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May 4th, 2012 at 10:25 am

Interview with Ross Melnick, author of American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908-1935

Ross Melnick, American ShowmanWe conclude our week-long feature on American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908-1935 with an interview with the book’s author of Ross Melnick. For more on the book, read excerpts from the book looking at The Birth of Radio City Music Hall and the Figurative Death of Roxy’s Career, The Roxy Theatre and the Roxyettes, and how “Roxy” changed the movie industry:

Question: Who is Roxy and why is it important to know his work?

Ross Melnick: Samuel Lionel Rothafel (1882-1936), better known as “Roxy” to millions of moviegoers and radio listeners, was the most influential and famous film exhibitor between 1913 and 1934 and one of radio’s most prolific radio stars between 1922 and 1935. He opened (and/or managed) most of New York’s most important movie palaces during this period including the Strand, Rialto, Rivoli, Capitol, and Roxy theaters before opening both Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre in December 1932. A decade earlier, he became one of the first national radio stars through his emceed broadcasts from the Capitol Theatre that transmitted the Capitol’s stage shows and his coterie of musicians, dancers, and other performers. His troupe became known as “Roxy and His Gang” and were one of the top radio broadcasts between 1922 and 1935 on NBC and later CBS. He was not only, in Rick Altman’s words, “the most powerful man in the film industry,” but also an equally influential figure in radio, music, and American culture. Even today, “Roxy” theaters around the world continue to exploit his name and brand.

Q: A key concept you discuss is the “unitary text” of silent (and early sound) film exhibition that incorporated dance, opera, music, and other media and live performance. What is the unitary text and its significance to understanding the movie palace experience?

RM: Scholars such as Richard Koszarski have long noted that silent film exhibition during this period was part of “an evening’s entertainment” and a “balanced program.” Namely, film was accompanied not only by orchestras of up to 110 members at the Roxy Theatre, but also by elaborate stage shows, newsreels, travelogues, cartoons, and other live and recorded entertainment. The unitary text attempts to account for how these other elements of the show interrupted, enhanced, complicated, and sometimes subsumed the feature films presented. The feature film—typically the focus of much film historiography—is inherently complicated by the complexities of silent film exhibition in which the feature film was just one part of the larger show. In Roxy’s case, he often edited the films he exhibited for time and/or narrative alterations, asserting his right to final cut. In American Showman, I articulate how in each theater silent films were presented differently from theaters across town and across the country.

Question: Most people, if they do know who Roxy is, typically associate his work with film exhibition. How important is radio, music, and media convergence to American Showman?

RM: Radio not only gave Roxy a national audience but provided him with unparalleled power as an exhibitor. When he began his radio show in November 1922, he was the country’s most dominant movie palace showman but his celebrity was largely confined to New York and Los Angeles. Radio, however, provided him with a national audience of an estimated ten million listeners. His Capitol and Roxy theater broadcasts became key promotional tools for his theaters and were copied by cinemas in Europe and across North America. His work also influenced Sam Warner and other studio executives to embrace radio and new sound technologies. Alongside broadcasting, Roxy and his music director Erno Rapee attracted Brunswick and other companies to record the Capitol and Roxy orchestras and organists. In the late 1920s, Roxy and Rapee also began scoring many of Fox’s Movietone films such as Sunrise, Street Angel, and Four Sons. Theme songs for films like 7th Heaven and Four Devils were co-written by Rapee and Lew Pollack and woven into the Roxy-Rapee scores, becoming enormous hits for publishers like DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson. These songs then became popular on radio broadcasts and drove customers to movie houses and music stores. American Showman locates music of this early interest in ancillary revenue streams and media convergence (of film, broadcasting, and music publishing and recording) at the site of film exhibition.

Q: What surprised you about Roxy’s career and how did this influence American Showman?

RM: Researching this book was a series of surprising moments. Roxy’s radio career and his international celebrity was far more elaborate than I had imagined and his propaganda work during World War I was a key part of the CPI’s outreach. His relationship with presidents and other politicians, his visits to the White House, his meetings with Hugo Münsterberg, Theodore Dreiser, Constantin Stanislavski (in Moscow), Max Reinhardt, Otto Kahn, and Nelson Rockefeller, and his work with nearly every major studio boss, provided surprising examples of his political, cultural, and industrial power. His involvement with bringing the Roxyettes to Radio City Music Hall (later renamed the Rockettes) provided another example of his lasting cultural legacy. Mostly, though, I was surprised at how successful Roxy was at branding and marketing and yet how lousy he was as a businessman. He was, as I write in the book, something of a blend between an artist and a marketing genius who cared little about spending (and sometimes losing) gobs of money to fulfill his architectural and theatrical dreams.

Q: You argue that Roxy was a very modern, even transformative figure in radio. Can you provide some examples and give us a sense of his influence then and perhaps even now?

RM: Before Roxy, many of the larger, east coast radio stations such as WEAF required broadcasters to be absent of discernible personality in favor of a more clipped, stentorian approach. Roxy’s past as a Marine, bartender, and traveling salesman, as well as his Midwestern and immigrant Jewish background, imbued him with a particularly appealing and folksy style that audiences loved. Although AT&T, the owners of WEAF, did not approve of his approach they couldn’t argue with his appeal to audiences. His style was deeply influential on broadcasters like Arthur Godfrey and many others that followed. In addition, Roxy was the key innovator of the variety show format, which still proliferates on television to this day. He also provided Major Bowes with his start on radio in 1925 when Bowes took over Roxy’s shows at the Capitol after his departure for the new Roxy Theatre. In 1935, Bowes would become the country’s most celebrated radio showman with his Amateur Hour variety show, which ran on radio and television from 1935 to 1970 and was the forerunner of such as programs as Star Search and American Idol. Mostly, though, Roxy was credited with a host of radio innovations but none more so than articulating how personality built brand and audience loyalty. This same practice was, of course, put into effect at his theaters. In many ways, Roxy was a terrific brand marketer, allying film and broadcasting years before DeMille, Disney, and Hitchcock made use of this tactic. It’s just one more way that Roxy’s career serves to elucidate these kinds of persistent media industry practices.

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