Above: The Rivoli Theater on Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets in 1940, playing John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath which had opened on 24 January of that year. The billboard on 49th Street is advertising the engagement of Pinocchio, which had opened 7 February, a block away at the Center Theatre on 6th Avenue and 49th Street, next door to Radio City Music Hall.
One of my favorite internet rabbit holes of the past couple of years has been the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery which gives you the miraculous ability to roam around the New York of 1940. In 2018 the archive (which all told contains over 1.6 million photographs, maps, documents, motion picture and audio recordings) published 720,000 images from the City’s 1940 tax photo project. Between 1939 and 1941, the City’s Tax Department had collaborated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to take photographs of every single house and building in the five boroughs of New York City, providing an unprecedented record of the city at a moment in time.
At first, however, the process for finding a particular building on their website was rather cumbersome: you had to go to an NYC.gov map
and find the block number and lot number for the place you were interested in, and then you had to go to the Municipal Archives site
and enter “Block=xxx and Lot=xx” in the search engine. (These numbers correspond to the numbers seen on a portable sign in every one of the photos.) But earlier this year that process was rendered a lot easier by a programming genius named Julian Boilen who placed every photo on a map
so that you can go anywhere in the city and simply click on a dot to see that building in 1940.
As the NYC Department of Records wrote in 2018:
This comprehensive collection shows where New Yorkers lived, worked, went to school, worshiped, shopped, dined, and socialized. They have unique value not only for the buildings they depict, but for what is incidental to the picture—the cars, trucks, taxis, buses, horse-drawn wagons, movie marquees, billboards, street lamps and signs—as well as the people—on stoops, on the sidewalks and looking out windows at the busy streetscape. In short, an extraordinary panorama of life in prewar New York City.
As fascinated as I am with cars, trucks and horse-drawn wagons, it was the movie marquees and billboards which grabbed my attention. (Readers of this column will know I have a special love of vintage movie marquees
). While many of the buildings in the city, if they are still standing—and an extraordinary number of them are—don’t look all
that different in their 1940 photographs (albeit sootier and drabber) than they do today, movie theaters are a dramatic exception. For one thing movie theaters have a far worse survival rate than most buildings, but also their fronts to the world change on an almost weekly basis and these 1940s photographs provide a perfect record of what was playing on New York movie screens at a particular time eight decades ago. The films on display in 1940s Times Square range from the timeless (Pinocchio
) to the long-forgotten (The Great Victor Herbert
) and while some titles are crammed on triple-bill marquees, others are proclaimed on billboards several stories tall.
With movie theaters having been closed for the past six months and Times Square a veritable ghost town, this seems a perfect time to revisit New York City’s midtown movie theaters of 80 years ago. In scouring Boilen’s map in search of marquees and billboards, I’ve focused on the ten blocks below 51st St and Broadway, taking in both Times Square and the Deuce (the theater-filled block of 42nd St between Seventh and Eighth Avenues regularly celebrated, pre-lockdown, at the Nighthawk Cinema’s ongoing film series of the same name
). I invite readers to explore the rest of the city’s vanished movie theater past and report in the comments below on any particularly sensational finds. And if you do use Boilen’s site
, do consider leaving a tip.
Above: On the north-west corner of 7th Avenue and 42nd St, the Rialto was playing The Marines Fly High (which premiered 4 March 1940) starring Richard Dix, Chester Morris and Lucille Ball.
Above: A few doors west, on the north side of 42nd St, The Apollo was showing a double bill of two older films: Mademoiselle Mozart aka Meet Miss Mozart (1937) and King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934).
Above: The Selwyn, two doors west of the Apollo, was also showing a rep double bill of Les Misérables (1935) with Fredric March and Charles Laughton, and the pre-Scorsese organized crime drama Gangs of New York (1938).
Above: On the south side of 42nd St., Wallack’s Theater was showing Michael Curtiz’s Gold is Where You Find It (1938). (I can’t find any trace of the other two films on the marque: The Fight for Love or A Gangster Talks, unless the latter was the 1932 crime drama also called No Living Witness.)
Above: A few doors East of Wallack’s, the Liberty was showing a double bill of the opera bio-pic The Great Victor Herbert, which had opened 29 December 1939, and the medical drama The Secret of Dr. Kildare which had opened 24 November 1939.
Above: a further two doors east, the Harris was showing a rep double bill of Alice Faye in You’re a Sweetheart (1937) and Fredric March again (with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard) in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933).
Above: Another two doors East, the New Amsterdam (once the home of the Ziegfeld Follies and today the flagship theater for Disney’s live productions) was the largest and tallest theatre in New York when it opened in 1903, with a seating capacity of 1,700. At the time of this photo it was showing Nelson Eddy in the Russia-set musical romance Balalaika (which had premiered 15 December 1939) and Victor McLaglen in moral quandry drama The Big Guy which had opened 22 December 1939.
Above: Just above the hat of the WPA’s photographer’s assistant (who appears in many of the photos below), the Criterion theater on the east side of Times Square between 44th and 45th Streets, just two blocks north of the Deuce, was playing the Robert Montgomery prohibition drama The Earl of Chicago which had opened 5 January.
Above: Catacorner to the Criterion, The Astor Theater on Broadway and 45th St was playing Gone With the Wind (it had premiered there on 15 December, 1939). Built in 1906, the Astor had become a full-time movie theater in 1925 and could seat 1,600 people.
Above: signage at Times Square and 46th St advertising Gone With the Wind at the Astor.
Above: The Globe Theater on Broadway between 46th and 47th had one of the more dramatic storefronts, promoting the prison drama Convicted Woman. which opened 31 January 1940.
Above: The Central on Broadway at 47th St was showing 1937’s The Face Behind the Scar and the 1939 Roy Rogers Saga of Death Valley. The two billboards above however were for stage shows that would later become films: Diamond Horseshoe and Hellzapoppin’.
Above: Another of the grandest theaters in Times Square, the Strand at 47th Street and Broadway was playing William Dieterle’s Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (Ruth Gordon in person!) which opened on 23 February 1940. Owned by Warner Brothers since 1928, the Strand was built in 1914 at a cost of $1 million and is believed to have been the first lavish movie palace built only to show motion pictures.
Above: Just a block away, on 7th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, the RKO Palace was playing Pinocchio and The Courageous Dr. Christian, which opened 28 March 1940. Two doors to the right, the Newsreel Theater was showing “Canada at War” in the The March of Time series.
Above: The Loew’s Mayfair on the corner of 7th Ave and 47th St. often had very striking signage on its wraparound marquee (see it in 1954 and 1955). But on this week, while it was playing the Rita Hayworth musical comedy Music in My Heart and the crime thriller The Phantom Strikes, it was offering its marquee as advertising space.
Above: The Ambassador Theater on 49th between Broadway and 8th Ave was showing one of only a handful of foreign films playing in Times Square in 1940, the “Banned Until Now” 1933 Czech film Ecstasy starring Hedy Lamarr.
Above: The Capitol Theater, two blocks north at Broadway and 51st St, (and six blocks north of the Astor) was also showing Gone with the Wind.
Above: Seen from 51st St, the Capitol was also playing King Vidor’s Northwest Passage which opened on 23 February.
Above: Across the road from the Capitol, on Broadway between 50th and 51st Streets was the Cine Roma “The House of Italian Films” (next door to the famed Roseland ballroom).
Above: A block east on 7th Avenue and 50th St the Roxy was playing Tall, Dark and Handsome starring Cesar Romero, but since that film opened 23 January 1941 this photo must have been taken almost a year later than some of the others.
Above: And the back of the Roxy seen from 50th St, is promoting Fritz Lang’s Western Union which wouldn’t open until 31 January 1941.
My best guess is that, apart from the two Roxy photos, most of these were taken in late February 1940, so I’ve found the New York Times “Amusements” page from Feb 23, 1940 which contains ads for many of the “Photoplays” seen above.
All photos above are the property of the NYC Department of Records. Prints and high-resolution digital copies may be ordered directly from the Municipal Archives. Only publicly-viewable, low-resolution, watermarked images are shown.