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PUBLIX OPINION, WEEK OF FEBRUARY 28TH, 1930
‘MR. A. J’, PIONEER GIANT OF INDUSTRY
DELUXE OPERATIONS OWE GROWTH TO BALABAN GENIUS
A. J. Balaban.
A name to conjure with in show business.
An impressive, almost awe-inspiring name to be repeated respectfully as belonging to one of the pioneer giants of the
amusement industry. Yet, to know him simply.as “Mr. A. J.’
the countless thousands who
’, the name ‘stands-for a man, a
human and lovable man, a man whom to know is to admire and like, a loyal friend, a sympathetic advisor, a considerate and appreciative boss, a devoted father of a family, a man who has not permitted his meteoric rise to fame and fortune to atrophy a single one of those essential human qualities which, more than anything else, contributed to his success.
‘ No one will deny the creative, administrative and. busiess genius of A. J. Balaban. fet, Other people have had these qualities. who, never attained. his greatness in their chosen vocations. Why? -Because they lacked his humanness. There lies the secret, the motivating power and the sure, unfailing guide of his tremendous achievement.
Show business is the selling of entertainment; and entertainment, unlike socks or steel or soap or any other tangible merchandise, is distinctly an appeal to the human emotions. Being intensely human himself, and endowed with a wide and sympathetic understanding of his fellow men—their longings, aspirations, foibles, sense of joy, sorrow and risibility—he was able to accurately and unerringly gauge the character of entertainment which would most satisfy public demand.
Because the screechy, phonograph ballyhoo in the lobby of the Kedzie Theatre grated on his own ears, he logically assumed it would grate on the ears of others and immediately rooted it out. Because he himself keenly felt
that a hot, stuffy and perspiring, i presented before a fresh and dif
atmosphere was not conducive to the best reception of entertainment, he, in conjunction with his brother, installed cooling plants in theatres. Because he was himself susceptible to the warming glow of a cordial and courteous reception, he helped to institute the now famous Balaban and Katz system of Service.
Because he felt in his own soul a yearning for the beautiful, the romantic and the dream-like illusion which might serve as a temporary escape from the trials and banalities of every day life, he could help to rear magnificent dream palaces which soon spread to every section of the country. The spectacular success of Balaban and Katz Theatres, and later of Publix, which incorporated many fundamental B. & K.. principles, bore eloquent testimony to the accuracy of the human instincts within the breast of A. J. Balaban.
| Started Career 1909 |
_ One of the oldest men in show business, in point of experience, Mr. Balaban is comparatively a young man in the ordinary reckoning of age, being only forty. The beginning of his theatrical career carries us back to 1909, when he was working in a woolen mill in Chicago, putting in long, hard hours for which he received about $10 a week. This income he augmented, however, by singing lyrics of illustrated song slides in one of Chicago’s first movie theatres, which brought him $2.50 nightly. He was not the only Balaban for whom show business possessed a ire, for his sister Ida, who was ater Mrs. Sam Katz until her eath in 1923, played the piano rhich accompanied him _ every ight. Of the men who were to be his
associates in the Balaban & Katz Corporation later, his older brother, Barney, was working for the Western Cold Storage Co. for $25 a week, and Sam Katz was clerking and studying law in a Chicago lawyer’s office in the daytime and
supervising a few small theatres
Out of these modest beginnings a huge organization was to grow, and so energetic and far-seeing were these young men that it was not long in taking shape. Their efforts brought into being the huge Balaban & Katz chain of theatres in Chicago, which, after affiliating with the ‘Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation, became the nucleus of Publix Theatres.
Specializes in Production
In the course of these developments, the province of Mr. A. J. Balaban came to be the stage. He had his first opportunity to test his theories on vaudeville at the Circle Theatre, and they were so successful that vaudeville formed a much more integral portion of the program at the Central Park, later. As the group of theatres increased in number, he began to devote all of his time to booking and production, superintending presentations and all stage entertainment.
Under his supervision, vaudeville was speeded up, edited, and
ferent background. Gradually the form of stage presentation found in Publix deluxe houses today was evolved. Pioneering, back in 1925, Mr. Balaban brought Paul Ash from the Coast and introduced the stage band policy at the McVickers Theatre. It was instantaneously successful, and the profession of “stage band leader and master of ceremonies” came into being.
When Balaban & Katz grew into the Publix Theatres Corporation, this type of entertainment was introduced at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City, and then the present system of unit shows, rotating about the circuit, was developed. In addition to the stage shows produced in New York, which played a_ coast-to-coast route, ‘‘B’’ units were produced in Chicago under Mr. Balaban, breaking in at the Oriental Theatre, and playing a short route in suburban Chicago, going from there ‘to Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis.
The ideas which were responsible for the creation of this vast network of entertainment date back to the time when Mr. Balaban was a song-plugger in an obsecure little theatre on Chicago’s West Side. ‘“‘Mr. A. J.’’—an affectionate appellation by which thousands. now address him—was profoundly impressed by the possibilities he saw in the motion picture exhibition field, and so strong were his convictions that he succeeded in inculcating the others with his enthusiasm.
The Beginning |
In the little Kedzie, the theatre in which he sang in 1910, Mr. Balaban saw an opportunity to apply showmanly ideas with which his mind was replete even then.
Here is the fourteenth of a series of stories about Publix Home Office Department personalities who depend upon your effort, just as you depend upon theirs. To know and understand each other’s personalities and problems will lighten the burdens of everyone, and make our tasks enjoyable. For this reason, PUBLIX OPINION is devoting an important part of its space to these brief biographical sketches.
HOME OFFICE DEPARTMENTS
A. J. BALABAN General Director of Paramount Short Subjects and Stage Productions
Through application of these ideas, which he firmly believed would be not only practical but also profitable, and which oddly enough proved to be both when he did have a chance to put them to the test, he was convinced that the yet formless movie business could be raised to a higher plane.
His brother Barney was his ally, but their combined savings totalled only $175, and every cent of their salaries was of necessity contributed to the support of the family. Under’ these circumstances it seemed unlikely that they would have a chance to enter the theatre business, and certainly not at that time.
Ina characteristic spirit, however, they approached: the owner of the Kedzie on the subject of leasing the house to them. This pioneer exhibitor was not a showman in any sense of the werd, but operated the Kedzie as an adjunct of his ice cream parlors, of which he owned several. He was delighted to find someone willing to take his ‘‘white elephant” off his hands, and the two young Balabans found themselves in possession of the Kedzie Theatre, on a year’s lease and at a rental of $100 a month.
One could hardly dignify their acquisition by the name of theatre, for it was a store show. One hundred and ninety-two camp chairs masqueraded as seats, and they were old and rickety. Breakage was a problem which assumed serious proportions almost at once.
A Business Basis
But if the venture was not a theatre at first it rapidly became
one. First of all it went on a business basis; a dignified business basis. The barker who raucously extolled the virtues of the current bill was done away with; a sereechy phonograph ballyhoo was torn out by the roots. Improvement followed improvement with startling regularity.
The younger Balaban brothers, Max, John, Dave and Harry, were pressed into service, and here they received training which later stood them in good stead as important executives of the Balaban & Katz Corporation. Their salaries went into the family warchest, and the brothers stood unified in their first sally at showbusiness.
A three-piece orchestra was installed in the theatre, and pictures were cued and scored. Special entertainers augmented the program on holidays. An aggressive, showmanly spirit prevailed— and receipts jumped from $10 to $25 nightly. Mr. A. J. gave up his daytime job with the woolen mill. Barney, who was still in the cold-storage business, decided that one thing the Kedzie needed was a ventilation system. A huge draught fan was installed, and again a Balaban idea proved more than: successful. Barney’s coldstorage experience was later to bring refrigeration machinery into theatres.
Refinements in operation were added as rapidly as_ possible, and before the year’s lease had expired the brothers had accumulated a profit of $2,000 and were looking for another house. They decided that it would be necessary to build a theatre in order to obtain the things the Kedzie had lacked. So the Circle, carefully
and painstakingly planned, was conceived and built.
Vaudeville Improved |
The Circle was large enough to justify the addition of vaudeville to the program, and in this connection Mr..A. J. shone. His were the efforts to enhance vaudeville by artistic treatment,.and the advances for which he is responsible were to culminate in the highly specialized motion picture house presentation style of vaudeville today, a field of entertainment generally considered: as distinct from vaudeville, so far-reaching were his accomplishments.
But the Balabans were not to be successful without having others attempt to follow in the trail they had blazed. Competition developed, and it was bitter competition. Unheeding they went ahead, setting standards, revolutionizing show-business, discarding precepts
1| which were ages old and establish|| ing new ones, only to discard these
when progress antiquated them. theatres came into their hands. By this time, they had become associated with Sam Katz,
i whose meteor-like career had been
paralleling theirs. Mutually strengthened by the combination, the organization grew, and as it grew, the partners began to dream of a theatre which would eclipse everything existing and surpass the most optimistic dreams.
This was in 1912. They planned what is now the Central Park Theatre in Chicago. It was to cost $175,000, and it was to be more elaborate, more lavishly treated, than the most pretentious theatre up to that time. By 1915 their in
terests had developed to such an.
extent that the Central Park slipped out of the category of a dream and began to assume actual shape. By this time their requirements were even higher, and their concept of the ideal motion picture theatre had assumed such proportions of grandeur that the cost of molding it jumped one hundred thousand dollars, and when the house was finished and opened in October, 1917, it represented an outlay of $275,000.
A Dream Comes True
A most unusual cost for a modern deluxe motion picture theatre, in 1917 it was a dream come true. All Chicago marvelled at the beauty and splendid proportions of the theatre, and it became more than a theatre. It was a show-place as well as a show-house, and when it opened, it instantly ran to capacity business. Balaban & Katz were right again.
The Central Park had 2400 seats, as against the 1200 seats of the largest theatre in Chicago theretofore. Not only that but these seats were actually uphol‘tered, a radical innovation which patrons appreciated and interpreted as an interest in their comfort. A refrigeration system conceived by Barney Balaban out of his experience in the cold storage business was part of its equipment, and a symphony orchestra was one of the many features of the entertainment provided.
Here the story of A. J. Balaban becomes for a time the story of Balaban & Katz, for his efforts and activities are so inseparably associated with his firm that they can be described only by relating the accompanying progress of Balban & Katz, in which they are reflected. His story is also the story of Balaban & Katz, and so, to a large degree, the story of Publix.
The Central Park embodied the fundamental precept of successful theatre operations as it was evolved by A. J. Balaban and his brothers, Sam Katz, Morris Katz and his other associates. To be successful, they believed, a theatre must give the utmost in entertainment to the public, entertainment of the kind the public wanted, at the lowest possible cost and in the
most pleasant surroundings pos©
sible. In living up to the dictates (Continued on Page Seven)