The farther away we get from the Millennium, the harder it becomes to imagine the life of an original, fully-functioning movie palace, with its armies of ushers, three-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ on a “lift,” (the Roxy had three Kimball pipe organs), actors, comedians, magicians, singers, dancers, and some kind of bandstand orchestra.
Returning for a moment to maestro Arnold Johnson, he was apparently one of the better-known theater conductors of the 1920s, getting his start as a musician at age 14 on a piano bench in a Chicago Chinese restaurant. After music school and a brief stint in real estate, he went on to form his own band, commanding the airwaves out of Chicago for his program, The Majestic Theater of the Air, aka The Majestic Hour, which aired on CBS Radio from 1928 to 1930, Sunday evenings. Sponsor: Majestic Radios. His orchestra (also apparently sometimes known as the Paramount Hotel Orchestra) traveled occasionally to the better movie houses, to back up performers like Blossom Seeley (“the original Red Hot Mama”) who headlined at the St. George Theatre along with Arnold and his band the night of the grand opening. Arnold was no slouch: his orchestra had played in the famous George White Scandals — for which Gerschwin’s Stairway to Paradise was written; including, among the orchestra’s side men, the young Harold Arlen.
Larger theaters had permanent orchestras that rivaled classical outfits. In Manhattan, “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture” (aka the Roxy), boasted the Roxy Symphony Orchestra (110 members, conducted by Erno Rapee, the world’s largest permanent orchestra at that time.
On the West Coast, a 65-piece symphony orchestra conducted by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, celebrated the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre a little over ninety years ago, May 18, 1927. Born in Russia, Bakaleinikoff had studied at the Moscow Conservatory before fleeing the revolution. With his equally musical brother Mischa, he settled in Los Angeles, conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and taking his baton to the premiere of DeMille’s The King of Kings on the Chinese Theatre’s opening night. Constantin went on to become musical director at Paramount Pictures, and to pursue a composing career that would win him more than one Oscar.
According to Steven J. Ross (Working-class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America, 1999), “In no other arena of entertainment were high and low culture so closely intertwined as in the movie palace. Orchestras nearly the size and quality of city symphonies offered an eclectic mix of opera, classical music, ballet scores, popular show tunes, and jazz. Music was a critical part of the show, and during most of the 1920s movie theaters annually employed nearly 20,000 musicians — a third of the nation’s musical work force.” (p. 190).
I began this treatment of movie palace orchestras with a sad reflection on the vanished orchestra pit at the St. George, the movie palace which soars over my project and eventually to be published book: Starts Wednesday: a Year in the Life of a Movie Palace. These days, the VIP seating section of the newly re-born St. George Theatre occupies what was once the orchestra pit, a necessary improvement, since the natural “rake” or slant of the theater’s orchestra section was sadly eradicated years ago to create a level floor. The auditorium needs all the floor space available, to make up for that tragic alteration. (For a fuller understanding of what losing the rake really means, see my blog post that deals with that topic).Anyhow, how ironic that the VIPs are currently sitting where the winos once relieved themselves, in all their fragrant glory! Such are the life and times of a (former) movie palace.
Afterthought that has nothing to do with orchestra pits:
Yesterday in the local paper’s news feed, a picture of a marquee with its letters re-arranged by wind bore the caption, “Back in the day, before tickets could be ordered over the phone, theater owners had to use letters arranged on tracks to tell the show times,” which of course has nothing to do with orchestra pits, but I couldn’t help giving it as an example of how misinformed people are becoming about theaters of all kinds, their whys and wherefores, before the turn of the twenty-first century. Marquees are advertising! Showtime info was available by phone, yet another blooming anachronism.