We were a buck-fifty, second-run house. They were a buck seventy-five. We booked The Sunshine Boys, if I remember, for what was supposed to be an exclusive second run, and they got their hands on exactly the same product. In newspaper parlance you could say they “scooped” us, but it didn’t really matter, because there was no way we could cover our overhead, even if every soul who sat in their cracker-box seats had come over to our tough super-urban St. George neighborhood. As rivals we were both failing, and for many of the same reasons. For much of the rest of the year we were in business they continued to run Airport 1975, trying to work off a huge advance.
What exactly were the Jerry Lewis Cinemas anyhow? How did the comic star whose name is most associated with Dean Martin or with Muscular Dystrophy telethons nearly go bankrupt himself with a chain of movie theater franchises?
“If you can press a button and meet our investment requirements, you can own one or a chain of Jerry Lewis Cinemas...” began the full-page October 8, 1969 ad in Variety.
Seven years later, as we prepared to open our own movie house, we could have taken a lesson from this already failing business model. By the mid-seventies, a number of Jerry Lewis franchisees — including, probably, the poor schmuck on Forest Avenue — had already discovered what we in turn would learn. Of all the businesses on earth to jump into feet first, movie theater operation, with (in the seventies) its dearth of available product, wars with movie distributors and hidden costs, might be second only to restaurant ownership in difficulty of management. The typical Jerry Lewis theater owner was a movie-goer, not someone who had grown up tearing ticket stubs or popping popcorn. To quote Cinelog, “...the most glaring flaw was the very concept that anyone could own a theatre and operate it with minimal effort. As with far too many ‘get rich’ schemes, all of the [operators] had been ‘blinded’ by their fantasies and failed to consider the practical realities of running a successful business, let alone a business as unique as a movie theatre.”
Near as I can tell, our local Jerry Lewis Cinema went out of business around 1980. It is rumored (verification unavailable) that they were turned off by Con Ed for non-payment, something that nearly happened to us on several occasions.
By that time, Jerry Lewis and his partner in the venture, National Cinemas Corporation had filed for bankruptcy, though Lewis saved himself by making a movie with the ironic title, Hardly Working. He is said to have greatly regretted his decision to found this ill-starred chain, and the feeling, amongst former managers and their families, seems to have been the only thing that was mutual.
To quote cinelog once again, “...one particular individual [a former franchisee]...relayed that, even thirty plus years after the fact, Lewis’ yearly telethon appearance never fails to anger him.” It hadn’t been Lewis’ intention to fail. He made several mistakes, not the least of which was to establish a chain which booked only PG and PG-13 movies at a time when R ratings were the norm. But in the larger sense, he made the same mistake we made at our failing movie palace: he thought you didn’t have to have any direct experience to run a movie theater. Perhaps, as a performer, he assumed that the movie exhibition business was no big deal. He assumed, as we did in a completely different theater setting, that you can jump into the water and then learn how to swim.