“When the movie’s over, it’s over,” Leroy, our youngest usher, shrugged, making his way backstage to satisfy what he considered an affectation of those of us who passed for “management.” Dean tried quoting Arthur Mayer on the subject, but Leroy had no clue who that dude was, nor did he care.The era of fancy dress was over.
That era had built the palace we were standing in. Young as he was, Leroy grudgingly understood we should at least tip our hats to whatever dream state had produced the seventy-bulb central chandelier and six-story proscenium, the gilded muses, leaded-glass exit signs, faux Spanish balconies and green and gold tiled alcoves. By 1976, all of that glory may have been a bit musty, half the original curtains gone, the 30-rank Wurlitzer organ sold off to a pizza parlor in Texas. Fabian Theaters’ former flagship was, by the mid-seventies, less a palace than a dark gilded cavern, with its own plaster stalactites. Still, the very presence of all this finery seemed to call for some degree of stagecraft.
A small troupe from the Metropolitan Opera had played at the St. George in the 1950’s: we had the sign, found in a store room upstairs, “Four Operas for Three Dollars” to attest to that fact. We’d bulbed the footlights, replaced the alternating red and blue filters that covered them and vacuumed the formal red and gold brocade house curtain, with its five-foot high gold tassels.
The five stories of dressing rooms backstage may have been vacant, but they held the ghosts of Vaudeville and other live performers, beginning with Blossom Seeley, who opened the St. George on December 4, 1929, less than two months after the stock market crash that ended an extravagant era.
Eighteen days later, an even more fabulous palace, the Atlanta Fox, was scheduled to open, as noted on December 22 of that year in The Atlanta Journal. A certain Mlle. Fanchon was arriving aboard the Crescent Limited “...to supervise the rehearsal of the two carloads of Fanchon & Marco Sunkist Beauties who will appear in the opening show at the new Fox Theatre on Christmas Day. The presentation entitled ‘Beach Nights’ comes to the Fox direct from Philadelphia. Atlanta represents the forty-first week of Fanchon & Marco...a total of fifty-two weeks from coast to coast.”
F&M were — as is obvious from “Sunkist” — a West Coast outfit, akin to Hollywood’s Sid Grauman. Sid was the ur-impresario of all time, who built his Chinese Theatre, already famous for its stars’ hand- and footprints in the cement forecourt, and before that Grauman’s Egyptian, with its bearded Bedouin in striped robe carrying a spear, as mascot. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre had set the tone for stage shows at movie palaces on the West Coast, with something he called the Sid Grauman Prologue. In New York, S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel had his own extravaganzas, live acts to support and frame the hot new technology — the moving picture. But leave it to Grauman, who styled himself the “Roxy West of the Rockies,” to perfect the themed show, and the brother/sister team of Fanchon & Marco, among others, to take it on the road. Who knows but what the Fanchonettes (formerly the California Sunshine Girls aka Sunkist Girls) might have played the St. George, before F&M stopped doing traveling movie palace stage shows and before the talkies and the Depression — not to mention Busby Berkeley — killed all the live thrills. Gone forever, the famous F&M “living chandelier” (made up of Sunkist Girls appearing to hang from the stage’s fly loft).
Now that single screens are all too rare, at the St. George, and most remaining movie palaces, it’s the stage that carries the place, with acts great and small. Tony Bennett, DooWop, Irish Clog Dancers, Steve Martin, you name it. If there’s a ghost now, it’s Leroy backstage: the place was always haunted.