Robert Levy (producer)

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Robert Levy
Born 1888
London, England
Died 1959 (aged 70–71)
Occupation Theater manager, film producer.

Robert Levy (London, 1888-1959) was an English-born theater manager and film producer in the early 20th century whose work was significant in establishing blacks as successful actors and paving the way for the recognition of race films.

Early life[edit]

Levy was born to Jewish parents in London in 1888. In the late 19th century, the family immigrated to the United States where Levy was educated in the New York City public school system. In his early twenties, he found a job managing the American division of the Éclair Film Company, a leading French producer of film.

Management career[edit]

In 1916, the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, featuring a company of black vaudevillians and entertainers, was growing and in need of strong management. Robert Levy, who had entered the field of black entertainment with the Quality Amusement Company, was hired for this role. Charged with selecting plays, mounting shows and managing the traveling troupes as well as bookings at other theaters, Levy focused his efforts on turning the theater into a site of quality productions. He produced all-black cast versions of notable plays such as Madame X, Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Battle, a breakthrough for black actors to perform in roles they were never offered before. His insistence on high production value and respectful treatment of blacks earned him initial acclaim from the public and press, but he nevertheless faced too many battles for his success to last long. Lester Walton, a popular black film critic and theatrical manager himself, criticized Levy for holding a position that he felt rightfully belonged to a black man. After producing more than 100 plays with all-black casts, and under pressure from black newspaper sources, Levy left the theater in 1919, determined to devote his efforts to black film, thereafter called race films.

Film career[edit]

As with his theater productions, Levy wanted his films to be of the highest caliber, highlighting blacks as serious actors with notable talent. In January 1921, he officially launched the opening of his company, Reol Films. Over the next few years, he would produce nine feature-length films and two documentaries. They featured prominent black actors such as Clarence Muse, Lawrence Chenault, Andrew Bishop, Sherman Dudley, Edna Morton, Inez Clough and Evelyn Preer and their involvement in these films often propelled them into larger careers. Most notably, Levy purchased the rights to The Sport of the Gods and The Uncalled, works by acclaimed black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service chose the promotional poster for The Sport of the Gods, Reol’s first released film, to be featured on a postage stamp honoring black film. In the early 1920s, race films were gaining prominence as a form of popular entertainment. However, these independent productions ultimately could not compete with the larger funding available to the big studios. By 1924 Levy faced the problem of finding distribution outlets for his films and was forced to accept financial defeat and close his company.

Later life[edit]

Levy attempted to revive the Lafayette Players on the west coast after the demise of Reol Films but his theatrical efforts were unsuccessful. He returned to New York City in the early 1930s and accepted a job as a magazine editor. Levy, as editor, became a leading creator of detective magazines. His work in this area helped to establish the material for many film noir projects in the thirties and forties. He died in 1959, unrecognized by posterity for his pioneering role in black theater and film and without acclaim for his accomplishments on behalf of black culture.