2124 Broadway

View of the Beacon Theatre at 2124 Broadway from west; Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

The Beacon of Broadway

by Tom Miller

By 1926, silent films had taken America by storm. That year the immense Art Deco Paramount building and theatre was completed in Times Square. Thousands flocked to similar ornate movie palaces that were rising nationwide.

Film producer Herbert Lubin envisioned a chain of sumptuous movie theatres in New York. Offering an immense salary, he lured innovative theatre operator Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel to create The Roxy Theatre Circuit. The flagship theatre was the Roxy … a giant, 6,000-seat showplace designed by Walter W. Ahlschager. Construction started in 1926 on the smaller, sister theatre, The Roxy Midway Theatre, also designed by Ahlschager, at 2124 Broadway, across from the lavish Ansonia Apartments.

By the time it opened Lubin was $2.5 million over budget and near bankruptcy.

The Midway would be about half the size of the Roxy with 2,849 seats. While the exterior was modest by any estimation, the interior was staggering. The lobby rotunda was a scaled-down version of the Roxy’s. Ahlschlager borrowed generously from various architectural periods: Renaissance, Greek, Roman and Rococo. Huge Greek statues flank the stage. Murals decorated the lobby and the auditorium. Marble, mahogany, carved plaster and lush textiles adorned the space.

Unfortunately, Roxy’s grandiose plans for the Roxy Theatre and his many changes skyrocketed the costs. By the time it opened Lubin was $2.5 million over budget and near bankruptcy. Lubin abandoned his plans for the theatre chain and the nearly-completed Midway sat vacant.

Rear Facade of Beacon

Image by Browning Studio courtesy New-York Historical Society, ca. 1929-1938.

In 1929, Warner Brothers purchased and completed the Midway, renaming it Warner’s Beacon Theatre. In the period between initial construction and opening on Christmas Eve 1929, silent movies had become obsolete. The grand palace opened with Lupe Velez in Tiger Rose – a talking picture.

Brandt Theaters took over the Beacon and continued to manage it as a first-run movie house into the 1970s. Marvin Getlan and Allen Rosoff purchased the building and, in a dramatic change starting in 1976, promoted live concerts by artists like the Grateful Dead, Patti LaBelle, Korn, Tina Turner, Morrissey, The Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia and the Allman Brothers Band.

In 1987, plans were filed to renovate the Beacon into a nightclub; however landmark status prevented what would ultimately have been irreversible damage to the interiors. Instead the theatre continued its life as a concert hall – filling an important niche between the huge spaces such as Radio City Music Hall and the smaller venues.

[Bob Dylan] continued walking out the doors and onto the street. The band, as confused as the audience, finally wrapped up the song and the concert was over.

Here, on October 13, 1989, while Bob Dylan was performing “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” he walked off the stage into the audience. Still performing, he continued walking out the doors and onto the street. The band, as confused as the audience, finally wrapped up the song and the concert was over.

In 2009, a complete restoration of the interior was conducted by Beyer Binder Belle. Intensive investigation into original painting techniques, review of period photographs, even the original lighting effects were undertaken. $16 million later the original carpeting was recreated, a lost mural in the lobby was replicated, the 30-foot auditorium chandelier was restored and the sculptures and textiles were brought back to life. Updated lighting and sound systems, public areas such as concession stands and restrooms were included in the renovation. More than 1,000 workers contributed to the labor-intensive project.

The Beacon Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a New York City Landmark.

Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com

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