The new theater partisans I met during LHAT's historic theater tour (the “ramble”) were older and wiser than I was when my friends and I signed on the dotted line to lease a 2672-seat theater in New York City, expecting to support ourselves from the enterprise! In most cases, the people I met at the conference were less aspiring entrepreneurs than volunteers who had kept their day jobs, even if they did raid the 401K to keep the local Rialto from becoming a Red Lobster. The Rialto, BTW, is these days a not-for-profit, eligible for grant money and tax abatements. As my husband (a former partner in our long-ago misadventure) is quick to point out, “We were a not-for-profit — we just didn’t know it!”
In Harlem we toured the newly refurbished Apollo Theatre and met Billy Mitchell, “Mr. Apollo,” who fell into a job there at age 15 and stayed through the comings and goings of James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and other famous talents. If he hadn’t come to 125th Street that day in 1965, on an errand to borrow money from his Aunt Essie, and ended up getting coffee for the manager of the Apollo, well then who knows?
At the second stop on the tour, the sumptuously gilded United Palace of Cultural Arts (originally the Loew’s 175th Street Theater, one of the five original New York “Wonder Theaters”), we walked in through the stage door, past a row of African drums — as important to that venue and to the communities of Washington Heights and Inwood as the United Church that calls the theater its home on Sundays.
We walked the Lincoln Center campus, with its 18-plus major arts institutions, and learned first hand what a 1.5 billion dollar restoration might feel like. On request, our tour guide, a professional singer, tested the acoustics for us in a vacant Alice Tully Hall.
The lobby of Radio City Music Hall was filled with anvil cases and equipment, a major load-in for a talent show to come. Management apologized, but it was our pleasure to watch as a giant lighting grid, in the form of an arc, flashed into being on stage, while we listened to a history of the place and learned, to our astonishment, that the six thousand and thirteen seat theater actually makes money!
The last time I was privileged to tour Radio City was in 1976. Meanwhile at home in Staten Island, we were going bankrupt trying to keep the doors of the St. George Theatre open. But the head projectionist at Radio City, at that time a friend of ours, made us forget our troubles for an afternoon, whisking us from the projection booth to the original manager (Roxy)’s private apartment, and then for a quick tour of that city-within-a-city, backstage.
Now, almost 40 years later, the current manager tells us they’re making money? I wasn’t sitting on my hands — I burst into hysterical applause!