Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This week in history…On March 11th, 1927 the Roxy Theater opened near Times Square.


A few weeks after arriving in New York City from Florida in May 1927, my father strode confidently over to the Roxy Theater to see S.L. Rothafel, whose big new theater and lavish productions were the talk of the town. Mr. Rothafel, “Roxy,” was the titan of show business at the time. A mild, laconic man, he was immensely astute. His elaborate stage shows presaged Radio City Music Hall's extravaganzas. The Roxy’s architecture was a mix of Renaissance, Moorish and Gothic styles, housing three pipe organs, using a hundred and ten-piece orchestra for its stage shows, and having 6,200 seats. It was a glamorized movie house, the first of its kind. The cover of The Roxy program touted “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” The building also boasted a cavernous rotunda, a radio broadcasting  studio, dozens of dressing and rehearsal rooms, a laundry, a hair salon, a  dispensary, a cafeteria, a gym, a nap room, a library, and a menagerie for show animals. The Roxy employed 300 people. The Roxy closed in 1960. It was demolished so the hotel next door could build a parking garage.


A cartoon published shortly after the Roxy's opening shows an awestruck child standing in the lobby with her mother. The child asks,  'Does God live here?'


Their showing of new movies (silent, of course, for talkies were several years away) was tastefully laced with a stage show, featuring a soloist, and dance routines by the uniformly shapely, skilled “Roxyettes,” (who became the Rockettes in 1934 when the new Radio City Music Hall was built.) The Roxy was the weekly destination of tourist and native New Yorker alike. This mecca for the masses was, my father decided, where he belonged. Furthermore, Roxy put on a weekly radio show, offering him an even wider audience. 


This is how my mother related  James Melton’s assault on the the airwaves:


The young hopeful made his way through the church-like arched corridors to Roxy's office. “I want to see Mr. Rothafel, please,” he politely petitioned the secretary in the outer reception room.

 “Have you an appointment?” She scrutinized a long, crimson fingernail, and tossed her bottled blonde curls.

  Jim turned on his Southern charm full blast. “Not yet, but I hope you'll give me one.”

 “Ummm.  Just be seated.” She turned to the intercom on her desk and murmured something incomprehensible.

 Jim waited.  And waited. An hour later, he strode to the desk with his most winning smile lighting the way. 

 “Please ma’am, when is my appointment?”

 “Listen, Mr. Rothafel’s busy just now. He'll send word when he's free to see you.”

 People came and went. Some vanished behind the big oak door, never to reappear.  Another hour. Jim went to the desk again, this time without the smile.

 “I’ve been here two hours. I don’t think you've been very nice to me.”

 “Listen, country boy, Roxy’s a big man. A big, busy man. What makes you think he’d want to see you?”

 “Because he needs me. That singer he’s got on stage has got a voice that’s only good for cooling soup. When Roxy hears me sing, he’ll hire me.  You’ll see.”

 “Who told you so, your mama?”

 “Yeah.  And some day you’ll tell me so, too. You’ll see”

 “Well, look, you’d better come back another time.  ‘Maybe he won't be so busy tomorrow.  ‘Maybe he can see you then.”

 “I  don’t care about being seen —I want to be heard!”

 The next day Roxy was just as busy. And the next day, and the next. On the fifth day, Jim told the overwhelmed receptionist, “Now look!  I’m going to sing for Roxy.  I told you that a week ago.  I know he’s right behind that door, and I’m just going to start singing.  Here.  Now.  And I won’t stop until he comes out.”

 The receptionist looked up at angry eyes and a set jaw. “So sing—you wouldn't dare,” she challenged.

 Jim threw back his shoulders, set his feet apart, and let loose, in full voice.

 No one in the office was prepared for a sudden, unrequested burst of music. The receptionist went rigid with shock, all office noises stopped.  Jim continued to sing.

 Almost immediately the great wooden door was opened by a slender man, who said to Jim, “Come on, my boy, let’s find a piano and let you warm up a bit.”

 Maximillian Pilzer, Roxy’s assistant director of programs, led Jim to a small room across the hall.  “What are you going to sing for The Boss?”

 “ ‘I Hear You Calling Me.’ Key of E, please”

 The man played a few bars softly, and then said, “All right. Ready? Let it go.”

 Jim let it go.  When he’d finished, Pilzer rose with a smile. “Come with me.”

 Past the receptionist, through the oak door, and suddenly Jim was before a great desk, facing a short, quiet man whose eyes appraised him blandly.

 “Are you Mr. Rothafel?” asked Jim.

 “I am.  I understand you’re going to sing for me.”

 “Yes. I’ve been trying to for a week, and I’m going to sing now.”

 “All right,” said Roxy amiably. He turned to the man standing at his side. “This is Leo Russato, our musical director. Will you play for the young man, Leo?”

 The pianist seated himself at a grand piano in the corner.  He nodded to Jim, who turned his voice on full force in “I Hear You Calling Me.”

 “Good,” said Roxy.  “I understand you think you’re what I need here.”

 “Yes, sir,” said Jim.

 “What salary have you in mind?”

 “Two hundred fifty a week,” Jim shot back.

 “ Sit down, fella.  Now I don’t need to tell you that you have a great voice, because you know it already.  I’ll pay you one thousand dollars a month.  You’ll sing every other week because we’re not going to push your voice. Don’t want to grind off the fine edge.  That will give you time to study, too. All right?”

 “Yes, sir!”

 “You’ll start next week. We’re running the first showing of ‘What Price Glory,’ a great new picture, starring Victor McLaglen and Dolores DelRio. The theme song is ‘Charmaine.’ Beautiful song. You’ll introduce it in the stage production.  Leo, take him now and teach him the song.”

 “Thank you. Thank you, sir,” said Jim.

 Roxy looked at him, a smile of amusement playing across his mouth. “Listen kid, you’ve got a million dollar voice—and two million dollars worth of nerve. You’ll get along.”

 A week later, following the first showing of “What Price Glory,” the curtains opened to show one tall young man and a piano in a spotlight against a dark drop.  Jim blinked at the lights, gazed at the thousands of white round spots of peoples’ faces like rows of cupcakes.  He began to back up, his hand behind him reaching for the solid comfort of the piano.

 “Biggest stage I ever saw,” he recalled later.  “I backed all over the darn thing, trying to find the piano to lean against, my knees were kinda’ weak.”

 Volume one, page one of the seventeen scrapbooks bulging with clippings of my father’s career, has a picture of his teacher and mentor Gaetano deLuca.  Page two has the canceled check for his first week at the Roxy. “For services, week ending July 15, 1927....$250.00.”
























Monday, March 14, 2011

Steam Cars

Look what I found!  Poking around in the dusty recesses of Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, Vermont this weekend, my eye was caught by this book cover.  My father, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Daddy's Stanley Steamer.  The cover is his only appearance in the book.  The contents contain everything you might want to know about all makes of steam cars.

According the research done by Jim Merrick, Archivist at the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine, a few years ago, the James Melton collection included about thirty steam cars, ranging from a 1893 Custom Steam Stage Coach to a couple of Locomobiles, as well as numerous Stanleys and Whites.

More about which in a later post...I promise.