April 3, 2014

Frankenstein in New York
The Frankenstein of 14th Street

By the time James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN made it to New York, the film had hopscotched across America for two weeks, toppling box-office records along the way. On December 4, 1931, New Yorkers queued outside the Mayfair Theater in freezing rain for a look at the season’s Monster sensation. Extra showings were added to accommodate the endless crowds and by week’s end, over 76,000 patrons had set a new attendance record for the Times Square venue. The film would deploy to other area movie houses as a reliable attraction well into 1932.

This wonderful still of a Frankenstein Monster stand-in perched on an RKO promo truck has been circulating on the net, but without information as to date or location. It’s obviously an early promo stunt. The title of a Cagney film, BLONDE CRAZY —released, like FRANKENSTEIN, in mid-November ‘31 — appears behind the box-office booth. The theater is identified on the truck panel: It’s the RKO Jefferson, at 214 East 14th Street, near 3rd Avenue.

Universal’s Publicity Department suggested the “robot ballyhoo” stunt, having someone in Monster getup patrol the lobby and house front, or going for a spin around the block lugging ads on a sandwich board. Any tall man in a dark suit would do, usually decked-out in a fright wig and some greenish makeup to help the illusion. The player, here, is unidentified — perhaps a slumming vaudevillian or just someone off the street. A job was a job in Depression times. This facsimile Frankenstein wears a long-haired widow’s peak wig, knee-high boots and heavy gloves, like mechanical hands. FRANKENSTEIN posters sometimes gave Karloff what appears to be riveted steel arms.

Built in 1913 in the notorious Gashouse District as a top-notch Vaudeville theater, the Jefferson earned a reputation among show people as “the toughest house in New York”. The Marx Borthers, George Burns and Mae West were among those who braved the turbulent audiences.

Live acts still supported the featured movies when the theater was refurbished in 1947, but attendance had begun a downward trend, not the least because of wholesale evictions as the city enacted a plan to remodel the neighborhood. Competition from television would accelerate the Jefferson’s decline. KING KONG (1933) played the Jefferson on its highly publicized re-release in 1952, and horror host Zacherley brought his live spook show there in the Sixties. In the Seventies, on its last legs, the house switched to Spanish language programming for a while and then, in increasingly depressing disrepair, turned to porno. The once-proud Jefferson was eventually abandoned, an eyesore for twenty years until it was demolished in 1999.

An interesting sidenote: Right next door to the Jefferson is an Otto Altenburg piano store. Back in the day, the Altenburg company made a point of opening piano showrooms on the same block as theaters. The New Jersey-based company, founded in 1855, is still going strong today. The second-floor showroom at 212 East 14th Street closed in the late Thirties and was taken over by Irving Klaw’s legendary Movie Star News store, an exclusive outlet for celebrity photos and Klaw’s famous home-made cheescake and bondage stills. By the Fifties, it would become the go-to shop for Bettie Page fans. Movie Star News moved away in the mid-Eighties, when the area was at its seediest. The neighborhood today is completely transformed but the site of the storied Jefferson remains an empty lot.

Attended by men in hats and caps, including one gentleman in a neat bowler, the Frankenstein of 14th Street recalls a lost era when a couple could see live entertainment and a new movie in a palace settting for change on a dollar and the fun spilled onto the street outside, the house front festooned with eye-popping displays — note the Frankenstein title in dancing 3-D letters — and you might even bump into The Monster himself!



Pat Downey said...

Thanks for the informational post. Used to work by it 86/87 then would always make a point to go by it in 90s when I could. I was always surprised to find it still standing. Then came by when they were tearing it down.

Rick said...

Neat stuff, Pierre. Thanks.

It's interesting that, while the promo Monster looks very very little like the onscreen Monster, the fellow in the get-up does have a vaguely Karloffian look to him.


wich2 said...

Thanks for the cool essay about me adapted hometown, Pierre! (By the way - drop a line next time you're in town!) Spent some time on calle catorce therebouts in the '70s-'80s, when I was attending NYU just downtown from there. Nearby also was fabled restaurant Luchow's (sat at Chris Reeve's table at the opening night bash for Linda Ronstadt's PENZANCE), and of course, the Palladium.)