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STRUT! in the News

RAAB-ID: Entrepreneur/Filmmaker Takes Mummery to the Max

April 2002

by Gary Thompson

Cover Story: Philadelphia Daily News,
April, 4 2002

IF MAX RAAB knows what people want, and he usually does, then right now, we're in a string band state of mind.

Raab's latest project is "Strut!", a funny, touching documentary about the Mummers that's been chosen to open the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, where its three showings are already sold out.

And while "Strut!" is a lively picture that's already won the audience award for best documentary at the Hamptons Film Festival in New York, it's also a little sad around the edges – archival footage of a bygone Philadelphia, a Mummer funeral, men talking about dancing for lost loved ones. If it feels a little like watching the sun set, it helps to know that "Strut!" is in many ways a valentine from Raab, 75, to the city that served as the launching pad for an eclectic career that's encompassed everything from J. G. Hook clothing to Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout".

Raab's knack for selling clothes and his love of the movies both have their roots in Philadelphia's Tioga section, where the young Max paid 11 cents to watch "Frankenstein" at the Strand and the Great Northern near Broad and Erie. It's also where he helped his father scrape out a living as a blousemaker during the tough Depression years and after World War II, when Max left the service.

"When I got out of the Army, I ended up working for my father, and that was like not working at all, because the business wasn't doing very well," he recalled.

If the rag trade were merely hard work, his father might have been a millionaire. But a good retailer needs a sixth sense, and young Max had the gift.

"You've heard of people who know what's going to happen because they have their ear to the ground," a friend once said, "Well, Max has his about two feet under. He has an underground ear."

Back in the 1960s, before kids played soccer, before moms drove around in half-tracks, blabbing on cell phones, Max Raab was seeing the rise of the soccer mom. Women moving to the suburbs, raising kids in four-bedroom colonials, creating a new cultural sensibility that needed a uniform to go with it.

At the time, he was selling to undergrad girls at Ivy League schools, and he noticed they liked to buy men's dress shirts at Brooks Brothers. He ordered some samples, and they sold out of a Fifth Avenue store in days.

Those first pink shirts became the cornerstone of a full line of country/casual clothes called Villager--so popular in its day that ministers

preached from pulpits against the influence the Villager look had on women and teen-age girls.

And so popular that Villager became a Wall Street sensation as well--Raab held a million shares, and at its height, Villager sold for nearly $50 a share. But leveraging an even larger retail empire seemed not to interest Max, who spent his money on other things. He and his brother Norman came close to buying the Eagles in the late '60s, a deal that fell through. So Raab purchased modern art, the cornerstone of a valuable, offbeat collection that he holds to this day. He started an alternative weekly. He founded an avant-garde theater with Sidney Kimmel. Yes, that Sidney Kimmel.

Then, with Villager generating $140 million a year, Raab abruptly scaled back his involvement in the business and turned to his first love--motion pictures. He became a producer–after all, a producer is just a guy who has a talent for knowing what people want, plus a lot of money.

Raab was an independent producer when the studio system was falling apart, and when the producers, actors and directors who were grabbing power were eager to try new things. Raab, for instance, bought the rights to an out-there John Barth novel called "The End of the Road". He made it with then-unknown James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach, and although some critics didn't know what to make of it at the time, it's today generally regarded as an early classic of the '70s.

There was a lot of creative cross-fertilization going on, and Raab was part of it.
"It was the first picture for Gordon Willis, who at that time was doing Clairol commercials. After we'd wrapped, and we were finishing up the picture, we got a visit from a young guy named Francis Coppola, who at that time was scratching to make a living like everybody else. He saw Gordon's work and immediately signed him for his next picture, "The Godfather". Gordon ended up doing those, and half the Woody Allen movies", Raab said.

Raab had the rights to another far-out novel, Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange," which Hollywood considered too difficult to translate to film. One day, Raab got a call from Warner Bros.

"We'll help you get rid of it, they said, you'll make your money back. I said, 'I'll let you know,' said Raab, who made a few calls to find that Stanley Kubrick was interested. Raab sold him the rights (for triple what he paid), won an executive producer credit and is still collecting residuals.

At the time, it seemed there was a revolution in films, and Raab was one of the revolutionaries. "Big studios are going to stop making the huge film. They are totally confused about what to do," he said at the time. "Audiences now are more interested in the art of film, like ... 'Easy Rider."

It didn't quite work out that way. In just a few years, "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and other blockbusters had restored the studio's grip on the public's imagination.

"I was young and cocky," Raab said, with a laugh. He made his own outlaw biker movie, "Hex," and it didn't find an audience. Whatever Hollywood turned into, it no longer held the same fascination, and Raab eventually returned to selling clothes in 1974. Again, he was able to anticipate taste, and built the J. G. Hook line into another retailing success before
handing it off to management partners.

But he wasn't about to retire to Florida. Raab turned to movies again, with the idea of making a movie about the Mummers, those strange creatures his father used to take him to see on New Year's Day, so many years ago. He enlisted the help of his longtime friend and well-known photographer, Seymour Mednick, who served as co-producer on the film.
"Back in those days, if you grew up in Tioga and you went as far south as City Hall, you were entering another world," he said. "it was really foreign territory. I would look at the Mummers and think, 'Who the hell are these guys?' Now, 60 years later, I found out."
He thought the project would take six weeks. It took three years and was completely revised several times. Raab had never directed, and learned as he went. That's in a sense the story of his life.

"The audience never led me, and I never led them. I just did what appealed to me, and hoped it would appeal to other people," said Raab, who never wondered what others thought of his abrupt career changes.

"I didn't look for reactions. I was always pretty much of a loner. I had in mind what I wanted to do, and I did it."