Monday, December 8, 2014

Benny Rolfe of Brasher Falls: Pioneer of Silent Films

3A RolfeHdlineJolsonIn early 1910, Benny Rolfe‘s latest vaudeville release, The Rolfonians, received high praise from the New York Dramatic Mirror. “B. A Rolfe has given vaudeville several entertaining productions, but his latest, which be has named after himself, and in which he appears, is the best he has yet turned out. The Rolfonians is novel if nothing else, while it is decidedly refined and of a truly high-class order.… Mr. Rolfe is to be sincerely congratulated. The Rolfonians is … so admirably staged, and so entirely harmonious from a musical viewpoint, that it will undoubtedly become one of vaudeville’s most sought for acts.”

Besides overseeing the entire production, Benny played cornet in the show and his wife Nellie was the cellist. His unusual solos defined Rolfe as a rare player indeed, exhibiting an ability he had possessed since youth. In reviewing The Rolfonians, the Syracuse Standard noted his remarkable range: “… introduces B. A. Rolfe in cornet solos in which an unusually high register is attained.” The Duluth Evening Herald added, “Mr. Rolfe himself has long been regarded as one of the premier cornet players of the country, and is claimed to have attained the highest known register in the world on that instrument.” It was a talent that would one day change the face of music played for the masses.

Later that year he released The Courtiers, an elaborate production described as “exquisitely costumed and handsomely staged,” the hallmarks of B. A. Rolfe productions. His name and his shows were seemingly everywhere and anywhere that mattered. He was featured on the cover of Musical Truth, with the article’s initial line reading, “B. A. Rolfe, who is known as the ‘musical act king’ through his ownership of nearly all the large instrumental musical productions of the vaudeville stage, has decided to enter the concert band field.”

3B RolfeAdvertPhotoPlaysIt was true. Despite great success in vaudeville, he had accepted an offer to spend the summer leading Rolfe & His Band at Young’s Pier on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. From July 1 through the end of September they played, allowing Benny to focus on his one true love—the arrangement and playing of music for public enjoyment.

In September, the Norwood News confirmed the results. “B. A. Rolfe and his band have finished one of the finest engagements ever on the Great Pier. He was applauded to the echo. The Pier was crowded, and they called for a speech after the music ceased and the thousands gave a royal handshake. The audience were on their feet when the last number was played, and then they played ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ”

The following year, prior to the summer season, Benny received a surprising letter from the pier manager, who said in part: “Since the management of Young’s Ocean Pier has acceded to your every demand to enable you to give us a band second to none in America at Atlantic City this summer, I feel that it is only fair to insist that you discontinue your appearance in vaudeville, believing as I do that it cheapens your name for concert purposes, and is really unjust to such a splendid musical artist as yourself, and surely to the management of the pier.”

It was a wonderful, although backhanded, compliment, but he did see their point and agreed to give up vaudeville, at least temporarily. And either way, he was doing what he loved and earning lots of money. This allowed him to move his parents to New York City for the winter so they could avoid the extreme North Country weather. He bought a large touring car for $3000 ($74,000 in 2014) and in general was living the good life. As newspapers back home noted when he visited, “He is the same Benny as ever and has not been spoiled in the least by his grand success.”

3C  StrandTheatreWhile Benny worked the Pier, Nellie established herself as a capable vaudeville producer. But in October 1912, he was back at it with Puss in Boots, a bona fide hit on both coasts. With three scenes and six costume changes, it had all the regalia commonly associated with Rolfe’s shows.

By 1914, change was afoot. Vaudeville had evolved to where there were only four men regularly producing winning shows. Among them were Jesse Lasky and B. A. Rolfe. Benny’s latest, Colonial Days, was doing quite well, and many of his previous hits were still being produced.

Lasky, meanwhile, after losing a small fortune in his cabaret, Folies Bergere, had since turned to a new development in entertainment: motion pictures. In February 1914, the first film (The Squaw Man by Lasky and partners Samuel Goldwin and Cecil B. DeMille) opened to success in New York.

With a glimpse at the future, Benny made the move as well, and in late July, B. A. Rolfe Photoplays Company was incorporated in Albany with the backing of $50,000 from Benny and two partners. From the office in New York, Rolfe was already hiring actors, securing film rights to written works, and applying his production skills to the fledgling movie business.

Before year’s end, the results were showing up on theater screens. Rip Van Winkle was released in November through Alco Film Corporation, followed by The Three of Us, after which the company was renamed Rolfe Photoplays. In early 1915, a Rolfe film, Satan Sanderson, was the second released by one of Rolfe’s part owners, the newly organized Metro Pictures Corporation that eventually became Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer (MGM).

The Cowboy and the Lady was released several weeks later, followed by a number of films produced in the Fort Lee, New Jersey area and at the Rolfe Studios in Los Angeles. There were at times four film companies busy on different projects under the Rolfe banner. In June, he bought Dryeda Art Film Corporation at 61st and Broadway and began construction of a new studio there. He also contemplated moving the company’s two western locations to join the two eastern companies in the new studio.

3D RolfeLBarrymoreWith excellent show-business connections, he obtained the rights to many works and secured the services of top actors, including William Faversham, the most pursued and popular performer at the time. Francis X. Bushman, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, and Jane Grey were just a few of the many top performers to sign with Rolfe and act in his movies.

In May 1916, the New York Times announced that Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel (later of the famous Roxy Theater) was leaving the majestic Strand Theater, located at 47th and Broadway. Chosen to replace him was Benny Rolfe, the new managing director of the best picture playhouse in America. His salary was equivalent to about $220,000 in 2014.

Just over a year later, he resigned from the Strand due to the needs of his movie business. Life was chaotic at times, for Benny’s talents were also put to work preparing the musical score for many of the company’s films. The business was expanding, and in 1917, Benny was in Florida overseeing rehearsals at several Metro–Rolfe companies in the Jacksonville area.

Shortly after, Metro took full control of the company, with Rolfe becoming general manager of the three main producers. Advertisements for Rolfe & Maddock, Theatrical Producers, began appearing in New York City media. That same year, Benny headed for the West Coast to supervise the construction of the company’s new studios.

Continue: The Trumpet Virtuoso Rises Again.

Photos: Ad for Rolfe vaudeville show (1909); Ad for Rolfe movie (1914); Strand Theater (1914); Ad for Rolfe film (1917)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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