Although the orchestra pit of the St. George theatre no longer exists, I remember it distinctly — if not with great fondness. By the time I came along in 1976, to help run our slightly down-at-heels 2,672-seat movie palace, the pit was, you might say, “the pits.” Like the far end of a New York City subway platform of that era, the pit frequently stank from efforts certain patrons made to spare themselves a trip to the men’s room. We mopped it regularly, while thinking wistfully about the days when orchestras had actually occupied it.
On the very first night the theater was open, December 4, 1929, Arnold Johnson and his Majestic Orchestra held forth: “You have heard him over the radio, now see him in person,” the playbill boasted. Like the St. George, most large theaters built in the nineteen teens and twenties had been, at least in part, Vaudeville houses, before movies had a voice, and the tradition of mixing movies with music and live acts — even after the talkies arrived — was slow to fade.
The farther away we get from the Millennium, the harder it becomes to imagine the life of an original, fully-functioning movie palace, with its armies of ushers, three-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ on a “lift,” (the Roxy had three Kimball pipe organs), actors, comedians, magicians, singers, dancers, and some kind of bandstand orchestra.
Returning for a moment to maestro Arnold Johnson, he was apparently one of the better-known theater conductors of the 1920s, getting his start as a musician at age 14 on a piano bench in a Chicago Chinese restaurant. After music school and a brief stint in real estate, he went on to form his own band, commanding the airwaves out of Chicago for his program, The Majestic Theater of the Air, aka The Majestic Hour, which aired on CBS Radio from 1928 to 1930, Sunday evenings. Sponsor: Majestic Radios. His orchestra (also apparently sometimes known as the Paramount Hotel Orchestra) traveled occasionally to the better movie houses, to back up performers like Blossom Seeley (“the original Red Hot Mama”) who headlined at the St. George Theatre along with Arnold and his band the night of the grand opening. Arnold was no slouch: his orchestra had played in the famous George White Scandals, and included, among its side men, the young Harold Arlen.
Larger theaters had permanent orchestras that rivaled classical outfits. In Manhattan, “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture” (aka the Roxy), boasted the Roxy Symphony Orchestra (110 members, conducted by Ernö Rapée), the world’s largest permanent orchestra at that time.
On the West Coast, a 65-piece symphony orchestra conducted by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, celebrated the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre just a little over ninety years ago, May 18, 1927. Born in Russia, Bakaleinikoff had studied at the Moscow Conservatory before fleeing the revolution. With his equally musical brother Mischa, he settled in Los Angeles, conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and taking his baton to the premiere of DeMille’s The King of Kings on the Chinese Theatre’s opening night. Constantin went on to become musical director at Paramount Pictures, and to pursue a composing career that would win him more than one Oscar.
According to Steven J. Ross (Working-class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America, 1999), “In no other arena of entertainment were high and low culture so closely intertwined as in the movie palace. Orchestras nearly the size and quality of city symphonies offered an eclectic mix of opera, classical music, ballet scores, popular show tunes, and jazz. Music was a critical part of the show, and during most of the 1920s movie theaters annually employed nearly 20,000 musicians — a third of the nation’s musical work force.” (p. 190).
I began this treatment of movie palace orchestras with a sad reflection on the vanished orchestra pit at the St. George, the movie palace at the core of Starts Wednesday. These days, the VIP seating section occupies what was once the orchestra pit, a necessary improvement, since the natural “rake” or slant of the theater’s orchestra section was eradicated years ago to create a level floor. The auditorium needs all the floor space available, to make up for that tragic alteration. (For a fuller understanding of what losing the rake really means to a theater, see my blog post that deals with that topic). How ironic that the VIPs are currently sitting where the winos once did, in all their fragrant glory!
1. I didn’t know, until recently, that proper high-end orchestra pits actually have managers!
2. I was, for several years a devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan, as presented by NYGASP (New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players) who, each January back then, presented one or two G&S productions at Symphony Space, itself a former movie theater. The NYGASP orchestra had to content itself with an eye-level “pit” – not a pit at all really – but an area which had been draped off in black cloth, with a make-shift cloth gate for the maestro to open and close as he appeared. We always sat in the first row. What a great joy it was, the feeling that we were almost in the laps of the violinists!