The Beacon Theater in New York is also re-opening in February of 2009. Glenn Collins of the New York Times provides an article of this event.
It almost became a grocery store in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was nearly jackhammered into a cavernous disco with a triple-tiered restaurant. Somehow it escaped becoming a multiplex. And through 78 years, the neglect of the Beacon Theater in Manhattan — aside from occasional spasms of partial renovation — has often been profound.
Funny thing, though: neglect has an upside. The Beacon “is very worn, and there is damage throughout, but by luck and happenstance the theater survived,” said Christopher T. Cowan, an associate partner at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, which is conducting an ambitious restoration of the ornate 1929 former movie palace. “Most of the interior detailing is intact,” he said, “and even most of the light fixtures are original as well.”
The Beacon, at 2124 Broadway, at West 74th Street, is familiar to generations of New Yorkers living on the West Side who grew up there when it was a movie house, performance space and, in recent decades, what some have called the Carnegie Hall of rock rooms.
The Beacon went dark last month for a six-month, $15-million restoration by Madison Square Garden Entertainment, a division of Cablevision Systems Corporation, which announced in 2006 that it was leasing the theater for 20 years. The interior face-lift is to be completed by Jan. 31, in time for a February opening.
Originally conceived as a sumptuous mecca for vaudeville acts and silent movies, it ultimately featured talkies and, through the decades, a galaxy of headliners including Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, Tina Turner, Aerosmith, Queen, George Carlin, the Dalai Lama and even Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 60th birthday party.
And the theater was a star in the Martin Scorsese documentary “Shine a Light,” his celebration of the Rolling Stones’ 2006 performances at the Beacon.
The Beacon “has a great vibe, it’s not either a coliseum or a club,” said Gregg Allman, whose Allman Brothers Band holds the record with more than 180 performances at the Beacon since 1989, and whose appearances there have become an annual Manhattan rite of spring. “There’s a connection with the audience, and when they give back, we keep giving.”
But the theater’s condition meant “that you didn’t want the house lights all the way up, given those cobwebs with the big hunks of dust,” said Mr. Allman, 60.
Thomas J. Travers, a spokesman for the Beacon Broadway Company, which has long owned the theater, said that Cablevision “is doing a fine renovation; they guaranteed they would spend a minimum of $10 million on it, and obviously the theater needed it.”
The terms of the lease are closely guarded by officials of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, which also runs the Knicks and Rangers sports franchises, Radio City Music Hall and the Chicago Theater in Chicago.
Three years older than the Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon was never quite a sibling of its larger counterpart, since the theaters were owned by different companies. But they are together now in the Cablevision empire.
“Mr. Dolan wanted a state-of-the art restoration,” said Jay Marciano, president of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, referring to James L. Dolan, Cablevision’s chief executive. Since Mr. Dolan has been oft-criticized by New York Knicks fans during years of the team’s decline, did Mr. Dolan think of it as some form of penance to spend $5 million more on the Beacon restoration (and an additional $1 million on new air conditioning) than was required by its contract?
“I can’t speak for how he thinks,” Mr. Marciano said of Mr. Dolan. “But he has a lot of personal passion for this project. We view the Beacon as iconic, a beloved city landmark, and restoring the Beacon will be good for New Yorkers and a profitable business venture.” The cost will be recouped during the lease, and ticket prices, which range from $25 to $125, will not increase after the reopening. “Not one dollar,” Mr. Marciano said.
The refurbishment of the theater, whose interior was declared a landmark in 1979, began last month with the removal of 2,800 seats. An important part of the initial work has been a kind of detective story calling upon archival photographs, architectural plans and even the recollections of former theater employees.
Restoration researchers have peeled back layers of what is — literally — house paint slathered on through the decades, and conducted an extensive analysis of the original paint, said Marc Tarozzi, a vice president of facilities at Madison Square Garden.
The Beacon, which critics originally celebrated as a bit of old Baghdad on Upper Broadway, was the brainchild of the impresario Samuel L. Rothafel, known as Roxy, who commissioned a Chicago architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager, to design a vaudeville and silent-film theater called Roxy’s Midway.
It was intended to be part of the Roxy Circuit, joining Rothafel’s 1927 Roxy Theater on West 50th Street, billed as the “Cathedral of the Movies,” which was ultimately demolished in 1960. “The Beacon is a smaller version of the original Roxy,” Mr. Cowan said. “That’s why it’s so important — it’s a window to another world that existed then.”
The opulent theater with its neoclassical rotunda is a pastiche of Greek, Roman, Renaissance and Rococo elements, and an “Arabian Nights” fantasy motif. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, the theater was taken over by Warner Brothers, redesigned and opened as the Beacon on Dec. 24 of that year.
“There never has been a truly major restoration of the Beacon,” Mr. Tarozzi said. And so, a first look at the refurbishing reveals a host of upgrades, including a new maple stage floor and repairs to the roof to fix leaks that have caused damage to the theater’s original murals. New concession stands and dressing rooms will also be installed.
The 1929 sconces and lighting fixtures are being rewired, and the robust network of original ceiling, wall and mural lighting “will be brought back,” Mr. Cowan said. “The lights burned out, and nobody replaced them, so the theater hasn’t been seen in all its glory in 50 years.”
In the rotunda, the ceiling will be cleaned and repainted after decades of blackening from cigarette smoke and grime. A long-lost oil-on-canvas mural, depicting a classical scene, had been replaced by a sheet of now-peeling, faded scenic wallpaper. It will be recreated from historic photographs.
More than 2,100 square yards of custom-patterned wool carpeting in gold, yellow, green and maroon will adorn the lobbies, auditorium and stairways.
And in the auditorium, murals depicting caravans and elephants will be restored, and technicians will repair and repaint sculptures of animals, masks, urns and statues of Greek figures, not to mention richly decorated cornices, ceiling moldings, pilasters, scrolled brackets and medallions. A 30-foot high Venetian-inspired auditorium lighting fixture will be refurbished as well.
Also to be restored will be a multicolored, Moorish-inspired main theater ceiling that presents the stage as if it were behind the open flap of a giant tent.
As the restoration recovers more and more of the Beacon, the survival of so many of its architectural elements is “remarkable,” Mr. Cowan said, “since so few venues like this are left. We are unveiling a true work of art.”
by Greg Lake