These days, theater chains may be, like the U.S. Postal Service’s mailboxes, fast becoming a rarity (26 theater chains are listed at MoPix, where once there were hundreds). Many of the original chains bore the names of the great moguls who dreamed the dream of movie palaces in the first place: Sid Grauman, William Fox, Alexander Pantages, Marcus Loew. Some early Vaudeville entrepreneurs, seeing the writing on the wall (or the the shadow on the screen!) began building or accumulating movie theaters early on: Edward Franklin Albee, and B.F. Keith (of Radio Keith Orpheum) come to mind. All of these names live on in theaters they built across the U.S.(still standing and in operation as cinemas or live theaters or both): Grauman’s Chinese/TCL Chinese, Grauman’s Egyptian, the Atlanta Fox, and Fox Oakland come to mind. The Keith-Albee in Huntington, West Virginia bears witness in its name to the blending of Vaudeville and motion pictures and the ultimate dominance of movies. B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee, recent corporate newlyweds via merger, oversaw the construction of this Thomas Lamb theater, under the aegis of Keith-Albee-Orpheum. Formed in January, 1928, KAO, the ultimate Vaudeville circuit for about a half an hour, operated a chain of over 700 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, with more than 15,000 Vaudeville performers, including the recently-signed-but-as-yet-relatively-unknown couple act,"Burns and Allen."
Corporate mergers are, oftener than not, piracy. So it was that in May 1928, five months after KAO was formed, a controlling portion of its stock was sold to the notorious booze-runner and father of a future president, Joseph P. Kennedy. By pre-arrangement, the stock was then purchased in October of that same year by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as part of the deal that created Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO Pictures).
By 1928, Vaudeville, despite its 15,000 performers, was on the slide and everybody knew it. It would survive for a while in brief and increasingly shabby entertainment interludes on the stages of movie palaces, many of them, like the St. George, built initially for live performance.
The names of the old impresarios — Keith, Albee, Pantages, Fox, Loew — would linger on, obscure as names on neighborhood street signs. 20th Century Fox (which has the surname of a mogul embedded in it), was once a theater-owning entity. But by the time of my childhood, it was, by law, strictly a film corporation. It’s owned, these days, by 21st Century Fox. That’s the 21st Century owning the 20th, and almost nobody knows who Fox was!
I had meant to include in this reflection on names and naming certain latter-day chains, including Mann Theatres (our booking agent at the St. George worked for Mann and for us on the side). Walter Reade was another prominent chain owner, proud of the cleanliness of his movie houses. The briefly-extant Jerry Lewis Cinemas, formed by the comedy star in 1969, is an anomaly. There was nothing like this chain before, and thankfully nothing like it after. Jerry Lewis‘ business plan was a “perfect storm; ” it could be used in business schools worldwide as a classic example of “how not to.” The chain nearly bankrupted Lewis. Suffice it to say, the 1970’s were a terrible time in the U.S. movie business.