Dai Vernon and the Rainbow Room

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Dai Vernon and the Rainbow Room

Postby BossTweed » October 6th, 2019, 9:53 pm



New York’s Rainbow Room was designed as an elegant restaurant on the 65th story of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. The current address is 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Originally called the Stratosphere Room, it soon became the Rainbow Room due to its organ that converted music into colors based on musical moods. The Rockefeller announcement, quoted in the New York Times of August 22, 1934, gave the following description:

“The color scheme of the Stratosphere will be subdued. Walls and floors will be used merely for background effects. People will furnish the brilliant colors. The long, narrow wall panels between the full-length mirrors are finished in rich brown satin. Emerald green carpets with a Greek key pattern will blend with jade green leather of the upholstered chairs. Mirrors, crystals, soft indirect lightning everywhere will give radiance.”

Quite simply, the Rainbow Room was designed for high-end café society, those who would not deign to patronize night clubs frequented by lesser beings. It opened in 1934, taking up the eastern side atop the RCA building.

The Rainbow Room seated 350 (some estimates say 300) patrons during its 1930s heyday and dress was black tie only (see New York Times article dated July 28, 1965). As I understand it, tables were on three levels and there was an elevated bandstand containing a small area designated for performers. The layout changed over the years. Regardless, we know that Sydney Ross, whom Vernon detested, performed table magic for patrons and Cardini performed his act in view of the diners on other occasions.

This was, however, not the only restaurant conceived as part of the dining possibilities on this floor. The well-documented Wikipedia article tells us The Rainbow Grill opened in 1935. It was intended to be a somewhat less expensive restaurant, a “small, casual-style eatery” on the western end of the 65th floor. The entire complex was coordinated to open in conjunction with the end of prohibition.

I don’t want to dismiss the Rainbow Grill. Casual dress in those days meant a coat and tie, now considered dressed up enough to go most anywhere except the Academy Awards and State dinners. Yet the Rainbow Room and Rainbow Grill are hardly interchangeable. The former had a cache of elegance not possessed by the latter. In addition, the Grill had a band at floor level and little space for performers, who were often dancers making use of the dance floor.

Dai Vernon performed at the Rainbow Grill, not the Rainbow Room. This seems so indisputable, I marvel that it continues to be misstated. A photo of Vernon was shot during his run and published in several newspapers throughout the United States under Jack Stinnett’s byline for the AP wire service. It clearly states Vernon is performing at the Rainbow Grill. Beyond that, we see Vernon is performing (and this is a key point) on the floor in front of the band on the diner’s level. The onlookers are watching from their dinner tables and are wearing coats and ties, not tuxedos. However, during the summer season, the Rainbow Room allowed informal attire (coats and ties), so the more important information comes from the Grill being noted in the text, the nature of the room, and Vernon’s limited performing space as seen in the photo.

Vernon’s four page advertising brochure from this period further makes this clear. Reviews, which were uniformly positive, appear from both “Variety” and the “New Yorker” and both clearly reference the Rainbow Grill and not the Rainbow Room. A review by M. H. Orodenker not only references the Rainbow Grill, but also the acts appearing with Vernon. These are dancers Marlynn and Michael and Ben Cutler’s Orchestra. Advertising for both the Rainbow Room and the Rainbow Grill appeared in a single layout in the New Yorker all during the time Vernon was noted in the reviews as performing in the Rainbow Grill.

The New Yorker ads list the Rainbow Room featuring Al Donahue and his Orchestra with Paula Kelly, Eddie Le Baron and his Tango Rhumba Band, dancer Dorothy Fox and Bob Bromley and his Puppet Revue. Dinner is $3.50. The “always-informal” Rainbow Grill has Ben Cutler and his Orchestra and Marlynn and Michael, dancers. Dinner is $2.00. Dai Vernon is not mentioned in any of the advertisements during his run which ran, as near as I can tell, was from June 20, 1938 to September 6, 1938. Regardless, it was stated in numerous publications that he was performing at the Rainbow Grill with Marlynn and Michael.

The full review in the New York Times helps explain what is transpiring. Again, from Vernon’s brochure: “… And trying out a new act last week at the popular Rainbow Grill was Dai Vernon, of unusually high repute in conjuring circles, with some novel ideas and really new tricks. And in the magic world, that’s a good deal on the credit side.” Omitted from this June 26, 1938 review is the following sentence: “Mr. Vernon’s turn, as is to be expected, still needs the polish and showmanship which can only come with time, but he’s a gentleman with some novel ideas and really new tricks.”

Although Vernon’s advertising brochure reproduces reviews clearly stating he played the Rainbow Grill, the more visible summary of critical comment on the back page alters the “New Yorker” and “Variety” reviews to reference the more prestigious Rainbow Room. Apparently the Harlequin act was also showcased in other nightclubs. Perhaps all were tryouts, as newspapers don’t seem to make mention of them or advertise them.

Reviews were generally positive and there can be little doubt that Vernon had a beautiful and artistically pleasing act. Magic magazines mentioned it as well and seemed genuinely proud that Vernon had done so well. How wonderful it would have been if it were filmed. This was Vernon before he broke his arms in the construction accident, after which he felt his skill never returned to its previous level.

There are, nonetheless, takeaways from the Times review of paramount importance. The act was described as a tryout. The act was also seen to require seasoning so we need to view the fact that it was held over several weeks as both a verification of its quality and the need for Vernon to gain more experience. It would seem the act is trying out for Radio City Music Hall as that is where Vernon will perform within a year. Radio City Music Hall is within the same overall Rockefeller Center complex as the Rainbow Grill and I don’t think that is a coincidence. If Vernon is trying out, what is he trying out for? It certainly appears he is trying out for Radio City Music Hall.

It seems inherently odd that Vernon’s handlers would be guiding his career toward Radio City Music Hall. Why was this?

Perhaps viewing this situation from 50,000 feet will at least suggest what is going on. Dai Vernon was 44 years old in 1938. This is an age when many variety performers are looking for a more settled life. It is also the age when many of us recognize that our dreams are unlikely to be realized. It becomes increasingly clear that what we thought we would become is never to be. This is the so-called midlife crisis. Beyond this, 1938 was a time when the Great Depression had been wearing down the country for almost a decade. Fortunes had been lost. Suicides were commonplace. Jobs were scarce. While the New Deal had some positive impacts, unemployment had jumped to 19.0% over the past year and manufacturing had dropped to levels not seen since the heart of the depression in the early 1930s. Vernon was known among the magic fraternity as someone of immense talent. Even so, while his name often appeared in magic magazines and a few newspaper articles, he was little known to the public. He was handsome and athletic, but those assets would fade. He was pushed by family, circumstances, and friends to make use of his talent while there was still time.

Vernon’s friend, attorney and businessman Garrick Spencer, was a huge magic aficionado. He organized the Academy of the Art of Magic. This group included Leipzig, Arthur Finley, Al Baker, S. Leo Horowitz, J. Warren Keane, Max Malini, Cardini, Charlie Miller, Paul Fox and others in the intelligencia of magic. Mr. Spencer attended the banquets the group held as, I assume, he was paying for everyone’s dinner. Spencer apparently had influence in show business circles. He convinced Vernon he should develop an artistic act and display his vast talent before the public. Vernon constructed a beautiful act.

If Vernon could succeed at Radio City Music Hall, he could become a prime show business commodity. “Fresh from a successful two week run at Radio City Music Hall” the advertising could read. The world would be his oyster.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. In hindsight, the plan seems destined to fail. Among the reasons for this are the following:

• The act, as developed, was limited in scope and most suitable for smaller venues. As it turned out, several of the tricks had limited visibility. If the goal was success at Radio City Music Hall, the act was ill suited. Even in photographs taken of the act at relatively close quarters, the costume makes it difficult to see what is going on.

• Vernon had little experience with an act designed for large venues or performed in large venues. If we look at film of successful performers like Fred Keating and Cardini, we see their use of quick dramatic gestures. While this was a detriment to Keating’s film career where subtlety was required, decades on the stage had taught him how to react and communicate with large audiences. Cardini used giant cigarettes, huge puffs of smoke, dramatic reactions and could sell his act to thousands. He didn’t learn this by playing two months at the Rainbow Grill. Vernon didn’t have decades to come up to speed.

• The act required an orchestra capable of playing classical music. Vaudeville was dead and supper clubs were limited in their ability to deal with Tchaikovsky. What 1938 venues would gravitate toward such an act? Vernon encountered conductor Erno Rapee at the Music Hall. Rapee frustrated Vernon by playing his music too fast. Vernon continued to slow the act and eventually Rapee slowed the music. Vernon felt he had won a battle but perhaps it was a hollow victory. Rapee was conductor at Radio City for many years before and after Vernon performed there. He may have sensed Vernon needed to up the tempo in order to go over in a venue Rapee was intimately familiar with. Rapee may have been right.

• It’s not clear Vernon was getting input from anyone who really understood the challenges involved. Well intentioned as Garrick Spencer might have been, he was not in show business and I assume had little experience in designing an act or understanding audience reaction. Agent Mark Levi was also involved and would have had knowledge about such things but, regardless, Vernon seems to have been left largely to his own devices.

So, and I find this incomprehensible, after a few months tying his act out in small venues, Vernon was thrust into Radio City Music Hall. Rainbow Grill is important because it was a small venue with the audience and the performer on the same level. The audience was eating dinner while Vernon was performing. The Grill seated fewer than even the 350 max who could be seated in the Rainbow Room. Radio City Music Hall has a proscenium arch 60 feet high and 100 feet wide. Vernon was expected to fill this space for an auditorium seating almost 6000 patrons. Most vaudeville theaters held between 1500 and 2500 people and Vernon had virtually no experience even in those venues. He now had an audience that was both looking up at him and looking down on him. In addition, almost every member of the audience was further away from him than anyone had been at the Rainbow Grill.

I can’t understand why anyone thought this was going to work. It didn’t. Reviews were negative and he was pulled after a few days. Mark Levi was angry with Vernon for accepting less than his original salary because of the truncated appearance. Vernon had been nervous. I should imagine he would have been. He hadn’t been prepared for anything approaching this scale. Everyone may have had the best of intensions, but in my view Vernon had been talked into something not really in his best interest.

This was the high water mark of Vernon’s performing career. He had designed a beautiful, artistic act that required a sizable, talented orchestra and an audience that could appreciate its subtlety. It was not an act suitable for Radio City Music Hall nor was he a performer whose skills had been developed to succeed there. The act was doomed.

Variety reviewed the show on March 15, 1939. They found his routine with “…handkerchiefs, eggs, paper, sand and aluminum rings…” to be “…consistently unexciting …” from the “… rear of the house…” Paul Dennis, reviewing for Billboard, found that “… typical of the venue, it suffers when solo artists appear.” He gives as an example Dale Vernon whom he finds “…really lost on the huge stage.” Vernon does some “stuff” with birds, rings, paper, and balls but you can’t see him so that “… whatever merit he may have never does register.”

The earliest interview with Vernon, the one by Bruce Reynolds in the Linking Ring, states that he was “… booked into the most fabulous and exclusive of all the night spots in the nation, the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.” As we’ve seen, like millions before and after him, Vernon had puffed up his resume and did not perform in the famous Rainbow Room. Jay Marshall, writing in the July 9, 1954 New Phoenix, provided the following take on the Harlequin Act: “A lawyer named Garrick Spencer financed the venture, which played the Rainbow Grill and very briefly at Radio City Music Hall. An artistic triumph but that was all.” Except for Karl Johnson’s entertaining “The Magician and the Cardsharp,” that refers to both the Room and the Grill at various times, few have gotten the venue correct since.

Still and all, Vernon had every reason to be proud of his appearance in the Rainbow Grill and the positive reviews it generated. Objectively viewed on the information I have, the act was successful in a nightclub setting but failed in the cavernous Radio City Music Hall. Even in a nightclub setting, the impracticality of the score and the act’s genteel nature made it an iffy proposition.

Bill Mullins
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Joined: January 17th, 2008, 12:00 pm
Location: Huntsville, AL

Re: Dai Vernon and the Rainbow Room

Postby Bill Mullins » October 8th, 2019, 2:45 pm

Here is the Jack Stinnett article referenced. And this NY Sun review from July 1938 also places him at the Rainbow Grill.

Jeffrey Cowan
Posts: 237
Joined: January 17th, 2008, 12:00 pm
Location: Beverly Hills, CA

Re: Dai Vernon and the Rainbow Room

Postby Jeffrey Cowan » October 8th, 2019, 6:41 pm

I'm not a Vernon scholar, but I find this historical research and analysis fascinating. Thank you for posting.
-- Jeffrey Cowan

Tom Gilbert
Posts: 830
Joined: January 17th, 2008, 12:00 pm
Location: NH

Re: Dai Vernon and the Rainbow Room

Postby Tom Gilbert » October 9th, 2019, 7:43 am

Yes, interesting posting. Thanks.

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