Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Opening Night (1932)

May, 2015

Van Beuren/RKO Radio, 1932. Music: Gene Rodemich.
            While researching my book Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic (to be published in May 2015, the same month this post appears), I discovered some interesting facts about the theater where the world premiere of Pinocchio took place in February 1940. This was the Center Theatre in New York City. The Center was located in Rockefeller Center—hence its name—and was regarded as one of the premier showplaces in New York. But by February 1940, a scant seven years after its opening, it had already experienced a colorful, turbulent history of its own. (I’ve posted a short account of the theater’s early years, elsewhere on this website.)
            The theater actually opened in December 1932 under a different name: the RKO Roxy. At that time it was envisioned as one of two glistening jewels in the emerging phenomenon that was Rockefeller Center. One block away, at 50th Street and 6th Avenue, Radio City Music Hall was planned as a spectacular venue for the presentation of live stage shows. The RKO Roxy, at 49th and 6th, was the movie counterpart. As its name suggests, it was overseen by legendary showman Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, who had already bestowed the Roxy nickname on one spectacular New York movie palace a few blocks away. As its name also suggests, it was planned as the flagship theater for RKO Radio Pictures, a major movie studio that enjoyed contractual ties with the Rockefeller group. For the theater’s gala opening on 29 December 1932, RKO pulled out all the stops. The evening’s entertainment included the new RKO feature The Animal Kingdom, an elaborate stage presentation—and a special animated cartoon, commissioned for the occasion from RKO’s house animation studio.
            The Van Beuren studio was an outgrowth of the studio Paul Terry had established in the silent era to produce “Aesop’s Fables” cartoons. Today the Van Beuren cartoons are disdained by some viewers, but in fact the studio played an important role in animation history. (Steve Stanchfield and the other fine folks at Thunderbean Animation have recently issued a special Blu-Ray showcasing some of Van Beuren’s highlights.) By the early 1930s, RKO was both the distributor of the Van Beuren cartoons and part owner of the studio. Opening Night, a cartoon custom-made for the opening of the RKO Roxy, was part of a team effort to celebrate the launch of the new movie palace.
            Made to be shown in late December, Opening Night begins in a holiday mood. The main titles are musically underscored by “Silent Night,” and the opening scenes depict the new theater as, literally, a gift from Santa Claus. We see Santa flying through the night sky in his sleigh and dumping out the contents of his bag: a flood of stars which assemble into a giant electric sign announcing “RKO ROXY.” As the film continues, we see fanciful scenes depicting the theater’s interior. For weeks before the opening, New Yorkers had been treated to press coverage of the fabulous new theater: its sophisticated architecture and luxurious appointments. Opening Night treats these wonders with cartoon exaggeration; it seems unlikely that the actual theater’s amenities included rolling seats that transported patrons to their places, an ejection lever that dumped obnoxious audience members into a dungeon below the auditorium, or a master control room fitted with a mechanical device to keep the manager supplied with cigars!
            Opening Night served to introduce a new Van Beuren character: Cubby Bear (“Cubby the Bear” in this appearance). Cubby was the latest in a long procession of characters who attempted to duplicate the Disney studio’s success with Mickey Mouse. In the early 1930s Mickey was enjoying a phenomenal worldwide popularity, and nearly every American animation studio introduced characters who shamelessly imitated Mickey’s appearance and cheerful personality. Some studios’ imitations were particularly blatant, and the Van Beuren studio was as guilty as any. In fact, Disney had successfully sued Van Beuren in 1931 for producing cartoons with two mice that were virtually indistinguishable from Mickey and Minnie. Chastened, but not much, Van Beuren backtracked slightly and offered Cubby Bear instead—a cute little cub with some of Mickey’s design features and plucky resourcefulness, but differing just enough to qualify as a distinct character. In this picture Cubby, not having a ticket, is denied entrance to the RKO Roxy on the big night, but sneaks in anyway and explores the magnificent theater. Quite by accident he finds himself in the orchestra pit, standing on the conductor’s platform—and, without hesitating, proceeds to conduct the orchestra for the gala performance!
            As interesting as this specially produced cartoon is, Van Beuren could hardly afford to squander all that production effort on a single showing. Opening Night was later absorbed into the studio’s regular schedule of releases; and because of that, and its copyright date, it is usually regarded today as a 1933 cartoon. Of course it’s more enjoyable, and makes more sense, if we view it in that original 1932 context.
            Many more unsettling changes were in store for the studio, the theater, and the distributor during the succeeding decade. By the time Pinocchio opened in what was now the Center Theatre in February 1940, the entire landscape of the animation industry had changed, and the Van Beuren studio no longer existed. Today, of course, we recognize Pinocchio as one of the all-time supreme achievements of the animator’s art. This year, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of its historic opening, I think it’s also appropriate to pause for a moment and remember the first animated film ever shown in that theater.

J.B. Kaufman