First there was an age of great theaters — the 19th Century — Opera, the arrival of stagecraft — and then the Twentieth, when silent movies gave the proscenium arch over the stage the very first virtual entertainment to frame. Theaters suddenly had two functions, one live — the actors, song-and-dance teams, juggling, magic, mime, dog-and -pony shows of Vaudeville — and that other drama, the one that required an organ playing in the background, the waking dream of cinema.
The arch was the gilded icing on that cake, as a description of the Canton Palace Theatre in Canton Ohio would seem to indicate: the theatre includes an ornate columned proscenium arch over its stage, an elaborate fly system for the numerous stage curtains and theatrical backdrops, eleven dressing rooms, a chorus room, a musician's lounge, a music room, one shower room, and an orchestra pit with seating for eighteen musicians. Moreover, at 21' x 46', the Palace's silver screen remains the largest movie screen in Canton. The original — and still functioning — lighting system, designed by Peter Clark, takes viewers from sunrise to sunset in the courtyard setting.
Anything as elaborate as all that required an over-the-top frame.
I feel enormously privileged to have grown up when movies were events that still had about them some hint of the theatrical. In the 1950‘s even the smaller theaters had a platform over which the screen hovered, and an arch of some kind to contain the experience of seeing a movie.
By the time I came along, the proscenium and stage had become an ironic comment on what had once been. Still, in the bigger theaters, it could occasionally be useful, as when Blackstone the Magician came to town and hypnotized a volunteer (my father) from a packed house at the RKO Albee in downtown Cincinnati. And when a movie was showing — Ben Hur comes to mind — the rusty shadows of the film played on gilded plaster, picking up highlights in the dome and lending a kind of drama to the overblown Louis XIV architecture.
\What do the Paper Bag Players, Chaka Khan, the Trammps, Sly Stone, a long-forgotten classical Spanish guitar player, Blossom Seeley, various members of the Metropolitan Opera, Tony Bennett, Pink Martini, and K.D. Laing all have in common? At one time or another, they all stood beneath the soaring gold-leaf proscenium arch of the St. George Theatre.
The arch is six stories tall. In our day — 1976, when I had a hand in running it as a movie palace, the arch framed a red and gold brocade house curtain suspended from iron piping, counterweighted by several tons of weights, finished off at the bottom with gold tassels four and a half feet tall.
But prosceniums, like the idea of theater itself, had humble beginnings, as in one definition:
"Entrance of a tent," from Latin proscaenium, from Greek proskenion: pro "in front" + skene "stage, tent, booth" (think “scene”).
Some tent flap!