Ross Melnick — How Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel Changed Movies

Samuel We continue our week-long focus on American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, with an excerpt from the book’s opening pages:

Film historiography has often focused on production, stardom, and/or the intricate operations of the studio system—much of it to the exclusion of motion picture distribution and exhibition. American Showman analyzes the career of a single film exhibitor and radio broadcaster, Samuel Lionel “Roxy” Rothafel (1882–1936), between the years 1908 and 1935, in order to illuminate the work of a silent era “showman,” the complex operations of an urban movie palace, and the multiple and interrelated venues created for film, music, and live performance on stage, on screen, and over the air. Whereas the film industry could debate which star or mogul held more sway during this period, for a quarter of a century no motion picture exhibitor had more industrial and cultural power or influence than Roxy. On radio, Roxy was also amongst the medium’s most popular and innovative voices in the 1920s and 1930s, helping to determine early radio genres, formats, and broadcasting styles. His career not only illuminates the multifarious tasks of an urban movie palace exhibitor but Roxy’s additional roles as a broadcaster, filmmaker, music director, stage producer, propagandist, newspaper columnist, and author demonstrate that exhibitors like Roxy were not bureaucratic functionaries but influential figures that can and should be analyzed for their own thematic and stylistic predilections and industrial, social, and cultural influence. This analysis also demonstrates the motion picture exhibitor’s influence on spectatorship (both in film and live performances), narrative, and previously unexplored issues of authorship. Silent era exhibitors, in small and large venues, had tremendous agency over the texts they presented. In some cases, their preceding, intervening, and concluding music and live performances, and their editing of films, dramatically altered the narratives of the motion pictures they exhibited.

American Showman also situates the movie theater as one of the premiere venues for the physical and industrial nexus of early media convergence and examines how changes in film exhibition helped drive the entertainment industry’s multimedia integration of motion pictures, broadcasting, and music publishing and recording. While convergence is a key component of contemporary discourses about media technology, power, stardom, and the utopian visions of tomorrow’s entertainment possibilities, this first wave of media convergence remains vastly overlooked by comparison. This book historicizes the genesis of media convergence and locates Roxy’s place and influence within this phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s. From his earliest efforts, Roxy also emphasized the need to incorporate all of the “allied arts,” including vaudeville, opera, ballet, film, classical music, and more in an effort to entertain audiences over the air and in the theaters he managed in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. This integration subsequently helped break down the walls of these classed and disparate arenas and transformed them all into symbiotic elements of a convergent entertainment industry that benefited media companies, producers, and stars. Over time, Roxy and his on-air radio troupe known as “Roxy and His Gang” found success and celebrity from music publishing and recording, broadcasting, and motion pictures.

Broadcasting was initially perceived as a grave threat to the viability and dominance of motion pictures, but radio programs, stations, and networks eventually became key partners of the film industry and a crucial division and/or promotional association of any major entertainment media conglomerate. Roxy’s early embrace and successful exploitation of this new medium—he was the first exhibitor to begin using broadcasting extensively as a promotional device—had a profound effect upon the film industry. Producers, studios, and exhibitors followed his example and reached out to radio listeners as a means to market films, theaters, and stars, as well as an eventual source of product extension, distribution, and revenue generation. In addition to this marriage between film and broadcasting, each medium’s integration with the music publishing and recording industry expanded this growing convergence. These synergistic activities not only influenced the popularity of theme songs from motion pictures but cemented the need for aggregating film and music divisions within any major entertainment conglomerate.

Although substantial research has been conducted on Vitaphone and the production of early synchronous sound films in this format, research on Fox Movietone films between 1927 and 1929, the years in which Roxy and his musical director Erno Rapee scored a host of Fox films, remains scattered at best. This paucity of research has led to a lack of historical clarity about this period and the Roxy and Rapee–arranged scores for Sunrise (1927), Four Sons (1928), Mother Machree (1928), and other films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, and F. W. Murnau. These soundtracks, often with sound effects and music assembled and arranged by Roxy and Rapee, and the theme songs generated for these motion pictures, typically written by Rapee and Lew Pollack, demonstrate the multiple channels of distribution for the Roxy Theatre orchestra in the late 1920s when the 110-piece symphony could be heard live in the 5,920-seat Roxy Theatre, nationally over the air on NBC-Blue, and in theaters around the world through Movietone. Rapee and Pollack’s theme songs formed another important link between the film and music publishing and recording industries and were an important catalyst for the late 1920s theme song craze. The success of new synchronous sound films, and their music-related products such as records and sheet music, converted vertically integrated companies (with film production, distribution, and exhibition) into vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerates (combining film, broadcasting, and music publishing and recording) that produced films and music that fed the demand for popular songs by music directors at radio stations and live orchestras as well as everyday consumers. Theme songs such as “Charmaine” and “Diane” sold millions of copies of sheet music and phonographs and led to an increasing reliance on ancillary revenues by film companies, as well as their subsequent purchase of music publishing firms. All of these synergistic practices influenced the demand for musicals such as Fox Movietone Follies (1929) and Sunny Side Up (1929), which generated new commercially extensible songs that were pre-sold to audiences over the radio and in live performance venues to sell sheet music, records, and movie theater tickets.

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