Richard C. Wolfe, owner for the last 41 years of Northampton’s Roxy Theater, still remembers vividly how it was when he walked into the door of that venerable movie house in 1970. “The building itself was basically structurally sound,” he said. “There was no problem with that.” But time had taken its toll in other ways. “It had been used really hard. It was clean but had gotten worn and shabby.”
Yet where other people would have seen a hopeless task, Wolfe saw opportunity. Having worked in old city movie theaters since he was a teenager, the Williams Township native was fascinated by their architecture, particularly those in the popular style from the 1920’s and 30’s known as Art Deco. This eclectic mix of classical motifs and styles from the past with lots of wavy neon signs was what drew him. “I started working at the old Boyd Theater in Easton,” he says, “and that really hooked me.”
For Wolfe running the Roxy has been both a learning experience and a passion. “If I had had the money when I took it over, I might have spent my time just trying to maintain it,” he says. “But having done it gradually I think I have come to appreciate it more.”
Just this past year Wolfe has completed a long-in-process theater overhaul of the Roxy, one that included hiring an expert to do a study using paint chips of the old theater to get the exact same color that was on the walls when the theater opened as the Roxy in 1933. Today for the price of a $3.00 ticket it is possible to step back to a time when people went to movies in dresses and suits, not cutoffs and flip-flops.
As in most American towns Northampton’s Roxy had its birth as a movie theater in the 1920s. Its builder, Harry Hartman, who had a small chain of early nickelodeon theaters, opened it in 1921 as the Lyric. At that time most movie theaters were also built to include space for stage acts, everything from slapstick comics to ball balancing seals, known as vaudeville. Created in the late 1870s by New York theater manager Tony Pastor, vaudeville in its later years started the careers of movie stars such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Hartman’s theater could seat 1,000 and was very successful in the 1920s. But the decline of vaudeville, the arrival of “talkies” and the body blow of the Great Depression forced Hartman out of the business. In the spring of 1933 he sold the Lyric to the Clark and Greenberg theater chain of Philadelphia.
That year the chain hired David Supowitz, then one of the leading theater designers in the country, to update and redesign the theater. When it was re-opened on August 31st, 1933, the Lyric had been reduced to 650 seats and had a razzle-dazzle neon Art Deco marquee that lit its new name “ROXY” for all on Northampton’s Main Street to see.
Although the name is obscure today, nobody in America in 1933 who could read a newspaper or listen to a radio had to ask who or what the word Roxy meant. It was the nickname of Samuel Lionel “Roxy” Rothafel, one of the leading showmen of the day. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he ran New York’s Roxy Theater, a $12 million dollar Art Deco movie palace that with its Spanish/Moorish fantasy land motif was so over–the-top spectacular, it was known as “the Cathedral of the Motion Picture.”
Roxy was also the host of “Roxy and His Gang,” later the “Roxy Hour,” one of the first popular national radio variety shows with an estimated 5 million listeners. He later took over Radio City Music Hall and his precision chorus dancers, then known as the Roxyettes, were the ancestors of today’s Rockettes.
Northampton’s Roxy was popular with the public from the start. Regular vaudeville acts gave their last bow in 1934 but movies had always been the most popular form of entertainment shown there.
In the 1930s, when television, though invented, was still in its infancy, Americans entertained themselves at the movies. Like theaters across the country the Roxy gave away dishes, cosmetics, encyclopedias and cash to lure customers. Local radio station WSAN even hosted amateur shows based on the popular national radio programs similar to “American Idol” today.
But the real draw was the movies. For fifteen cents theatergoers could forget their troubles and dance in white tie and tails or evening gowns with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, take on bandits in the Old West with Randolph Scott or Gene Autry and travel over the rainbow with Judy Garland. Only the newsreels, with their snarling dictators and dropping bombs hinted at the way the 1930s were to end.
With the arrival of television in the 1950s the Roxy, like theaters across the country, took a hit. Hollywood was using the slogan “movies are better than ever,” but America loved Lucy and could stay home and enjoy her antics on the small screen while feeding little baby boomers.
Despite getting attractions like rock and rollers Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell and Fabian, the handwriting seemed to be on the wall. By the 1970s the Roxy’s run appeared to be over.
Using a combination of stage performances by budding stars like Billy Joel and John Belushi and gradual restoration of the theater, Wolfe was able to bring the Roxy back from the brink. Today its 450 seats have made it one of the top-grossing, second-run, single-screen theaters around.
“On an average day we get 200 customers and sometimes sell out on weekends,” says Wolfe. Most, he says, are young families or what he calls the “over 40 audience,” who remember Saturday matinees. It is comforting to know that even in an era of I-pods and Droids, there is still some place where movies are “better than ever.”