Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The 1913 Regent Theatre -- St. Nicholas Ave and West 116th Street

In 1915, for 25 cents, patrons would enjoy "vaudeville and feature films" -- photo Museum of the City of New York
1912 was an exciting year to be alive.   Technology was exploding with inventions like the telephone, automobile, and airplane becoming more and more common.   Electricity was changing the way people went about their daily lives and the gramophone replaced the music box in family parlors.   Europe was the romantic, idyllic travel spot for the well-heeled and no one could envision the horrors that a world war would bring in just two years.

By now silent movies had matured from short Nickelodeon diversions to “photo plays.”  The entertainment that had recently been deemed by many as immoral was becoming respectable as family entertainment.

It was time for the motion picture to have its own home.

Harlem was already a major center of entertainment with respected theaters and an opera house.  In April of 1912 New Yorker Robert S. Marvin joined with Baltimore-based businessmen Charles J. Kuhlmann, James McEvoy, Jr., and William H. Hudgins to form the St. Nicholas-Seventh Avenue Theatre Company.  Its sole purpose was to build and operate “theatres, halls and other places of amusement” which would include those specifically for “moving picture films or other motion pictures.”

Only two months later the new firm spent $100 on the lot at the southwest corner of 7th Avenue, St. Nicholas Avenue and West 116th Street.   The natural choice for its architect was Thomas W. Lamb—already renowned for designing legitimate theaters.   It would be a career-changing commission.  Of the over 300 theater designs Lamb eventually designed, the majority would be movie houses.

The resulting Regent Theatre, completed in 1913, was among the first, if not the first, monumental movie palaces that would flourish through the next decade.   While drawing on the established form of the legitimate Broadway theater, Lamb used an exotic, romantic blend of styles to lure patrons to the wonders inside.  Extensive multicolored terra cotta cast in Italian Renaissance, northern European and Mannerist styles exploded in exuberant arcades, loggias, balconies on a diamond-pattern base. 

The newly-opened Regent, before advertising would cover the parapet.
The interior was lavish.  Frescoes, ornate moldings and elaborate chandeliers took the movie goer from the street to a fantasy palace disconnected from the world outside.   The auditorium with its loosely-styled “Spanish-Moorish” motif, was carpeted in dark blue below framed wall panels of brocaded satin.   Artist Francisco Pradillo painted the grand mural above the proscenium arch, “The Surrender of Granada,” that enhanced the theme.  The immense space could seat 1,854 patrons.

The auditorium was decorated in red, blue and gold --photo Museum of the City of New York
On February 9, 1913 the New York Tribune reported on the opening of the $500,000 movie theater.  “Not only did uptown society attend, but many prominent people from all parts of the city witnessed the photo plays presented at the elaborate theatre…The Orpheus Quartet gave a concert of classic and popular selections, accompanied by Arthur Depew, of Brooklyn, the organist, and the full orchestra.”

Owner Henry Marvin intended from the start to separate his theater from its more tawdry predecessors.  “The Regent presents no vaudeville, selections from grand opera and symphony music being substituted,” said the Tribune.   The Sun reported on some of the important audience members who viewed Pandora’s Box that night.  “Among those in the boxes were Prince and Princess Jean Palealogue, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Neurington, Mr. and Mrs. Byron Fellows, Prince Jean Tapieha, Mr. and Mrs. Roland Hinton Corry, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Daniels, Col. William Washington, Rear Admiral and Mrs. Bradley Allen Fisk and Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Little and party.”

The pit was designed to accommodate a full symphony-sized orchestra and the electro-pneumatic organ was an innovation that would become a staple among the giant motion picture houses.   None of it went unnoticed by Harlem Magazine.  “Harlem’s latest and handsomest entertainment house, marks an altogether new era in the moving picture world, as it is without doubt the largest and most completely equipped motion picture playhouse yet opened.  For beauty and convenience it surpasses many of the Broadway theatres.  It has been the intention of the Regent management to give New York Theatre goers something individually new in its form of entertainment, in a combination of the finest selection of photoplays that can be produced and music of a high and pleasing quality.”

In keeping with the high-tone quality of entertainment they intended to offer, Marvin and his manager, Claude H. Talley, screened an extravaganza in March of that year.  The New York Times reported “As an appropriate feature for Easter Sunday, a motion picture entitled ‘From the Manger to the Cross,’ illustrating the life of Christ, will be shown at the Regent Theatre…This production is in five reels.  The scenes were photographed in the Holy Land, and a specially arranged musical programme will be played by full orchestra, organ and chimes.”

Oddly enough, the Regent struggled.  Within a year, Henry Marvin hired the flamboyant Samuel Lionel Rothapfel, later known simply as “Roxy,” as “director.”    Roxy was already well known in the Midwest for his genius in accompanying music to the silent films.  By December 1913 he had made some renovations of the interior—adding potted plants, changing details like the stage curtains and lighting—and was ready for the public.

The Regent was reintroduced with The Last Days of Pompeii.  An epic production, it featured custom stage settings, an organ prelude, an orchestra, singers and recitations by live actors.  The Motion Picture News was awed.  “It served very clearly…to portend for the first time the theatrical future of the picture…it was less than a revelation. “  Likewise, The Harlem News called Roxy, “a veritable genius in the art of staging moving picture plays.”

Roxy saved the day and the Regent thrived.  In 1916 patrons were lured back week after week with serials that accompanied the feature films.  One, that year, was The Strange Case of Mary Page.  An advertisement in The Evening World enticed audiences.  “You see Mary pursued by the ‘Brute.’  You see the lights and shadows of stage life.  You see the tremendous court scene, without doubt the most thrilling and realistic trial found in the fiction of any country.  You see Mary badgered by the prosecution—every man against her but one.

You see this one—her lover and attorney—fighting desperately to snatch his sweetheart from the death cell.  You hear testimony that makes you clench your fists.  You see vividly pictured both the chivalry and the brutality a young girl meets in her struggle to win success as an actress.  Through it all you follow the shimmering, golden, unbreakable thread of love.”

The theater was used not only for motion pictures; but like other grand spaces, was leased for events.  In June 1917 the “Jewish Billy Sunday,” Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein held what he termed “a Jewish revival” meeting.

Nearly 2,000 patrons were given a scare on October 23, 1920 when fire broke out in the basement.  The New York Times reported that while the audience “was watching a vaudeville and motion picture show,” smoke began permeating the auditorium.  “The audience was told there was no danger, but that they could leave if they wished.”

They wished.

The crowd massed outside the theater while the blaze was quickly extinguished by firemen.  Those patrons who could prove they had been inside were readmitted and “the entertainment proceeded without further interruption.”

Although police and firefighters said the fire had started in the basement of the theater,  the manager, Joseph Connelly, insisted it was in an adjoining store.  His version made for better public relations.

 A year later the Pansy Amusement Corporation leased the theater and would run the Regent for decades.   In its 1937 lease extension, Pansy (now part of the RKO corporation), included television broadcasts.  The same year air conditioning was installed and the theater could be opened year-round for the first time in its existence.

The Regent Theatre Corporation, part of the RKO-Keith-Orpheum Theatres, Inc., purchased the theater in 1950.  But by the 1960s the Harlem neighborhood had changed drastically.  The 2000-seat movie theater was closed and the building sold to the First Corinthian Baptist Church on March 31, 1964.
An unfortunate scar remains where the marquee one hung, but the grandeur of the theater is still evident -- photo by Paul Lowry
The church, understandably, modified the auditorium to address the needs of a church rather than a movie house.  However, overall the interior and exterior of the grand movie palace remain intact, if a little careworn.  It is what the Landmarks Preservation Commission called in 1994 “one of New York City’s most significant surviving early motion picture theater buildings.”

Despite the renovation of the stage for religious purposes, the interior is largely intact. -- photo holy-ny.com

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