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The Man Who Changed Moviegoing

The Man Who Changed Moviegoing

Book review: American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry 1908-1935  by Ross Melnick (Columbia University Press)

I love learning things I didn’t know about movie history—and this volume is brimming with revelatory material. Anyone who cares about the development of film exhibition in the early 20th century should consider it essential reading…and even a casual film buff will find much to enjoy, once he or she gets past the archly academic introductory chapter. (An evening’s entertainment is described here as a “unitary text.” Fortunately, the rest of the book is well written and not overly burdened with jargon.)

All I knew of Roxy was that he was a flamboyant fellow who was so successful that in 1927 an enormous Manhattan theater was built that bore his nickname. I also knew, from reading Great Fortune, Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Rockefeller Center, that Roxy met his Waterloo on the overproduced opening night of Radio City Music Hall. Needless to say, there is much more to his story.

From the day he became the manager of a small-town theater in Pennsylvania to his meteoric career in Manhattan (where he oversaw the Strand, Rialto, Rivoli, and Capitol Theatres before moving into his self-named “Cathedral of the Motion Picture”) Roxy was an innovator who gave his patrons more than they expected—and won great customer loyalty as a result.

He also revolutionized the presentation of movies themselves, surrounding (and even, on occasion, interrupting) them with atmospheric prologues and elaborate stage shows. He supervised and even assembled musical scores for silent features, and kept enlarging the size of his house orchestras. He was credited with bringing classical music to the masses through these presentations.

Roxy edited his own newsreel every week from the various editions that were submitted to him, and thought nothing of editing and retitling films in order to make them more palatable to his audiences. He was singlehandedly responsible for overturning widespread prejudice against German films in the wake of World War I, and made such a success of Ernst Lubitsch’s DuBarry (also known as Passion) and later, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that he blazed a path for other exhibitors to follow. He did the same for Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. Once Rothafel made money with these films, other theater owners around the country followed suit.

What’s more, he became a household name across the country in the mid-1920s by hosting a radio variety show featuring “Roxy and his Gang.” His name not only became synonymous with big-time show business, but he proved that radio was a useful promotional tool for the movie business and not merely a rival for people’s time and attention.

The list of his accomplishments is staggering, and Melnick has conducted an impressive amount of research to chronicle every step of the showman’s larger-than-life career. If there isn’t much said about his personal life, it may be that there isn’t very much to say: the man was the very definition of a workaholic.

For all his show-business savvy, Rothafel couldn’t foresee that the coming of talkies, and the development of movie title songs, would render his massive orchestras obsolete. And while he made millions of dollars for a number of theater owners and landlords, he never had equity in the houses he managed so brilliantly. He was always an employee.

Roxy’s career is fascinating in itself, but it is also emblematic of changes and developments in the movie industry as a whole during the first decades of the 20th century. Showmanship has all but left the world of exhibition, but there is still much to be learned from Roxy. He failed to trademark his catchy nickname, but he became synonymous with the best that moviegoing had to offer.

American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry 1908-1935  by Ross Melnick (Columbia University Press)

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