Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s

In Roadshow! , film historian Matthew Kennedy tells the fascinating story of the downfall of the big-screen musical in the late 1960s.  It is a tale of revolutionary cultural change, business transformation, and artistic missteps, all of which led to the obsolescence of the roadshow, a marketing extravaganza designed to make a movie opening in a regional city seem like a Broadway premier.  On Thursday, June 26, Kennedy will deliver a Slideshow Presentation from 7:00-8:30PM at Folio Books, 3957 24th Street, San Francisco, preceded by a wine and cheese reception. Read an excerpt from the book here. 


Excerpted from Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Kennedy. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at 


The Sound of Music  was rolled out quickly.  From its early March openings in New York and Los Angeles, it arrived at more than two dozen premiere theaters in cities larger than 200,000 across North America by the end of the month.  All were equipped for 70-millimeter widescreen projection and six-track stereophonic sound.  The experience at Rivoli was replicated at the Italian Renaissance Michael Todd Theatre in Chicago, the art deco wonderland Fox Wilshire in Los Angeles, and the Mann in Minneapolis, Fox’s good luck charm since Music  previewed there.  Then on perfect cue, Julie Andrews won the Best Actress Academy Award for Mary Poppins , and her certain arrival as a major new star was complete.


With so much wind in his sails, Zanuck exercised perfect instincts in distributing Fox’s singing money machine.  By the end of the month, Music  was doing sellout business on 33 screens, twice a day in the biggest cities at high tickets prices of $2 to $3.  Zanuck then delayed a standard release and spread Music ‘s reserve seat engagements over a two-year period, extending its life in the urban centers while compelling theater owners in America’s small and mid-sized cities to exhibit their first movie in the hard ticket format.  Music expanded to another 98 screens, bringing the roadshow experience to such uninitiated townships as Harrisburg, Billings, Waco, and Sioux Falls.  Records were broken everywhere.

The foreign business was no less impressive.  Music  began its international distribution at London’s Dominion Theatre, and its non-English debut as La Novicia Rebelde (The Rebellious Novice)  at the Ambassador Theater in Buenos Aires.  When it moved to a global market, it trickled into 261 theaters over two years, dubbed for dialogue and songs in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.  It benefited inestimably from repeat customers.  Fox devised a “Certificate of Merit” to theaters where tickets sold exceeded the local population.  Twenty-five certificates were issued to cities as large as Syracuse, Orlando, and Atlanta, and in the United Kingdom in Birmingham, Cardiff, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Before the end of its first run, The Sound of Music ‘s 106 million domestic tickets sold would numerically equal 55 percent of the American population.  Then came the backlash, albeit toothless.  Germany, reportedly outraged by the cardboard Nazi villains, rejected it, and became the only market on the planet where The Sound of Music  flopped.  Mad Magazine titled its satire The Sound of Money  and sent up its profitable sweetness, while college students in the one-screen town of Moorhead, Minnesota, picketed for relief.  Protesters circled under Music ‘s unchanging marquee with signs reading, “49 Weeks of Schmaltz is Enough” and “Don’t Get Caught in the von Trapp.”

By the end of 1965, Music  was playing on 131 screens in America and had been number one at the box office for 30 consecutive weeks.  It had amassed $65 million in worldwide receipts by week 35, and was inching its way up the list of all-time moneymakers presently occupied by top-ranked Gone with the Wind  and the opulent 1950s roadshows Ben-Hur , The Ten Commandments , and Around the World in 80 Days.  As the number of screens grew exponentially in 1966, data gathering and reporting became ever more inexact, with money figures a jumble of gross receipts, distributors share, and film rentals.  But however they were derived, the numbers were huge.  So huge, in fact, that Variety estimates had The Sound of Music  eventually becoming the all-time top moneymaker.

The 1965 film awards were a standoff between populism and elitism, the masses and the critics, and old guard versus new, with the Academy caught in the middle.  The critics ignored The Sound of Music  in their awards, but it collected the Comedy or Musical Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Actress.  When Oscar nominations were announced, Music  was up for ten.  So was Doctor Zhivago , MGM’s roadshow epic of the Russian Revolution and formidable box office competitor.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was not nominated, but there were fault lines deeper than his snub.  Best Picture nominees Darling , a stylish defamation of London’s la dolce vita, and A Thousand Clowns , a low-budget American anti-Establishment comedy, sat in startling opposition to the lift up your hearts and sing optimism of The Sound of Music.  In the end, Music  and Zhivago  each picked up five awards at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium at the first Oscar telecast in color.  Best Actress went not to Julie Andrews, but to Darling ‘s mod, incandescent Julie Christie.  Andrews had the affection of the world, but she could not erase the déjà vu of another singing nanny.  Prizes for Picture and Director, however, went to Music  and Robert Wise.  The Best Picture victory was ultimate acknowledgment that The Sound of Music  was critic-proof, that their venom was not fatal, and that the Academy was as enamored of old-fashioned false nostalgia as any audience in Middle America.  As it had most everywhere else in the world, The Sound of Music  made a great number of people in Hollywood very, very happy.

In August of 1966, The Sound of Music  surpassed Gone with the Wind  as the number one box office movie of all time.  It took 26 years of releases and rereleases for Gone with the Wind  to amass its income.  It took The Sound of Music  18 months.  And some associates became very rich.  Lehman’s estimate was $1,000 a day for two years.  Wise and his Argyle Enterprises, and associate producer Saul (“Solly”) Chaplin, received 10 percent of the profits, meaning Wise deposited at least $8 million.  Richard Rodgers and the estate of Oscar Hammerstein received 10 percent of the gross after exhibitors took their share.  And by the end of 1966, nearly two years after its premiere, it was still playing with reserve-seat high priced tickets.  As of November 1966, Music  had played only 275 screens in the United States, and only 3,164 out of a potential 35,000 worldwide.  Still ahead were neighborhood theaters, drive-ins, and rereleases at lower prices.

Parody of THE SOUND OF MUSIC by MAD Magazine

Parody of THE SOUND OF MUSIC by MAD Magazine

Lehman recalled that he and Dick Zanuck were walking back from the Fox commissary one day when Zanuck smiled and said, “It’s a great picture, isn’t it?”

“I just don’t make a habit of getting too enthusiastic,” said Lehman.

“I want to hear you say it,” said a goading Zanuck.  “Say ‘it’s a great picture.’ ”

“Yes, Dick.  It’s a great picture.”

It seems inevitable in retrospect, but Dick Zanuck had his doubts.  “It was a gamble for us,” he said, “because $8.2 million, which is what it cost to make, is a lot of money; it was not the most distinguished show Rodgers and Hammerstein had ever done, and our cast was relatively unknown.”  William Wyler did not see it coming.  “The very things we were on guard against are the things that appeal to so many people,” he said.  “In a world which has changed enormously in the last few years, the movie is a kind of fantasy about a world which no longer exists, where everything comes out right, the Nazis aren’t really Nazis, and it’s happy-ending time.  Our astronauts have succeeded in getting out of this world, but those who haven’t go to see The Sound of Music  one more time.”  My Fair Lady  director George Cukor had to admit that his movie’s success looked wan in comparison.  “In spite of [Music ‘s] naiveté, you find yourself caught up,” he said.  “There’s a tug at the heart.  My principal emotion is jealousy.”

In accessing the film’s popularity, Andrews said, “It’s refreshing and not too complicated.  A love story, with children and music.  That word ‘joyous’ has an awful lot to do with it.”  To Zanuck, “It deals with good, wholesome subject matter—kids, nuns—and it entertains in a charming, romantic way.”  To Lehman, “We had no formula.  When you think of a picture’s success, you have to think of the world market, and there’s no formula for that.  I was surprised it was so successful in Tokyo, but what do I know of the Japanese, huh?  Maybe they want to escape, too; maybe they’re tired of making transistor radios.”  Wise aimed for more lofty words, saying the success “reminds us that “film is truly a medium more powerful than we are capable of understanding.”  Their summations aren’t revelatory, so does anyone know what ingredients stirred in what proportions resulted in the addictive cocktail known as The Sound of Music ?  Wise all but threw up his hands in stupefaction. “I wasn’t trying to say a damn thing,” he admitted.  “No message.  That’s as good a face as I can put on it.”

It has since been made clear that The Sound of Music  was the pinnacle of the American screen musical’s viability, winning Oscars and dumping mountains of cash on Twentieth Century-Fox even as it was spit roasted by the critics.  What most of them missed was its monumental confidence in the power of song to move us beyond a drab existence.  London Times pointedly asked, “How far, perhaps, is the awful eagerness to see this pleasant film a sign that simple and basic things are lacking in many people’s lives?”  While Music  was becoming the most popular movie in the world, Malcolm X was assassinated, the United States increased its military presence in Southeast Asia, the worst race riots in the nation’s history took place, Vietnam protesters surrounded the White House, and the United States dropped its first bombs on Hanoi.  The Sound of Music , it seems, gave shape to sweet dreams in an era of nightmares.

matthewkennedy2Matthew Kennedy is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist living in San Francisco.  He is the author of three biographies of classic Hollywood: Marie Dressler: A Biography  (McFarland, 1999, paperback 2006), Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy  (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes  (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).  He is film and book critic for the respected  Bright Lights Film Journal, as well as a contributing writer to several other online and print outlets.

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