‘Casablanca’s’ Rick Blaine Was Based On New York Nightclub Owner Billy Rose

Casablanca appears on a theater marquee.
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Murray Burnett — the New York playwright who first created the characters and the story that would become the cinema classic Casablanca — visited Europe in 1938 when he was 27. There, he lived as an American Jew bearing witness to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. An unassuming English teacher at a New York vocational school who aspired to become a writer himself, Burnett risked life and limb to help his Jewish relatives smuggle money out of Vienna, according to the New York Times. While in France, he spent time at a cafe — where refugees would gather to commiserate, and where an African-American piano player entertained.

When Burnett returned to New York, he wanted to write a Broadway play about European Jews forced from their homes to flee Nazi oppression. He felt that a place like the Parisian cafe that he visited would be the ideal setting for his play. During the summer of 1940, he began writing the show with his colleague Joan Allison, but they needed a strong central character to portray the cafe owner.

Billy Rose, the owner of the Casa Mañana nightclub in New York City, was born Samuel Rosenberg to impoverished Jewish immigrants, according to Forward. Raised on the streets of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, Rose was street-smart and tough, and scrapped his way to becoming the embodiment of the American Dream. He rose to fame as a songwriter in the 1920s, and when Prohibition ended during the Great Depression, he built the largest nightclubs in New York City. Ever the showman, Rose produced a circus musical called Jumbo, which was so sprawling it had to be staged in the Hippodrome. Jumbo was a huge hit, and made Rose a nationwide celebrity. He returned to New York City in 1937 after running shows in Texas and Ohio, and opened a new nightclub called Casa Mañana in 1938, just as Burnett was returning from Europe.

It is extraordinarily likely that Burnett based at least part of the character of Rick Blaine on Billy Rose, as there are a number of striking similarities between the two. With Rose being a national celebrity — and operating several New York City nightclubs — at the same time that Burnett was living in the city and working on the script with Allison, he would have been prime material for the writers as they worked to craft a compelling main character for their play.

Rose was renowned for his snappy, wisecracking manner and speech. In 1939, columnist Earl Wilson wrote that Rose’s talk was characterized by a “friendly but snappy here’s-the-dope manner.” Some of Rose’s quotes in the New York papers might sound slightly familiar:

“I’m in a racket. I’m not supposed to have any friends.”

“Guys who make speeches are phonies.”

“The trouble with showmen is that there are too many geniuses and not enough showmen. I sell ballyhoo, not genius.”

Casa Mañana became a haven for European refugees, and in 1939 Rose produced a show inside the nightclub called the Refugee Review. In that production, whenever the performers sang or played music written by Jews, an actor portraying a blockheaded German would should out “Verboten!” This moment in the revue may have been the genesis for the scene in Casablanca where the refugees begin singing their respective national anthems in an effort to drown out the Germans who are singing their own.

There are a number of personal details that belie a similarity between Billy Rose and Rick Blaine. Despite being the most prominent nightclub owner in New York, Rose never drank. In the film, Rick refuses to drink with his customers, and his characterization rings similar to Rose. A 1939 New York Times profile describes Rose, “heavy-lidded eyes droop… In repose he appears almost lethargic, but usually he is intensely alert.” The stage directions in Everybody Comes To Rick’s suggest a similar characterization, such as how Rick “nods imperceptibly” for Sam to play “La Marseillaise.”

The New York Times profile also lists another revealing quality of Rose’s character when it concludes, “Hard as nails in a business deal, he is a sentimentalist at heart. An old song will raise a lump in his throat.” In the film and in the play, Rick breaks down when he hears the song “As Time Goes By,” which reminds him of the love that he has lost.

One final similarity between Billy Rose and Rick Blaine lies in their efforts to help a solitary European Jew to escape Nazi Europe. Just as Rick puts Ilsa on a plane to freedom at the end of Casablanca, Billy Rose secretly rescued an Austrian Jewish refugee, paying for her visa to escape to Cuba.

Unable to find a Broadway producer for their show, Burnett and Allison sold Everybody Comes To Rick’s to Warner Bros. Less than a year later, Casablanca was released in theaters. It would win the Oscar for Best Picture. In his historical work The Making of Casablanca, Aljean Harmetz notes that “much of the raw material of Casablanca can be found in the three acts of Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” In Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca, Isenberg says that the play was the source of much of the film’s dialogue, scenes, and nearly all of its characters.

Burnett, who followed up Everybody Comes To Rick’s with the Broadway play Hickory Street, would go on to have a successful career doing radio programs. He was embittered that his contributions to Casablanca, which were significant, were uncredited and largely ignored. In 1973, one of the film’s screenwriters wrote that Burnett’s contribution to the film was minimal, which prompted a lawsuit by Burnett that he eventually lost. It took Burnett and Allison decades of legal battles to finally win the recognition he deserved.

Burnett often said that Rick Blaine was the man Burnett wanted to be. Billy Rose was at least part of that man.