The answer recalls a moment I spent one afternoon at the St. George, in 1976, watching a real doggie of a movie, Don’t Open the Window, AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. It was early in my year as a partner in movie palace management, and I was bored. I’d slipped into the auditorium to get away from trying to figure out how to pay the carting bill, so we (my partners and myself) wouldn’t end up getting our legs broken backward for non-payment by the mob-affiliates who collected our garbage. Suffice to say, we were short of cash, and I wanted escape; but the mediocre movie utterly failed to make me forget the balance in the theater’s checkbook. Bored, I gazed up at the intricately-decorated balcony overhang just above my head, which is when it hit me: Nothing’s holding it up! It was true: nothing was, or at least nothing visible. Somehow, despite my anxiety, the theater was doing a fine job of keeping me from being crushed.
Built in 1929, the St. George has a “cantilevered” balcony, which is to say a shelf, projecting out from the back wall. The advantages of cantilevers are obvious. Wright enjoyed them for their dramatic effect (check out Taliesins West and East, not to mention the Robie House in Chicago and, of course Pennsylvania’s Falling Water previously mentioned). But when it comes to theater architecture, it’s all about business; you can sell more full-priced seats with unobstructed sight lines. (I love Carnegie Hall, but “partial view” seats are a drag; try dress circle row FF seat 38). Then too, there’d been lots of theater fires in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras; besides a dearth of available exit doors on each level, regularly-spaced support posts probably didn’t speed evacuation.
A balcony with no visible supports may seem like no big deal now, but when the Lyceum and the New Amsterdam (both Herts & Tallant theaters) opened to the public in 1903, offering Manhattan its first cantilevered balconies, some people were understandably reticent. Accordingly architects and impresarios began demo-ing cantilever strength with “tests.” In 1921 Balaban and Katz weighed down the new 1,500-seat balcony of the Chicago Theatre with 960,000 pounds of sandbags. No less in need of reassurance were the residents of Youngstown, Ohio in 1931, when the Warner (now the Powers Auditorium) opened, following a sandbag test of its modest 500-person balcony.
Probably the most impressive test of a cantilevered balcony preceded the opening of Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles in 1918 (architect: Woollett). The theater’s 110-foot-wide balcony boasted the world’s first reinforced concrete girder, a necessity, given the shortage of structural steel that followed World War I. Accordingly, 1.5 million pounds of sandbags were loaded on, and the girder hung tough.
The day I sat under the overhang and tried to watch Don’t Open the Window, I’d had an uneasy reminiscence. While sitting there, I’d recalled the story of an unsupported balcony I knew about that hadn’t ended well. The lackluster movie and this unsettling memory sent me back to my office, which was, paradoxically, under the stairs.
The next day in a box office conversation with a knowledgeable friend, I learned that our balcony was actually a wonder of engineering. From then on, I took great pride in boasting to anyone who would listen that ours was one of the largest cantilevered balconies in New York City, which, if not completely accurate, at least has a shot at being true. At an original capacity of more than a thousand seats, the balcony I sat under is arguably one of the largest such overhangs for miles around. As for the oldest cantilevered theater balconies in NYC, the Lyceum (total theater capacity 922) and the New Amsterdam (capacity 1,702) both Broadway houses, duke it out for the prize of being first.
Engineering is our friend — until it isn’t. The thought that had sent me back to my office had been the memory of an apartment building in Cincinnati put up by a school acquaintance who’d started out as an architect, then suddenly styled himself a filmmaker. Reason for his career switch was revealed one night when we were out for a drive, and he pointed out the building in question. “I designed and built that...” he boasted, but his wife, a true queen of sarcasm if ever there was one, who delighted in deflating his balloon ego, reminded him of the (cantilevered) balcony — one of a series facing the street — that had fallen from that building, shearing off two or three others on its way down. Fortunately, no one had been sitting or standing beneath.
Afterthought 1: The first theater in America to feature a cantilevered balcony is likely to have been the Colonial Theatre (capacity 1,700) in Boston which opened in 1900.
Afterthought 2: Check out this earlier blog post on balconies of all kinds; in it I give the St. George credit for being one of the largest cantilevered balconies “in the world,” which is, in retrospect, fairly unlikely, but shows how much I love the place.
Afterthought 3: The longest cantilever of any kind in the world may be The Busan Cinema Center in Busan, South Korea, with a 163-meter-long roof, containing an 85-meter cantilever portion.
Afterthought 4: Frank Lloyd Wright appears not to have been a fan of traditional theater design. He rejected the “peephole” idea of the proscenium, wanting the audience to be more intimately involved in performance. Although he loved cantilevered construction in general, he doesn’t seem to have been a fan of balconies per se. But he did design several theaters, including the Kalita Humphreys Theater.