My Life as a Blog: Donald Rugoff: In Memory of a “Wild Genius”

In my blog last week I said I’d never worked for anybody like Harvey and Bob Weinstein, 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 brothers turned up. I just never worked for him.

His name was Donald Rugoff.

Like my old boss, Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films, Rugoff booked his films into his own theaters in New York. But theaters owned by Talbot were usually small, if beloved, cinemas with only one screen.

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.”

For 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, there are many of you out there who did.

Ira Deutchman? You worked at Cinema 5. Anything you’d like to share?

Anybody else have some memories?

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

Reid Rosefelt is a veteran film publicist based in New York City. He has promoted hundreds of films, for such diverse moviemakers as Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar, Errol Morris, Ang Lee and Werner Herzog. His personal clients have included The Sundance Institute, IFC and HBO Films, as well as Harvey Keitel, Ally Sheedy and the late Adrienne Shelly. His production publicity credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, The Godfather: Part III and, most recently, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. His blog can be found at http://my-life-as-a-blog.com/

1 Comment

  1. J.W. Phillips

    August 21, 2017 at 9:00 am

    I knew Don Rugoff and his family, Evangeline, Edward and Ralph growing up. And have dim recall of their home on MacDougal Street when the Village was in its heyday, and Edna Lewis came to chef for them (“Pete,” as Evangeline was called, wrote the forward, as I recall, for Edna’s first cook book).

    I worked for Don when he was launching Cinema 5 distribution. Though in my year with him, I was just out of college and worked in non-theatrical distribution, he was the kind of giant personality who was completely “horizontal” in his approach to staff, in other words, if you worked for him he wanted to know what you thought – really thought – as in what your opinion and gut was. In that sense he was an ‘organization man’s’ nightmare, bypassing any semblance of hierarchy in preference for his brand of intuitive anarchy.

    He inherited his chain of art house theaters from his father, but he built them up and gave them the distinctive brand that made Cinema 5 the lead and class debut venue in NY with only Walter Reade (Jr.’s) chain as competition. Reade’s untimely demise in a 1973 skiing mishap predated Don’s fight against cancer, to which he ultimately succumbed.

    But, I was there when Don scored the coup of gaining Francis Ford Coppola as a silent partner and was a reader (one of probably a hundred) of the early renditions of the Apocalypse Now scripts.

    From Don, I went into screenplay writing, and getting optioned along with ghosting burned me on that profession fairly quickly out in LA and back in New York. But, knowing Don Rugoff was an unforgettable chapter in a varied trip and journey.

    It is worthwhile mentioning that before Rugoff went into distribution his theaters were also tremendously influential simply as first run venues for their bookings. I remember meeting Jack Nicholson outside Cinema II after seeing “Easy Rider” with my friend Timmy Engel and telling him he was great. “Yeah? Thanks kids” (we were 17).

    Where did you get that “Nothing but a Man” was carried by Cinema 5? It came out in ’64 and I was one of the small crowd even aware of it at the time from the festival because even as a 12 year old I thought it was great. Eric Rohmer didn’t get recognition for his work, though, until several years later. It would have been great if NBAM had been picked up and given the recognition it deserved back in ’64. But, that didn’t happen.

    Don Rugoff’s favorite movie? Citizen Kane. He would also consume vast quantities of Diet Pepsi. He would also call everybody, “Tiger” – not unlike Governor Rockefeller, who would call everybody “guy” as in, “Hiya, guy!” Don Rugoff: “What did you think, Tiger? How did you like it?” “It” was invariably a movie.

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