Who was the guy who’d built our theater — this Brill dude? His last name was familiar to me from a gilded Deco building I’d visited in Manhattan at 1619 Broadway, the haunt, in those days, of film agents, composers, and old “Tin Pan Alley” song-pluggers. Wrong Brill. The (still-extant) building had actually grabbed its moniker from another dude, one of its first ground-floor tenants, a men’s clothier whose neon sign had at some point dominated the front of the structure. So if Sol Brill wasn’t that Brill, who exactly was he? Oddly, like the afore-mentioned clothier, he’d started in the rag business, specifically “cloth sponging.” In 1904, tired of his day-job in that racket , Sol Brill opened Brooklyn's first-ever movie theatre, a nickelodeon, the Broadway, in East Williamsburg. Show-biz was for him; he stuck at it. By the time he died in 1932 (New York Times obituary, p. 21), he owned a small chain of 15 theaters in and around New York, including the St. George. Costing the princely sum of $500,000 to construct in the late 1920's (roughly $7,125,000 today), it had been Brill's ultimate creation. But like his big-time Impresario brother, S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, who ultimately washed out fiscally at the Roxy and Radio City Music Hall, Brill sold one half of his interest in the St. George Theatre to Joseph Kohn, who later sold the theatre to the Fabian chain. Certain of Brill’s debts linked to the 1929 crash and numerous cost overruns are the likely culprits of his deal with Kohn: the old palaces were always money-pits, and Vaudeville was waning.
Brill had been, at least in part, a Vaudeville man: he’d begun the St. George with those live acts in mind. But by 1929, when the theater opened, what was left of the live-performance circuits was mostly in the hands of (rumored ) rum-runner Joe Kennedy — yes that Kennedy, patriarch of the Boston clan -- who, in a hostile buy-out, took over KAO, Keith Albee Orpheum, the last of the Vaudeville circuits, with intentions to convert them entirely to cinema.
Movies were coming into their own, while Vaudeville was taking a few last curtain calls. To see just how one theater’s design changed to accommodate the ascendency and dominance of film, take a walk with me down the center aisle of the St. George. Just 20 feet or so beyond the overhanging balcony, turn your back to the stage and look up to the very rear of the six-story space. Stuck into the upper reaches of the theater is an architectural afterthought: the box-like structure that housed a pair of 35-mm projectors and spotlights aimed at the theater's stage.
On December 4, 1929, the year that would begin the Great Depression, the St. George opened with a "talkie," And So This is College, as it primary offering, made possible by Warner Brothers' pioneering "Vitaphone" audio system. In 1976 we found a Vitaphone handbook in the projection booth, and an old, non-functioning speaker backstage that bore the Vitaphone logo.
Momentarily, live acts — it was true all over America — still supported the featured film offering. On December 4, it was Blossom Seeley, the “Original Red-Hot Mama” with Benny Fields — a Blues man —and Arnold Johnson whose Majestic Orchestra was a real presence on that other hot new medium, Radio.
After Brill’s death, live theater persisted a little way into the 1930’s. To quote from this site's main page:
“Actors Robbed at St. George.” (The Staten Island Advance, December 26, 1933): “...the robberies must have been committed between 9 and 10 P.M., while...vaudeville was in progress. The thief is believed to have calmly walked in the stage door and entered in turn each of the dressing rooms being used by the artists.” Performers’ wallets, handbags and jewelry were apparently never recovered. These singers and actors may have been the St. George Theatre’s last Vaudeville performers. The following year, 1934, saw the end of live shows with each movie.
Brill had been dead two years by 1934 , Roxy Rothafel had two years to go. On the West Coast, Sid Grauman had, for the most part, retired. The era of movie palaces — you could say — was already over.