Radio City: From Real Estate to Art

I

THE peroration to the official book issued by Rockefeller Center, Inc., reads:

’Beauty, utility, dignity, and service are to be combined in the completed project.

‘Rockefeller Center is not Greek, but it suggests the balance of Greek architecture. It is not Babylonian, but it retains the flavor of Babylon’s magnificence. It is not Roman, yet it has Rome’s enduring qualities of mass and strength. Nor is it of the Taj Mahal, which it resembles in mass composition, though in it has been caught the spirit of the Taj — aloof, generous in space, quieting in its serenity.

‘The Taj Mahal lies in solitary grandeur on the shimmering bank of the Jumna River. Rockefeller Center will stand in the midstream rush of New York. The Taj is like an oasis in the jungle, its whiteness tense against the gloomy greenness of the forest. Rockefeller Center will be a beautiful entity in the swirling life of a great metropolis — its cool heights standing out against an agitated man-made sky line. And yet the two, far apart in site and surroundings, are akin in spirit.

‘The Taj, in tribute to pure beauty, was designed as a temple, a shrine. Rockefeller Center, conceived in the same spirit of æsthetic devotion, is designed to satisfy, in pattern and in service, the many-sided spirit of our civilization. By solving its own varied problems, by bringing beauty and business into closer companionship, it promises a significant contribution to the city planning of an unfolding future.’

We gather, under the words of the press agent, that. Rockefeller Center is American, distinctly and somewhat typically. The Taj Mahal was built in 1632 by Shah Jahan as a burial place for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and for his own remains. Rockefeller Center was built in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as office space for whosoever might want it, and as a business center for certain branches of the amusement trades.

II

In the year 1928, William A. White, real-estate agent for Columbia University, decided to try to interest the Metropolitan Opera House in occupying part of the ground between Fortyeighth and Fifty-first Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues. This land had been in the possession of Columbia University since 1814, when the New York legislature granted the tract to Columbia College. By 1928, leases on some of the old brownstone houses had begun to expire, and Columbia University was interested in renting the property.

Meanwhile, discussions had been taking place between the officers and the patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House concerning the construction of a new opera house. The Metropolitan Opera Company had been offered $11,000,000 for the old Opera House, standing on Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Streets. Otto H. Kahn, who was then president of the Metropolitan Opera Company, had persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., that it would be a fine thing to have the new opera house erected on the Columbia University property. Mr. Rockefeller’s experts studied the problem and reported back that in their opinion the project would be a good thing for the opera, a good thing for Columbia University, and perhaps a good thing for Mr. Rockefeller.

It was a time when any enterprise which appeared to be financially possible was thought of as certain to become financially sound with the mere passage of years, by virtue of natural laws, American good luck, and the ‘rugged individualism’ for which we felt ourselves to be famous. Radio City, conceived in lush days, became the posthumous child of Coolidge Prosperity, brought to birth after the crash. Although no actual construction work was begun until long after a financial crash had become the Depression, none of the proud parents-to-be appeared to entertain any fears for the future of the child which was about to be born at such an inauspicious period. There is a pride of ownership, a pride in carrying through a project, which, when people still have the means, is stronger than immediate circumstances. Flurries in stocks and bonds, portents of bankruptcy, could not hinder those who, trusting their own larger vision, could afford the luxury of defying the times.

Mr. Rockefeller formed a company, the Metropolitan Square Corporation, which proceeded to buy up the leases outstanding on Columbia University’s land. Meanwhile the families which dominated the Metropolitan Opera socially, and the members of the holding company which looked after the financial management of the Opera’s property, were trying to make up their minds what to do. Some of the Opera’s patrons did not want to move. They had been going to the old red-plush and gilt Opera House for a great many years; there was a homelike quality about the drab yellow building which they did not wish to lose; and modern art did not interest them. The directors, for their part, were doubtful of the financial value of the new project to the Opera company.

This controversy was still going on when Mr. Owen D. Young, chairman of the board of the General Electric Company, who had fostered radio development for many years, hit upon a plan by which he hoped to centralize the radio industry. The Radio Corporation of America, through its two subsidiaries, the National Broadcasting Company and the Radio Keith Orpheum Corporation, controlled a large part of the radio business of the United States, as well as a smaller part of the motion-picture and theatre business. It was Mr. Young’s plan to bring these enterprises together into one central ‘city’ within New York City.

Mr. Rockefeller, meanwhile, held leases to some of Columbia University’s land, and the Opera finally refused to move. Something had to be done with the leases, and Mr. Young interested Mr. Rockefeller in financing his plan for a radio city. Mr. Rockefeller set aside $120,000,000 for this purpose. insuring the money against depreciation. Columbia University received rental for its land of $3,600,000 a year, which is said to be 60 per cent of the university’s entire income. The leases to the land are for twenty-one years, with options for three renewals of twenty-one years each, making the leases valid for eighty-four years, after which time the property, with all the buildings erected thereon, reverts to Columbia University without cost.

III

Architects, who had thus far been considering an opera-house project, now broadened their plans to the larger Radio City scale. The new plans included two monster theatres, a 70-story R. C. A. Building, a 31-story RKO Building, two 45-story office buildings, two 6-story buildings, one to become the British Empire Building the other La Maison Française, and two 9-story buildings, one to become the Italian Building and the other the German Building.

The entire project extends throughout most of the three city blocks from Forty-eighth Street to Fifty-first Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and includes twelve buildings. Between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue a new street has been cut, which runs the width of the project. In front of the center of this private street will be a plaza, with a large sculptured fountain and mosaic pavements. The roofs of all the buildings will have landscape gardens, emulating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and there will be bridges between those buildings which are on a level with each other. All of the buildings and theatres are connected with underground passageways, and arrangements have been made for freight-delivery passageways.

While the construction work was going on, group leases were signed with the Radio Corporation of America, the National Broadcasting Company, and the Radio Keith Orpheum Corporation. The Radio Corporation took the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the 70-story R. C. A. Building, as well as parts of the fifty-third and fifty-fourth floors. It also leased from the nineteenth to the twenty-fifth floors inclusive in the R K O Building. The National Broadcasting Company leased offices between the third and the sixth floors in the R. C. A. Building and twenty-six broadcasting studios. The Radio Keith Orpheum Corporation leased the Radio City Music Hall, the larger theatre, and the RKO Roxy Theatre, the smaller motionpicture theatre.

A British syndicate had leased the British Empire Building and a French syndicate La Maison Française. It is planned to display in these buildings the products of the countries whose names they bear, and on July 19, 1932, President Hoover signed a bill which makes of these buildings a free port for the display of goods; if the goods are sold, they will then pay the regular customs duties.

The 70-story R. C. A. Building has a large concourse and a large concert stage with dining terraces and restaurant facilities for 18,000 persons. A huge pipe organ will entertain the diners. The elevators in the buildings are of the silent, swift, heavy, solemn type. For safety, the doors are controlled by a new device called the ‘Electric Eye.’ The moment any passenger’s shadow crosses the Electric Eye, the doors will refuse to shut, so that accidents may be guarded against. Once the doors are shut, the operators push buttons and stand in idle attention, while the passengers feel as if they were about to be born until they arrive noiselessly at their destinations. The elevators, so reads the official booklet, have a maximum speed of 1200 feet a minute, but, since the largest building is only 805 feet high, they will be able to go from the first to the sixty-fifth floor in about fifty seconds. ‘Operating on a full schedule from eight o’clock in the morning to six-thirty o’clock in the evening,’ says the official booklet, ‘the seventy-four elevators in this building will travel over 2100 miles per day, or about 760,000 miles per year — more than thirty times the distance around the world.’ Only, of course, they will stay in the building.

IV

The Rockefeller Center project is one of the first coöperative architectural ventures since the Renaissance. Three large architectural firms are responsible for the buildings — Reinhard and Hofmeister; Corbett, Harrison, and MacMurray; Hood and Fouilhoux. Some architects maintain that Rockefeller Center is a test case which will show whether large-scale architectural production for business purposes can displace individual units. If it is a commercial success, it is likely to have a profound effect on housing projects and industrial enterprises. Nothing of this scale in a building project has been attempted in this country before. There is in New York the Garment Center Capitol, a group of buildings centralizing the garment trades, and there are other smaller enterprises, but it required a combination of amusement ventures, with their large and far-reaching public, to make possible this huge experiment in centralization.

Rockefeller Center is another instance of the tendency in America during the twentieth century toward large-scale, centralized production and consumption. Although it begins with large leases from the amusement companies, there is enormous space to be rented 1o individuals and corporations, and its financial progress will indicate whether it has exceeded or kept within the margin of utility. Its success may lead to other attempts at centralization, some legitimate, and some at the expense of individuality. Meanwhile, the radio industry, with its vast scope, and the amusement trades, with their large patronage, may make financial success possible for Rockefeller Center.

The buildings themselves are typical of the purposes for which they are designed. They arc simple, unobtrusive, and rather colorless. There is no unit in the group so surpassingly beautiful as the New’ York Telephone Building on West Street, and there is none so bizarre as that down’s cap, the Chrysler Building. The Rockefeller Center buildings have not the strength and purity of the New York Daily News Building, nor are any of them spoiled by such unsightliness as the superfluous mooring-mast tower of the Empire State Building.

With the exception of the large sculptured panels by Gaston Lachaise above the portals of the R. C. A. Building, the art work in and on the Rockefeller Center buildings is a detraction from their beauty rather than an addition to it. The plaques on the wall of the Radio City Music Hall look as if some giant had spat on a pure space. Most of the murals within the theatre buildings are thin and insipid, and the large flat mural in the Radio City Music Hall’s grand lobby detracts from the strength of the colossal height. Much of the art work is relegated to the lounges and retiring rooms of the theatres, where the walls are adorned by well-known modern artists. Some of these murals have becoming simplicity, but most of them are both pretentious and commonplace.

The theatres themselves are built with all the modem conveniences and more mechanical stage and auditorium devices than have ever been used before. The smaller auditorium, the R K O Roxy Theatre, possesses a fine pure sweep, and the walls are beautifully paneled in warm wood. The larger theatre is necessarily more broken and less attractive, though grander. Its ceiling, which can be flooded with every shade of color desired by the color conductor, — for there is a conductor of color as well as of music, — has somewhat the effect of a huge collapsible drinking cup. The acoustics are good and highly amplified, without reverberation, the sound being drawn into little holes in the walls when it might be tempted to get in the way of harmony. The acoustic experts speak of sound ‘seeing’ a hole and crawling into it to be sucked up in the general coöperative effort. That was my impression of what had happened to the artist when I witnessed the first programme presented in the Music Hall by ‘Roxy.’

V

Samuel Lionel Rothafel came to New York as a young man after a boyhood spent in Minnesota. He found himself hungry and joined the marines, where he remained in obscurity for five years. He was also at one time a baseball player. Early in the history of the motion-picture industry there was an unpretentious theatre at 116th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City, called the Regent Theatre. It showed motion pictures of William S. Hart and Mary Pickford, and was a typical amusement place of the middle-class neighborhood. Rothafel came into the management of the Regent Theatre, and one of his first acts was to persuade the proprietors to add such sweet melodies as Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ to the programme.

It was at this period that several large motion-picture producers made what they considered a great discovery: namely, that the theatre was more important than the entertainment offered therein. They built and bought theatres throughout the United States, drove small theatres out of business by competing with them, and then made them into large theatres. After these real-estate merchants of the motion-picture industry had obtained control of most of the theatres throughout the United States, as well as of many in Europe, South America, India, and the Far East, it did not much matter, according to their theory and practice, what they put into them, so long as the entertainment was on the plane of the lowest common denominator.

One of the largest of the early motion-picture theatres of that era was the Strand, at Broadway and Fortyseventh Street in New York City. The management, noting Rothafel’s presentation programmes of music and dancing at the Regent Theatre, hired him to manage the programmes at the Strand. Rothafel came in, and almost at once orchestras began to come out of the floor playing Tchaikovsky’s '1812 Overture,’ and hordes of young girls in pretty ballet skirts began to tiptoe out of huge red silken hearts, only to tiptoe back into them again, while colored lights ran riot and monstrous organs played giddily. The materials were all very expensive and very shiny, and the number of musicians was multiplied beyond the wildest dreams of Richard Wagner.

Then radio was born, and Rothafel went on the air. He needed a shorter and a sweeter name, and he called himself ‘Roxy,’ while his associates became known as ‘the Gang.’ It was Roxy’s boast that he had received 4,000,000 letters from radio admirers, but that was some years ago; there must be 12,000,000 by now. Many of those who write to him, Roxy told an interviewer, are the mothers of children.

Meanwhile, Roxy had decided that he must have his own theatre in New York, a theatre which would be the largest in the world, which would bear his name, and which, as he fondly expressed it, would become ‘the Cathedral of the Motion-Picture Art.’ When the Roxy Theatre opened, it held accommodations for 6200 persons. On the opening night, traffic was jammed in the vicinity. Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson were there, and so were thousands of others who had become prominent in the theatrical and motion-picture world. The ushers dripped with gold braid, and in summer wore larger velvet berets than had ever been seen in Paris. They set a style in attendants, and were promptly copied in the other cathedrals of the motion-picture art.

‘You know,’ Roxy told an interviewer at the time, ‘this is my big thing. I’ll never do another thing like it, and in our generation I think you will not see another movie theatre so big! Do you think it will go? Do you think it will succeed?’

When Roxy said that he would never do a bigger thing, he had reckoned without the millions of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and he could not have foreseen Radio City. In 1931, Roxy suddenly resigned from the management of the theatre which bore his name, and it was announced that he had been called to the chair of entertainment art at Radio City. He has since persuaded himself, at least for the purposes of print, that he himself conceived Radio City. In the statement which he issued just prior to the opening of the Music Hall under his management, he wrote: —

Scores of people have asked me, as they watched the great entertainment center at Radio City take form, how I conceived the idea of these great theatres.

I did n’t conceive the idea. I dreamed it. I dreamed it. I believe in creative dreams. The picture of the Radio City theatres was complete and practically perfect in my mind before artists and architects put pen to drawing paper.

I was more fortunate than I can say in enlisting the aid of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Owen D. Young, to whom I took my dream of Radio City and who helped to make it come true.

But I am deeply grateful to one man more than any other. That is my chief, Merlin H. Aylesworth. Without him we could not have done a thing. He guided me, trusted me, and supported me. At times when any other executive would have questioned me and halted me, he let me proceed unmolested. It was a beautiful expression of faith.

It was my pleasure to take him into the new R K O Roxy for the first time. He was quiet and I could not get a word out of him. But when he turned to look at me, the tears were in his eyes, as he said, ‘You so and so, I knew you would do it.’

VI

Roxy has been compared with Barnum; he has been called a superBarnum by his press agents. The ‘super’ is slightly funny, and the Barnum is highly inaccurate. Roxy bears as much resemblance to Barnum as the inner tube of an automobile tire does to a whale; both are inflated, but it takes only a pin prick to burst the tire tube, while the whale is solid blubber. From 1841, when Barnum’s American Museum opened its doors at Ann Street and Broadway, until 1891, when P. T. Barnum died, he was a national institution. Barnum did not concentrate on size alone, and we still remember the name of Barnum because of his ability to procure and to present interesting entertainments of a wide, common nature, and because of his genius for advertising them. Roxy has only a genius for advertising himself, and a talent for the presentation of the commonplace on a large scale.

The difference between the common and the commonplace is the difference between Barnum and Roxy. Barnum’s creations had little to do with size and more to do with originality and quantity. Barnum, it should be remembered, was opposed to the size of the Barnum and Bailey circus, and it was his partner, James A. Bailey, who made the modern circus what it is. Bailey also had the ability to magnify and at the same time to preserve the quality of individual acts. Barnum’s interest was in originality, and in the widespread publicity of the unique. When he did not have an actual wonder, he created it. An ossified specimen became the Feejee Mermaid, and Joice Heth, an elderly Negress slave, was advertised as the nurse of George Washington and going on 160 years of age. Barnum never bothered with the esoteric, but all of his attractions had to have a special individuality of their own and one capable of widespread exploitation. In Jenny Lind, Barnum had a singer whose voice was admitted to be one of surpassing beauty by almost everyone who heard her. It was possible for Barnum to exploit this voice on a grand scale, because Jenny Lind’s qualities were not limited in their appeal or choice. Mendelssohn, who was said to have been in love with her, had to admit that she sang bad music best.

Roxy, in common with his patrons, the projectors and builders of Radio City, has a passion for size as such. When the Radio City Music Hall opened its doors for its first show on the night of December 27, 1932, 6000 of the most prominent persons in New York attended the performance. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., represented Rockefeller Center. Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler represented Columbia University. Owen D. Young, M. H. Aylesworth, and David Sarnoff represented the radio interests. Architects, writers, painters, actors, bankers, lawyers, and newspaper photographers crowded into the vast building. It was almost unanimously agreed afterward that the show which Roxy presented to them in the largest theatre in the world was the dullest and longest they had ever seen.

The programme consisted almost entirely of the spectacular numbers which usually precede the presentation of a movie in all large motionpicture theatres. Two or three of such numbers are the usual limit of the programme, but Roxy made the multiplication table his guide, and the performance which he presented lasted from nine o’clock in the evening until almost two o’clock in the morning, without any entertainment relief. The mediocre was prevalent, and the commonplace was rampant. Any individuality was dwarfed by the size of the theatre, and only when forty-five girls all placed their toes in one direction simultaneously was there any slight enthusiasm. Symmetry alone seemed effective in such vastness, and the appeal of symmetry by itself becomes monotonous. Humor is almost impossible in a theatre of that size. Tigers, seals, and acrobats, midgets, giants, and bearded ladies, would be incongruous in such elegance. There are no tier boxes, so Society will not listen to opera there.

Speculation was active among the first-night audience as to just when the motion pictures, like cockroaches in a house of decay, would come crawling on to the huge stage. Ten days after the opening performance, the policy of the Music Hall was changed, and motion pictures were shown there with accompanying presentation numbers, in the manner of the old Roxy Theatre. Roxy, in his statement before the opening, had written: ‘Now I think the presentation has outgrown its usefulness. The motion pictures have gone away from this. They speak for themselves. They no longer need such aid. They have grown up. So I am going to do something else. No movies will be shown in the Radio City Music Hall. There we hope to develop another form of entertainment.’

VII

Just what form of entertainment is appropriate and possible for the huge Radio City Music Hall has kept the impresarios, the lessors, and the public guessing ever since its opening. As Variety, the theatrical weekly, remarked: ‘The impression of that opening crowd has spread in such fashion that 100,000 or so folks, seemingly, have become show doctors and are talking or planning what to do with the Music Hall and conjuring up its possible future.’

The only institution connected with the enterprise which can rest easy is Columbia University. It does not receive the Rockefeller Center buildings, including the two large theatres, for eighty-four years, and by that time some great showman may appear who will utilize the advantages of the large theatres, and some magnate who will be able to use the concentration of the buildings.

In The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset has written: ‘The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place. Then, also, is produced the phenomenon of agglomeration, of “the full.” For that reason, as Spengler has very well observed, it was necessary, just as in our day, to construct enormous buildings. The epoch of the masses is the epoch of the colossal.’

In the execution of Rockefeller Center, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., has permitted the masses to dictate to him. Driven, perhaps, by his sense of duty to permit his great weallh to become of service to his fellow man, he has abdicated control of his property, which has been aptly characterized recently as ‘God’s Gold.’ Mr. Rockefeller has fallen into the clutches of the masses and into the hands of the men who claim to know what the public wants and will want. The public either sullenly accepts or bitterly resents, and it asks its patrons to give it fare or perish, with the implied threat that, unless the fare proves acceptable eventually, the public will become its own master. But, being incapable of self-mastery, the masses are anxious to be led.

Rockefeller Center, which has sometimes been hailed as an attempt at city planning, is anything but that. As we have seen from its history, the project started as a comparatively small venture for the purpose of providing a new opera house for New York, and became a monster of haphazard growth, with architectural symmetry. The Taj Mahal was an attempt at realization of a man’s dream of abstract beauty, with no utilitarian purpose. Rockefeller Center is the tangled growth of a group mentality, and suggests once again that nothing enduring in this world is accomplished except by individuals who realize the direction of their desires, and who have no utilitarian aim. Rather than a form of social or economic planning, it is an example of drift. Starting as a small plan of artistic patronage, the project became a vast real-estate development with artistic implications, due to the connection with it of organizations which are purveyors of artistic forms to the multitude. On the way it accumulated mediocrity and remains only a potentiality.

It may be objected that the officials of Rockefeller Center never contemplated anything more pretentious than a large real-estate development. The high-blown publicity of the venture is something of a denial of this modesty; but, if it is true, then Rockefeller Center was quite unnecessary, for there was already a superfluity of real estate in New York, and a paucity of art.