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. "Entrance of a tent," from Latin proscaenium, from Greek proskenion: pro "in front" + skene "stage, tent, booth" (think “scene”).
Some tent flap! Back when theaters were more primitive affairs, out in the open, like an amphitheater, or even a traveling sideshow, the proscenium may have housed little more than a tent or a piece of fabric.
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 something virtual 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 proscenium 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.
A tiny golden Venus inhabits the center of the St. George Theatre’s proscenium arch to this day, keeping watch for almost ninety years — since Blossom Seeley, “last of the red-hot mamas” — belted out her first song in 1929. Venus is surrounded by a confection of gilded sea-shells, as if she’d just risen from New York Harbor, a few paces down the hill.