Archive for cinema

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

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The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

George Spoor: The S in Essanay

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of George Kirke Spoor (1872-1953).

Starting in 1894, Chicago-based Spoor was among the very earliest of motion picture exhibitors in the world. His first device, the Magiscope, created with inventor Edward Hill Amet, put him in direct competition with Edison and the Lumière brothers. Spoor and Amet are also credited with creating the first newsreels, some of them real, like footage of President McKinley’s inauguration in 1897, and some of them faked, like Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. In 1899, he renamed his device the Kinodrome and showed films in vaudeville theatres in Chicago, New Orleans, St Louis and Kansas City and expanded from there. These early pictures were all about five minutes long, the perfect length for a vaudeville bill. From the turn of the century through the death of vaudeville in 1932, films were an integral part of the vaudeville experience. Eventually the films simply took over. In 1907, Spoor would partner with Broncho Billy Anderson to found Essanay Studios, most famous for producing the films of Charlie Chaplin in 1915. In the 1920s, he helped invent one of the cinema’s first widescreen processes, known as “Natural Vision”. His last film as producer (uncredited) was Danger Lights (1930), with Robert Armstrong, Jean Arthur and Hugh Herbert.

For more on early film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Save the Friends of the Loew’s!

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 27, 2014 by travsd

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The Friends of the Loew’s (Jersey City) deserve better than this.  They’re getting railroaded by a bunch of crummy pols. Jersey City wants to sell the Loew’s Theatre in Journal Square to a for-profit operator. You know just what a for-profit company is going to book there — a lot of crap that can go into ANY venue, ignoring the unique, specific historic character of this venue. I’m absolutely in favor of commerce in show business, but you know what? Any company that deserves to profit from this theatre should have taken the RISK that resulted in its revival. The risks — and the blood, sweat and tears, were all taken on by the Friends of the Loews. They — and no one else — saved this gorgeous old movie house and made it a vital, living theatre again.  There needs to be a better way to solve the theatre’s problems.

Here’s the message I found in my in-box this morning:

“Dear Friends,

We’ve gotten a lot of worried inquiries about what’s going on with Jersey City and the Loew’s, but have held off putting out a general statement because we hoped the bad things that seemed to be happening were really just a misunderstanding.

But unfortunately, things just keep getting worse. So we have no choice now but to spread the word about what the City is trying to do. We ask you to read on, and pass it on to your friends.

A few months ago, aides to Mayor Steven M. Fulop began to enter the Theatre without giving any notice to Friends of the Loew’s, brushing past our staff and volunteers or coming at times when we were not present at all, to give tours to “experts” and prospective management companies. In the process, City workers and their “guests” felt free to operate and play with FOL-owned equipment, including our projectors and stage lighting.

Then the City announced it would solicit proposals from for-profit companies to replace FOL in running the Loew’s.

And just today, we found out that the Fulop Administration is refusing to go forward with five critical safety and fire-code repair projects that the City is in partnership with FOL to carry out, using grant funds FOL received from Hudson County – a grant that must be used before it expires this Summer.

The problem is that in several meetings, Mayor Fulop has told us he feels FOL hasn’t earned the right to be the guardians and managers of the Loew’s. Ironically, this may be the only thing Fulop is willing to be seen as having in common with his predecessor, who tried to divert attention away from all that the City has not done for the Loew’s by suggesting FOL hadn’t done enough.

But Mayor Fulop goes even further. He doesn’t think FOL has accomplished anything significant since advocating to save the Loew’s more than two decades ago. When we assured him that was not true and tried to explain how we’ve worked to make up for the City’s failure to keep its commitments, he became annoyed and wanted to know why we were trying to paint the City as being at fault in the past. This seemed an astonishing reaction from a new Mayor who had spent the past eight years as the opposition member of the City Council, complaining that he could not get the support of the old mayor for any initiative, and saying that virtually everything the City did then was wrong.

Because Mayor Fulop doesn’t understand what FOL does and why, he doesn’t value it, and even thinks he “owes” it to Jersey City to reduce us to what effectively will be a meaningless role. He’ll let us have 20 dates a year to put on shows, but goes on to say he won’t “hamper” a new operator of the Loew’s by telling them what to do, so he can’t even give us a guess when those 20 dates might be. Nor does he explain how we will be able to pay for those events, since like most arts center managements, FOL relies on funding raised by the whole operation – which we will be removed from if the Mayor has his way. Of course, our mission is to preserve and operate the Loew’s as an iconic local landmark and an arts center for our community, not just put on a few shows. However, the Mayor doesn’t seem to understand this. But Mayor Fulop does confidently predict his “experts” in the City will pick an outside, for-profit entity to replace us that can “guarantee” the success of the Loew’s.

Actually, the Mayor has it backwards: It is FOL that has always been the guarantee for the Loew’s in the face of major building problems, little funding, and the City’s lack of vision and inability or unwillingness to keep its commitments to support its own building.

We STILL hope to find a way to make Mayor Fulop understand this and work together with FOL. But in light of what he has said about us, it is important to make sure our patrons, supporters and the public understand what FOL HAS DONE and IS DOING, and how we are working to move forward despite the lack of promised support and cooperation from the City.

 

Let’s begin by remembering what FOL had to do just to get the Loew’s open again. We’ve put together a gallery of “Before & After” photos that dramatically document the work FOL did through the extraordinary efforts of our volunteers to reopen the Loew’s. We hope you’ll take a few moments to have a look here.

As you can see, by the time we had convinced Jersey City that the Loew’s should be saved, not torn down as City policy had called for, the Theatre had been closed for seven years and was completely unusable. Nothing in it worked: circuits were shorted and light fixtures were missing; pipes were cracked and radiators burst; the old stage lighting didn’t work, the stage rigging didn’t move, there were no curtains and the screen had been slashed; the stage itself was literally covered in garbage; the dressing rooms were in ruins; the projection booth had been gutted; the organ had been removed; the auditorium was divided into a multiplex with ugly, sheet-rock walls; seats were worn out and covered in mold; paint was peeling everywhere; and everything was filthy.

The City bought the Loew’s knowing it would take at least $4 million just to get it open and minimally operational again. But the City didn’t want to spend the money, and initially had planned to “mothball” the Loew’s – meaning in practical terms the Theatre would stay closed and be forgotten. Instead, FOL helped the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation win a $1 million state preservation grant and managed to persuade the reluctant City to provide the required match. JCEDC, not FOL, was given responsibility for spending the $2 million on new boilers and exterior repairs that would “stabilize” the Loew’s – i.e., stave off further decay.

But this was nowhere near enough to get the Loew’s open again. The City was supposed to work with JCEDC to form steering committees and make blue-ribbon plans to raise the rest of the money needed to reopen the Loew’s – but never did any of this. And in a Catch-22, the City said it wouldn’t give another dime of City money until the Loew’s was reopened, something there was just no funding to do.

It was FOL – which at the time had no responsibility or authority for the Loew’s — that provided the way out of this dead end by creating a unique program of volunteer labor and raising our own money for supplies to make the extensive repairs for which the City was refusing to pay.

We think our photos show this was not just a little sweeping and patching up, as City officials have sometimes tried to insinuate. It was bootstrapping and sweat equity on a grand scale, an extraordinary investment by FOL and our volunteers of civic spirit, resources and money into a building the City owned but wasn’t willing to take care of.

Ironically, during one of the recent “tours” of the Loew’s, a representative of one of the companies the City is hoping to replace FOL with remarked that the Loew’s is in much better condition than the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn (which is undergoing a restoration that needed $90 million, mostly from New York City), and a Mayoral aide happily agreed that our Loew’s is “really in pretty good shape.” The reason Fulop’s aide could say this IS FOL and what we’ve accomplished so far.

Friends of the Loew’s not only enabled the Theatre to reopen for limited events and has maintained it ever since, we demonstrated the dedication, determination, resourcefulness, organizing ability, reliability, professionalism and community roots that are needed to ensure the success of the restoration and sustained operation of the Loew’s.

But our work to reopen the Loew’s is far from being the only reason FOL is the real guarantee for the Loew’s. In a follow-up message, we’ll talk about how we’ve been able to keep the Loew’s open for ten years despite the fact that the City has failed to provide the support it promised and acknowledged as being necessary for anyone to try to operate the Loew’s.

Stay tuned for more messages, and in the meantime please help spread this one around.”

Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic) with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by travsd

Tonight at Dixon Place at 9pm, the latest edition of Fear Mongers, the series of panel discussions about horror films organized by Clay McCleod Chapman. This evening is being moderated by the New York TimesJason Zinoman, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about his excellent new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

I think the most important function critics serve is as professors of appreciation. At their best, they provide us with a language to help us articulate our likes and dislikes, and help us widen our personal canons, (or at the very least gain new respect for artists who don’t immediately speak to us.)  Shock Value does all of those things for me.

As won’t surprise you, I am a fan of what Zinoman calls the Old Horror: supernatural Gothic tales with monsters, mansions and expressionistic atmosphere, the kind of horror films Hollywood produced in greatest number between the 1920s and the 1960s (though occasional ones have slipped through since). The Poe legacy. I am looking for something irrational, something that resembles a nightmare. I love the ritual of it. And the fact that much of it often descends to the level of camp is for me, only an added bonus.

But, when it’s good (as it often is), New or Old,  I find I require a supernatural element in order to score an effect. I want the primitive, unsophisticated, superstitious part of my brain to be aroused. I want the uncanny. I find for example, that I am terrified of voodoo zombies, which are produced by magic, and completely unmoved by post-Romero zombies of the scientific-explanation variety. And while I acknowledge there are some serial killer masterpieces out there (Psycho and Peeping Tom among them), I am much less frightened of a mere maniac than a creature than can fly, materialize and dematerialize at will, shape-shift or take over my soul.

Zinoman’s book is about the New Horror, chiefly the generation of directors who came up from the late 60s through the late 70s. Defensive of my Old Horror prerogatives, and disdainful as I am of graphic horror, gore, torture porn and cutlery, I was ready to be engaging the book from across a very wide gulf. But NOT so.

First, the crucial years Zinoman examines pre-dates the avalanche of junk that begins in the 1980s. So we don’t waste any time talking about Chucky or Leprochaun 6: Back 2 the ‘Hood, as edifying as that may ultimately be.

Second, he has chosen a pantheon of really fine directors, producers and screenwriters to discuss (for the most part), and puts them in the context of their times, stacking them up alongside the other New Hollywood auteurs like Spielberg, Coppola, Scorcese etc. Of the horror directors Zinoman talks about, probably only Brian de Palma is commonly lumped with these others. Zinoman shows how others of the same generation: George Romero, John Carpenter, and others may rate inclusion.

And third, a lot of these films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Shining) actually do have a supernatural element. The difference between Old and New is the level of effectiveness for modern audiences. Zinoman helps provide crucial context here to help us appreciate the revolution. He cites a 1969 interview with Vincent Price on The Mike Douglas Show that is mortifying for all the wrong reasons, as the old ham extols the virtues of spiders and cobwebs and the necessity of wearing a black cape. This is horror for six year olds. And while I’d rather have one The Abominable Dr. Phibes than 1,000 Friday the 13ths, the point is inarguable. How do you revitalize an exhausted genre? (I often ponder the parallel question in comedy. The ultimate comedy film-making assignment: stage a pie in the face but make it funny. Because for me the pie in the face is beyond dead. Deader than dead. It was vital in the 1920 and maybe the 1930s, but after that, it is a tiresome cliche).  At any rate, several people in the late 60s and 70s showed that it could be done. A pivotal moment was Rosemary’s Baby, when schlockmeister producer-director William Castle was forced by the studio to hire Roman Polanski to direct. Polanski abjures the man with devil horns and pitchfork Castle might have depicted…instead he implies the malevolent presence of the devil. The Exorcist (to my mind one of the scariest movies ever made), breaks out a whole battery of special effects, but not before establishing a highly believable, realistic universe not unlike the one director William Friedkin created for his previous feature The French Connection.

But like I said, what critics do best is expand our personal canons. This book helped enhance my appreciation of De Palma, for example. While I think Carrie and The Fury are brilliant and I would (and will) watch them again and again, and Dressed to Kill, which I saw in the cinema when I was 13, was certainly one of the most shocking experiences I ever had in the cinema, I have found a lot of his other films coldly formal, derivative, and downright silly. But I’ve never seen any of his films before 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, and there is much in Shock Value that makes me want to check out those early films. Likewise, the supposed brilliance of John Carpenter has always eluded me. I’ve seen most of his movies (most recently Halloween), and still can’t see it. This book (and several interviews I’ve heard Carpenter give recently about Howard Hawks) makes me want to give it still another shot. And likewise Tobe Hooper, whom Zinoman plainly admires and whose Texas Chainsaw Massacre I really hated. I’ll watch that again. But I draw the line at Wes Craven.

The book is elegantly written, full of astute insights, and contains an amazing amount of original interviews — a TON of research, all valuable stuff, as the comments by the artists gives us both historical information and perspective on the work itself. It will have an honored place on my shelf next to my dog-eared copies of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which is perfect — Zinoman picks up right where they left off.

Balaban & Katz

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2010 by travsd

I bet you didn’t know Hollywood star Bob Balaban has a connection to vaudeville. His father Elmer was one of the 7 Balaban brothers, most of whom were Chicago-based theatre owners. The pioneer was Bob’s uncle Abe, a vaudeville singer who leased a Nickelodeon in 1908 in partnership with his older brother Barney. They pioneered the movies-plus-vaudeville combination that was to find its full flowering in the 20s-30s-40s. Their initial enterprise was so successful, the following year they built the 600-seat Circle Theatre. In 1914 they partnered with Sam Katz, another Chicago theatre owner. In 1916 the combined organization built the 2000 seat Central Park Theatre. Throughout the 1920s, Balaban and Katz grew into a huge chain. Abe Katz retired in 1929 at the age of 40, a rich man. In 1936, barney became President of Paramount Pictures, where he remained for nearly three decades. Sam Katz was to become VP at MGM, and Bob Balaban’s grandmother’s second husband. The Balaban-Katz chain folded in 1970. For more info, go here.

 

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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