Ross Melnick, American Showman: Samuel 'Roxy' Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry.
Based on his dissertation, Ross Melnick's American Showman is admirable and disappointing in equal measure. Melnick addresses a significant gap in film studies literature, the absence of a full-length treatment of Samuel Rothafel (1882-1936), who was perhaps the most significant film exhibitor between 1909 and the early 1930s. Melnick describes Rothafel as a Zelig-like figure, connected to everyone from United States Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover to Otto Kahn, the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to being personally or professionally affiliated with every major figure in the film industry, Rothafel was an able talent spotter. These younger connections, which included Eugene Ormandy and Vincente Minnelli, promised a dynasty that should have secured Rothafel's legacy within the history of the entertainment industry, but, as his contemporaries realized, his name and accomplishments faded relatively quickly after his death.
As Melnick observes, Rothafel was far more than a film exhibitor; he early understood how film exhibition and radio were facets of the same entertainment complex. His interest in other art forms, such as ballet and opera, similarly granted him insight into the narrative and aesthetic features shared among twentieth-century art forms; his Jewishness and his German birth allowed him to develop connections to the still largely European world of performers of classical music in the United States and also made him sympathetic to the aspirations of interwar German filmmakers, whose work he promoted. That he began his career as an exhibitor in small-town Pennsylvania at a time when, especially in largely immigrant communities, film exhibition still had to allay the fears of reformers and civic authorities required that he negotiate the competing demands of commerce and respectability which he did with great delicacy and shrewdness.
Melnick makes a convincing case for Rothafel's central importance in a variety of communities and enterprises. He has read an astonishing range of sources. This research was no easy task. Rothafel left no papers, and even the business records of his many enterprises have been lost; there is thus no central depository to consult (7). But because of his centrality, Rothafel appears everywhere in trade papers, mass circulation periodicals, and the secondary literature on the period within current film historical scholarship. Melnick has been scrupulous and imaginative in finding and consolidating these references, scouring archives and reading a great range of trade papers covering a twentyfive-year span and several industries (theatre, film, and music). Because Rothafel was a Marine in his youth, Melnick has even traced his presence in the Marine Corps magazine The Leatherneck, a fascinating source that offers a glimpse of how a Jewish showman was warmly received by a largely non-Jewish military organization. Organizing the sheer volume of references to Rothafel confronted Melnick with a monumental task, and the quantity and quality of research on display here is deeply admirable. As Melnick notes, he commenced his project before major American trade papers had been digitized to any extent (in the future, we'll look back at the moment that preceded the Media History Digital Library's more complete digitization of trade papers in 2013 and marvel at how research used to be done in the bad old days). This book represents the most complete and detailed picture of Rothafel we are likely to have, and scholars should be grateful for Melnick's efforts.
In short, Melnick has written a detailed and serviceable biography of Rothafel, but he seems uncomfortable acknowledging his accomplishment in those terms. He comments of his first chapter that it 'does not seek to create a "great man" who worked outside of industrial constructs, commercial institutions, or economic models, or to generate a biographical study for the sake of narrative pleasure' (28). It must nonetheless be acknowledged that the organizing principle of the book is chronological, with Rothafel as the lens of selection and organization at every turn. While there is occasionally an implied comparative structure, particularly via the invocation of figures whom Melnick finds to be Rothafel's closest peers as showmen (Sid Grauman, 'Major' Edward Bowes, and Harold B. Franklin), the chapters that follow the introduction proceed chronologically, starting more or less with Rothafel's birth and concluding more or less with his death. This is a sensible structure, but the result is more biography than analysis. Preserving and organizing the sheer quantity of detail about Rothafel may have dictated a presentation that prizes detail and chronology over a thematic organization that proceeds through a comparison of like cases or an investigation of structural questions. Hence all the major claims for Rothafel's importance to our understanding of the industries within which he worked or that he ingeniously combined--film exhibition, music, dance, and radio--are made in the introduction and then repeated, often without much further development, where they belong chronologically. The introduction unfortunately steals the thunder of later chapters; the same account of Rothafel's stage show for Soldier of Fortune appears on both pages ninteen and one hundred eighty-two, incorporating the same long quotations, and we similarly learn twice (16, 133-34), again with the same language, that Rothafel believed that if a director was unable to cut his own film effectively (a prerogative Rothafel occasionally stole), he was no director at all.
Similarly, while Melnick demonstrates his awareness of many of the major scholarly discussions in the film historiography of 1910-35, he frequently misses an opportunity to change our understanding of the narrative that has already been developed by scholars such as Michelle Hilmes (on the relationship between film and radio) or Steven Carr (on the film industry and anti-Semitism). Melnick's portrait of Rothafel confirms, rather than alters, what we think we know about the relative authority of the exhibitor over the film text from the silent to the early sound periods, as witness his willingness occasionally to reedit the films he showed. That Melnick notes the major scholarly conclusions without modifying them might suggest that this book was written with the nonspecialist in mind, but that conclusion is not borne out by his treatment of major film historical phenomena, which receive comparatively little explanation and contextualization. For example, even after independent exhibitors began resisting the Motion Picture Patents Company (Thomas Edison's film manufacturing cartel of 1908-15), Rothafel was content to exhibit MPPC films, going so far as to make this decision a reason for customers to choose his theatre over those of 'unlicensed' local rivals. But the phenomenon of the MPPC and the issues behind choosing to show or not show its films are never explored, so the nonspecialist reader doesn't get a sense of why this might be significant beyond Rothafel's advertising strategy. Does the relatively conservative approach to film form and content demonstrated by hewing to the MPPC line suggest why Rothafel never made the leap from film exhibition to production? A number of early studio heads expanded from exhibition to production, which makes the question of why Rothafel did not do so a potentially revealing one, given that he was uniformly admired for his management of large urban theatres. In what was possibly the greatest coup of his career, Rothafel was offered his own column on exhibition in Moving Picture World in 1910, when he had been an exhibitor for hardly two years. Yet while he became a household name and a deeply admired showman who worked and consulted all over the country and abroad, he remained essentially a managerial employee of theatre chain owners, studio heads, and broadcasting corporations ever after. This issue demands more exploration.
Similarly, Melnick's discussion of the building, sale, and refitting of the Roxy Theatre in New York from 1927 to 1928 observes that it was wired for the Vitaphone sound process in 1927 without mentioning initially that Vitaphone was a sound-on-disk process and thus not compatible with later sound-on-film processes such as Western Electric's. William Fox acquired a controlling interest in the theatre in 1927, and the theatre was then (presumably) adapted to Fox's Movietone sound-on-film system. Adequately contextualizing the technical issues here would have made the book more useful to the nonspecialist; it might also have helped the author determine what structural issues offered the potential to serve as an analytical lens. Were the cost overruns and delays in setting up the Roxy, for example, associated with trying to anticipate and accommodate the coming of sound? Precisely because Rothafel's exhibition strategy consisted of offering music and live shows parallel to the film (and sometimes in rivalry to it), he was not well equipped to see what a difference the coming of sound was going to make to his control of his showmanship. Almost incidentally, the book throws into relief the question of how entertainment businessmen succeed or fail by how they define their product and its ingredients--a phenomenon visible in Apple's redefinition of the unit of sale for popular music from the album to the track.
For a showman of Rothafel's era, the question was whether a film exhibitor sold access to a particular venue or access to a particular type of text or, perhaps, access to some particular, unpredictable interaction between the two. Rothafel defined his product largely in terms of what he could do with physical spaces and competent musical personnel, rarely successfully managing more than one theatre at a time, evidence that suggests that he defined his work in terms of what went on in a specific locale. His emphasis upon his talent and his shows suggests that, despite being a film exhibitor, Rothafel competed with his own ostensible product. Yet his success as a broadcaster suggests that he had an excellent intuitive understanding of broadcasting as creating a new, domestic locale within which he could stage shows. Putting these facets into more overt dialogue with each other would have sharpened the focus of the book; the closest we come to this relationship is the suggestion that Rothafel was a brand via the 'Roxy' name. Indeed, his successes, his failures, and his capture by savvier employers might all be explained by arguing that what he was selling was in fact himself, an idea that is present in the book but that could have been more powerfully brought out. Similarly, there are traces of a fascinating story of competition over popular music and competent musicians among film studios, radio broadcasters, and showmen. Rothafel's connections to major figures such as Erno Rapee are well brought out, but the larger context of American popular music and attempts to lock up talent and product could again be better developed.
As to the reader's narrative pleasure, American Showman is readable, but it has not been well served by its copyeditor. There are clunky sentences and occasional diction problems, such as one that mars an account of Rothafel's dressing down by the shareholders of one of the enterprises he managed during the Depression. In a strange, accidental revision of the threat to Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Rothafel's angry shareholders are described as having come to 'this meeting to mete out [rather than to demand] a small pound of flesh' (338), leaving the reader with a vision of Rothafel confronting a pile of bleeding offal. In terms of writing, the most important issue is pacing. Detail takes over at the expense of structural analysis, and, at 400 pages, the book is simply too long for what it accomplishes. Nonetheless, Melnick is a formidable researcher. Future, more mature, work pursued with this ability to unearth information will surely prove still more compelling than the present study.
Texas A & M University
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|Publication:||Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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