Returning to the slumbering, freshly-awakened Marcus Loew, he’d be impressed to find that some post-millennial theaters really are paying attention to his famous dictum, “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” What would he make of full meals in theaters like Nitehawk in Brooklyn, or Rooftop Cinemas anywhere? Well, whatever gets people out to the movies, be it a glamorous view or a cocktail that matches the movie, the theater’s the thing, baby.
Still, nothing tops a movie palace: the men’s smoking lounge, plush carpeting and seats, powder rooms reminiscent of Versailles. Loew thought, among other things, that theater restrooms should be luxurious beyond belief. And there was a reason, other than a love of sheer opulence. Hard as it is to believe, even in the 1920’s, public baths weren’t strictly recreational. In New York City; on the Lower East at that time, there was, apparently, one bathtub for every seventy-nine families. So imagine how a movie patron at, say, the 2800-seat Loew’s Oriental in Brooklyn might have felt in the ladies’ lounge, with its ottomans, jeweled carpets and floor-to-ceiling mirrors?
Marcus Loew himself was born poor — on the Lower East Side, at Avenue A and Fifth Street, to be exact — the child of German/Jewish immigrants. Childhood was short: in 1876, at the age of six, Marcus had to work, selling papers in front of a Saloon after school. At nine, he quit school and did a short stint at a map-coloring plant (11 hours a day, six days a week), which ended when the laborers went out on strike. Being a natural entrepreneur, he’d already found another gig, with a young man who had access to a printing press. Soon they had their own small paper, The East Side Advertiser, with a circulation of about 500. Loew might have stayed a newspaperman forever, but he and his partner came to blows, so the next stop on his resume was a men’s store, followed by the fur trade, a big deal in those days in Manhattan below 14th Street, where he actually went into business himself as a fur broker, garnering some big bucks, before, at age 18, being forced into bankruptcy. Marriage, a second fur business and a second bankruptcy followed in quick succession, before he found a stable business partner in the fur trade, then, amazingly, met the man who would be briefly a partner, then a rival in the (as-yet-unborn) movie business, Adolf Zukor. Sound familiar? Yes, that Adolf Zukor, of Paramount Pictures. He was also a furrier, and an immigrant.
It was 1904. Zukor invested in something called “Automatic Vaudeville,” — basically penny arcades that featured peepshow-style movies. His rival and buddy and sometime-partner, Marcus Loew, wasn’t far behind. A year later, with the wealthy actor David Warfield, Loew founded People’s Vaudeville, at 23rd and Seventh, another arcade. Business took Loew to Cincinnati, where he intended to set up an arcade. but crossing the Ohio River to Covington Kentucky, stumbled on the model of the future, a movie theater where people could actually sit together and watch films, in a house run by an enterprising man who acted as projectionist, ticket taker, even lecturer on film. It was packed. Going back to Cincinnati, Loew borrowed some chairs and re-tooled his arcade on the model he’d seen in Kentucky, charging five cents for a 3-minute show, and selling out to 4,993 patrons in a single day.
Arriving back in NYC, Loew retrofitted his arcades as Nickelodeons, and, arguably, the movie business was born. If you buy this version of the story, that is, because another version has it that Nickelodeons were born in Pittsburgh, PA. Either way — Cincinnati or Pittsburgh — you could say the Nickelodeon concept opened out of town.
In 1921, The New York Times described these storefront theaters as “little places, dark and narrow,” beloved, while they lasted.
By 1917, Loew owned around twenty theaters, most of them in New York City, and straddled about seven corporations, which he finally consolidated under one holding company, Loew’s Inc. But the movie business had up and moved to Hollywood; could Loew be far behind? In 1920, he purchased Metro Pictures Corp., then, in short order, acquired a controlling interest in Goldwyn Picture Corporation (taking on Leo the Lion as a trademark and mascot), and finally signing Louis B. Mayer, then a low-budget film producer (and said to be the Harvey Weinstein of his time). Voila: MGM!
Socialist though I style myself, I am, at heart, fascinated by entrepreneurship. What, other than poverty, drives a nine-year-old to work six days a week, found a press, then (twice) a fur business, bankrupting both times, all before age 24? By that time, Loew was half-way through his life, in more ways than one. What also eternally fascinates me is that the conglomerates of today were built on the storefronts of yesterday, in places like the Lower East Side, Covington Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, while Hollywood was still a small town, blooming into the place where stars are made and born.
Afterthought 1: One of the most impressive of Loew’s theaters was the focus of last week’s blog post, the Akron Civic Theatre in Akron, Ohio. It’s an atmospheric — don’t miss it!
Afterthought 2: As a native Cincinnatian, I am fascinated by the legend of Loew’s “arcade,” which he rushed back across the river from Covington to retrofit as a theater. I found a reference to it in this entry from Cinema Treasures. After it was done being an arcade, it became the Star Theatre. Some of us remember it as a Burlesque house...