Look around you during tonight's ceremony as the silver sheen of the 65-year-old Tony Awards blends with the old-guard golden glamour, history and splendor of the Tonys' new home, the 82-year-old Beacon Theatre, among the oldest and largest still-operative theatres in town.
Miraculously, both look none the worse for wear. The Beacon owes its look to a seven-month, $16-million facelift by Madison Square Garden Entertainment. "We took over from the previous tenant on Jan. 1, 2007, pretty much operated it as is for some time and then closed it down for a major restoration that ran from the summer of 2008 into 2009," recalled Rich Claffey, who oversees theatre operations. "Everything was restored. There were spears missing off statues, smoke and dirt on the ceiling from the 1930s — we cleaned it all up and repainted. We tried to find the original carpeting from 1929. We had historians help and did our research to restore it to its original splendor."
In the beginning, it was dubbed "the baby Roxy," being the brainchild of flashy impresario Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothafel, who considered it a second-mate to its 6,000-seat, flagship theatre in Times Square, the Roxy, the so-billed "Cathedral of the Motion Picture." Planned in pre-crash 1926, the new theatre was intended to be a silent-movie temple called the Roxy Midway Theatre. But, by the time the smoke and chaos of Black Tuesday had cleared, it had become a talkie palace, Warner's Beacon, bowing on Christmas Eve 1929.
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The Beacon began that night, not with a bang but with a bark — from Rin-Tin-Tin — in "an audible film" (some hissed, "a dog of a film") called "Tiger Rose." Lupe Velez starred as "a half-caste belle who is sought by all the men in the Canadian district" but stays relatively true to one, a railroader named Bruce. Half of the New York Times review went to the upstaging theatre itself (with its Doric columns, baroque scrollwork and murals) and to the opening attended by a Warner brother (Harry), emcee Ben Bernie and 3,000 others (2,894, to be seat-specific). Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager pulled out all the stops for this one, indulging heavily in the three R's of architecture — Roman, Renaissance and Rococo — then mixing that with more than a splash of Greece. Ceilings aspire for a kind of Michelangelo grandeur. The Grand Lobby, a miniaturization of the Roxy rotunda, is crowned with a magnificent dome and a 1,000-bulb chandelier. Two 30-foot warrior maidens guard the stage, and Roman urns adorn the side exits. It's all very period — very much a 1920s version of unbridled opulence.
Over the years, the landmarked Beacon has housed vaudeville, award shows, rock events, ballet, opera, films and plays. Unlike Studio 54 and Henry Miller's Theatre (now the Sondheim Theatre), the Beacon never became a disco. But it wasn't from a lack of trying. The judge who doused the idea, decreed that it would irreparably damage the architecture.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and His Gloveness, Michael Jackson, have both lorded over the premises — as have Earth, Wind and Fire, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Hall and Oates, James Taylor, Radiohead, Queen, Steely Dan, Levon Helm, Aerosmith, Gloria Estefan, Joe Walsh and Liza. The Allman Brothers Band did 20 straight years of spring concerts there. Martin Scorsese used the Beacon to shoot "Shine a Light," a 2008 in-depth IMAX documentary of a live Rolling Stones concert. And, on a quieter occasion, The Stones rolled by The Beacon to play for President Bill Clinton's 60th birthday.
Now, the Beacon is the home-away-from-home for the Tony, marking its 65th year.
This article appears in the Playbill for the 2011 Tony Awards, June 12, at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan's Upper West Side.