I’d read the headlines too, and felt the despair. I was still grappling with my own severe depression: less than a year before, part of a team of hopeful twenty-somethings, I’d crash-landed after trying and failing to keep the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, open as a movie palace. It’d been a scary year: my old favorite hometown palace, the RKO Albee, had finally been reduced to a pile of marble and plaster dust in Cincinnati, despite a vigilant citizens’ committee. My friend and colleague, Robert Endres, at that point head projectionist at RCMH, recalls the shock of hearing that the hall would close:
“I guess you could say I was “stunned” at the closing announcement as was everyone else. I had been out in Illinois with my parents over the Christmas holiday.... I walked into work that first day back to be told there was a meeting in the large Rehearsal hall and we were told to attend. When I got there the Music Hall exec staff was there as was Marshall [president of Rockefeller Center] who made the announcement. The mood was pretty grim.”
It was a time, the late seventies, when hardly anybody could see far enough into the future to imagine how the great halls could ever be useful again. Across America, in most cities, nobody went “downtown” anymore: derelict palaces in deserted urban settings made movie-going a lonely, even dangerous experience. In May, 1970, at Loew’s Paradise, once the “showplace of the Bronx,” members of an audience watching The Liberation of L.B. Jones, accustomed as they were to small explosions, refused to leave the theater after a pipe-bomb went off in the orchestra pit. Business-as-usual. Police forcibly evacuated the palace, where they found another unexploded bomb. Such was the life of the urban movie-goer.
The Music Hall had an entirely different problem. Manhattan is the ultimate “downtown, “ so even in the dire seventies, there were plenty of people on midtown streets, and the Music Hall was certainly safe, if deserted. But with nearly six thousand seats, a dwindling NYC tourism couldn’t begin to support Radio City; and New Yorkers didn’t think of the Music Hall as a place to go for movies. To quote New York on the subject of moviegoing in 1978, “ You consulted one of the foldout sheets everyone had tacked above their desks or in their kitchen, from the revival houses, blessed be their names—the Thalia, the New Yorker, the Regency, Theatre 80 Saint Marks, the Bleecker Street Cinema.” These were the theaters of the day. Ironically, it’s these very art houses that are mostly gone now, but, among other refurbished movie palaces, Radio City stands. How is that, exactly?
The palaces started as, in many cases, live (Vaudeville) theaters. The ones that have survived have mostly gone back to that legacy. With fly lofts, solid acoustics, dressing rooms and a full stage, theaters from Greensboro, NC to Glendale, CA have returned to their roots in performance. How did they get there?
Every rescued theater needs at least one savior. At Holyoke Massachusetts’ Victory Theatre, it was Helen Casey, who kept the wreckers’ ball at bay, spurred on by childhood memories of Casablanca. In Dayton, Ohio at the Victoria, it was Fred Bartenstein and friends, aided by a local DJ who spurred Daytonians to grab some cash, get into their cars, and head downtown to save their favorite theater.
It was — who else? — the Rockettes who saved Radio City. Two days after Alton Marshall made the announcement that the theater’s last day would be April 12, Rosemary Novellino the Dance Captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company and Eileen Collins, the Rockettes' union rep, founded The Showpeople’s Committee To Save Radio City Music Hall, with the Rockettes at the movement’s core.
While all those patrons were standing in lines four deep on the cold pavement, Rockettes were entertaining them! The committee, meanwhile, launched its letter-writing campaign gathering better than 150,000 signatures worldwide, an impressive feat pre-internet. This and a number of efforts at publicity, including some guerilla theater, in which committee members gathered signatures while dressed in suits of armor (to highlight their “war” to save the Music Hall) could not be ignored by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. On the morning of March 14, the day of Radio City’s Landmarks Commission hearing, the committee organized an “impromptu” Rockette kick line on the steps of City Hall.
Two weeks later on March 28, the Music Hall's interior was declared a landmark, and not a moment too soon, given Marshall's deadline. Six weeks after that, on May 12, 1978, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Almost exactly forty years after the Rockettes danced in the cold — for all those people who assumed they were getting a last look at Radio City — the hall is still standing, a live house featuring occasional film. As are many grand theaters across America, including my own St. George. Despite our failure to keep it alive as a movie house in 1976, and a number of failed subsequent efforts by entrepreneurs at repurposing the St. George (roller rink, dinner theater, antiques venue), it’s alive and kicking; and I mean that literally, with a children’s corps of dancers onstage many afternoons. This story can be had via the recent PBS Documentary, Treasures of New York: St. George Theatre starring our theater’s eventual savior, Rosemary Cappozalo,and her family. Rosemary, or "Mrs. Rosemary," as she's known in Staten Island, was a Julliard-trained dancer and veteran teacher herself. What is it about dancers? In the cold, on the sidewalk, or in a deserted theater, they just keep moving!
1 - The Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City would never have existed if the city hadn’t demolished one of its most glorious buildings, the old Penn Station, and felt a deal of remorse about that fact, passing the Landmarks Law in 1965. So without the loss of that fine Beaux Arts transportation hub, Radio City Music Hall (and a number of other buildings, including Grand Central and large parts of the Broadway Theater District) might never have been spared.
2 - Bob Endres gets the last say: “I heard one interesting story from a former vice president who, after he retired, had lunch with Alton Marshall...President of Rock Center. Marshall apparently told him that they really didn't want to close the Hall, but...had to do something about the current format, so they put the story out that they were going to close...to get enough attention to be able to restructure...”
I wonder if it's true?