He was the most creative and most popular independent exhibitor of silent films at a series of movie palaces (seating up to 6,000 people) in New York during the 1920s.
His wrap-around live stage shows for films were once the most lavish, lauded and imitated in the world, and his radio broadcasts on behalf of his theaters were beloved by millions.
Through his hiring, he jump-started or showcased the rising careers of dozens of artists, including the composer-conductor Erno Rapee; the conductor Eugene Ormandy; the composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin; the ballet choreographers Leo Staats, Leonide Massine and Adolph Bolm; the dancer-choreographers Martha Graham, Harold Kreutzberg, Maria Gambarelli, the Berry Brothers and Doris Niles; and an energetic, 27-year-old art director named Vincente Minnelli.
Although untutored in music, he sensitively and memorably scored (sometimes in collaboration with Rapee) many silent short and feature films, among them F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, “Sunrise.”
After World War I, when no other American exhibitor would take a flyer on German films, he introduced to the United States the first film the country would see by Ernst Lubitsch (titled “Passion” in America”) as well as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” providing a score for the latter with music by Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Arnold Schoenberg. He also gambled (and won) in serving as the first exhibitor worldwide of Robert Flaherty’s landmark documentary “Nanook of the North.”
His command of theatrical lighting designs and technical systems was so admired that he was asked to write the entry on lighting for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
His name is embedded in the Rockettes, whom the master showman installed in the final theater he operated, Radio City Music Hall, and is invoked in the names of movie houses large and small across America.
You knew the answer all along: Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel (1882-1936).
They don’t make ’em like Roxy anymore — these freewheeling, independent impresarios whose personal tastes and personalities, intuitively and spontaneously expressed in the presentation of art, happened to dovetail with a fluid period in the consolidation of entertainment media as well as with the dreams and cravings of mass audiences of all ages, social classes, ethnic backgrounds and professional aspirations.
Such wizards gave 100 percent of themselves, and some, like Roxy, died early by doing so. Second only in prestige to Florenz Ziegfeld, Roxy micromanaged every detail of the theaters he oversaw, from the creases in the ushers’ trousers, to the hiring of talent, to the frame-by-frame editing of the films exhibited. When he clashed with corporate spreadsheets, censors or others, he simply quit and went on to exert his magic in a bigger theater — or on a radio microphone for a massive international audience, who considered his voice a balm to their harried souls. The Great Depression (and perhaps personal arrogance) finally blindsided him, but, as long as the ’20s roared, his name meant a standard of quality and cultural uplift in the forum of mass entertainment.
In this 52nd volume of Columbia University Press’s outstanding Film and Culture series, Melnick has placed his subject in a huge context, chronicling not only Roxy but also the movie and music businesses, the rise of radio, issues of anti-Semitism, the development of New York and much more during the first third of the 20th century. His writing clarifies, his judgments are eminently reasonable and his research is spectacular.
Roxy was so prominent that his name made it into popular songs by Cole Porter (“You’re the Top”) and others. To paraphrase Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” with the publication of “American Showman,” the question “What’s playing at the Roxy?” can now be answered: “First-rate cultural history.”
Aloff, author of “Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation,” teaches courses in dance history, dance criticism and dance in film at Barnard College.