Donald Rugoff: In Memory of a “Wild Genius”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Donald Rugoff & Robert Downey Sr.

Donald Rugoff with Robert Downey, Sr.  (LIFE photo)

In my blog last week about Miramax, I said I’d never worked for anybody like them, which was literally true. But I failed to mention that there was a razzle-dazzle showman in the art film business long before the Weinstein Brother turned up. I just never worked for him.

His name was Donald Rugoff.

Like my old boss, Dan Talbot, Rugoff booked his films into his own New York Theatres. But Talbot rarely had more than one screen, and it was usually a small, if beloved,cinema.

Rugoff, on the other hand, owned the town. His empire included nearly all of the most desirable screens in the city: Cinema I, Cinema II, Cinema III, Paris, Plaza, Sutton, Beekman, Paramount, Murray Hill, Gramercy and Art theaters. These were the palaces in which he launched the New York releases of his distribution company: Cinema 5..

I doubt many people in the new generation of the specialty film business today have ever heard Rugoff’s name. But he was a star! Just look at a few of he films he brought out: “The Cool World,” “Nothing But a Man,” “Morgan!” “The Endless Summer,” “Elvira Madigan,” “The Two of Us,” “Z,” “More,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Putney Swope,” “The Firemen’s Ball,” “Alexander,” “Trash,” “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Marjoe,” “Gimme Shelter,” “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” “On Any Sunday,” “A Sense of Loss,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “Greaser’s Palace,” “Cesar and Rosalie,” “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” “State of Siege,” “Scenes From a Marriage,” “Distant Thunder,” “Going Places,” “Swept Away,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Seven Beauties,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Volcano,” “A Slave of Love,” “Man on the Roof,” “Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Coup de Grace,” “Providence,” “Pumping Iron “Jabberwocky,” “The Man Who Loved Women,” “A Special Day,” “Padre Padrone,” “Outrageous!” “Iphigenia,” “Viva Italia!” and “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”

This is the point in my post where I would normally tell a personal anecdote or two. But while he was somebody who was constantly in my thoughts throughout my early years in the business, I’m sad to say I never met the man. Not once.  So let me reprint a letter that was written to the New York Times upon the occasion of Rugoff’s death in 1989, by Dan Talbot, someone who knew him well.

DONALD RUGOFF:  In Memory of a “Wild Genius”

As an old colleague of Don Rugoff's, I'm compelled to write about him upon the occasion of his death last month. I was involved with Don from the time he started in our business in the early 1960's. He was, of course, impossible to make do with. As the head of the best group of theaters in Manhattan until 1979, he was in a position of great power and, given his spiky personality, he had the capacity to make people furious with him.

On the other hand, he was an uncommonly generous soul, without the foggiest notion of the normal uses of money. Don was a stand-in for the guy who stood on street corners throwing away $100 bills. One of the mad ones. Naturally, directors and producers loved him, thought of him as a wild genius. Relished his stew of unpredictability and showmanship. Once he staged a $35,000 champagne party for Dusan Makaveyev at the Plaza Hotel for the opening of Makaveyev's brilliant movie ''WR: Mysteries of the Organism.'' He liked doing things on the spur of the moment. ''Yeah, let's rent a boat tomorrow and stack it with flags announcing our new film. Call Glorious Foods. Get a steeplejack who'll climb up the sails. We'll circle Manhattan two times. Invite Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol.''

clip_image001For you who have come to the city only in the past 10 years, I can tell you that you missed a Golden Age of cinema-going before Don lost control of his theaters in 1979. You cannot imagine how thrilling is was to stand on line at the Beekman, waiting to see the new Woody Allen movie. Virtually all Don's theaters played films on an exclusive basis, so that you had the sense of an event taking place at each theater.

Don visited his theaters daily. He would catch ushers picking their noses and yell at them, check the bathrooms, hold long conversations with the projectionist and the manager, scowl at the slightest mis-frame or sudden drop in the sound level.

And what wonderful theaters! He put together the team to build Cinema 1 and 2, model theaters of our time. He shoe-horned Cinema 3 into an impossible space in the Plaza Hotel, and it came out a beauty. Each theater had its own identity, separate and apart from the others, because Don liked to experiment with color, fabric, wall design, lighting, floor covering, bathroom fixtures, door handles, the box office.

For a number of years Don dropped put. Then, about a year ago I got a call from him from Martha's Vineyard. He was opening a film society in a cafe in Edgartown. Would I supply him with films? I never visited him in Edgartown but I have to believe that he did something special there, that he had made good purchase on his audience and treated it honorably. He booked tough films from us. He must have stood in the lobby discussing the films with his audience. He surely wouldn't allow popcorn in the theater. There were probably Jasper Johns and Milton Avery prints on the walls of the lobby. One could go on imagining all sorts of things. But the curtain's down and I shall miss Don. He was an original.

While I didn’t know Rugoff, some of the people who did have posted some comments, including Ira Deutchman, Fabiano Canosa, Don Krim, and Susan Pile.  Check them out.    If anybody else has something to share, please contribute. 

Don Rugoff was a great man and a great New Yorker. Attention must be paid.