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Historic Music Venues: The Beacon Theatre

Historic Music Venues: The Beacon Theatre

By Mike Duffy

Back in 1926, theatrical visionary Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel dreamt of a pair of buildings in New York City that would present live entertainment acts and popular events.

Out of that dream grew Radio City Music Hall and its older sister, the legendary Beacon Theatre.

The Beacon was part of the planned Roxy Theater Circuit, of which the original NYC Roxy Theatre was the flagship. 

Constructed between 1927 and 1928 by Walter W Ahlschlager on Broadway and 74th St., the 2,800-seat Beacon didn’t actually open until 1929 when it was bought by Warner Theatres to showcase Warner Brothers films and vaudeville shows.

The Beacon’s intricate interior. 

The Beacon features the interesting pastiche of Greek, Roman, Moorish and Byzantine styles of the corresponding Roxy – which was also built by Ahlschlager. 

Though the original Roxy has since been closed, the Beacon’s interior carries on that interesting flair, even earning designation as a New York landmark in 1979 and landing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

And a massive historically-accurate renovation costing current operators Madison Square Garden Entertainment $16 million will ensure that the grandeur will not fade any time soon.

During the six months it took to spruce up the Beacon in 2009, the firm Beyer Blinder Belle conducted extensive on-site examinations of the original painting that had been covered by decades of grime and paint.  It also looked at historical photographs to get things exactly right.

A long-lost mural over the entrance doors was recreated, more than 2,100 square yards of custom-patterned carpet was replaced and the stage’s proscenium was restored with the sculptures of masks, animals, Grecian women and instruments of war.

Aside from appearances, the Beacon’s acoustics are near-flawless.

It all comes together in a package that is attractive to many of biggest acts music has had to offer.

Bands started rolling through the Beacon in the mid-1970s, when Marvin Getlan and Allen Rosoff bought it and featured a run of shows from the Grateful Dead in 1976.

Tina Turner, James Taylor, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen and Queen are just a small sampling of the artists to hit the Beacon since then.

In 2006, former president Bill Clinton ended his 60th birthday celebration with a private concert by the Rolling Stones at the Beacon.

Another non-rock but notable moment occurred in 1999, when the Dalai Lama himself taught a series of classes in the building.

The rock roots of the Beacon were nearly torn up in 1986, however.  That year, a judge had to block a proposal to turn the venue into a disco.

Instead, it lived on to fill an important niche between huge halls like Radio City and smaller venues. 

Now, it is as important of a destination as ever.

The Beacon was one of the stars of Martin Scorsese’s documentary Shine a Light, which covered a string of Rolling Stones concerts from 2006.

And it would be impossible to talk about its history without mentioning the Allman Brothers.

Since 1989, the Allmans have played over 200 shows at the Beacon, an annual rite of spring lovingly referred to as “The Beacon Run,” that draws pilgrims from all over the world.

Their 2003 slate of appearance was captured on the gold-selling Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD and One Way Out album.  The Allmans most-recently did 10 shows there in March 2012.

With humble beginnings as a movie house, the Beacon Theatre has morphed into a rock and roll institution.

Glen Hansard, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne and Bon Iver are just a taste of the names on the Beacon’s summer schedule.

That eclectic mix of classic artists and up-and-coming talents is what continually sets the Beacon Theatre apart.

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