In the following excerpt from American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, Ross Melnick explains the explosive growth of the Roxy Theatre, the birth of the “Roxyettes,” and the reaction against it as a symbol of capitalism run amok.
During Fox’s period of theatrical expansion, Roxy reveled in the relative lack of corporate oversight at the Roxy Theatre. He continued to spend lavishly; upwards of $45,000 per week was spent on stage productions and roughly $25,000 per week on scenery and costumes. In March 1928, Roxy announced that the sixteen Rockets would stay at the Roxy indefinitely, and he renamed them the “Roxyettes,” expanding the troupe to thirty-two precision dancers. Although rarely mentioned by historians, there were actually six different theaters in New York presenting troupes of Russell Markert-produced Rockets by the end of 1928.
Roxy continued to premiere new music as well, giving Irving Berlin’s “Sunshine” its first public presentation. The composer had telephoned the words and music to his new song, inspired by his current stay in Palm Springs, California, so that it could be given “immediate presentation to the public” in February 1928.Months later, Roxy would invite George Gershwin to write original music for the theater and conduct the Roxy orchestra’s performance.
Some film producers and critics remained concerned about the subsumed position of motion pictures within an environment that seemed to overwhelm short and feature films. With so much attention to stage performances, orchestral and choral performances, and guest band leaders and other composers and conductors featured at venues like the Roxy and the nearby Paramount, future documentarian John Grierson had commented in 1926 that deluxe motion picture theaters often overshadowed the artistry of the films they were meant to project.
I think the big theatres have dislocated the cinema world for the moment, and I have a mind to say that the pictures are not good enough for the theatres. Too often I have been ushered into one of these great palaces like a princelet, and mounted the great staircase like a modern Jacob, only to find the picture so trivial that I had to unusher myself and descend five minutes after. The hospitality was excellent, the meal terrible. The mountain was laboring hugely and giving birth to mice.
In Hugo Münsterberg’s era, moviegoing had been a film event, accompanied by music. In many deluxe theaters of the mid- to late 1920s, though, the movie palace had become a fully blended experience, and, from many accounts, often overwhelming in its volume and synthesis of live and recorded entertainment.
By the time of its first anniversary on March 11, 1928, six and a half million tickets had already been sold at the Roxy Theatre, with cumulative grosses over $5.5 million during its inaugural year. Theater-produced publicity boasted that the Roxy audience was “a vivid cross-section of the cosmopolitan American scene. From every section of America and from all parts of the world visitors come to see and marvel at the miracle wrought in this monument to the motion picture art.” The Roxy Theatre notices promoted the venue as a place of class commingling, arguing that “It would be impossible to enumerate here the illustrious leaders in American life who come here week after week to sit beside the man-in-the-street and enjoy with him the relaxation and recreation of music, life and pictures. Musicians, composers, actors, public officials; all of the professions from the clergy to the sporting world, are represented in our audiences.” Roxy, in one of his weekly letters to readers of the Roxy Theatre Weekly Review, employed his own “Joe the Plumber” working-class archetype:
One of the most widely read and best loved columnists in the country paid us a singular compliment the other day. We were having lunch together when he said: “Jake, our janitor, is a regular patron of your theatre. He says he wouldn’t miss a week for anything.” It is nice to know that we hold a definite place in the humdrum existence of “Jake the Janitor.” That out of a circumscribed allowance for the necessities, a precious portion is regularly placed aside for the weekly recreation. Here he may release his imagination—where light and music and color paint the pictures of a delightful world. Here he will also discover that his neighbors in the quest for rest and recreation are made up of a cross-section of the American scene—from the mightiest to the most humble.
Other voices, however, argued that the Roxy Theatre was a glittering monument to unbridled capitalist desire, a cross-class and multimedia mish-mosh of high and low art that seduced the poor and forgotten with a few hours of distraction. “There is but little communism in New York,” Karen Bramson wrote in the Parisian journal Comoedia in 1928. At the end of the Roxy show, she added, “The public was satisfied. It went home to sleep tranquilly. There was nothing in the spectacle that might trouble the nervous system or inspire any thought.” In a sense, this was the function of movie palace construction and operation from its outset. Rather than disturbing audiences with troubling imagery, it typically sanitized newsreels and made them part of the unitary text. Hollywood-produced feature films often appealed to underdog stories of feel-good capitalism, and the theaters that projected these images onto the screen were made for comfort, not confrontation. At the movie palace, foreignness was made familiar through hybridity, innovation normalized through assimilation and repetition, and throughout it all, comfort and spectacle were trumpeted over class introspection and political debate. As little cinemas and newsreel theaters grew in the 1920s (the first newsreel house would open the following year), the exhibition sector would often ghettoize social and political discourse and the audiences these films attracted. The movie theater had become a coliseum of entertainment, devouring doubters of the true religion: America’s devotion to the dollar and the ideology of the “American dream.”