Recently, I was watching Airport ’75 and during one of the scenes where Gloria Swanson, playing herself, was dictating her memoirs, I suddenly flashed on an image of the great star amidst the rubble of an old theater. In the old days I would have had to go to the library to research if this photo existed or if I had either made it up or confused the subject. One of the pleasures of the Internet is that I had my answer in less time than it took for Helen Reddy to sing one verse of “My Best Friend is Myself” to critically ill (but strangely upbeat) kidney patient Linda Blair. I was correct: Miss Swanson did indeed pose amidst of the rubble of the once-majestic Roxy Theater for Life Magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon on October 14, 1960. The image is wildly dramatic, appropriately theatrical, but also highly emotionally resonant because it is loaded with symbolism: for the end of the studio system, which was in the last stages of its collapse at that moment, and for the end of the era of the “great movie star” that Swanson represented.
“All they had to do was put my name on a marquee and watch the money roll in.”
I learned a few interesting things in that nanosecond it took me to research the origin of my true or untrue memory of this photograph. The 5,920 seat Roxy theater was erected in 1927 and was razed in 1960. In its day it was the most exquisite and largest of all the movie palaces. Interestingly, the choice of Gloria Swanson wasn’t random—the Roxy’s opening film was a silent Swanson feature called The Love of Sunya, which told the story of a young woman who was given the power to see into her future. If the building’s architect Walter Alschlager and original proprietor and namesake Sam “Roxy” Rothafel could have seen into the future they would have been stunned that New York City could allow such a beautiful building to be torn down. Depressingly, the entrance to the Roxy is, today, a T.G.I.Friday’s.
I also learned that the Life magazine image inspired Stephen Sondheim to write Follies, his 1971 musical about the reunion of a group of showgirls amidst the ruins of an old theater and one of his most beloved shows. That production gave the world the 11 o’clock number “I’m Still Here.” Thanks to the power of cinema, the work of artists like Swanson will live forever, but the grandeur of the Roxy theater is gone forever.
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