At about the same time the owners of the recently opened Regent Theatre on 116th Street in Harlem were in absolutely desperate straits. Their elegant new moving picture theatre was failing and they had no fall back use for it. Whereas most theatres showing pictures in those days were converted former storefronts or music halls, the Regent billed itself as the very first theatre in New York City designed expressly for moving pictures.
The Regent took itself very seriously. It featured a standing eight-piece orchestra and had the first pipe organ of any theatre in the city. Backed financially by the Biograph Motion Picture Company, its owners had spared no expense in making their new playhouse the finest anywhere.
Yet despite the gilded stage boxes, bejeweled curtains, and the high-toned cultural offerings and first-rate theatrical productions, the Regent Theatre was inexplicably a money loser. Patrons were provided with fancy printed programs, uniform-clad ushers and first-rate pictures such as The Siege of St. Petersburg. Yet most the seats went wanting. The Regent tried presenting balladeers and popular singers, all to no avail. A dramatic stock company was added to bolster the film offerings. Nothing worked. Although the theatre’s luxury was indeed impressive, the mostly first-generation German immigrant neighborhood surrounding the Regent seemed put off by so much grandeur and elegance being lavished on something so culturally insignificant as the flickers. They far preferred the nearby Keith’s vaudeville house that provided rowdy and folksy entertainment more to their liking. The Regent simply could not draw enough of an audience to make a profit. The owners considered closing the doors, but had too much invested in the Regent to give up.
Weighing his options after failing with Marcus Loew, Roxy was surprised at being summoned to meet with Henry Marvin, one of the Regent’s owners. Marvin knew Roxy by reputation and after just a brief conversation it was clear that here was the man that could fix the problem. He offered Rothapfel the job as the Regent’s new manager. Roxy accepted without hesitation and within the hour was up in Harlem to check out the whys and wherefores of the Regent’s problems.
Sizing up the neighborhood, he discovered that underneath the stoic, sometimes grim propriety of the locals, there was a real hunger for genuine Kultur. Maybe not the effete sort of formal elegance, but culture served with panache and a spirited joie de vivre. Pomp and spectacle was what they apparently wanted and Roxy decided that they would get it at the Regent.
Taking charge, he had the projection booth re-located from the balcony to the main floor eliminating the distortion of a picture projected from a higher distance. A permanent setting for the screen was built at the front of the stage to increase visibility from the Regent’s balcony. He also doubled the size of the theatre’s music library and transformed the expanded Regent Symphony into as serious a group of classical musicians as any in town.
The Motion Picture News covered the December 6, 1913 opening as such:
A remarkable incident in the history of the motion picture took place Monday evening of last week at the Regent Theatre, 116th and Seventh Avenue, New York City. This sounds serious, and so the writer intends it.
The picture was “The Last Days of Pompeii.” This excellent production Mr. Rothapfel centered in an environment so pleasing, so perfect in artistic detail, that it seemed as if the setting were a prerequisite to the picture, that to an educated audience the two should, and must hereafter, go together.
Mr. Rothapfel also achieves a theme in his music. There is the same unity throughout the admirable score with which the picture is accompanied. But predominating, woven delicately here and there in the score, is the soft and beautiful song from “Aida” symbolic of the tender love story of the picture. The curtain rises to an inspiring prelude from the Regent pipe organ, rendered by Mr. Drew, an accomplished organist. Then, with a flare from the orchestra, the dark red velvet curtains before the screen are parted to admit the figure of an actor arrayed in Grecian robes. With excellent intonation, he announces the opening screen of the picture. Later, just before the Vesuvius scene, he appears again and for an interlude recites the thrilling lines from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel which tell o the mob and its frenzied attack upon Arbaces.
At other intervals the monotony of the “silent stage”—there is bound to be some monotony in a long picture, however inspiring it is—was delightfully broken by the voices of trained singers from the windowed recesses above and at each side of the stage. Soft lights were played upon these window and also upon the fountain which plays in front of the orchestra platform.
The frenzied scenes in the doomed city following the eruption of the volcano where made most realistic by the accompaniment from “Lohengrin” and by a chorus of shrill voices back of the screen.
Mechanically as well as artistically, the presentation was flawless throughout. It was, from every standpoint, the best that has been seen in this city.
The handsome and comfortable interior of the Regent has much to do with the success of the performance. There is no finer theatre in New York in point of construction, and Mr. Rothapfel’s skillful attention to details has given the interior a refinement not to be equaled in a single other theatre here.
The audience, it should be noted, while made up of persons living in the neighborhood of the Regent, was of the kind to be found in the best playhouses. Judged by their decorum and sincere appreciation, they might have been at the opera.
There is a single criticism to be entertained, and that has nothing to do with the performance itself. This concerns the price of admission. It should be twenty-five cents instead of fifteen-cents—that is certain. And perhaps one might for farther and say that such a production should be on Broadway at much higher prices.
Mr. Rothapfel’s answer is: “It will be.”
The transformation of the Regent was incredibly successful. Roxy made it into a venue eager to please, offering neighborhood patrons a series of spectacular productions featuring music (both modern and old German standards) and full-blown orchestral accompaniment to William S. Hart westerns and Mutual comedies starring Charles Chaplin. Curiously, Roxy lacked any kind of formal musical training yet he seemed to have a feel to pick out the right music for every scene. In between reels, he would present a song by an artist with a high-class voice “so that the audience could rest their eyes from the strain of having to constantly watch the flickering screen.” When one reviewer picked up on this subtle innovation, he praised the showman for his “thoughtfulness.”
“It matters not how humble your theatre is or where it is situated,” he wrote in an article in Moving Picture World during his tenure at the Regent. “Try and have an air of refinement prevail throughout.”
Refinement meant having a well-drilled staff. It meant the careful arrangement of the order of films shown. It meant musical accompaniment that augmented the movies. It meant clean, hospitable theatres. It meant attention to every detail, from the uniforms that the ushers wore to the colors of the lights that bathed the screen when the movie ended. “The theatre is the thing,” he wrote. “The best pictures ever produced will never succeed in an unattractive environment.”
Roxy knew what he was doing.
Choosing what picture to show was the manager’s job, but Roxy trusted his audiences to tell him what they liked. On one Monday morning, the showman discovered that the local Film Exchange had yet to deliver the picture that had been promised him. He had nothing to show his customers. He called up the suppliers and demanded that they ship over a picture immediately. He was told that delivery of the picture that he had wanted had been delayed and that a temporary substitute, a comedy titled His Picture in the Paper, would be sent to the Regent immediately.
“Who’s the star?” Roxy asked.
“A young actor named Douglas Fairbanks.”
Roxy had never heard of him. “Great!” he said sarcastically. “I advertise Francis X. Bushman and then insult my customers with a nobody.”
So it was without much enthusiasm that he was forced to go out on the Regent’s stage that afternoon and tell his audience that there had been an unforeseen change in the bill. The reaction from the crowd was less-than-pleasant as Bushman was the leading romantic male idol of the day. “But hold your horses,” Roxy told them. “I’ll put on the feature as soon as it gets here.”
But the substitute picture, written with much wit and graced by Fairbanks’ gifted sense of physical comedy proved to be an immediate winner with the audience and Roxy, standing in the back of the auditorium, was relieved to find that patrons were cheering practically every scene. When about halfway through the movie, an usher told him that the originally scheduled picture had just arrived, Roxy went to the front of the house and raising his hand, stopped the movie.
“Listen, children, the regular film just got here. Do you want me to yank Doug Fairbanks?”
“No! No!” came the resounding cry.
That was good enough for Roxy and from there on made every effort to showcase the actor’s pictures for as long as he was at the Regent Theatre.
“What people want is novelty and I try to give them a mixed and novel program, but always keep the program clean. I see every picture that is presented at my theatre before it is produced, and if the current releases do not suit me, I prefer to repeat with some previous success.”
The picture itself was never all that important to him.
“There’s an old saying that ‘fine feathers make fine birds.’ Take the picture by itself and it comes to us a little bare, a delight to the eye alone. Surround it by pretty furnishings, beautiful decorations, and fine music, and the picture is raised to the same high plane as its surroundings, and not only the eye, but the ear is pleased; two senses instead of one are entertained at one and the same time. But don’t mistake me. While these settings will enhance a fine picture, they won’t conceal a poor product from the critical eye.”
In 1914 the Biograph Company suffered heavy losses from a string of dismal photoplays that failed to find the public’s favor. The company found itself unable to continue operating the Regent, which was immediately put up for lease to independent operators.
Seizing the opportunity, Roxy assembled a group of investors and as “The Photoplay Company,” took out a ten-year lease on the Regent. But by the time that the ink had dried on the contract, Roxy was already bound for Broadway.
Mitchell and Moe Mark of Buffalo, N.Y. had made a mint off of their chain of nickelodeons and decided they should become showmen on the Great White Way. They leased the site of the old Brewster carriage factory at the corner of Broadway and 47th Street and announced their intention to build a new “million dollar” theatre on that spot. Originally, it was planned to be a vaudeville house with seats going for no more than fifty-cents per head, but that plan was abandoned after the opening of the Wonderland Theatre at Broadway and 45th Street. Re-trenching, the brothers then announced their intention to build a sort of a Hippodrome-complete-with-water-tanks operation, but nothing came of that plan either.
As their theatre began construction, the brothers seemed unable to decide what they would do with it. There was some talk of maybe getting the New York Metropolitan Opera to move in once it was completed but by the end of 1913 there was still no tenant for the new playhouse, although rumors had it playing motion pictures when it opened the following spring.
Movies were not new to Broadway. Marcus Loew’s Herald Square nickelodeon had been showing one-reel flickers for years and recently, the Astor, one of the city’s most elegant legitimate theatres, had been briefly converted into a movie house for a twenty-two week run of the Italian-made picture Quo Vadis? Across the street, the Vitagraph Company had taken over the lease on Hammersmith’s Olympia to showcase their photoplays accompanied by the city’s very first Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.
Opening the first permanent moving picture theatre on Broadway made a world of sense to the Mark brothers. They were betting that a big and classy playhouse would appeal to a more respectable clientele than those would that frequented nickelodeon fare. Most legitimate houses were ill suited to being converted over to movie houses, so the brothers decided that their new theatre, “The Mark Strand”, should be the perfect venue for exhibiting moving pictures.
But as movies were still thought of as disreputable in many corners, the brothers needed someone who understood how to best present pictures at the Strand and they didn’t have to look very far. Roxy was their man. They persuaded him to leave the Regent by offering him $175 a week salary and promising to provide him with the means to make the Strand a national institution.
Opening night at the Strand saw the Strand Symphony played Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2,” The Strand Topical Revue with baseball scenes filed at the Brooklyn Federal League that very morning, a performance of the Strand Quartet performing the quartette from “Rigoletto,” and the feature-length picture, The Spoilers. The reviews praised the Strand and even the most skeptical critic had to admit that he hadn’t thought it possible that he would even enjoy having a movie house on Broadway of all places.
With Roxy at the helm, the Strand Theatre’s success was assured. Its stage presentations and orchestra were immensely popular with Broadway audiences who came in droves to see Lillian Gish in Home Sweet Home or the popular romantic team of Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne in Under Royal Patronage. Roxy’s management philosophy was simple. “If the other fellow has been giving people a fair picture and an hour’s entertainment for a quarter then I give them a fine picture and an hour and a quarter’s entertainment and a first-class orchestra to boot for the same price. It’s only good business after all. The idea of doing better than the other fellow is the secret of all success.”
He had proven that his methods and mastery of “the photo arts” could play on Broadway. Yet Roxy was soon again restless for bigger challenges. In 1916, he left the Strand and was immediately hired by Crawford Livingston and Felix Kahn of the Mutual Film Corporation to manage the new showplace they were building: the Rialto Theatre on 42nd Street. At a princely salary of $200 per week, he was given a free hand to make the theatre another Rothapfel institution.
The Strand may have been bigger, but the Rialto Theatre was its equal in splendor. The Times called it, “a new palace of polite pleasure for the thousands.” Opening day newspaper ads proclaimed: “The World’s Largest Grand Organ—Superb Concert Orchestra—Most Wonderful System of Electrical Effects Ever Installed in Any Theatre—$.15—$.25—$.30—$.50—No Higher.” The New York Times described a theatre whose “interior is done in ivory and gray with hangings of red. The dome over the balcony is lovely in coloring, a playground for innumerable lights of many hues.” There were also kind words for the theatre’s usher corps; polite-and-efficient young men dressed in tunics of red and gold. Roxy always put a premium on service to his patrons and the “attaches” followed his law to the letter. Tipping was always to be refused and an usher was never raise to his voice to a guest.
The Times also noted that like “the Strand, which preceded it and has served to some degree as the model for all of the finer motion pictures in America, the Rialto is an expression of the taste and ideas of S.L. Rothapfel, its managing director. Here is a goodly auditorium, with seats downstairs and in the steep cantilever balcony to the number of 2,000. Here is a big orchestra, a program that includes some singing an then no end of movies, with two photoplays and a topical review of the sort that shows a Governor dedicating something somewhere and some children doing something somewhere and so on.
The Knickerbocker is a fine old theatre temporarily made over into a movie house, and even the Strand is so built that at very short notice it could be converted to the uses of opera or drama, but the Rialto is a motion picture house, pure and simple. It is stageless, the screen being placed boldly against the back wall of the theatre. It is built in the conviction that the American passion for the movies is here to stay.”
The Rialto, “The Temple of the Motion Picture,” was a tremendous moneymaker for Mutual, its success adding to Roxy’s growing reputation as an infallible showman. He received great praise for his creative stage-and-screen combination spectacles. When Mutual was suddenly absorbed into Famous Players-Lasky a few months after the Rialto’s opening, Roxy found himself working for a new company and was soon managing a second Broadway theatre.
In 1917, Famous Players-Lasky opened the Rivoli Theatre. Billed as “The Triumph of the Motion Picture,” the new theatre built at 49th Street and Broadway was more luxurious than anything yet seen. It was designed by Thomas Lamb, who gave the Rivoli a classically inspired look with a street-front facade surmounted by a row of white terra cotta columns topped by a pediment with classical figures copied from the Parthenon in Athens. Whereas the Rialto had been built for the masses, the Rivoli was intended as a more upscale venue for prestige productions. Unlike the Rialto, the Rivoli, with its operating costs averaging somewhere upwards in the neighborhood of $13,000 per week, scarcely showed any profit at all. Still, no one complained.
“Deluxe” shows at the featured the Rivoli Orchestra, soloists, color harmonies and scenic efforts. All other performances featured musical intermissions and accompaniment on the Rivoli’s Grande Barton organ, “the largest pipe organ yet installed in any theatre.”
Patrons entering the Rivoli were all proudly advised that Roxy Rothafel (the “p” in his last name had been dropped to make his name sound less German) personally selected all of the musical material, supervised their staging, and designed the lighting for all of the numbers. Music was always the key to Roxy’s programs and he continued to cobble together bits and pieces from other compositions into complete musical scores of his own.
“I’m not real educated in music,” he modestly told a magazine writer. “But I seem to respond to it emotionally. I guess that’s why I consider music to be the most important component of my stage shows.”
A week at the Rialto might offer Moonshine starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with the Rialto Orchestra playing “The Apprentice of the Sorcerer” as an overture; an aria from Verdi’s “The Masked Ball”; and “Invictus,” sung by Emmanuel List. At the Rivoli, the Rivoli Animated Revue and a short accompanied Riddle Gawne, with William S. Hart and American Troops on Furlough. That same week, there was also a mention of Roxy himself conducting “The William Tell Overture” with the Times noting that, “when one sees the theatre’s managing director so competent with the baton he gets some insight into why so many things are done artistically at the Rivoli and Rialto. It is evident that Mr. Rothapfel is not just a manager with only business sense.”
During the war, Roxy’s presentations mingled showmanship with unabashed patriotism. Every week at the Rivoli there was presented another edition of the “Allies’ Official War Review” or a stage presentation such as “The Americans Come” with a cast of singers in costumes and settings suggestive of France just as American soldiers were landing on the European continent. He organized local blood drives and raised money for veterans’ hospitals by offering free passes to shows to anyone making a donation to the war effort. He was photographed with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks when the duo came to New York as part of a public campaign to urge citizens to buy war bonds. To show solidarity with his beloved Marine Corp, he ordered that a huge American flag be draped and kept over the façade of the Rivoli until the last troops returned home from the war.
Roxy was then earning between $500 and $750 per week, depending on the box office takes of both the Rialto and Rivoli. He had moved his family from Harlem to a swanky Central Park townhouse and his personal office from the Rialto over to the Rivoli although he had to fight a pitched battle with Famous Players-Lasky when he learned that the company had no intention of paying for an office full of new furniture. “What was wrong with the old furniture anyway?” Fire-and-brimstone rained down on them from the Rivoli. The company executive who had rejected Roxy’s furniture request was barred from both theatres, an order enforced by the showman’s loyal legion of ushers and doormen. The dispute finally had to be settled by Adolph Zukor himself who decided in the interest of peace that Roxy should get his new office furniture.
That resolution, however, did not end the bitter enmity between the showman and Famous Player-Lasky’s Accounting Department. They made it a practice to review every single one of his financial expenditures and discovered that Roxy was spending thousands of dollars in company money on his own personal comfort including the hiring of a Japanese body servant to cook his meals and the purchase of an elegant Pierce-Arrow touring car complete with a livery-clad driver to take him back-and-forth from theatre to theatre. He threw lavish dinner parties at exquisitely expensive restaurants for friends and famous dignitaries and charged birthday gifts for his wife against company funds. All of that might have been tolerable, perks were often overlooked, but when the financial watchdogs at Famous Players uncovered hundreds of dollars in long-distance phone charges to Canadian horse racing tracks, they decided that he had to go. When the showman learned that Zukor would not support his increasingly lavish tastes, he angrily resigned.