by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last November, the “That’s a Wrap” series of posts highlighted an issue of Now, the newsletter of the West Coast Theatres chain that had just been purchased by movie studio impresario William Fox and renamed Fox-West Coast Theatres. The publication was a newsletter for theater managers and others in the system to promote the chain. This edition features an issue of Now from the Homestead’s collection and dated 4 March 1929.
President Harold B. Franklin, in his “Personal Talks” column trumpeted the fact that “Fox-West Coast Theatres dominate the Pacific Slope . . . Just as the Rock of Gibraltar dominates the straits . . . so does this great chain of theatres dominate our splendid western country.” He noted that a new theater was opened at Redondo Beach, while shortly the renowned Carthay Circle Theatre (which has been highlighted on this blog in the past) would join the system. Movie palances in San Francisco and Seattle were under construction.
Observing that, “no theatre chain can be stronger than the men who form its links,” Franklin asked employees, “are you keeping pace with the growth of your company; are you making an intelligent efort to adjust yourself to the great changes that are taking place in our industry?” In fact, he continued, “within the last few months it has been necessary for the motion picture industry to turn itself completely about” because of the exploding demand by patrons “to the amazement of the entire world.”
Hyperbole aside, the company chief reminded employees that “if a Fox-West Coast Theater is to dominate a community—then let its representative dominate as a decent, aggressive, active-minded citizen.”
To that end, one of the major features in the publication was about a promotion in which several hundred women attended a performance at the Carthay Circle Theatre. Consisting of members of women’s clubs and the Daughters of the American Revolution, under the auspices of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, the group’s agenda included “a business meeting . . . held at the theatre during the morning and in the afternoon all of the women saw the show—at their own expense, of course.”
This tidbit was highlighted as “but a summary of the results of one of the finest bits of good will building now being conducted within the motion picture industry” and specifically was the work of the chain’s public relations department. The idea was that
practically every day finds it doing some missionary work that strengthens motion pictures in general and Fox-West Coast in particular, in the minds of thousands of women in Southern California.
With 700 attendees reporting the success of the day’s outing to their fellow club members, “there is no way of knowing what good is brought about in a dollars and cents way,” but the expectation clearly was that profits would grow as good will was sown.
In a shorter piece, it was reported that the manager of the Westlake Theatre, “a suburban house,” brought together a performance of 75 musicians from the University of Southern California, including its marching band and glee club. The beauty of the idea, naturally, was that “this was at no cost to the theatre, but it proved a magnet for additional business.” Other theatres in the chain were encouraged to work with local universities and colleges for similar programs.
Attracting business, of course, also meant aggressive and strategic marketing efforts and the newsletter had several examples, including a back cover that featured four examples of newspaper advertisements that “will dominate any drama page.” The idea was to use bold graphics, especially in the ubiquitous Art Deco style, with the concept that “they catch the eye and hold it and they’ll bring business to the box office.”
Elsewhere other ad examples included one that was in the form of a “wisecrack” contest, with space left for participants to write in humorous comments in a balloon over an actor shown in the ad. Another instance highlighted the need to emphasize the entertainment factor, with a theatre as a “portal of entertainment” and promoting “the importance of pleasure” in going to the movies.
Another interesting short article concerned the successful lobbying effort of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which, of course, just held its Academy Awards ceremony earlier this week) to convince Rufus von Kleinsmid, the president of the University of Southern California to offer “a course in photoplay appreciation” through the College of Liberal Arts. The concept was that
this course orients the photoplay among the arts, emphasizing its social significance, and urging general academic recognition [through] fifteen lectures . . . and some of the most brilliant minds of the various branches of the industry have been invited to give 12 out of the 15 lectures; the other three will be given by college professors. A number of lectures will be open to visitors.
In the third of a series of biographies of luminaries of the film industry, the issue featured Jesse Lasky, vice-president of Paramount-Famous-Lasky Corporation, who was “in charge of all production and recognized as a leader of the entire industry.” Lauded for his sense of adventure and pioneer spirit, Lasky began with vaudeville, switched to the legitimate theater and then “to his last and greatest love,” film.
Born in San Francisco in 1880, Lasky had just graduated from high school in Santa Clara, near San Jose, when his merchant father died and plans to attend Stanford University were curtailed. Being a musician, he found work in an orchestra in his hometown and in Hawaii, where, it was said, he was cornetist in the famed Royal Hawaiian Band for a short time.
Back in San Francisco, Lasky went into journalism briefly, before he was lured to try his hand at gold mining in Alaska, making just enough at prospecting to make his way back home. He and his sister then became a vaudeville act and joined a company, of which the young man became a manager, finding his forte in successful bookings. He then developed a successful enterprise in importing French-style cabarets with a partner and they called their endeavor “American Folies Bergere,” but the concept failed.
Deciding to return to California and stage an operetta, he found a young man to write the piece, simply called “California,” and it was a smash. The new partner was Cecil B. DeMille and he and Lasky partnered with Samuel Goldwyn to break into film. With their new firm called the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, they set to work in 1913 on their debut, The Straw Man, in a little town called Hollywood. The barn leased at $200 a month at Vine and Selma is now the Hollywood Heritage Museum and the Paramount-Famous-Lasky studio occupied 26 acres at the time of writing.
With the merger of Famous Players Film Company and Lasky’s company in 1916, the principals included three legends: DeMille as director general, Adolph Zukor as president and Lasky as first vice-president. Subsequent to the article, Lasky experienced hardship when he lost big in the crash of the stock market crash in 1929. Hounded by the IRS and experiencing other crises, Lasky suffered further when Famous Players-Lasky went into receivership during the Great Depression.
He did work successfully as a producer at Warner Brothers during the 1940s subsequently and made his last film in 1951, still in deep debt to the IRS. In 1957, he returned to Paramount to produce a film which would settle his debts, but died early the next year, before the film was finished. He is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, adjacent to Paramount Studios.
To show the dramatic growth of the Fox-West Coast chain, a lineup of theatres in the chain was given in a table, showing 619 total, including 225 current and 50 in-process theaters in the Fox-West Coast division, 220 Fox Metropolitan Playhouses and other circuits around the nation. As mentioned in the previous post on the earlier Now issue, however, William Fox lost his empire in a hostile takeover in 1930 and tried to bribe the judge in a bankruptcy proceeding two years later, which got him a six-month stint in jail for perjury. Fox died in 1952, long after his inglorious exit from the film industry.
These newsletters are a fascinating glimpse into the internal workings of the motion picture theatre industry during its first significant period of growth and transformation and they provide a wealth of information about marketing and promotion of film and theatres.