The Cinema Art House Visionary

When did movie theaters specializing in repertory cinema, foreign language films and alternatives to Hollywood mass-produced entertainments become an option for movie lovers in the U.S.? Some might think it all began with the Landmark Theater chain, founded in 1974, which eventually expanded into a network of 46 cinemas in 26 markets. No, the concept of the art house cinema can be traced back to 1952 when the Beekman Theater on Manhattan’s East Side opened and turned movie-going into an event. The man behind the venue was Donald Rugoff and his entrance into the world of film exhibition was due to his father Edward’s partnership with Herman Becker; the two men had built up a small empire of theaters across New York City during the days of the nickelodeon and vaudeville. Rugoff would soon have a major impact on movie-going, film distribution and film culture in the 1960s and 1970s but he is virtually forgotten today. Ira Deutchman, a former employee of Cinema V, Rugoff’s trail-blazing film distribution company, is bound to correct that situation with his fascinating, warts-and-all homage, Searching for Mr. Rugoff (The documentary was completed in 2019 and is finally screening and streaming at various venues).

Don Rugoff at work in his Cinema V office in New York City.

The idea for a film about Rugoff began when Deutchman could find no trace of him or his achievements on the internet. His hunt for information soon became a determined quest and part of Searching for Mr. Rugoff is a detective story that follows the director on his voyage of discovery. This is the hook and the framing device for a chronological portrait of a highly creative but difficult man who was equally feared and admired by many. Although there is a dearth of live footage of Mr. Rugoff in action, family photos, company snapshots and a lively cast of interviewees, mostly from the film distribution business and former employees, help to fill in the gaps. There are also revealing insights from Rugoff’s first wife, Evangeline, and his two sons, Ed and Ralph. And, of course, a generous sprinkling of film clips from Cinema V releases is included.

For those who don’t know, Cinema V became the premiere art house film distributor of the 60s and 70s, transforming indie documentaries like Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer (1964) and foreign language releases such as Elvira Madigan (1967) into surprise box-office hits. Thanks to Rugoff’s small empire of movie houses in the city, which included The Plaza, The Grammercy, Murray Hill and Cinema I & II, a Cinema V release would generate major media exposure and an excited buzz among movie lovers, who were seeing the U.S. premiere of something much more unique and different than the latest Hollywood offering. Some of the company’s earliest successes include critically acclaimed indies like Nothing But a Man (1964) and One Potato, Two Potato (1964), British comedies such as Morgan! (1966), and contenders for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball [1967]).

A great deal of a film’s success hinged on the marketing strategy. Rugoff believed that less is more in conveying the idea or mystique surrounding the movie and his simple yet elegant promotions seem inspired by Saul Bass designs for iconic posters of the fifties (Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man with the Golden Arm). A perfect example of this is Cinema V’s promotion of Putney Swope (1969), Robert Downey Sr.’s anti-establishment satire of Madison Avenue.

This same artful approach also worked wonders for documentaries like The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and Marjoe (1972), a genre which rarely performs well at the box office but under Rugoff’s careful grooming became Oscar winners for Best Documentary as well as cult favorites.

It wasn’t just Rugoff’s genius for ad campaigns that made Cinema V stand out from its competitors. It was his showbiz chutzpah, possibly inherited from his father, that came up with ingenious publicity stunts which guaranteed free promotion by the news media. For Pumping Iron (1977), Rugoff staged a bodybuilding demonstration at a theater featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and other musclemen, an event which Johnny Carson covered on the Tonight Show. Eric Idle recalls Cinema V’s promotion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) in which free coconuts were given out to the first 100 people to attend the Manhattan screening (If you’ve seen the film, you know the coconut reference). Rugoff also required staff members to dress up in 10th century costumes and distribute flyers for the movie.I also love the story about a man being hired to don a gorilla suit and ride around the city in a convertible advertising Morgan!

Sometimes a New York City film premiere would result in a gala event like the screening of Seven Beauties (1975) in which Rugoff paid for director Lina Wertmuller, star Giancarlo Giannini and other key personnel to fly over from Italy in a jet and attend the opening, after which there was a receiving line where the audience got to meet the filmmakers.

Another rare talent Rugoff possessed was his keen instinct for identifying the ideal audience for each acquisition and knowing how to lure them into theaters. No wonder he became the favorite go-to distributor for some of the most renowned international directors and up-and-coming independent filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1970), Werner Herzog (Every Man for Himself and God Against All aka The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971), Paul Morrissey (Trash, 1970) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., 1976). Not every Cinema V release was a success of course. Bo Widerberg’s crime drama Man on the Roof (1976), Philippe de Broca’s rom-com Dear Inspector (1977), which had been a huge smash in France, and the oddball murder mystery Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973) were among the disappointments but his success rate set a high water mark that wasn’t challenged until Miramax (founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein) came along in 1979.

For much of the 60s and 70s Rugoff was on a roll but a different side of the wheeler dealer emerges in the day-to-day operations at the office. Employees were expected to be at his beck and call 24 hours a day, no matter what time he called them. He could be quick to anger, verbally abusive and prone to firing people on the spot. Equally unsettling was his penchant for falling asleep in the middle of conversations or at screenings where the filmmaker might be present (Francois Truffaut, for one, found this extremely troubling). Also, for someone with such excellent taste in film curation and the décor and management of his theaters, Rugoff could be an appalling slob with table manners that turned his white shirts into food stained canvases. There was even a rumor that his peculiar behavior was caused by a metal plate in his head. This odd revelation is addressed by Deutchman toward the end of the documentary and ends up providing a much more probable and sad explanation for Rugoff’s quirky behavior.

(L-R) Theater owner Donald Rugoff and film director

Rest assured that Searching for Mr. Rugoff is more than just the rise and fall tale of a legendary film exhibitor. The film provides an essential missing chapter in the history of moviegoing in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s as well as a nostalgic look back at a time when movie audiences were hungry for a different kind of cinema experience that Hollywood was providing. How else to explain the enormous success of films like Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), Marcel Ophuls’ epic 4 hour 11 minute documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (1974), Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (1974) and other Cinema V releases. Did audiences lose that curiosity about seeing little known films that might change their lives? Maybe we need another Don Rugoff to transform the ritual of going to the movies into something memorable again…if we ever get back to normal after Covid-19.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff is currently showing at select theaters across the U.S. as well as some virtual streaming venues.

Ira Deutchman, former Cinema V employee and director of SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF (2019).

Other links of interest:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mij/15031809.0004.104/–donald-rugoff-cinema-v-and-commercial-strategies?rgn=main;view=fulltext

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