|photography by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWBYKW0N&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
On September 1, 1895 The New York Times noted that “Proctor’s Pleasure Palace, the new theatre in East fifty-eighth Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, will throw open its doors for the first time at 12 o’clock noon to-morrow, Labor Day.” The newspaper said that “workmen are toiling day and night to hasten the completion of the big building”
Impresario Frederick Francis Proctor was already well-known in the entertainment field. He had opened his Proctor’s Theatre in 1888 on 23rd Street, then the heart of the theater district. As impressive as that venue was, his Pleasure Palace would outshine it.
|The New-York Tribune published a sketch of the building as it neared completion on July 28, 1895 (copyright expired)
Designed by architects J. B. McElfratrick & Son, it was a feast for the eyes. The New-York Tribune said “The architecture combines the Romanesque and Renaissance styles.” Brick, marble, terra cotta and limestone combined to create an exotic palace. There was a corner tower topped by a minaret-like spire, arches and balconies, and brickwork laid in a diamond pattern that covered the façade like a tapestry. The bulging balconies of the roof garden mimicked the boxes of the auditorium inside.
On opening day the roof garden was completed; but The Times lamented “but it is too late in the season to utilize it.” There were, however, “the Garden of Palms and the Divan, fitted up in Oriental style. These will be ready before the frosty nights to come.”
The interior of the $1 million structure was as impressive as the 200-foot wide front. “The main auditorium is reached by a vestibule paved in mosaic tiles, with three oak doors, arched and illuminated with glass, opening upon the foyer, which is 60 feet in length,” announced the New-York Tribune. “A novelty is the double proscenium. One arch has an opening thirty-four feet square, sufficient for ordinary performances, but this may be lifted in grooves, like a piece of scenery, leaving an opening forty-two feet square should the stage be required for a more elaborate display.” And indeed it would.
Marble staircases with bronze handrails and scrolled iron balustrades led to the upper boxes. Victorian theater goers would be awed by the colored electric lights that lined the proscenium, the mythological figures painted on canvas, and the “elaborately moulded relief work.” The auditorium was decorated in cream, pale blue and gold.
Behind the stage was the Garden of Palms. “Its roof is an oval dome of glass,” reported The Sun, “which can be slid aside in pleasant weather, or closed when need be, and across it there will be a luxuriant network of growing vines, from out of whose tangle comes the radiance of many electric lights.” The bulbs were enclosed in colorful Japanese lanterns “ranging in size from ordinary ones to two that are ten feet each in diameter.” Some of the potted palms were 50 feet in height.
A movable sound-proof iron door separated the Garden of Palms from the main auditorium (which alone sat 2,100 patrons). It could be slid open creating a two-sided stage. Patrons in the auditorium and in the palm garden could enjoy the production from two distinctly different vantage points.
True to its name, the Pleasure Palace offered more than the main auditorium. Twenty enormous caryatids upheld the roof of the Roof Garden which was among the largest in Manhattan. Here mirrors in the form of windows reflected light and gave the impression of a much larger room. Below the Roof Garden was the Oriental Divan, a library, a reading and writing room, stands for the sale of flowers, books, papers, Turkish coffee and other light refreshments. There was a barbershop, a boot-black stand and a “plunge-bath,” or swimming pool. Below the theater area was the German cafe, devoted mostly to vaudeville.
The building was heated and cooled by blowers and the New-York Tribune promised “Every appliance for cooling the auditorium in the summer has been provided.” There were fifty exits and two passenger elevators capable of moving 30 patrons at a time. “A moderate admission price allows a visitor to range at will throughout the entire building and witness all the entertainments,” said William Harvey Birkmire in his 1903 The Planning and Construction of American Theatres.
New Yorkers who paid the 25 cent admission at noon on opening day could stay for hours if they desired. The bill was seemingly endless. That day London comedienne Bille Barlow presented new songs that she sang “in character.” The Sisters Andersen, “equilibrists,” performed; and the Brothers Donaldson from the Folies Bergere in Paris made their American debut. W. T. Carleton, the primo baritone of her Majesty’s Opera in London sang. The New York Times said “No introduction is needed for the Russell Brothers, the Irish servant girls; James F. Hoey, eccentric comedian; the three Sisters Don; Watson and Hutchings, German eccentrics; Cushman and Holcomb, duetists; Ward and Curran, the two clippers; Daisy Mayer, and her playful pickaninnies; the McAvoys, singing and dancing comedians; Lillian Green, character singer; Baisley and Simons, sketch performers, and the Murzthaler Tyrolean quarter.”
But perhaps the biggest draw on opening day was Professor George Lockhart’s performing elephants. The Times said they “have for ten years been a great sensation in Europe. Not the least amusing of their exploits is the pantomimic sketch, in which little Boney dines too freely, and is lugged off to a police station by his huge companions.”
To manage the theater Proctor chose E. D. Price who brought with him years of experience that included managing the tours of the renowned actor Richard Mansfield. Price did not come cheaply—his three-year contract provided him a yearly salary of $12,000, about $320,000 today.
Professor Lockhart’s trained elephants were a favorite at the new theater for months. But the afternoon performance on December 27, 1895 almost ended in tragedy. Waddy, the largest of the three elephants, was “dancing” in rhythm to the music when Lockhart slipped and fell almost directly beneath the four-ton animal. The ladies and children in the audience screamed in horror and The New York Times announced “terror rang through the house, for it seemed as if nothing could save the prostrate man from being crushed to pieces. But the sagacious brute changed step with incredible quickness and actually passed over him without so much as grazing his body.”
The audience erupted in cheers and applause. The newspaper noted that Lockhart “is a man of undoubted courage, but he was as white as chalk when he regained his footing.”
Among the features of the 1896 season was the famous muscle man, Sandow. On April 6 after Lottie Gilson, “in gorgeous Easter gowns and bonnets, received a welcome and sang about ‘The Modern Century Girl,’ ‘My Mother was a Lady,’ and I love My Girl,” Sandow “performed prodigious feats of physical power,” reported the New-York Tribune. The New York Times remarked “He has increased his great strength wonderfully since he was last seen here, and will introduce many new feats. He will give exhibitions of weight lifting and muscle play, and Sandow will hold at arm’s length in each hand, a bicycle and its rider. He will also put above his head in the air a grand piano, with a stool attached, upon which will sit the player” Perhaps less exciting to the audience on the same bill was Marion Eils, “the soap sculptress.”
Later that year female impersonator Richard Harlow took the stage. He had become famous in the role of Queen Isabella in the play “1492,” and now the 6-foot, 200-pound actor played a wealthy society woman in “Catching a Duke.” The Sun, on December 16, 1896 said he performance “is quite as free from any trace of burlesque or any disclosure of manliness, as was his Queen Isabella. His attire is gorgeous. There is a dress of figured black silk with a sweeping train, and as he first appears his shoulders are covered with a fluffy gape of heliotrope stuff, the same color showing in the dress trimmings and linings. When the cape is removed his shoulders, breast, and arms are covered only with some cosmetic and makes them glisten like white enamel.”
|Richard Harlow in his role as Isabella in the play 1492 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Keeping up with changing tastes in entertainment and modern technology, in 1898 the theater provided motion pictures as well. Vitagraph provided films like The Vanishing Lady. But Proctor continued to wow the audiences with live performances. On November 21 that year he staged The Battle of San Juan; an epic spectacle that utilized nearly 200 soldiers, many of them on horseback. Several of the actors had participated in the actual battle. To accommodate the massive production, the Garden of Palms was utilized, making the stage 150 feet deep.
It was the motion pictures that ignited a near riot on November 18, 1901. While the movie-goers enjoyed the 9:30 showing of “Grandma Threading a Needle” there was a sharp bang and a blue flame shot from the projector, igniting the heavy plush curtain that disguised the booth.
“Panic prevailed,” said the New-York Tribune, “when the technoscope, or moving picture machine, apparently exploded.” Firemen and police were annoyed by the frightened male patrons. “They shouted to the men ‘to be men,’ and told the women that there was no danger. The newspaper said that at least half of the audience rushed into the street. “Most of them were persuaded to return to the theatre by a force of policemen and some cool headed men, although several women, whose nerves were shaken by the excitement, hastened to their homes.”
In 1928 the aging F. F. Proctor began selling off his theaters which by now numbered more than two dozen. In the spring of 1929 he retired completely from the entertainment field which had been his life for decades.
His magnificent Pleasure Palace was demolished to make way for the RKO Proctor’s 58th Street motion picture theater, designed by Thomas Lamb. Nearly as lavish as its predecessor, Lamb’s glorious theater that epitomized the golden age of movie palaces was demolished in the late 1960s for a 39-story building.