High above the third balcony at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, a private elevator opens on the projection level. Down the plain, workaday corridor are some of the great theater’s less glamorous nooks and crannies. Doors open to spotlight booths, control rooms and storage closets, all anchored by the spacious projection room in the center.
But one door is different. To me, it is the magic door. Or more precisely, it’s the door that led me to the magic. This door leads to a private box that commands a bird’s eye view of Roxy Rothafel’s stunning 5900-seat art deco showplace. Long before “luxury suites” were part of the entertainment lexicon, this hideaway boasted plush armchairs, with refreshments and multi-line telephones close at hand. My earliest memory of the music hall is the view from this perch, where as a small boy of eight I sat in absolute awe. Beside me were my father and Ben Olevsky, the hall’s chief of projection. My father’s business was theater supply, and he and Olevsky were longtime friends.
The feature film was drawing to a close, and the stage show was about to begin. Olevsky explained that the red light flashing discreetly near our armchairs was the two-minute cue. Then, as if disclosing a top-secret memorandum, he whispered what to watch for as the film ended: The house lights would begin to glow as the music swelled, and the travel curtain would start across the stage just as the great three-ton gold contour curtain began its 60-foot descent. As the last titles appeared, both curtains would close the proscenium until, precisely as the last ruffle of the contour curtain touched the stage, the house lights would reach full brightness and the last frame of “The End” would disappear.
“At that moment,” Olevsky went on in a dramatic sotto voce, “our organist, Dick Liebert, will overlap the last chord of the film’s soundtrack on the pedals of the immense Wurlitzer. That small curtain over there along the choir stairs at stage right will open, and Dick will slide out playing the organ interlude.”
A sudden blue-white glow diverted my attention, and I turned to see that a spotlight operator in a booth to our right had just struck his arc. Noting my interest, Ben added that the spot would punctuate the forthcoming appearance of Mr. Liebert with a sparkling ring around the musician’s white dinner jacket.
Seconds later, I watched it all unfold exactly as advertised. And then I asked Ben Olevsky why it was so important that all those things happen so precisely. His smiling, patient and proud answer has stayed with me all my life.
“Because what happens here is magic, and we are the magicians. It is very important that we do our tricks exactly right.”
I was hooked. Theaters became a magnet to me, an allure that’s never faded. So it seemed perversely “normal” when I broke in as a projectionist at a theater near my home in northern New Jersey—as a 14-year-old high school freshman. I recall that my father had to make some very special arrangements with the projectionists union, IATSE, to allow me to work. I’m also pretty sure I violated every child labor law ever written.
I spent the weekends and summer vacations of seven years in my very own Cinema Paradiso, watching film after film through the small plate-glass viewing ports of projection booths. During my first summer a theater manager noted with a wry grin that he was paying me to run films I was too young to see. He was right, and I remember that part of my worldly education included such delicacies as Butterfield 8 and Splendor in the Grass.
As with all magic, in some ways it’s less interesting when you know how it works. But for me, firing up the big arc lamps and watching the curtain slide open to reveal the Fox searchlights or the Universal globe was always an adventure. On days off I would sometimes return to Radio City where Ben would welcome me to talk some shop and see a good show.
A decade after my projectionist days ended, word came that Radio City Music Hall would close forever. Suburban multiplex movie houses had sapped its business, and the expensive midtown real estate was deemed more valuable as a shopping mecca. The final attraction was the Easter show of 1978, and my wife and I went to pay our last tribute. By then I was making films instead of running them, but I knew that a piece of my heart was up there on the projection level where I’d first learned about the magic.
I’d never stood in line at Radio City before. In the old days Ben kept us supplied with passes that whisked us instantly up the grand staircase to reserved seats in the first mezzanine. On this spring Sunday the line was long, and off-duty Rockettes were working the crowd with petitions to save the hall. After about an hour a cranky 10-year-old behind us began to pester his father to leave. He argued that they could see the same picture at home in Connecticut and that it didn’t make any sense to stand on a sidewalk for hours. “Why do we have to wait?” the kid whined.
“I’ll tell you why,” said his father. “We have to wait because for the rest of your life you’ll be watching movies in cement boxes in shopping centers. And I just want you to understand that it wasn’t always that way.”
Hours later when I left the hall for what I thought was the last time, that father’s words were still ringing in my head.
But then, true to the endings of so many of the films that played there, the petitions prevailed against the odds and Radio City Music Hall was not only rescued, but blessed with historic landmark status. Even though the bright orange sticker on my 1978 souvenir program still proclaims “Final Attraction,” I’ve had the great satisfaction of returning to the hall many times since. No matter where I sit, I always turn for a quiet glance up at the projection level.
Now, a loving top-to-bottom restoration has brought the music hall back to its 1932 opening night splendor. The owners have spent some $70 million to secure its place in the first rank of the world’s theaters for generations to come.
Even so, the father on the sidewalk all those years ago was right: most of us still must watch movies in cement boxes in shopping centers. For Radio City’s reprieve and renaissance was the exception, not the rule.
That’s why I rejoice every time I visit a theater that sparkles with the magic. It doesn’t have to seat thousands like the Gotham music hall of my youth. With every colorful marquee bulb shimmering an invitation, and with its stunning lobby woodwork refinished by a local boatyard, the jewel-like Lido Theater graces California’s Newport Beach. Its welcoming glow lays as much claim to my heart as the massive and meticulously restored Fox in downtown Detroit, or the Chicago on the edge of the fabled Loop.
Finding the magic isn’t as easy as it used to be, it’s true. But in some ways that makes it all the more exciting when you do. Just follow your heart and listen for the rumbling bass notes from the mighty Wurlitzer.