When a Jewish Radio Icon Moved the Rockettes to New York
Think of the Rockettes, and you think of New York: Radio City Music Hall, lit up in the wintertime, glittering decadence tucked away inside. But the Rockettes, currently making headlines over their union’s unforgiving response to a dancer’s concerns about performing at President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, wasn’t always Big Apple-based. They made a home in Manhattan, moving from their original base in St. Louis, because of one man: legendary showman Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel.
Rothafel first saw the Rockettes, then known as the “Missouri Rockets,” in the Broadway production “Rain or Shine” in 1925. He was, according to the group’s website, so taken with the chorus line that he lobbied the group’s founder, Russell Markert, to have the group moved to New York. Rothafel initially renamed the group “The Roxyettes,” changing it to “The Rockettes” in 1934. When he began managing Radio City Music Hall in 1932, the Rockettes headlined the opening performance.
In 1932, a New York Times reporter chronicled Rothafel declaring he anticipated the not-yet-open Music Hall to be “the most wonderful theatre in the world.”
While the Rockettes and Radio City are two of Rothafel’s most lasting legacies, his accomplishments made an impact on a number of artistic fields. He was a giant in the film and radio industries; as a radio host, he bragged to The New York Times in 1924, he was “known in almost every community throughout the country.”
In the 1920s, he oversaw the building and management of the Roxy Theatre, at its time the largest movie house ever built, over time coming to manage many of New York’s grandest movie palaces. He created propaganda films for the United States during World War I, helped shepherd the film industry to the center of the entertainment industry, especially by producing innovative combinations of silent films, live performances, and music, and laid the groundwork for popular variety radio programs.
When Rothafel passed away in 1936, The New York Times commented that “he assembled the arts for an ever greater greatest show on earth.” Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, who presided over Rothafel’s funeral, took the sentiment even further.
“He produced real beauty and dignity for millions by widening the limited scope of their lives and giving them beauty,” Wise said. “Roxy had a great joy in the things that he did, and he transmuted that joy, as the alchemist transmuted baser metals into gold, into dignity and beauty.”
Reviewing the opening of the Radio City Music Hall four years before, the New York Daily News’ Burns Mantle experienced Rothafel’s magic with the awe of a child. “It magnifies the magnificent,” he wrote. And those Rockettes? To Burns, they and the evening’s other performers had room to improve.
“This one happens to be a three-star show in a four-star theatre,” he wrote. “So we give it three stars plus.”