One of the fake ones is a “Juliet” balcony: an iron structure that appears before non-functioning stained-glass windows above the theater’s central corridor. Since the paintings along the upper walls of that hall depict bullfighters, senoritas in lace mantillas seem always about to appear on the small faux balcony, hiding perhaps behind small black fans. How many settings in old movie/Vaudeville houses are meant to evoke dramas or fantasies of some kind, before the weary traveler encounters the actual show? The whole house is a show, inside the auditorium as well, where--at the St. George--large gilded figures, said to be two of the Greek muses (Erato? Terpsichore?) occupy their own capacious theater boxes. Over the years, they’ve had plenty of opportunity to take the advice of Brenda, our long ago box-office ticket seller, to “...‘joy the show!” From the very first night in 1929, (when Blossom Seeley, “the original red-hot mama,” claimed the theater’s new stage while So This is College bloomed on the screen), through the steely-grey light of Myrna Loy and Dick Powell in The Thin Man movies, the muses have stood watch. A sudden burst of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind ushered in a film age. I like to imagine the two gilded statues watching a 1950‘s take on the ancient world in Ben Hur. Erato, muse of, among other things, erotic poetry, probably felt at home all through the sixties. What might she have made of The Graduate? The Exorcist in 1974 and again in '76, could turn the head of any statue. After that, the theater went dark for a long time, so the muses got to take a nap.
But I digress; it’s balconies I’m here to discuss — not the kind Juliet or Spanish ladies are wont to inhabit, but the actual one, the upstairs of the house, my favorite place to sit in the dark and watch a movie or a show, below the dome and just a little bit closer to heaven.
In my time, the mid-seventies, the St. George had 2672 seats, some 1400 of which were — and still are — suspended in a dramatic descent from very near the bottom edge of the dome, out about a third of the way over the orchestra. It’s a cantilevered balcony — boldly anchored to the back wall without any supports from below, quite an architectural feat (take a posthumous bow, Eugene De Rosa) This balcony is one of the largest of its type in the world. The orchestra below enjoys magnificent sight lines, unobscured by pillars or the like.
From time to time I’ve sat in the balcony and wondered, the way I sometimes do in an airplane, “What is keeping this thing up?” But the magic of the house, like that of a great old cave, is that it suspends reality for the viewer: I forget that my weight and the weight of all the other people sitting there with me is born aloft in this mysterious way. Many other smaller theaters are built in a “stadium” style, with a balcony at the rear, solidly supported from beneath, fine, but less ambitious and acoustically less ideal.
In our time, 1976-77, the balcony was supposed to be off-limits to the audience. With the exception of The Exorcist and certain live events, there were more than enough seats to be had downstairs. Besides, we had crowd-control problems, involving certain teens who wanted to fight and/or break up costly velvet seats. Despite the "BALC NY CLOSED" sign, a number of crafty kids managed to sneak up the red-carpeted stairs and hide in the shadows, smoking reefer, having a high old time, always hoping to be locked in when we closed up at night. To spend the night in there, with unlimited candy would really be cool. But the acoustics in the St. George are fine enough we could catch them out, give a little warning and listen for the sudden retreat of sneakers on fire escape stairs.
Here’s something I can only speculate about. Before the mid-sixties, many theaters were segregated, their balconies — or parts of their balconies — designated for black audiences. Some theaters, especially in the South, were off-limits entirely to people of color. My research has never revealed segregation at the St. George; It is probably wishful thinking on my part to hope that Fabian Theaters, which owned and operated the SGT from 1938 through 1974, chose integration. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation in public places became illegal nationwide, which is hardly to say that it vanished. At any rate, in 1976 our tiny audience — two or three hundred souls scattered throughout a 1200-seat orchestra--were as diverse as our staff, in other words, just about fifty percent European American and fifty percent people of at least part African descent. Given the memories some might have had of assigned seating, perhaps it’s just as well the balcony was closed?
Footnote: If anyone has anecdotal information about segregation at the St. George Theater in the decades before the seventies, please write our comments column.