Copyright, 2008 by Sergio Delgado
Chapter Two: THE SHOWMAN EXTRAORDINAIRE
“It’s Roxy Rothafel who deserves the credit for giving Americans the ‘let’s go to the movies’ habit. He introduced moving pictures to audiences that might never have bothered with them otherwise. Roxy originated the concept of a ‘night out’ at the movies and in doing so, changed all of our lives forever.”
—The New York Sun, 1936
On a hot day in1913, a sweating Samuel Lionel Rothapfel sat in the offices of Loew’s Amusements, Inc. in Herald Square in New York City, nervously drumming his fingers on his kneecaps as he waited. He had an appointment to see Marcus Loew, the noted vaudeville impresario, about a job. He had come a long way for this, moving his family from Forrest City, Pennsylvania, hoping Loew would have a failing theatre in need of his management expertise. Usually supremely confident, he was uncommonly anxious. He hoped the impresario had heard of him and his successes as a moving picture exhibitor. During the train trip to New York, he told his wife, Rosa, that it was destiny to someday manage a movie house on Broadway. He wondered now if he’d made the right choice. He didn’t know what he would do if things didn’t turn out that way.
It seemed as if he could never decide what he wanted from life. For many years he had threatened to make good on his father’s prediction that he would never amount to anything in this world. He was born of German émigré stock to Gustave and Cecilia Rothapfel in 1882 in the town of Stillwater, Minnesota. An idyllic small town life of fishing and running through the woods fit Sam perfectly. But in 1895, Gustave Rothapfel moved his family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to provide his three sons more of an opportunity to make a living. A practical, hard-working shoemaker, Gustave saw Sam, his youngest son, as the one to learn the family trade. When Sam refused, it was the last straw for a father who could not tolerate a boy who seemed to be nothing more than a dreamer. He kicked Sam out of the house, leaving him to fend for himself. Sam was fourteen.
To survive he worked odd jobs: messenger boy, bootblack, and call boy in a Broadway theatre. The jobs lated until he grew restless and lost interest. There were years of setbacks to overcome and ambitions along the way that never panned out. Fortunately, Sam Rothapfel possessed an endless reservoir of self-confidence. He never stopped believing he was meant for great and glorious things although his youthful impetuousness continue to lead him down dead-end paths.
A seven-year hitch in the United States Marine Corps taught him the values of loyalty and discipline. Sam loved the Corps and proudly served his country. He saw action in the Philippines and quickly rose to the rank of Drill Sergeant, screaming his head off at scared new recruits on the training grounds of the Dry Tortugas and enjoying every minute of it. He learned how to motivate people and get the best out of them. It was a gift that one-day would serve him very well indeed.
Yet at the end of his tour of enlistment with the Marines, he found himself wandering aimlessly yet again. Stints as a short order cook, shoe store clerk, and as a driver for a livery stable didn’t satisfy him. He had even tried his hand at professional sports, playing baseball for a team in the struggling Pennsylvania League. Athletic despite being short and stocky, Sam proved to be a base stealer par excellence, but calls of “Slide, Rothapfel, slide!” were too much of a mouthful for the fans in the bleachers so “Slide, Roxy, slide!” it became, earning him the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
When the league folded for the winter, Sam tried his hand at selling copies of “Stoddard’s Travel Guides” in Pennsylvania’s coal country, but the miners weren’t interested in fancy gold-embossed books. Broke and nearly starving, he landed one day in 1907 in the mining town of Forrest City and stopped in at the local saloon for something to eat. Looking around while enjoying a lunch of sausages he decided that it might be nice to actually sell something that people wanted. He had soon talked his way into managing the saloon for his soon-to-be father-in-law and when tending bar got old, he began looking for ways to augment the saloon’s income. He soon found out that the miners in tiny Forrest City weren’t interested in much, but they were crazy about what were then called “the flickers.” Sam had personally witnessed the new phenomenon of moving pictures on a supply run to nearby McKeesport and was impressed both by the potential of the new medium and the opportunity for success. On his return from McKeesport he persuaded his father-in-law that they should open a theatre of their own.
Taking a huge risk, Roxy transformed the saloon’s back room into a makeshift auditorium and ‘The Family Theatre’ opened in December of 1908. The seats came from his father-in-law’s funeral parlor next-door, the screen was a white bed sheet, and the projector was an old hand-cranked Cineograph that he bought from a film exchange for the princely sum of $250. The tiny theatre’s debut offering consisted of a Chopin piano overture by a local pianist; a grab-bag of vaudeville-style skits; an illustrated “sing-a-long”; a one-reel Keystone comedy starring Mabel Normand; and a “feature film” of that year’s World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers. Although the turnout for the first show was small, the hour-long program was well received.
It was easy to see that he had something here that could be successful, so he worked tirelessly at distributing handbills; arranging for the rental of one-reelers from the Philadelphia Film Exchange; and hand picking the musical talent for all of the live performances. The Family Theatre billed itself as “the coziest and best-equipped theatre in the valley.” Admission was only a nickel and attendance grew steadily as the weeks passed and word of mouth spread. Rough-and-tumble miners came to the show wearing their Sunday best. The theatre’s dress code was strictly enforced. Roxy insisted that his theatre be clean and that every part of his “presentations” be done with the utmost class.
Class came from the tiniest of details. Roxy was one of the first exhibitors to hang a flashy-looking screen curtain that would open and close at the beginning and end of the picture. He placed a bank of colored lights around the screen to enhance the emotional mood of a scene. He had inherited a love for music from his dear mother and believed that nothing could lift the human heart or soul higher than a well-played symphony. So he employed professional musicians at considerable cost rather than use amateurs to perform classical standards during those short intermissions when film reels were being changed. The Family Theatre’s bill was changed twice a week, a welcome change from other nickelodeons where mediocre pictures played for weeks at a time. All in all, Roxy’s theatre ran smoothly and business was surprisingly good for a small operation that was out in the middle of nowhere.
Unbeknownst to Roxy, his success had caught the attention of the powers-that-be in far off New York City. The burgeoning showman from tiny Forrest City rented far more picture reels from the film exchanges than any other movie house in the Mid-Atlantic States. Surely, he was doing something right out there in the boondocks. One of the impresarios most curious about Roxy’s methods was the reigning King of Vaudeville himself, Benjamin Franklin Keith.
B. F. Keith had no real interest in the “flickers.” The one-reel comedy shorts that played in his vaudeville theatres were used strictly as “chasers” to clear out the house between shows or to fill out a bill if an act canceled or a performer was fired. Nickelodeons, however, were becoming all the rage and Keith decided that if his theatres were going to compete, they might as well do it the right way. He summoned Sam Rothafel to his New York headquarters in the spring of 1911 and commissioned him to improve the presentation of pictures at all of his vaudeville houses in the East and Midwest. It was an opportunity for Roxy to prove what he could do and he readily accepted, even though it meant leaving his wife, Rosa, at home with their daughter and newborn son. Rosa encouraged him to go, knowing in her heart that her husband’s ambitions could no longer be constrained by a little mining town like Forrest City.
In Keith-affiliated theatres from Boston to Philadelphia to the pinnacle itself, the fabled Palace Theatre on Broadway, Roxy added great scalloping curtains of shimmering fabric and installed banks of colored lights around their picture screens. He upgraded the projectors and hired trained projectionists. He also did away with reserved seating and banned smoking inside the auditorium. Audiences responded to these changes by flocking to see the picture shows and the “flickers” were soon replacing the less-lively vaudeville acts on the bill in many of the Keith houses. The impresario was pleased with the results and Roxy’s reputation in the business as an expert in movie presentation grew.
That next year the owners of the Alhambra Theatre in Milwaukee retained him to revive its flagging fortunes. They had intended for their new and elegant theatre to be a home for legitimate dramas, but Milwaukee already had several well-established opera houses and success proved elusive. Their theatre lost hundreds of dollars every week.
Roxy told them their theatre could be profitable, but only by playing moving pictures. The owners reacted with horror at the thought of nickelodeon fare playing the Alhambra, but Roxy assured them that by pictures he meant full-length photoplays with stories that would appeal to the middle-class audiences that they were trying to attract. Overcoming their reservations, Roxy was handed $5000 dollars to do what was needed to make the theatre profitable.
He closed the Alhambra and had it re-modeled into Milwaukee’s first deluxe photoplay theatre. All of the opera house-style side boxes along the walls were removed to improve the sight lines to the screen. The entire house was refurbished with amber-colored lights and plush draperies and carpets. For his patrons’ comfort and safety, Roxy hired a staff of ushers and drilled them in the military style and courtly arts. He also had the orchestra pit covered up and put the Alhambra’s expanded orchestra up on stage on a permanent set for everyone to see.
The gamble paid off handsomely. The improved Alhambra re-opened to critical acclaim and spectacular business, becoming Milwaukee’s most successful picture palace by the end of the first month. When the Alhambra’s owners finally sold their interest, they did so at considerable profit.
With one-reel flickers evolving into feature-length moving pictures, it was clear to Roxy that the nickelodeons would eventually be replaced by far larger theatres. Supremely confident in his abilities, he couldn’t see why his methods wouldn’t work in a place like New York City. Determined to pursue what he felt was his destiny, he sold the Family Theatre to a big-time regional exhibitor and left with his family for New York.
“Mr. Loew shouldn’t be much longer,” the smiling secretary told him as she tapped out a letter on a typewriter. Roxy had been staring at her for the better part of an hour. “As soon as he gets off the phone, I’ll inform him that you’re here.”
“Thank you,” he nervously, barely able to contain his anxiety.
Finishing the letter, Loew’s secretary excused herself, opened a door, and went into the magnate’s office with some messages, unknowingly giving Roxy an earful of Loew berating some hapless theatre manager over the phone. “You thieving son-of-a-bitch!” the otherwise mild-mannered Marcus Loew yelled at the caller in anger. “Don’t give me excuses about business being bad! It’s a Chaplin picture! Chaplin doesn’t lose me money!”
Hearing the outburst, Roxy lost his nerve. Feeling ill, he got up from his seat and quietly left the impresario’s office. There would be no job for him with Marcus Loew. He had failed just like his father had predicted. He had no idea what he would tell Rosa when he got back to the apartment in Union Square that they were renting.