Chapter Three: THE PRESENTATION
“A good showman knows his material. A great showman knows how to be an entertainer.”
—S.L. Rothafel, 1920
Number of pictures released (1920): 797
Theatre attendance (1920): about 35 million each week
Number of pictures released (1921): 854
Roxy wasted no time in making changes to the Capitol. Closing on June 1, 1920 for extensive remodeling, the theatre re-opened on the 4th with a newspaper advertisement trumpeting:
Triumphal Grand Re-Opening! —The Capitol—The World’s Largest, Coolest, Most Beautiful Theatre. Newest, Latest, Rothafel Picture-and-Music Entertainment, under the Personal Supervision of S.L. Rothafel. Edward Bowes, Managing Director.
At the bottom of the advertisement were these eye-catching lines: Prices—55 cents—75 cents–$1—No Higher (Including War Tax)—Matinees 30 cents—40 cents—No Reservations! First Come, First Served!
“The man’s lost his mind!” the Major exclaimed in exasperation when he saw the announcement for the new ticket prices. “No reserved seats?” Roxy’s new first come/first serve policy flew entirely in the face of tradition. “It’s unheard of! He’s actually going to allow just anyone to sit in the best seats in the house?”
“This is America, Major,” Roxy declared emphatically. “As long as someone is willing to buy a ticket, then they should be able to sit anywhere they please. The Capitol Theatre is for everybody.”
Amen, Jack added with a sense of relief.
Roxy was determined to turn the Capitol into the finest venue for motion pictures in the world. He convinced the Board of Directors to undertake renovations that would put the theatre into a league of its own. Outside the delicate-looking vertical sign hanging from the front of the Capitol Building was replaced by a bigger and brighter standard that could be seen halfway down Broadway. A marquee was also installed over the doors, which, in a first for the Great White Way, could be used to advertise the name of the picture for all to see.
Inside, the projection booth in the balcony was torn down and then re-built at the rear of the vast orchestra floor. The stage rigging and projection equipment were all upgraded with the latest in mechanical innovations. Roxy custom-ordered a gigantic special silver-colored picture screen that was practically invisible to the naked eye and seem to hang in space. The bill for all of the changes was steep, but true to form the showman refused to skimp on the quality of moving picture presentation in his theatres.
“I don’t believe that pictures should ever play second-fiddle on the bill,” he told Jack during their first meeting to discuss publicity. “We should put as much emphasis and care into the exhibition arts as we do into the stage show.”
Barrowman liked what he heard. After all of the troubles to devise a popular policy that would attract patrons, Roxy was promising an emphasis on the stage show, on the “presentation” as he liked to call it. He envisioned a program consisting of a Spanish dance, a Russian chorus, and a French ballet corps; all backed by the largest symphony orchestra ever assembled for a movie theatre. The presentation was the thing that would separate the Capitol Theatre from every other place house on Broadway.
Jack couldn’t have agreed more.
Roxy recruited an army of Follies and Broadway craftsmen to assist him in everything from stage design to music. Leon Leonidoff was his ballet master. Frank J. Taylor was his stage designer. He doubled the number of musicians on the theatre’s payroll and brought in David Mendoza and William Axt as Associate Conductors. Erno Rapee, his old protégé from the Regent Theatre, was selected to be the Musical Director of the expanded Capitol Grand Symphony. The Hungarian-born Rapee had an accomplished musical pedigree and a reputation as a fiery performer.
“I want to see passion in every performance, Erno,” Roxy preached with fervor. He was passionate about being the best. He could not bear failure. “To simply play to their ears isn’t enough, you must also capture their hearts and souls. Leave the audience limp. You and the orchestra should be what the people talk about on their way out the theatre.”
For his permanent repertory company he lured the exemplary dancer Alexander Oumansky away from the Metropolitan Opera and paired him with a talented young prima ballerina from Italy, the lovely Maria Gambarelli, as the leads of the Capitol Ballet Corps. On hearing Gladys Rice move an entire cabaret audience to tears with a tenderly sung ballad, Roxy hired her as his star soprano. Florence Mulholland, a Scottish tenor, came from a background of Masonic gatherings. Douglas Stansbury, a handsome and popular baritone with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 was signed as the lead male vocalist.
Music would be the heart-and-soul of his presentation policy. Believing that musicians should be seen as well as heard, he insisted on taking the Capitol Grand Symphony out of the orchestra pit and putting them right up on the stage.
“Up on stage?” Major Bowes grumbled, less-than-enamored with all of the changes that were occurring to his theatre. “What if they’re not very good?”
“They better be good,” the showman replied, impatiently leafing through sheets of music to find the piece that he wanted the orchestra to perform. “They’re expensive musicians.”
The New York Times, in its review of Roxy’s first show on July 5, 1920, noted the changes in the Capitol’s fare: “What has been called a ‘typical’ Rothafel program was offered, which was distinct in many particulars from the programs which hitherto have been presented at the Capitol. The elaborate operatic numbers in the former regime have been given up and in their place are shorter and smaller musical numbers, similar to those seen at the other motion picture houses on Broadway. The entertainment has been shortened from about three to two hours and admission prices have been materially lowered. Also, the policy of having reserved seats has been abandoned.”
Roxy gave the sold-out house Erno Rapee and the Capitol Grand Symphony performing a modified version of Victor Herbert’s “American Fantasie”; a dance, “Whispering Flowers”, featuring the artistry of the lovely Maria Gambarelli; a Prizma color picture, Hagoplan, the Rug Maker; The Capitol News newsreel; a sing-a-long revue; and a comedy feature picture from Goldwyn, Scratch My Back, on one come one-come all bill. No one in the audience went home disappointed.
To Jack ‘s relief, the next morning’s reviews were mostly glowing. The New York Times wrote that: “The Capitol’s first program under Mr. Rothafel’s aegis, all in all, is good entertainment and bodes well for the Capitol’s future.”
Walter Winchell, writing in The Daily Graphic: “With the world’s greatest showman onboard, the world’s biggest picture theatre can now justify a world’s biggest reputation.”
“My job just got a whole lot easier,” Jack said to Sophie that evening and took her out on the town to celebrate.