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Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale Of Two Theatres

The Mayfair and the Palace Plying Show Trade in 1932

Robot Socks Vaudeville, and Then Came Judy

Two titan temples of New York's show world were the Mayfair and even more legendary (RKO) Palace Theatre. They were Broadway neighbors that hosted first-run likes of Frankenstein, Citizen Kane, Horror Of Dracula, and Psycho, among countless others (Psycho in 1960 after the Mayfair became the DeMille Theatre). At left is a moment captured during final week of September 1951, the Mayfair having a second week of The Day The Earth Stood Still, with the Palace in a final frame before transition from picture plus vaude back to two-a-day and all-vaude which had been the theatre's hallmark for years after opener day of 3/23/13. The Palace was long the heavenly kingdom for vaudeville. Every act dreamed of playing there, and most big-timers did. Two-a-day had been Palace policy until talking pictures broke the back of variety and forced a stage-plus-screen format as of 1932, movies taking over altogether from 1935. The next fourteen years saw no live performers at the Palace.

Change inspired perhaps by sentiment brought vaudeville back to the Palace on 5/19/49, initiating a movie plus stage policy that began with "8 Big Acts" and Randolph Scott in Canadian Pacific on the screen. Manager Sol Schwartz felt time might be ripe for a return to vaudeville, hordes having been exposed to it during wartime USO and bond-selling tours. Expense was kept down by renting the western at flat rate and holding talent budget to amounts the theatre could safely get back. The new policy maintained OK by mixing old-time performers (Shaw and Lee, Gus Van, Buck and Bubbles) with up-and-comers from radio, TV, and night clubs. For this week of late September into first days of October 1951, the Palace would feature Dick Powell in The Tall Target along with ten stage turns, none big names, but adequate for a single week's fill (Marty May, the Appletons, Don Rice, others). While the Palace realized $19K from the bill, rival The Day The Earth Stood Still was mopping up $28K for a second week of seven total that the sci-fi smash would Mayfair-play. Gort and company overpowered the Palace and Powell in terms of ballyhoo if nothing else, judging by their extravagant wrap-around-street corner display.

The Palace would close for a week of October to prepare for its return to two-a-day. Observe the partial-shown billboard above their marquee to see what was coming ... Judy Garland in  triumph return to a US stage. Admission wasn't jacked for the Garland show, management later regretting they hadn't advanced seat prices. Capacity could have been sold five times over, JG not only holding, but increasing wicket sale over follower weeks. Vaudeville was declared back and strong for not only Judy's turn, but acts that included, among others, stalwarts Smith and Dale, who'd been comic-teamed for over fifty years. Klaatu and robot assist bowed to the earth standing still for Garland, and so made way for Detective Story at the Mayfair. Judy and company would meanwhile last an astounding nineteen weeks, a topper to any stand that had gone before at the Palace. Total receipts came to three quarters of a million. Further big names were tried by the Palace to sustain such record, but fewer would click. Lauritz Melchoir, Olsen and Johnson ... these might have made the grade pre-Garland, but patron appetite had sharpened to nothing less than her height of spectacular. For what was left of the Palace and live acts, there would come Betty Hutton, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Liberace among top names grossing accordingly, but too few were available that could draw like these. Vaudeville took its final bow at the Palace on 8/13/57, after which straight picture policy was revived with Man Of A Thousand Faces.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Knowing that vaudeville was still around during my lifetime officially puts me on the "older than the hills" list. Perhaps that's why Olsen & Johnson, Smith & Dale and Shaw & Lee sound better to me than almost anyone else around today.

Which reminds me -- whatever happened to the concept of comedy teams?

10:20 AM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

Very interesting take on the post-vaudeville world that still attempted to evoke what had been. I can't identify anyone in that poster image--maybe Frankie Lane in the upper left corner?

10:30 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Great post as always, John. I suspect it wasn't sentiment that brought vaudeville back to the Palace, but rather television. The Palace was a big house to fill, so the management had to offer the public something they couldn't get at home. (Although within the year the public could get Smith & Dale at home, via vaude/variety programs.) Judy appearing in person must have had tremendous novelty value for moviegoers: a top-grade nightclub act at moviehouse prices.

10:32 AM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

Actually, skip Lane--looks more like Wally Brown of Brown and Carney. Maybe!

10:33 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Yep -- Wally Brown. Gus Van in the upper-right corner.

10:55 AM  
Blogger aldi said...

Great post! I just had to know what movie the Mayfair was playing in that 1932 shot. Spying the names of Edna May Oliver and Roscoe Ates it didn't take much to find out that it as Ladies of the Jury, 1932,directed by one of my favorite 30s directors (and actors) Lowell Sherman and incidentally also starring Ken Murray, who's billed right next door at the RKO Palace in the same shot!

11:53 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Oh, you guys! TERRIFIC post and the comments are almost as much fun!

9:39 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Terrific post, John. The Palace continued showing movies into the 1970s, then switched permanently over to a legit house housing mostly musicals. It turned 100 last year and is still going strong. The Mayfair/DeMille, by then long carved up into a ragged triplex known as the Embassy 1,2,3, finally closed its doors in 1998. Some of the auditorium details remained in businesses using the space, but the building that housed the theater is currently being demolished for conversion into a hotel.

7:05 AM  
Blogger ClassicMovieFan said...

There is a great 1953 hi-res night shot of these theatres at the wonderful historic photo site:

8:01 AM  

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