American Showman

Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908–1935

Ross Melnick

Columbia University Press

American Showman

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Pub Date: June 2014

ISBN: 9780231159050

576 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $32.00£27.00

Pub Date: May 2012

ISBN: 9780231159043

576 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00£79.00

Pub Date: May 2012

ISBN: 9780231504256

576 Pages

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List Price: $31.99£27.00

American Showman

Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908–1935

Ross Melnick

Columbia University Press

Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel (1882–1936) built an influential and prolific career as film exhibitor, stage producer, radio broadcaster, musical arranger, theater manager, war propagandist, and international celebrity. He helped engineer the integration of film, music, and live performance in silent film exhibition; scored early Fox Movietone films such as Sunrise (1927); pioneered the convergence of film, broadcasting, and music publishing and recording in the 1920s; and helped movies and moviegoing become the dominant form of mass entertainment between the world wars.

The first book devoted to Rothafel's multifaceted career, American Showman examines his role as the key purveyor of a new film exhibition aesthetic that appropriated legitimate theater, opera, ballet, and classical music to attract multi-class audiences. Roxy scored motion pictures, produced enormous stage shows, managed many of New York's most important movie houses, directed and/or edited propaganda films for the American war effort, produced short and feature-length films, exhibited foreign, documentary, independent, and avant-garde motion pictures, and expanded the conception of mainstream, commercial cinema. He was also one of the chief creators of the radio variety program, pioneering radio broadcasting, promotions, and tours.

The producers and promoters of distinct themes and styles, showmen like Roxy profoundly remade the moviegoing experience, turning the deluxe motion picture theater into a venue for exhibiting and producing live and recorded entertainment. Roxy's interest in media convergence also reflects a larger moment in which the entertainment industry began to create brands and franchises, exploit them through content release "events," and give rise to feature films, soundtracks, broadcasts, live performances, and related consumer products. Regularly cited as one of the twelve most important figures in the film and radio industries, Roxy was instrumental to the development of film exhibition and commercial broadcasting, musical accompaniment, and a new, convergent entertainment industry.

American Showman is at the cutting edge of contemporary film studies. It is to this book that future generations of film scholars engaged in cultural history will turn.

John Belton, Rutgers University, author of American Cinema/American Culture

It's about time that we are finally getting the full story of America's most daring and successful showman. On a par with Thomas Edison, D. W. Griffith, and P. T. Barnum, Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel was not only the most important impresario the film world has ever known, but he was also a leader in the realm of silent film music and the country's first major radio personality. For nearly two decades, Roxy was the most powerful man in the film industry—yet until now we have lacked a serious treatment of his fabulous career. American Showman rights that wrong, and how! Ross Melnick's book is that rare combination of in-depth research and a great read. Finally, Roxy has received his due.

Rick Altman, University of Iowa, author of Silent Film Sound

Once quite literally up in lights, the name of Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel has dimmed over time—an oversight happily remedied by Ross Melnick's splendid new study of the legendary showman. An engaging writer, insightful critic, and rigorous scholar, Melnick has vividly recaptured the magic and moxie of this pioneer of the American entertainment industry, a marquee name in vaudeville, radio, and motion pictures. Melnick's illuminating cultural biography is not just the engrossing story of the beloved and larger-than-life Roxy but a fascinating journey into American culture in the first passionate years of a lifelong affair with its own mass media.

Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University, author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration

[An] eye-poppingly informative new book.... To paraphrase Frank Loesser's 'Guys and Dolls,' with the publication of American Showman, the question 'What's playing at the Roxy?' can now be answered: 'First-rate cultural history.'

Mindy Aloff, Washington Post

[American Showman] provides valuable insight into Roxy's dynamic contemporary moment--one characterized by world military strife, economic downturn, and a blossoming of technological innovation.

Publishers Weekly

[An] exhaustive biography.

Ethan Mordden, Wall Street Journal

Dr. Melnick skillfully captures the substance and durability of Rothafel's prolific life.New York Times

Sam Roberts, New York Times

A penetrating, exhaustive contextualized study of Roxy's crucial role in every aspect of the early film industry...highly recommended.


American Showman is a fascinating, passionate, and definitive biography of Samuel 'Roxy' Rothafel.... Melnick unveils aspects of Rothafel's career that change our understanding of American film history from the late 1910s to the early 1930s.

Charles Musser, Journal of American History

For anyone interested in the historical transition from the Nickelodeon era to the classical Hollywood cinema, Ross Melnick's American Showman is a must read.

Jan-Christopher Horak, UCLA Film & Television Archive

An impeccably researched and definitive study of Samuel 'Roxy' Rothafel

Bernard F. Dick, American Studies

Roxy?'s extraordinary life, as Melnick illustrates, serves as a powerful lens through which to examine a dynamic age of cultural change in American life.

Josh Glick, Business History Review

Anyone who cares about the development of film exhibition in the early 20th century should consider it essential reading... even a casual film buff will find much to enjoy... the book is well written and not overly burdened with jargon.

Leonard Maltin, Indiewire

With so many greatly exaggerated reports of the death of cinema abroad, what a pleasure to read Ross Melnick's scrupulously researched, exhaustive biography of movie-palace impresario Samuel 'Roxy' Rothafel -- a biography that doubles as a cultural history, looking to a moment when the movies were the upstarts, making vaudeville and live theatre quake in their boots.

Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound
List of Illustrations
Part 1. Roxy and Silent Film Exhibition
1. A New Art for a New Art Form (1908–1913)
2. Broadway Melody (1913–1917)
3. The Movie House as Recruiting Center (1917–1918)
4. "The Man Who Gave the Movies a College Education" (1919–1922)
Part 2. Roxy and the Emergence of Convergence
5. A Capitol Idea (1922–1925)
6. "It's the Roxy and I'm Roxy" (1925–1927)
7. It's All Playing in Sheboygan (1928–1931)
8. The Prologue Is Past (1931–1936)
Web Features:

2013 "Book of the Year" Award from the Theatre Historical Society of America

About the Author

Ross Melnick is assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his Ph.D. in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a postdoctoral fellowship from Emory University. He has worked as a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image and in marketing for Loews Cineplex, Miramax, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and DreamWorks, and in film distribution for Sony Pictures. With Andreas Fuchs, he is the coauthor of Cinema Treasures.