I'm a bit of a nut for old theaters, and a recent tour I took of Toronto's gorgeous and venerable Elgin/Winter Garden inspired me to investigate one of NYC's last extant movie palaces. Films are rarely shown there these days, but at least it still exists and is in use for somethin'...
BEACON THEATRE--2124 Broadway at 74th Street. Despite its association with Clear Channel, I'd still consider the 2,849-seat Beacon to be one of the finest venues in town for fairly mainstream concerts. I was always particularly pleased when an act I dug was booked there; given the fact that so few cinematic temples of the Beacon's ilk have survived into the present day, the opportunity to see a show in such splendid surroundings felt like a special treat, if not a minor miracle. I've long wondered about the theater's history, and this curiousity was recently satisfied by an entry in Richard Alleman's New York: The Movie Lover's Guide (New York: Broadway Books, 2005--he published a similar volume on Hollywood last year). To my surprise, Alleman reports that the Beacon was originally built under the auspices of legendary impresario Samuel "Roxy" Rothapfel as a smaller cousin to his amazing-colossal-stupendous-(insert your preferred Old Hollywood adjective here) Roxy Theatre at 50th & Seventh Avenue. It was designed by the same architect behind the Roxy, Walter W. Ahlschlager, and was planned to be first in a chain of mini-Roxys throughout the five boroughs. These plans fell through, however, and the new theater instead opened as Warner's Beacon in 1928 (according to most websites; Alleman dates it to 1929). Enthusiasts on the Cinema Treasures website state that the lobby remained a 1/4-scale rendition of the original Roxy's Grand Foyer, but the eight-stories-high auditorium was redesigned to reflect a mixture of Byzantine and Moorish styles, with murals by Danish artist Valdemar Kjoldgaard. Warner's initial policy of first-run features and vaudeville did not turn a profit, so in the early '30s the Beacon was taken over by the Brandt chain and operated as a second-run house. In 1962 it became one of several "Premiere Showcase" theatres in the New York area, but judging from the comments on Cinema Treasures it seems like the place reverted back to second-run and revivival-house status later in the decade. By the '70s, screenings were interspersed with rock concerts. One fellow on Cinema Treasures describes the Beacon as:
the home of the cream of mid size rock concerts since the close of the Fillmore in the early 1970's. Beacon, along with the old Academy of Music on 14th Street were run by the same promoter (whose name fails me at the moment). sometime in the late 1970's John Scher of Metropolitan Entertainment took it over until sometime in the 1980's when Ron Delsner became the promoter. today Clear Channel have there hand in there although Metopolitan continue to promote shows there. but what is probabaly most important is that it is without a doubt the finest venue to enjoy a "rock concert". Beacon audience... best audience anywhere.the room has been our little club house for the psychedelic experence since the demise of the 60's. acts such as the Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna being among the highlights. the Beacon continues to present surviving members of such acts. the energy of those bygone days haunt the auditorium to this day.originally being from NYC myself i attended concerts there from the inception. nights... chaos would rein. i was personally held up at gunpoint by the bouncers at the door. a peace was brokered over time and my friends and i were allowed in without tickets for a good two decades. we saw (without seats) nearly every act to come through the joint. but forget about the scene at the door (if one were a cute young lady she might be permitted entrance without a ticket as well) utter pandemonium would break out as the acts would rock the auditorium to it's foundations. [sic.(!!!)]
Today, the Beacon's opulent (and officially landmarked) interior survives pretty much intact from yesteryear--including an operational Wurlitzer organ. (There are a few pics here, though sadly I couldn't find any of the auditorium). The murals could stand to be cleaned, but most other fixtures seem to be in good condition. Besides its frequent concerts, the Beacon also books dance and theatrical events. I'm not even going to attempt to compile a short list of musicians who have played there, lest I never finish this entry--I'll just mention a few that I've seen. Let's see...there was Billy Bragg a couple of times. I fancied myself a thinking schoolgirl back then, and he was the thinking schoolgirl's crumpet--but I remember that when he prattled on about his newfound joys in fatherhood during that second Beacon show, I could actually feel my fandom slowly dissolve over the wimpiness of it all. The Kinks in 1989--my first live foray into the Kult of Kinkdom, and I had gotten my sixth-row seat earlier that same day! Al Green sometime in the mid-'90s. Brian Wilson in '99 or so--I could tell from my balcony vantage that he really wasn't playing the security-blanket keyboard he sat behind, except maybe during "Love and Mercy." God bless him for going out there, though. I should have gone to one of the Elvis Costello and the Attractions reunion shows ca. '96, but I was still reeling from the memory of seeing him during his early-'90s heavy-and-hirsute period. Jeez, I'm blanking out here. I'm sure there have been other shows, but perhaps not that many others. While I've always enjoyed the appearance and vibe of the Beacon, most of the acts big enough to fill its near-3,000 capacity are unfortunately not to my musical taste.
UPDATE 12/19/2010: Gosh, my pithy "reviews" of the shows I've seen here were quite snarky, weren't they? Anyway, I've lately been revisiting cinematreasures.org's pages on NYC's classic theaters-turned-rock-venues, and I've found that many new posts have been added since I last checked in there. I have a tendency to keep up with NYC news far more thoroughly than I do news of my current home city, but somehow I missed hearing that within the last few years the Beacon has not only been acquired by Cablevision (which also operates Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall), but has also undergone a major restoration. Check out these New York Times articles about the renovation and grand-reopening, and be sure to play with the fab 360-degree panorama photo of the now-resplendent auditorium. See more restoration photos here and here, and check out all the other great links to more historic earlier photos on the Beacon page. Speaking of history, I recently posted some Village Voice ads and clippings on '70s Beacon rock shows here.