by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the rapidly growing film world during the 1920s, the theater chain was highly competitive. Based at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, West Coast Theatres was the largest chain in greater Los Angeles, with some 100 movie houses under its control.
In July 1925, when 200,000 shares of stock in the company were offered, 40% of the issue was picked up by 20th Century Fox studio mogul William Fox, who founded the studio in New Jersey in 1915. A decade later, Fox began a $3 million investment in sound recording technology, which was dubbed “Movietone” and the first Fox film to have sound was Sunrise in 1927.
Soon after taking up the minority share, Fox tried to merge his growing theater chain, which had put out $20 million in stock in 1925, with West Coast, but the first attempt was unsuccessful. He persevered, however, and in early 1928 secured control of West Coast to create the Fox West Coast conglomerate. Yet, within two years, Fox lost control of his empire in a hostile takeover and the studio merged with 20th Century Pictures to become 20th Century Fox. In a bankruptcy proceeding in New York, the former studio chief tried to bribe the judge and got a six-month term in prison on a perjury conviction. Long out of the industry, Fox died in 1952.
Managing the West Coast theaters was Harold Franklin, a veteran who ran the Publix chain before taking on the work with West Coast. Franklin later became an RKO theater head who ran Radio City Music Hall in New York when it opened in 1932, though his tenure there was short.
Theater chains often had newsletters for their stockholders and employees and West Coast had one called Now that featured some colorful, eye-grabbing graphics on the front cover. The one highlighted here is for the week of 23 July 1928 and its front cover has a strong Art Deco look that focused on the growing technology of “talkies.”
The phrase “When your screen talks or sings SAY SO!” encourages managers and employees at chain theaters to talk up the use of sound and a series of phrases and words adorn the cover like “Fox Movietone,” “Vitaphone” [this being the Warner Brothers sound system], “Talkies are the talk of the town,” and “Our screen speaks.”
The content in the newsletter is interesting to peruse. Franklin’s “Personal Talks” column talks up the “Greater Movie Season” promotion with the buying and booking of films heralding “the remarkable box office value apparently inherent in our general future lineup.” Franklin compared the “product” arranged for the next season with those of department stores working on their Christmas season inventory.
More specifically, Franklin predicted that “this GREATER MOVIE SEASON will hold a greater signficance this year than on any other previous occasion, because of the advent of sound synchronization.” This meant that better quality sound reproduction than the shaky systems that started the talking era would lead to a far greater success–and, in this, Franklin was definitely on the money. Literally.
As scans of the other pages of the newsletter show, there was more on the Greater Movie Season promotion, news from chain theaters, the lineup for talkies in 1928-29, and much more. One notable item was about a “kiddie orchestra” at the Manchester Theatre at Manchester Boulevard and Broadway in South-Central Los Angeles.
Another promotion was a “Star Guessing Contest” held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Evening Express newspaper. Other material dealt with ads in newspapers.
In all, a perusal of Now gives a good glimpse into the evolving and increasingly sophisticated world of the movie theater as it tied into studio production and distribution to sell films to a growing audience of moviegoers. The Homestead has a collection of a few dozen of these, which will be featured on the blog from time to time.