Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Weathermakers to the World: Playing Photo Detective

I was browsing the Hollywood 2018 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across the picture (below) of the New Yorker Theater.  It’s featured in an article by James Wolcott about Manhattan movie revival houses of the 1970s.  These theaters were the Netflix of their time, a chance for movie junkies to scratch their itch before the advent of DVDs, cable, and streaming.

Opened in 1914, the New Yorker Theater was located on Broadway between 88th and 89th. 

Now, check the marquee.

The picture playing the evening of the photo was The Matchmaker, produced in 1958, Shirley Booth’s last film.  (Shirley would go on to play Hazel on TV, and The Matchmaker would be adapted for Broadway as Hello, Dolly!)  The second feature shown that evening, The Hoodlum Priest, was shot in 1961.  It’s about a priest who ministers to delinquents (no, not what you were thinking).  I examined the photo with a magnifying glass and can also see “Red Dust” as an upcoming attraction.  “Red Dust” is a Clark Gable movie produced in 1932. 

So, three films, 1932, 1958, and 1961.  My guess is they were all revivals ("TODAY ONLY"), and the photo was—as the caption suggests—taken in the early 1970s.

There aren’t many other helpful clues as to date.  Rexall is a drugstore name that’s been around since 1920.  The streetlights and stoplights and fashion and auto details might be clues, but not to me.  The one gent whose head I can clearly see is bald and hat-less.  The decline of men’s hats is usually dated to JFK, who brought a top hat to his inauguration but never put it on.  1961: hat.  1971: probably not.
So, all signs point to this picture having been taken in the early 1970s.

Why do I care so much about the date?

Look beneath the marquee.  There’s a little sign that says, “Air Conditioned” and then “By Refrigeration.”  

Modern air conditioning had been invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier and first installed by the Carrier Engineering Company in a New York City movie theater, the Rivoli, on Memorial Day 1925.  Here it was, nearly 50 years later.  

What that little sign suggests to me is this:

A half century after its introduction, air conditioning had still not achieved universal penetration in NYC movie theaters. Owners willing to make the investment could market comfort air as a way to attract customers.

The fact that the New Yorker was air conditioned “By Refrigeration” indicates that some theater owners in Manhattan, those unwilling to invest in modern air conditioning, were happy to advertise that they had it anyway--and then simply pushed air around their theaters with giant fans.  This trick, like the Rivoli installation, also dates back to the 1920s.  For branding purposes, "By Refrigeration" meant it was "the real thing."

Finally, my guess is that this air conditioning system was installed by Carrier.  I can’t be positive, but the use of “By Refrigeration” dates back to the original marketing used to distinguish the company’s products at the Rivoli in 1925. 

Rivoli Theatre, 1925

The New Yorker was demolished in the early 1980s, the Rivoli in 1987.  Shirley Booth died in 1992.

Bald guys now wear baseball hats.

But air-conditioning is a $200 billion growth industry.  All of which shows you how long it can take an idea, even a world-changing idea, to get around.