The dome of the 2,672-seat movie palace I worked in a few years after that, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, sends me into transports of an entirely different order. There is, even at the height of the afternoon, no natural light in that beloved old Spanish Baroque Vaudeville and cinema palace.
Theaters, movie or otherwise, don’t often feature natural light the way other domed structures often do. Part of the wonder of Grand Central and other public spaces is the afternoon light flooding in from the sides. “...holes in the grillwork of the south windows throw spots of sun on the terminal floor, moving under commuters' quick feet in a predictable pattern, day after day, year after year,” Corey Kilgannon observed in “Darkness at Noon.”
Theaters have their own light, a whole history of it. Oddly and interestingly, the very first (Greek) theaters used natural light the way a modern lighting director or projectionist uses artificial, as an integral part of the show. Those first comedies and tragedies took place in the open air, at the top of the day. The sun, far from being a hindrance, was frequently used like a spotlight, with mirrors to enhance certain dramatic effects. Greek amphitheaters were “in the round,” built with the time of day in mind. A few centuries later, the Romans made a business of the whole thing, extending the possibilities for performance in settings like the Coliseum, to night, with the addition of torches, candles and lanterns.
Better than a thousand years later, if you’d attended a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, you’d have thought you were living in Greece. The Globe was a three-story open-air amphitheater, dependent on sunlight and good weather.
Not until something called Blackfriars appeared did Elizabethan theater move inside, with sixteenth-century “artificial lighting.” In addition to torches and lanterns, there were novelties — “dimmers” (on candles) and colored filters that had found their way across the Channel from Italy. In the seventeen hundreds, the kerosene lantern arrived, and lighting became stagecraft.
Oil lamps and Lime Light (a spotlight made by heating a piece of lime with a flame of oxygen and hydrogen) followed. Then gaslight, and finally in 1881, London’s Savoy Theatre (home of Gilbert & Sullivan) installed incandescent lighting. Theaters had morphed gradually into domed windowless halls. Not only did natural light interfere with the waking dream of the play, but that great theater mystery (sometimes called a science), acoustics,seemed to fare better in rounded seamless spaces.
Seated in the mezzanine of the St. George Theatre a few years ago, I had plenty of time to study the recessed dome, its edges where they meet the ceiling, pinched back like a skillfully-wrought upside-down pie crust. Grottoes left and right of the stage, containing matching goddesses draped in maroon velvet, and the heavily gilded proscenium, with hardly a square foot of unadorned wall space, gave me plenty to look at. The SGT is fascinating as an ancient cave, its walls adorned with gazelles and bison. The theater is an iced cake of gilt plaster and drapery that warms to any voice. One cold February night in 1976, a friend of mine, who was helping run the theater (she happened to have a natural operatic soprano voice), stood center stage without benefit of a mic and belted out “Amazing Grace.” It has been 42 years, but it could have been yesterday; I believe the voices that have spoken or sung under the dome are caught and held there, keeping each other company for as long as the building lasts.
May sunlight never enter there.
But how could I not mention atmospheric theaters in a post that deals with artificial light in domed spaces? The ultimate turning inside-out of a dome, is when the ceiling IS the sky! John Eberson, that genius of turning architecture inside-out, designed and built over a hundred of these wonders, beginning with the 2,800-seat Majestic in Dallas, Texas. The Paramount in Anderson, Indiana gives a video tour worth taking, and don’t miss the Avalon in Chicago, via Matt Lambros whose work documenting movie palaces in all states and conditions never fails to move, astonish and delight me.
An earlier post on atmospherics tells more.