Samuel Lionel Rothapfel, Bromberg, Germany (?), July 9, 1882 – New York City, January 13, 1936) was better known as Roxy Rothafel. He was not a performer or vaudevillian of any sort but rather an organizer, entertainment entrepreneur and theatrical manager who was highly successful at bringing entertainment to the masses. In addition he was interested in scoring music to film and did so working with the early Movietone process of scoring directly onto film, which was a different process from Warner Brothers Vitaphone which was a synchronous recording. One of his most successful scorings was for the 1927 F. W. Murnau classic Sunrise.
He was skilled at many technical aspects of film-making and scoring, always thinking in terms of how the final result would be perceived by an audience. Thus, he was sensitive to the length of a program and, for example, agreed to show Ernst Lubitsch’s epic Madame Dubarry (1919) only if he could edit it down from 9 reels to 6 so that the complexities of the story might be simplified and the audience could more succinctly digest it. He renamed the film Passion, and surrounded it with a ballet prologue, plus a completely new film score by his friend the composer and conductor Erno Rapee. The film became a huge national hit and Pola Negri became a great star of the American silent film. This kind of thinking about perception of product made Roxy nationally famous not just as a great theatrical manager but rather as someone who was both understanding and shaping American taste.
He was most famous for his development of successful picture palaces such as the Roxy Theatre on Times Square in New York City which opened on March 11, 1927. More than merely a theatre, picture palaces such as the Roxy were complete experiences of pleasure for the mass public. When one entered to see a show and film everything was done to make the experience memorable. There was a uniformed staff of ushers who were precisely trained and dressed to provide efficient service in seating customers and providing order and discipline of military sophistication. Th
e ladies’ rooms were beautifully appointed and the theatre throughout lavishly decorated with the finest in traditional, often classical art. Cole Porter, the great composer of American popular song, wrote a song called “You’re the Tops” detailing all of the finest things in the world such as the Colosseum or the Louvre Museum and one line of the song reads: “You’re the pants on a Roxy usher.”
He also opened the fabulous 1932 Radio City Music Hall which featured magnificent Art Deco cloudburst design for its stage area surroundings and
state of the design arts Depression Modern curvilinear decoration throughout. There he introduced the former St. Louis Missouri Rocket Girls, later known at the Roxyettes, and then as the Rockettes, so long now identified with Radio City performances. With these shows in these picture palaces, Roxy helped to shape the concept of American entertainment and during World War I had even produced special films used to promote the war effort in cinemas.
Roxy was known for pioneering various ideas in order to enhance the pleasure of the moviegoer such as introducing multiple projectors into silent film theaters to facilitate reel changes, promoting synchronous recorded sound to the silent film before the talking picture systems of Vitaphone and Movietone were developed, creating the concept of a “family theater” which was both a cinema and a roller skating rink (in Forest City, Pennsylvania). From 1922 to 1936 he broadcast a radio variety show initially known as Roxy and His Gang which regularly featured stars of vaudeville, theater and film as well as distinguished people of all types. In doing this he was a pioneer at creating radio variety show formats for shows which were widely imitated and he helped to create how radio would ultimately be used by the American public while becoming himself one of the very first American radio personalities. He was also a lifelong devotee to Judaism and was buried in Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens, New York. He is also the great grandfather of the famous American actress Amanda Peet.
Roxy’s legacy is difficult to asses but has been analyzed in Ross Melnick’s biography of him called American Showman. Working partly behind the scenes, Roxy contributed in a major way to creating how Americans would be entertained, how multi-media events could be staged, how art, music, theater and film could be unified and how technology could be used to enhance the viewing of spectacles by the general public.
If you’ve bothered to read the above, Ross Melnick’s bio is highly recommended as a detailed and scholarly work on this not so well known American innovative genius but at least if you’ve read this far make sure and take two minutes and see this fascinating quick tour of Radio City Music Hall: