The new theatre was due to open in October of 1919. Construction had lagged due to wartime material restrictions. The steel used to erect the theatre building was cast on site using discarded girders from the demolished Sixth Avenue El. Work had gone on around the clock at a breakneck pace ,yet on the very day that the Capitol’s doors were to open there was still work to be done ,and the theatre’s employees were treated to the odd sight of the prominent gentlemen of the Capitol’s Board of Directors wielding plaster trowels to finish some of the rough patches on the back wall of the auditorium.
“Jack, what happened?” Sophia asked him when Jack returned to their rented room over La Hiff’s Tavern.
The elegantly tailored suit that he bought for the opening was ruined. He was covered in specks of plaster. It was all over his face and in his hair. He had come home early to get cleaned up and change before guests started arriving at the theatre.
“If you think I’m bad, you should see how the rest of them look,” Jack told Sophie with a laugh, describing how his employers had flung plaster each and every way and angrily barked at each other in less-than-elegant expletives. He peeled off his jacket and stripped down to his undershirt. “I just hope I have another suit to wear tonight.”
“I’m sure you’ll look very nice in whatever you wear,” Sophia declared fondly, running a few fingers through his head of dark hair.
He noticed that she was still wearing her robe. “So how come you’re not dressed yet, Darlin’?”
A dark cloud of dismay passed over her face. “I can’t go,” she told him suddenly, sitting on their bed and looking defeated.
“I have nothing to wear,” she said, tears of embarrassment filling her soft brown eyes. She’d never owned nice clothes. She’d never been able to afford them. How could she be expected to look elegant for such an important opening? “I wanted to look nice for you tonight, but I don’t have anything pretty.”
It hadn’t taken long for reality to set in. Being a new bride and moving in with her husband—that she would be living with him at his place and sharing his bed hadn’t even occurred to her before the wedding. Jack’s bachelor apartment above Billy La Hiff’s Tavern was small and cramped and their neighbors were loud and noisy and kept her up at night. The Broadway crowds, that sheer multitude of humanity, traffic and noise intimidated her. She felt like she was drowning whenever she was out, so she could hardly bring herself to leave the apartment. She had been looking forward to the opening and had wanted nothing more than to accompany her husband, but her clothes…she didn’t know any of the new fashions… were unsuitable. She felt frustrated and discouraged.
“Just go without me,” she said, drying her tears and feeling ashamed.
Jack touched her lips with a finger to quiet her. He went back out into the hallway and returned bearing a large box with a red ribbon on it. He handed it to her and said, “Open it.”
“What is it?” she asked in wonder, opening the box.
With a little bit of trepidation, she opened the cardboard box and was astonished to find a beautifully elegant silver-colored dress with matching shoes inside. “Oh, my, Jack! Where did you ever get something so lovely?”
“Fifth Avenue, of course. Do you like it?”
She was thrilled. “I love it.” But then a look of shame crossed her face and she just about handed the box back to him. “I can’t possibly wear it.”
“Of course you can wear it.”
“I don’t want you to spend money on me. This dress looks so expensive. How can we possibly afford it?”
“Don’t worry about that, Sophie. We can afford it.”
The dress had cost him a hefty chunk out of his $100 dollars a week salary, but he had wanted his wife to be as well dressed as any woman at the Capitol tonight. “Go and try it on. I want to see how you look in it.”
Sophie smiled wanly and retired to the bedroom with the box under her arm. When she returned with the silver dress on, cut to impress her slender figure, she immediately did a little turn to show him how it fit. “Well?” she asked nervously, afraid of what he was going to say. “Do I look alright?”
“Darlin’, I’m one lucky man,” Jack said, tapping his chest over his heart.
For a second she thought that she might cry again. “Thank you,” she told him, gently scraping a blob of white plaster off of his cheek with her nail.
“For always saying the right thing to me.”
The Capitol Theatre’s opening on October 24, 1919 was the biggest night that New York City had seen since the end of the war. Spotlights lit up the vitreous white brick façade of the theatre building and its four-story electric rooftop sign could be seen up and down the Great White Way. Dapper men in tuxedoes and women wearing fancy gowns and diamonds mingled and toured every nook-and-cranny of the opulent new playhouse. Sophie had never seen so many elegant-looking people gathered together in one place. Most of New York’s well to do’s had turned out at Major Edward J. Bowes’ behest. He was Messmore Kendall’s partner and the theatre’s Managing Director. He looked far too pleased with himself, she thought). The Capitol, by consensus, was worthy of its palatial magnificence.
The entrance lobby off of Broadway had marble walls in soft brown with gold leaf covering the stucco and plaster ornamentation. Through a set of leaded glass doors was the three-story high main lobby paneled in solid gleaming walnut and a ceiling of Roman gold decorated with five colorful murals done by the prominent artist William Cotton. Three gleaming rock crystal chandeliers, salvaged by Major Bowes from the recently demolished Sherry’s Restaurant on Fifth Avenue, hung like teardrop waterfalls from the ceiling. The lobby’s most elegant feature, however, was the majestic white marble staircase that led moviegoers up to a grand promenade hallway that overlooked the orchestra floor.
From here the view was of an enormous five thousand-seat auditorium, a stunning Adam-and-Empire amalgam of towering fluted marble columns and damask hangings under a great recessed ceiling dome, painted in subtle tones of olive, brown and antique ivory. Instead of the traditional gold leaf used in most theatres, the plaster walls here were highlighted with silver leaf. The stage was huge, the biggest of any theatre in New York, and fronted by a wine red curtain imbued with golden thread that sparkled under the colored proscenium lights. No matter where you sat, you were surrounded by splendid luxury in a high-class setting.
Messmore Kendall took an immediate shine to Sophie and personally introduced her to General T. Coleman DuPont, one of the Capitol’s Directors, and to Mayor John Hylan. She had no idea what to say to any of them other than agreeing wholeheartedly with the assertion by His Honor that the Capitol was an impressive work of architecture. Kendall made it a point to introduce her to his guests as “Mrs. Jack Barrowman.” Every one in attendance seemed to know Jack for one reason or another and spoke highly of him and she couldn’t help but allow herself a little dose of pride in being able to refer to him as “my husband.”
“Having a good time, darlin’?” Jack asked her after a while, bringing her a glass of champagne. Opening nights were always the most important night at any theatre…make-or-break time on Broadway…although you wouldn’t have guessed that he was nervous by looking at him. “What are you hearing from the to-do’s? Tell me.”
“Everything’s wonderful so far. People seem to like it.”
“What about you? It’s your opinion that matters most to me.”
Every time he said something like that to her, she felt like she could slip out of her shoes and walk barefoot amongst the clouds. “I’m having a wonderful time, Jack, and every one has been so nice to me.”
“That’s because you look spectacular, my darling.” She blushed. “Listen, think you can stand being the center of attention for a second?”
She didn’t like it when he got that look on his face that he was up to something. “Oh no, Jack, what are you going to do?”
Her husband spoke to a photographer who raised his camera in her direction and snapped a picture of her with the pop and smoke of flash powder. Other shutterbugs, instantly believing her to be someone newsworthy, followed suit and a startled Sophie found herself bathed in the pop-pop-pop glare of flash powder. She glanced over at Jack and he looked so pleased with what he’d done that she felt that it might kill her to be any more in love with him.
But then Mae Murray, resplendent in white silk and diamonds arrived with her husband, Robert Leonard, sweeping into the Capitol’s lobby in an entrance worthy of a Queen. Mae was now a top moving picture star at Universal and her husband was her director.
Sophie couldn’t stand her. Mae was the most self-centered woman that she’d ever met. Whenever she was in town she always had to look up Jack and she tended to monopolize far too much of his time.
Mae greeted Jack with an adoring hug. “I’m so sorry that we couldn’t make the wedding, my darling,” she told him, her curly honey blonde locks tucked under one of her trademark hats. “Robert and I were busy with producing a new picture and we just couldn’t make it. Forgive me?”
“Mae, you know that you can do no wrong with me, Jack replied fondly. “You’re forgiven.”
“Belated congratulations, old man,” Mae’s often-silent husband told him with a strong handshake.
“So where’s your new bride?” Mae wanted to know. She suddenly spotted Sophie standing behind Jack and flew to her like a butterfly.
“Sophie, darling,” she said, giving her a hug that she held just long enough for a shutterbug to get a photo. “I’m so happy for you and Jack. You’re so lucky…really.”
Every word and move was part of her act. Mae played the part of glamorous movie star to the hilt every minute of the day. She craved attention. The entire world had to revolve around her. That’s all that she asked for.
“I want us to be best girlfriends,” Mae told Sophie, sounding very sincere. “You and Jack must come to our home in California to see us soon. Robert and I absolutely insist that you come out and visit as our guests.”
“Absolutely,” her husband said sheepishly, hands in his pockets. He was a stout red-haired Irishman languishing in his more famous wife’s shadow.
“That’s very kind of you,” Sophie replied, being cordial to her for her husband’s sake. She hated being talked down to and Mae had a knack for being condescending. “Thank you.”
“I owe everything that I am to Jack. So anything that you ever need, anything at all, you let your friend Mae Murray know.”
Then seeing how the photographers were flocking to another arrival to the Capitol she was off again, floating like a butterfly and waiting to greet her old boss, Florenz Ziegfeld, until there were enough photographers around them to capture the meeting between the showman and his former Follies star.
“What is she doing here?” Sophie asked Jack sharply, allowing herself a dose of well-placed venom.
“She’s a moving picture star, darlin’. Having her here tonight is good for publicity,” Jack told her, aware of his wife’s dislike of Mae Murray.
“Oh, don’t be too hard on her. She’s worked hard to be get where she’s at and she does like you.”
“Douglas Fairbanks!” somebody shouted over the din as the main attraction of the evening, Douglas Fairbanks, finally arrived to cheers. The epitome of the leading man, Fairbanks was a true favorite of audiences everywhere.
“That’s Douglas Fairbanks?” Sophie asked her husband, trying to get a good look at the handsome actor.
“The one and only.”
“I’ve seen him in pictures.”
“You want to meet him?”
“Do you know him?”
“I arranged his appearances here in New York during the War Bond Drives. We’re premiering his first United Artists picture here tonight. I’ll introduce you.”
To Sophie’s astonishment she was suddenly meeting one of the most famous men in the world. “Heard that you had gotten married. So this is your beautiful bride, eh?” a smiling Fairbanks said to Jack after greeting Sophie with a polite handshake. “I would suggest to you, old man, that you keep a sharp eye on her lest some other fellow try and snatch her away.”
“Touch my wife, Fairbanks, and I’ll break your arm,” Jack replied. Doug laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
Jack arranged for Sophie to have her photo taken with Fairbanks and Mae quickly horned her way in to pose with the both of them. As the shutterbugs snapped away and the ever-smiling Fairbanks put his arm around both women, Jack noticed a frown of jealous disapproval on Robert Leonard’s face as he stood off to the side, entirely left out of the picture. It was an old story. Mae seemed to have the same effect on every man that she married.
The crowd congregated in the lobby until the precise stroke of eight when the sound of a gentle chime alerted the guests that show time was at hand. The Capitol ushers, resplendent in blue dinner jackets with tails, directed patrons to their reserved seats. There was a sense of great excitement in the air with everyone looking forward to the debut offering.
The house lights dimmed to a faint amber glow and the full house settled back into their plushy-upholstered seats to enjoy the show. Billed first on that evening’s program was an organ concerto by Ernest E. Jones on the new Estey Grand Organ. The installation of the instrument had been rushed to meet the opening and it had been discovered that the wind chambers built into the proscenium were too small to allow for all of the pipes. It sounded a little shaky and off pitch, but few in the audience even noticed the problem.
So far, so good, Jack thought to himself.
Second on the bill was the debut of the Capitol Grand Symphony with a booming musical overture, The Capitol March (especially composed for the evening). The response of the crowd was curiously reserved at the finish as conductor Arthur Pryor took a bow, followed by bows from all seventy of his formally dressed musicians in the orchestra pit.
That didn’t go over quite so well.
Then the sweeping No. 1 curtain opened and the picture screen was lowered for a showing of a Triangle Company ‘Travelaugh’ and a Universal Pictures two-reel comedy short featuring Ben Turpin. The cross-eyed comic’s antics filled the auditorium with gales of laughter.
The stage show was Ned Wayburn’s Demi Tasse Revue, a presentation in twelve musical acts. Wayburn had devised some of Flo Ziegfeld’s more memorable revues over the years so anything from him promised to be spectacular. Opening night demanded something memorable, a production that would be the talk of Broadway the next morning and make the Capitol the top playhouse in New York.
Jack smelled disaster right from the start. Wayburn’s revue was a hodgepodge of musical acts that anyone could have done better. There was a comic skit called ‘Milady’s Dressing Table’ involving performers dressed up as vanity items like powder puffs, tubes of lipstick and bottles of perfume. There was a solo dance and a number from the Capitol Ballet corps set to the music of Stravinksy.
It was long, way too long, and the audience didn’t take it well. As the revue stretched on interminably, people began departing the theatre in droves. Major Bowes, sitting up in his private box, looked very pale. Messmore Kendall, also sensing disaster, had long abandoned his seat for the company of a bottle of whiskey in his office.
Filled with dread, Jack wondered if was too late to get his old job with Ziegfeld back.
The finale was an elaborate dance number, The Capitol Tower, featured singers and dancers clad as ‘Twinkle Star Girls’ and ‘Moon Boys’ prancing around a gently revolving spiral tower on stage. It was an entirely uninspired production that did the theatre no favors. As the red and gold No. 1 curtain came down again, Wayburn’s troupe of spent performers took their bows to a dearth of applause from an ocean of many empty seats. Most of the opening night audience had already gone home long before the end of the presentation.
Those remaining in the theatre past the midnight hour watched bleary-eyed as Douglas Fairbanks’ His Majesty, the American flickered to life on the Capitol’s screen. It was a well-made picture with its star in good stead in bits highlighting his trademark mixture of comedy and athleticism. But by then it was too little and too late to salvage the evening. Jack was relieved when the film finally ended and the lights came up back in the auditorium. By then, there was no need for Fairbanks to come out and take a bow as had originally been planned.
“Can’t wait to see the reviews,” Jack said sarcastically as he rubbed his aching head.
“I thought it went fine,” Sophie said as they left the program-strewn lobby to head home. She couldn’t think of anything else to say that might ease the worried look on his face. “I’m sure that a lot of people really enjoyed the evening.”
“It was a disaster, darlin’,” Jack said with a sigh and putting his arm around her as they walked out of the theatre to a chilly evening. “But thanks for trying to cheer me up.”
The Capitol Theatre’s opening had been a horrific misfire and the next morning’s newspapers made sure that their readers knew all about it. The city’s dailies pounced on the theatre’s debut offering like a pack of rabid wolves.
“Pretentious,” was one of the nicer opinions offered. “The Capitol itself,” wrote one influential drama reviewer in The Sun. “Is the bastard result of unwarranted ostentation in both taste and design, better suited to garish European vaudeville houses than American theatre.”
Most of the abuse was heaped upon the Capitol’s stage program, which was described in turn as, “frightfully dull and tedious”; “overlong and misdirected in talent”; the general opinion being that “more was to be expected from so ambitious an undertaking.” Arthur Pryor’s conducting of the orchestra was found to be “dreadfully inappropriate” and “better suited to the vaudeville pits.”
Bad reviews could kill a theatre and United Artists added to fuel to the bonfire. Upset with the late start given Douglas Fairbanks’ feature, they informed Jack that there would be no further premieres of U.A. pictures at the Capitol Theatre. When prestige was measured by premieres, their decision was very bad news indeed.
Only the Major seemed unconcerned by the flurry of negative press. “We can fix the stage show. Mr. Wayburn will revise it and we’ll try again.” As for United Artists, he really wasn’t concerned. The Capitol’s main focus was the stage show, he declared. Audiences didn’t really care what picture they saw anyway.
In reply to all of the criticism the Major dismissed Arthur Pryor as the symphony’s conductor, but not even a new musical director, Nat Finiston, and Ned Wayburn’s wholesale changes to the Demi Tasse Revue could erase the stigma of the Capitol’s opening night failure. Jack did his best, but not even his top-drawer publicity efforts could save Nazimova’s The Brat (‘The Queen of Drama in her most splendid performance!’) or The Girl From Outside from being financial flops. Subsequent offerings like The Undercurrent and Soldiers of Fortune went absolutely wanting for patrons at the Capitol. They were “weak sisters,” under-performing pictures, and their one-week runs were disasters for the struggling theatre.
Even two months later, when Wayburn’s Song Scenes (with appropriate Yuletide tunes) finally replaced The Demi-Tasse Revue, the Capitol was still only half full on even its best nights. The price of $2.29 per ticket was admittedly high, but it did buy a deluxe package of over three hours of music, song, Prizma scenic color shorts and a feature-length picture. No other theatre on Broadway, Jack’s publicity doggedly pointed out in ad after ad, offered as much value for the dollar.
The public’s reaction remained: “So what?”
Four months after it’s opening, the Capitol continued to limp along, plagued by sparse attendance and mounting financial losses. Jack couldn’t explain it. Maybe it was the economy, stuck in the doldrums, or maybe the country needed to catch its breath for a moment or two after the end of the war. Maybe it was all of the talk in the newspapers about strikes, labor unrest, the Red Scares, or the ratification of national Prohibition. In any event seats at the Capitol went begging and no publicity gimmick or favorable items about the theatre placed in the city’s dailies seemed to fix the problem. He spent long hours with his staff trying to find answers, but nothing seemed to work. The Major, who thought that he knew everything, wasn’t much better at bringing people in the door. Just after the start of the year the stage show policy was abandoned in favor of presenting a different short operatic work every week. The first production under the new format was an adaptation of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, entitled Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
“It’s bone-headed that’s what it is,” Jack groused to Billy La Hiff after more bad reviews. “You’re gonna tell me that a guy from Staten Island or the Bronx is going to come all the way up here to see an opera. It’s as if Bowes doesn’t want to fill the seats because he might get the wrong people buying tickets.”
As he predicted, the operas failed to bring in business. Pictures were simply filling their weeklong runs at the Capitol and then disappearing with little in return to show for them. No matter how much Jack pushed the ink, the world’s biggest theatre could fill its 5,000 seats.
Sapped of his usual confidence, Jack wondered if maybe he just wasn’t cut out for the picture business. “I don’t know what to do next,” he glumly told Sophie on a rare night that he’d given up and gone home early. “I’ve tried every trick in the book. I’m beginning to think that you might have backed the wrong horse here.”
“I’m sure it will get better,” she assured him. It felt like months since they’d seen other. She knew that his job was demanding and he needed to work long hours and she had known what he was when she’d married him, but she hadn’t expected to spend all of her time alone. She didn’t want to complain. She had no right to complain, she told herself. But was it a crime to want to be with her new husband? “Things will turn around.”
“Don’t say that they can’t get any worse,” he said with a thin smile. “Because the truth is that they could.”
Maybe, Jack thought, the Capitol was just one of those rare theatres that couldn’t buy favor with the public. The big playhouse was losing thousands of dollars a week and the word was out that the Capitol wouldn’t last out the new year unless the Board of Directors found investors to pump in some much-needed cash into the foundering theatre.
Frank J. (Joe) Godsol arrived in New York with plenty of money to burn, having earned a fortune in the fake pearl business. More recently he had worked for the Schubert brothers of Broadway musical fame, representing their financial interests and managing a few of their playhouses. He showed up at Messmore Kendall’s office at the Capitol one afternoon with a business proposition. He wanted to buy the Capitol.
To Kendall’s amazement, the Texan declared that he had wangled his way into Samuel Goldwyn’s production company by promising money and theatres. Goldwyn had overextended himself in buying the motion pictures rights to Broadway plays and needed cash to keep his company going. With the backing of the Schubert brothers, Joe Godsol had persuaded several members of the well-heeled DuPont family to invest in the studio, swelling Goldwyn’s coffers with new funds. In return for his efforts, he had been made a Vice President of the Goldwyn Company and as he told Kendall, if they were going to make profitable pictures, they also needed theatres to show them and he was interested in acquiring the Capitol as Goldwyn’s flagship playhouse.
Godsol’s money spoke volumes. After just a half-hour’s debate, the Board of Directors of the Capitol Theatre approved a proposal sponsored by Messmore Kendall to go into partnership with the Goldwyn Company. The company would purchase a fifty-percent interest in the Capitol Theatre and hold two seats on the Board of Directors in exchange for $1.9 million dollars. In return, all of the Capitol’s Directors would receive voting stock in Goldwyn Pictures. With fresh funds at its disposal, the Capitol Theatre looked like it had been saved from certain closure.
The Texan immediately set out to resolve the theatre’s woes. To the Major’s consternation, Godsol informed him that he wanted someone else to take charge of the Capitol’s stage shows.
“I’m quite capable of handling the stage show, thank you,” the Major snapped back.”
“Obviously, you ain’t been payin’ too much attention around here, Bowes. That goddamn opera you got playin’ here right now is a loser. Folks are fallin’ asleep in their seats. Obviously, we need to bring in someone to do it the right way.”
“I’m the Managing Director here.”
“And the Goldwyn Company owns 50% of the Capitol,” Godsol said, teeth clenched around a cigar. “Let me tell you somethin’, Major. You may know the business end of runnin’ this theatre, but I want someone who knows something about entertaining people to run the stage show before we all lose our shirts.”
Amen, thought Jack with glee when told that the operatic presentations were being shelved. He admired the Texan’s moxie and wealth. Joe Godsol rode around in a chauffeured Hispano-Suiza touring car and carried a fat bankroll with him everywhere that he went. He was more than willing to stand up to the Major and seemed sincerely committed to making the Capitol a success. Jack only hoped now that the Texan would know what step to take next.
“The Capitol needs someone who knows what the public wants,” Joe Godsol told Kendall, helping himself to some of the financier’s brandy. “We need someone who knows a thing or two about running a real slam-bang stage show.”
Kendall scratched his head. “I don’t know who would be interested in the job. The Capitol is a mighty tall order for just one man.”
“Why not get Roxy Rothafel?” Jack asked, interrupting their conversation. He knew the veteran showman and thought that his stage show presentations might be perfect for the Capitol. “He could do the job.”
Godsol glanced over at Kendall and then at Jack and asked, “Just who in the blazes is this ‘Roxy’ fella I keep hearing about?”
“It’s Samuel L. Rothafel…everyone calls him ‘Roxy’,” Jack informed him. “Ask anybody about him. If you want a real showman for the Capitol, Mr. Godsol, then Roxy is the man that you need—and he’s already working for the Goldwyn Company out west anyway.”
“Okay, Jack, so get me this ‘Roxy’,” the Texan replied, helping himself to one of Kendall’s cigars much to the financier’s consternation.