In 1918, pioneer of silent films Benny Rolfe left Metro Pictures (later MGM) and formed his own Rolfe Productions, quickly scoring a coup by signing Harry Houdini to a film contract. The hugely popular escape artist was featured by Benny in The Master Mystery, a “super-serial” produced in fifteen parts. After viewing the first installment, Billboard reported: “This enthralling picture will be followed eagerly from week to week and will draw like a house afire. Has unlimited advertising possibilities. Grab it quick.”
The business appeared to be flourishing, but cash flow was becoming a problem. Rolfe’s extravagant productions were expensive, and the battle against other companies to secure actors resulted in costly bids for their services. Benny was losing money, forcing the reduction of an ambitious schedule that had led to the completion of more than fifty films.
In 1919, Rolfe’s company was hired to produce films for A. H. Fischer Features, who purchased a studio for $50,000 ($675,000 in 2014) in New Rochelle to house his production company. To shoot exterior scenes for the first film project, Benny took a crew of forty and headed north to familiar territory, the Adirondacks. There were other business trips, but the bottom line was that for Rolfe, more money was going out than was coming in.
As Benny explained it, he resigned from the movie business “because the company consolidated with Metro and I got mad! I made plenty of money, goodness knows—a mint of it—and lost it. I had no money when I left California.… If I hadn’t joined that foolish army of independent producers, I wouldn’t have gone under in 1920.… I never could hang on to money. I was so interested in the producing angle, dollars meant nothing.”
A trip to England for a movie deal ended in failure, and when Benny returned to New York, his entire fortune, once estimated at $2 million (about $27 million today) was gone. In his own words, “I was busted.… It didn’t look so merry then. But luck comes and goes.” Issues connected to bankruptcy of the failed business would drag on for several years.
Rather than view the past with regret, Benny, like he had always done, looked forward. He loved music. He had always created and played it—while traveling with family, producing vaudeville shows, and making movies. Perhaps now it was time to focus on his one true passion—just music, and nothing else.
And that was the key to a remarkable comeback. First, however, there were bills to pay. A resurgence of vaudeville shows brought with it plenty of work, and in late 1921, Rolfe’s Revue debuted in New York, promising “the return of B. A. Rolfe, in person.” Musicians from top orchestras, like that of John Philip Sousa, had signed to play under Benny. Reviews ranged from very entertaining to brilliant. For more than a year the show toured all the major cities of New York, plus stops in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
There were also brief forays to visit family, and for Benny, home and music had always been inseparable. Whenever he visited the North Country, which was often, he honored requests to play locally. In early 1923, during one such visit, Rolfe announced plans to organize a circuit orchestra in the north that would travel to various venues and play for dances. Musicians would be chosen from Canton, Malone, Ogdensburg, Potsdam, and New York City. Engagements for the first week were set in Brasher, Canton, Fort Covington, Gouverneur, North Lawrence, Potsdam, and Waddington.
A second circuit, also completed in one week’s time, covered Watertown, Sackets Harbor, Ogdensburg, Massena, Malone, and Saranac Lake. The orchestra traveled the 375-mile route on a bus that Benny had arranged. Organizing and executing the plan involved lots of time and work, but as his parents had done so often, Benny was giving back to the folks who mattered most. The tour was a great success.
In 1923, he scored another hit in eastern cities with the musical stage comedy, Misses and Kisses. Advertisements announced the creator as “America’s Greatest Vaudeville Producer, B. A. Rolfe.” The show received excellent reviews, and it looked like Benny was on his way back.
In 1924, a new opportunity presented itself. Vincent Lopez was a prominent New York City bandleader who had begun broadcasting on radio in late 1921. His name would one day be legendary for the great musicians who played in his band, a list that included Xavier Cugat, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. In January, Lopez’s band was playing at the world’s largest theater, the Hippodrome. Featured as cornet soloist was Benny Rolfe at a salary of $300 per week (about $4000 today). Huge crowds witnessed his incredible ability to play solos of the highest caliber. He also worked for Lopez in another capacity, training a special band assigned to the new Piccadilly Theater.
Following a Lopez concert at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Times said of Benny, “This marvel musician seems to produce the notes of the skylark, miles and miles above those of other trumpeters.” Similar plaudits followed as Lopez took the show on tour. Benny was a hit wherever he played.
While on the road, and with an eye to the future, Rolfe pondered solutions to the difficulties faced by bands that frequently toured. In an effort to stabilize the widely varying costs of hiring orchestras, Benny worked with National Attractions of New York to establish a ballroom circuit. The idea capitalized on what he learned a few years earlier while establishing a circuit band in the North Country. Tweaks and revisions were necessary to make it work on a national scale.
The problem was that orchestra charges rose as their popularity grew, and venues had no control over the erratic costs. Benny worked on a plan that established an orchestra price of $1500 a week at big-time venues in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, and a host of others. With a stable price locked in, the venues in turn guaranteed at least 12 to 21 weeks of employment (depending on the circuit size) for all participating orchestras. Vincent Lopez and Sammy Kahn were among the first dozen bandleaders to sign on.
In April 1925, Benny left the Lopez orchestra to work exclusively as booking manager for National Attractions, traveling to Seattle, Los Angeles, and other locations to work out the details governing different circuits in the US and Canada. By July he was vice-president of the company.
Ongoing at the same time were bankruptcy hearings, gradually cleaning up the financial issues that lingered from the failed movie business. Benny, meanwhile, kept moving forward, forming the Meadowbrook Orchestra in late 1925 and playing tour dates across New York State. To give the public what he believed they wanted, Benny had organized the orchestra as a dance band, playing, as he put it, “The popular fox trots and waltzes in rhythm for ballroom dancing.”
Reviews were invariably great, most of them singling out Rolfe’s solos as amazing. In Philadelphia, the Inquirer stated it plain and simple: “B. A. Rolfe, creator and leader of the orchestra, is the world’s greatest trumpet virtuoso. Among musicians, he is rated as a miracle man, for he plays with the utmost facility and artistry an entire octave above high C. No other trumpeter has been able to accomplish this. … Rolfe is more than a complete master of his own instrument—he is a creator of super-orchestras. He has an exceptionally fine group of young musicians. As an ensemble, they play jazz and symphonic jazz with spirit and fire that makes every auditor wish to dance.”
Four of his musicians also comprised an excellent singing quartet, and several were outstanding dancers. And dance music was Benny’s intent all along—music that made people happy and got them moving.
The effect was magical, particularly in New York City, where Rolfe’s band received praise as showstoppers, whether at theaters, concerts, or vaudeville shows. After hitting it big in early vaudeville, and then in movies, Benny was once again the toast of Broadway.
Next: A Pioneer of Radio
Photos: Benny Rolfe; Rolfe’s Houdini series poster (1918); Ad for Rolfe’s North Country orchestra (1923); Ad for Rolfe’s Meadowbrook Orchestra (1925)