Dynamite Packed Thrillers, Joys of the Flesh, and Other Added Attractions: Reginald Marsh and the Golden Age of Movies
Marsh’s preparatory materials attest to the fact that he did not see these signs as generic filler. Instead, an annotated photograph of theater entrance from 1939 bears the artist’s diligent color descriptions for each part of the overhanging movie poster and box office (MCNY 184.108.40.2066). More specifically, the sketches for Twenty Cent Movie show the artist carefully mapped out the placement, spacing, color, text, and even typeface of the placards he would use in his scenes. By focusing on the intricate, patchwork ways the theater’s advertisements fit together—with signage stacked on either side of the entrance, hung in layers and angled downward from the ceiling, spanning the lintels above the doors and the baseboard below the box office—Marsh conveys the vitality of movie theater facades during that period. Though historical photographs tell us that many thirties-era businesses employed similarly overlapping and eye-catching outdoor signage (see, for example, MCNY 40.140.125), theater owners in particular used the exterior of their movie houses as calling cards; a visually arresting display on the front of the theater could not only set you apart from your competitors, but could also subtly communicate to the passersby that this establishment would give you more than your fair share of entertainment value. As S. Charles Lee, famed architect of 1930s-era movie theaters claimed, “the show starts on the sidewalk.” [xii]
Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie clearly captures the energy and production value expected of a major movie theater in the nation’s liveliest city. Yet many scholars have debated which specific theater Marsh’s painting depicts. Most art historians have concluded that the painting represents the famed Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, which opened in 1903 as an opera house and, after succumbing to the economic pressure of the Depression, was transformed into a movie theater in 1934. [xiii] Among the few historical photographs of this theater that do exist, almost no commonalities can be found with the facade in Marsh’s painting (MCNY 220.127.116.1169; X2010.7.71). An alternate hypothesis has been offered by Sasha Nicholas; based on visual parity with Berenice Abbott’s 1936 photograph Lyric Theatre (MCNY 40.140.160), she has proposed that Marsh’s painting actually represents the Lyric Theatre in the East Village. While Abbott’s photograph does mirror the general architectural framework of the theater in Twenty Cent Movie, its facade is not nearly as overrun by signage as that in Marsh’s painting. Instead, a more exacting historical comparison may be found in Andreas Feininger’s 1940 photographs New York—42nd Street Theater and Times Square Movie Marquee (MCNY55.31.114). The points of parity between the theater shown in Feininger’s photograph and that in Marsh’s painting are striking: the central box office with the admission price in the window, the flanking rectangular pillars filled floor to ceiling with signs, the overlapping planes of photographic posters hung from the ceiling and, most notably, the undulating ceiling faced with thick molding and rows of glittering lights. However, because Feininger’s titles for these works do not specify the theater they depict, we can only assuredly say that Marsh’s inspiration came from a movie house on 42nd Street that was not the Lyric Theatre. [xiv]
[xii] S. Charles Lee quoted in Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 9. It is interesting to note that in all but one movie-related painting, Marsh does not include the theater’s marquee in the composition. This is likely because the artist wanted to maintain the density of the signage hung below the marquee; incorporating a towering illuminated sign into the work would have taken focus away from the placards and left the artist with a large amount of empty space on either side of the marquee to fill.
[xiii] The Lyric, along with the neighboring Apollo Theater, was eventually razed in 1996 to make room for the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Cinema Treasures Guide to Movie Theaters, “Lyric Theatre,” http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/9930.
[xiv] Next door to the Lyric was a cinema called the Times Square Theatre. It is possible that the title Times Square Movie Marquee is actually meant to reference this theater’s name, but no corroborating photographs of the Times Square Theatre as it appeared in 1940 could be found.