The Birth of Radio City Music Hall and the Figurative Death of Roxy's Career

Ross Melnick, American Showman“Unfortunately for Roxy … Radio City’s opening night on December 27, 1932, was a critical disaster.”

The excerpt from Ross Melnick’s American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908-1935 in yesterday’s post looked at Rothafel’s great triumph with the opening of the Roxy theater. Moving ahead a few years, today’s post tells the story of the mixed reaction his new endeavor—Radio City Music Hall— received and how it foreshadowed his decline in the entertainment business.

As the opening of Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre neared, pressure mounted inside the two art deco theaters. In addition to his own need to top every theater he had ever opened in New York, Roxy was also under immense public scrutiny. Critic Gilbert Seldes noted that with Roxy’s decision to make Radio City Music Hall a venue for variety only, “What is done there will either energize or stultify entertainment in America for a generation.” Others, including Roxy, saw Radio City as a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal economic and social climate. He noted in August 1932:

Many people have remarked that the activity and bustle about Radio City in Rockefeller Center is a definite inspiration in the center of a big metropolis—a sort of example to all the world to forge ahead and get busy. In this same sense it strikes us that Radio City, when completed, will be a beacon light to the entire industry. Even as one astounding picture from any producer serves to help the entire fraternity, so Radio City will act as a stimulus to the entire nation and will help lift [it] out of the doldrums of depression. It will automatically broadcast a sincerity of purpose—a message of faith and optimism. Radio City will be a challenge and an inspiration, not only to our industry, but to all industries, to move forward and onward.

… Nearly every one of Roxy’s elaborate openings, from the Alhambra in Milwaukee in 1911 to the Roxy Theatre in 1927, had been met with glowing approval. He and the entertainment world expected nothing less than perfection. Roxy’s medical condition, though, had worsened and, he would later argue, limited his ability to produce effectively. “With that show, sick as I was,” Roxy told the New York Herald Tribune, “there wasn’t a chance to really get it whipped into shape, but I stuck with it night and day, with doctors and nurses in constant attendance; I wouldn’t let my associates down. Illness may have played a part, but it also seemed to provide a tidy excuse.

Unfortunately for Roxy, RKO, the Rockefellers, and every other party involved, Radio City’s opening night on December 27, 1932, was a critical disaster. After rain and traffic delayed the start of the show by more than an hour, a restless crowd sat through one colossal bomb after another. Brooks Atkinson noted, “The opening performance lasted from 8:30 until 2:30 the next morning, and neither Roxy nor vaudeville ever recovered from that brutal avalanche of fun.” The Toronto Daily Star was equally merciless, dubbing Radio City a “gigantic” failure and noting that “Nothing quite so blasting to the show business in any country equals the supreme flop of the new Radio City enterprise.” The Literary Digest remarked that the show was “in many ways, a program of the National Broadcasting Company,” but “unlike the wireless, you can’t turn it off when you are bored.” Roxy, the New Republic wrote, assembled “a job lot of vaudeville turns which . . . do not add up into a vaudeville program, and they bored the first few audiences stiff. The net effect was of a series of movie ‘prologues,’ one after the other.” Unlike his shows at the Roxy and the Capitol, these attractions did not frame some large capstone entertainment nor provide any cohesive thematic flavor. They simply added scale and volume to the show. It was big, massive, gaudy—and completely wrong for the time….

In forty-eight hours, everything Roxy had worked for since 1930 was ripped apart by the press and slashed by RKO. The RKO Roxy Theatre would, for the moment, remain relatively unchanged, but Radio City Music Hall, as Roxy had conceived it, would only last another week. The much anticipated resurrection of vaudeville did not come to pass; if anything, the disastrous failure of Radio City Music Hall was variety’s gurgling death rattle. Motion Picture Herald would comment two years later that after Radio City’s disastrous debut “there remained nothing to do about vaudeville but write the obituary.” It was also, though few realized it at the time, the figurative death of Roxy’s career and stature.

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