The RKO Keith’s Theatre
Keith’s Theatre on Salina Street in Syracuse, NY
The 1920s was the age of the movie palace. Several factors contributed to the building of these large theaters intended for mixed presentations of vaudeville and movies. One factor was the general availability of cheap credit during the 1920s, which led to the national boom in many types of construction and investment. Another factor was the emergence of large vertically integrated studios in the American movie industry. Theater ownership by the big movie studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO) allowed a studio complete control of a film property from concept to the ticket booth. Studios that could assure their own distribution markets functioned as manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of their products, sharing no profits with middlemen.
B.F. Keith’s was a chain of vaudeville theaters in the 1880s. In 1896 Keith’s made a national movie film distribution deal with Biograph that lasted for a decade. By 1920, Keith’s was a twenty-five-year veteran of the movie business and was well-positioned for the expansion into the large theaters that took place in the 1920s.
In 1920 the B.F. Keith’s opened at 408 South Salina Street in downtown Syracuse, NY with a two-a-day reserved seat presentation of mixed vaudeville-movie shows. It was billed as “the Most Magnificent Theatre in All the Universe.” A large painted sign on the north side of the building said “B.F. Keith’s New Theatre Devoted to High-Class Vaudeville.” The Keith circuit brought the great stars of vaudeville to Syracuse: comedians Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, and George Burns, and Gracie Allen; magicians Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone; and singers Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson.
The theater itself was part of the show. The Keith had elegant marble pillars, rich silk hangings, murals on its walls, and a broad staircase leading up to the expensive loge and the cheaper balcony seats. The stage boasted $50,000’s worth of theatrical lighting and sound amplification. Each of its 25 dressing rooms was equipped with a shower and tasteful furniture.
Organ Music & More
In 1925 a Wurlitzer B 235 theater organ (Opus number 01143) was installed in the theater. It had 3 manuals and 11 ranks. The cost was approximately $25,000. The Wurlitzer Company was located in North Tonawanda, NY. The opening organist was Rubybelle Nason of New York City. Regular organists through the years were Carleton James, Paul H. Forester, Byron Severance, and Luella Wickham. The ranks of the organ are harmonic tuba, diaphonic diapason, tibia clausa, clarinet, orchestral oboe, kinura, viol d’orchestre, viol celeste, salicional, concert flute, and vox humana. There are also the toy counter and percussions typical of large theatre organs.
In 1928, Keith’s partnered with the Radio Corporation of America—the most powerful communications in the world at that time—to launch a new movie studio, RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum). From then on, each theater in the circuit was known as the RKO Keith. Dennis Conners, the curator of the Onondaga Historical Association, once explained the mystique of the movie palace. “You would go to the theater after dinner,” he said, “and might stand there for a while, waiting in line, while a band entertained from the musicians’ gallery. A whole generation has not had this experience. You may have heard organ music,” Connors went on, “but you’ve probably never heard a theater organ—they were really built to knock your socks off.” The RKO Keith’s was one of several movie palaces on South Salina Street. The movie theaters on South Salina Street in the 1920s included Loew’s State (now the Landmark), Paramount aka Temple, Crescent, Empire (Dewitt), Loew’s Strand, Ritz, Arena, Arcadia aka Colvin, Brighton, Plaza, and Riviera.
The Theatre Decline
Despite decades of glorious entertainment and the parade of history that passed upon its screen and stages—from wartime newsreels to kiddie matinees—the old theaters fell victim to television, suburbia, and shopping malls. One by one, the fantastic old palaces bit the dust. The last organ concert and vaudeville show was on June 14, 1966, with Luella Wickham playing the theater organ. The theater closed that same year. The RKO Keith on Salina Street was demolished in 1967 to make way for Sibley’s department store. The Wurlitzer theater organ—which some people affectionately refer to her as “Wilma” –was rescued by a group and relocated in January 1967 to the auditorium of the Art and Home Center on the New York State Fairgrounds. Much hard, dirty work was necessary for this accomplishment. The pipes are housed in chambers at the rear of the stage. The console is located to the left of the stage. An organist at the console can also incorporate the actual playing of a piano, located to the right of the stage, into his/her musical performances. It is believed to be the only theater organ located on any state fairground in the United States. The group secured a charter from the New York State Education Department as the Empire State Theater and Musical Instrument Museum. This Museum contains several items and photos of the RKO Keith Theater. The RKO Theater itself may be gone but the theater organ continues to provide enjoyment through concerts by renowned contemporary theater organists and as musical accompaniment for silent movie showings both during Fair time and throughout the year.