyptian, both designed by Meyer & Holler. The Los Angeles Theatre (on the Register of Historic Places and available for events and screenings), is an S. Charles Lee confection said to be modeled on Versailles. The theater boasted — on opening — a prism device in the downstairs lounge for viewing the show in the auditorium above — quite a techno marvel for 1931. Its opening night was January 30 of that year, with a showing of Chaplin’s City Lights. It is said that Professor and Mrs. Albert Einstein were in attendance, along with Gloria Swanson, Cecile B. DeMille and other luminaries of the era. Did they mingle by the crystal fountain at the head of the grand staircase? To quote Irving Berlin, “There’s no business like show business...”