The French Casino
In December 1934, the refurbished Earl Carroll Theatre located on the south-east corner of 7th Ave and 50th Street, New York City, opened as the French Casino. This glittering supper club was described by Fortune magazine as ‘a vast scarlet and silver restaurant which, in terraced rows of tables, seats fifteen hundred people without any crowding.’ For a short three year period it became the unrivalled premier nightspot in New York.
The original building was designed by architect George Kiester and opened 25th February 1922 as the Earl Carroll Theater with seating for 1,000. The first few shows did not do well but there was some success with The Gingham Girl (28/8/22) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1923 (5/7/23). With the advent of the depression Carroll’s fortunes floundered and he rented the theatre to Radio Pictures. Carroll decided he needed a bigger space and with the backing of William R. Edrington, a Texas oil baron, bought the land East of the theatre for $1m and levelled the building. He spent a further $4.5m creating a new theatre which was an art deco masterpiece once again designed by architect George Keister with the interior designed by Joseph Babolnay.
The new lobby was three times bigger than the old one. Seating capacity was tripled with 1500 seats in the orchestra, 200 in boxes and the loge and 1300 on the balcony. In the 60 x 100 feet space under the balcony lounge areas were created. It was the first theatre to be cooled backstage, in the auditorium and public areas.
The premier attraction was Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1931 (27/8/31), but Carroll could not make the theatre a success since operating costs for such lavish shows were high and the ticket prices low due to the depression. Within six months he had lost the theatre Carroll and was sued for back rent, taxes and interest. He eventually relocated to Hollywood and made more of a success there. Florenz Ziegfeld took it over, called the building the Casino Theatre and opened with a revival of his great hit Show Boat (1932) but during the run he died and the show closed. George White used the theatre for Melody (1933) but success was still elusive and the theatre closed.
In late October 1933, the Theatre was sold to a business consortium of Louis F. Blumenthal, Charles H. Haring and Jack Shapiro for $52,000,000. This set in motion the beginnings of the French and London Casino project. The new owners invested $125,000 in renovation work to turn the theatre into the latest, up-to-the-minute cabaret-restaurant. They took out the seating and put tiers in the balcony and orchestra with tables. One of the key features was access. In other cabaret-theatre-restaurants, balcony diners must walk down through the rear to reach the dance floor. At the French Casino can descend the balconies by means of a series of ramps flanking both sides of the auditorium to the dance floor. People can ascend and descend in the theatre proper not by going out into the lobby. It provides the means of a grand entrance. Capacity was 900 on the lower floor and 500 flanking the sides and on the mezzanine and upper balcony. The show performs on an extended circular platform which comes out from the stage proper so that a neat ringside effect is created.
The walls were covered in black velvet with brushed aluminium accents. The lobby area was covered in polished black vitrolite streaked with brown. The carpets were in three shades of green and the seats covered in plush coral coloured fabric. At the time, the French Casino was the most lavish, high volume nightclub New York had seen and redefined the formula for the rest of the decade.
The shows at the French Casino produced by Clifford C. Fischer were successful and perfectly suited to the glamourous theatre. They were opulent cabaret-restaurant revues in which acrobats, clowns and novelty acts were sprinkled among awe-inspiring production numbers and exotic tableaux with showgirls, all gorgeously costumed, that became legendary. Since the French Casino was part of a syndicate with othe venues in London, Chicago and Miami, the shows were often re-used in these locations.
The first sparkling floor show, unveiled in late December 1934 was entitled Revue Folies Bergeres (1st) and continued in different formats through the summer of 1935 and then a completely new show entitled Folie Parisienne (2nd), was launched in September 1935. In February 1936, Folies de Femmes (3rd) was staged with a huge fanfare, followed by a revised show in the summer. Folies d’Amour (4th) followed in August 1936. The fifth show soberly titled French Casino Follies (5th) opened in December 1936 followed by the New Folies Bergere (6th) show in August 1937.
The French Casino dominated the high volume club business for more than three years with six hugely successful shows as earnings at other restaurants such as the the pioneering Hollywood and Paradise declined. In September 1937 there was a big challenge when Louis Brecker and bandleader George Olsen opened the even more lavish International Casino in the old Criterion Theater on Times Square. This vast supper club for 2500 patrons was arranged on three floors. It was the first to feature an escalator and could freeze an ice rink on the dance floor. Most importantly, its interior décor was more mininal and streamlined. Its opening heralded a struggle for dominance within the nightclub scene. Both venues faced huge debts and both failed. By November 1937 a new show did not materialise as effects of the depression, competition, and soaring costs forced the venue to close. Brecker and Oslen were declared bankrupt in March 1938 closing the International Casino.
Billy Rose the owner of the Casino De Paris, New York, bought the French Casino building, redecorated the interior into a tin and enamel style, renamed the place Casa Manan and opened 10th January 1938 but by the end of the year it had closed again. In 1939 the six story office building fronting 7th ave was demolished and the interiora of the theatre was converted into retail space. Eventually this was demolished in 1990.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, Variety, Dancing Times, The Age, The Stage, Chicago Tribune
Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhatten by Burton William Peretti
Routledge Guide to Broadway by Ken Bloom
Broadway: Its History, People and Places: An Encyclopedia by Ken Bloom