Roxy Rothafel, Begetter of American Entertainment

Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel was one of the most extraordinary founders of modern American entertainment. During his life (1882-1936), he was a film exhibitor, stage producer, radio broadcaster, musical arranger, theater manager, war propagandist, and international celebrity – an influential figure of the silent era who helped to bring together film, music, and live performance.

As a composer and impresario, Rothafel borrowed from theater, opera, ballet, and classical music to attract multi-class audiences. He scored early Fox Movietone films such as Sunrise (1927); pioneered the convergence of film, broadcasting, and music publishing and recording in the 1920s; and helped movies and moviegoing become the dominant form of mass entertainment between the world wars.

For all that, Rothafel has not been the subject of a full biography until now. Just out is Ross Melnick’s American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry (Columbia University Press). The volume is the result of extensive research by Melnick, an assistant professor of cinema studies at Oakland University who has worked as a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image and in marketing and distribution for Loews Cineplex, Miramax, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, DreamWorks, and Sony Pictures. With Andreas Fuchs, Melnick wrote Cinema Treasures and upkeeps the extraordinary Cinema Treasures website on the current condition of movie houses around the world.

In the Washington Post, Mindy Aloff, a Barnard College dance historian, writes: “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.”

An interview with Melnick is online.

At MIAN’s request, Ross Melnick described his research for the biography:

When I began working on this project in 2002, I was surprised to find that only Ben Hall’s 1961 book, The Best Remaining Seats, had any substantial information on Roxy’s career and influence on film exhibition. I’m not quite sure how he escaped a more in-depth study between the publication of that book, which examines the history of film exhibition from the 1910s to the 1930s, and the publication of American Showman. One reason may be the significant research challenge this book posed: although some Rothafel material was donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, very little correspondence and audio material remains. I was fortunate, however, to find tremendous scrapbook collections at the NYPL and at the Museum of the City of New York.

Piecing Roxy’s career together took many years, in part because of the absence of archival material and because of the varied and multimedia nature of his work. Roxy was, of course, not only a film exhibitor, but also a prolific broadcaster between 1922 and 1935. Thus, an examination of his radio career (and relevant collections) was imperative. I also needed to examine his career as a Marine, his technological innovations, his propaganda work for the U.S. government, as well as his work producing motion pictures, arranging music for Fox Movietone films (such as Sunrise and 7th Heaven), and all of his many successes and failures. Today, there are few recordings of his enormously influential 13 years on the air as emcee of “Roxy and His Gang” for NBC and later CBS. There are, to my knowledge today, only two existing audio recordings – one at the Library of Congress (“Roxy Comes a Calling”) and the other at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park of a 1928 radio show at Madison Square Garden hosted by Rothafel.

As for paper archives, I should mention that Radio City Music Hall denied access to their private archives not once but three times. Those would have been a great aid to my research. Fortunately, the NYPL has a good collection of Radio City and RKO Roxy press releases from the period and a collection of theater programs from his time there. Here, again, analysis of film, radio, trade, and fan magazines became imperative. I was also able to find correspondence – such as a letter Roxy wrote after quitting Radio City – and internal Radio City magazines from archives and other sources such as eBay. The online auction site became a great source of fan letters, photographs, film, music, and radio, trade and fan magazines, programs, and other ephemera.

Research for American Showman was a persistent challenge but this was easily the most rewarding project I have ever had the pleasure to work on.

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