13 September 2011

Ziegfeld's Rooftop Garden Not Completely Gone


Say what you want about Disney, they did an inestimable service to the City (to the nation, to the World) in saving and restoring the New Amsterdam Theatre to its former glory. The nutsy, rococco, Art Nouveau auditorium is a thrill to behold, not to mention the long narrow entryway and the wondrous Men's Smoking Lounge. But, as much as I love the building, one part of it I always mourned and assumed gone forever: The rooftop garden theatre. Back in the day showman Florenz Ziegfeld used to stage his storied "Midnight Frolics" there. 



Well, recently I found out I was happily wrong. Yes, the rooftop theatre is no longer there. But neither is it completely gone. When Disney restored the theatre, it also restored what was left (not much) of the roof space, and installed their theatrical offices there. The theatre was gutted, but the basic framework remained, including the coffered ceiling of carved wood and cast iron (below, looking just as it did 100 years ago) and a small proscenium leading into what was the main auditorium. (Further below.) Also preserved are the ornate elevator doors, now hung up as artworks on either side of the reception desk.

I has always pictured the rooftop theatre is a tidy affair, but the space was actually quite huge, and divided into two levels, a ground floor and a mezzanine. Stretching through the middle of it, high above the first floor, was a glass runway. Ziegfeld installed this when he revamped the roof garden after taking over the theatre for his "Follies." The Follies girls would make their entrance on this runway. The more powerful and well-heeled of the "Frolics" theatregoers (and they were all powerful and well-heeled) would make sure to get seats directly under this runway for the best, uh, view. Disney diplomatically opted to install clouded glass instead. 


The stage and its proscenium were gone by the time Disney got there. A painted proscenium was drawn where the real one used to be. Entertainers who worked under it included Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams and W.C. Fields. Regulars included Diamond Jim Brady, William Randolph Hearst, and Cornelius Vanderbuilt.


One the below wall, Ziegfeld displayed huge portraits of his more famous chorines, including Olive Thomas (who died tragically young). They weren't photographs, but watercolors by the artist Vargas. Very often they depicted the women in an advanced state of undress.


Prohibition killed the rooftop theatre. Unable to sell liquor, the risque midnight shows just weren't as fun, I guess. The nightlife gravitated toward the speakeasies. The "Midnight Frolics" only lasted a few years, really. But the legend of a good party goes on and on.

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