by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A couple of prior posts here have highlighted issues of NOW, a bi-weekly publication issued by William Fox’s West Coast Theatres, a chain that was, in the late 1920s, the largest operator of movie houses in greater Los Angeles. In July 1925, when a public stock offering was made, 40% of the issue was purchased by studio owner Fox, who had his own theater chain which issued $20 million in stock that year, though his initial attempts at merging that enterprise with West Coast were rejected.
Ultimately, however, Fox succeeded and, by 1928, it was known as the Fox West Coast or William Fox’s West Coast Theatres chain. With the onset of talkies, moreover, the mogul and the chain invested huge amounts of money in outfitting existing venues with the technology known as Fox’s Movietone (acquired in 1926 from Case Research Lab in New York) or in building new theaters with it. Yet, within only a couple of years, Fox’s domain was lost through a hostile stock takeover and his studio merged with that of 20th Century Pictures.
Desperate to secure a favorable ruling in a resulting bankruptcy proceeding, Fox tried to bribe the presiding judge and was convicted of perjury and sent to prison for six months, bringing his film industry career to an ignominious end. Though he was long removed from the field when he died in 1952, his name continues on with one of the largest media conglomerates in the world today.
The president of the West Coast Theatres, Inc. chain, which had its headquarters at Washington Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, was Harold B. Franklin (1889-1941), a New York City native and graduate of the City College who went into vaudeville theatre management in the mid-Teens. He rose to be the head of the Publix chain, owned by Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Studios, which was the dominant studio of the Roaring Twenties.
Franklin moved to Los Angeles in 1927 to take the reins at West Coast and was retained in his position when Fox engineered the takeover of the more than 230-venue chain. With Fox’s downfall, though, Franklin’s tenure soon ended and he accepted a buyout of his contract in 1930. He went to work for a chain owned by RKO, a theater of RCA, but that was another short-lived venture and Franklin became a theater producer and president of a theatre company. In the late 1930s, he organized a film production company, but died in Mexico City while on vacation at just age 52.
The featured object for this post is the 17 September 1928 edition of NOW, with a typically colorful and eye-catching cover that referred to the chain’s Star Guessing Contest. This month-long promotion, started in greater Los Angeles, involved entrants guessing the identities of 40 film stars and culminated with the announcement on the 11th of 667 winners out of 30,000 persons who submitted entries.
The judges included actors Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Lew Cody and George O’Brien and winners were directed to go to a West Coast theatre assigned to them to pick up their prizes, with the major ones including a $1,000 credit towards a lot in Cahuenga Park in the Sherman Oaks section of the San Fernando Valley, a $975 baby grand piano, a Chevrolet auto valued at $718, and furniture, furs, phonograph players and others.
A “Personal Talks” feature included excerpts from Franklin as he spoke at West Coast “Get-Together” conventions held for division employees in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Among his comments were: “When Mr. William Fox, through his corporation, bought control of West Coast, we became part of one of the most important, progressive and leading film organizations in the industry.”
The president added that “at no time has West Coast enjoyed a more successful period at the present” and offered that “the Fox Film Corporation has earned its right to leadership through the rare product which they have earned,” citing successful films like Street Angel and Sunrise with Janet Gaynor and others and praised Fox chief of production Winfield R. Sheehan for bring “principally responsible.”
Franklin also played up the “fine pleasant relationship” with major studios like First National, MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers, while noting that the chain of 215 theatres played movies to more than 80 million customers. This involved $1.2 million in print advertising in one year and he asked “how many national organizations in other industries spent that sum of money with the newspapers?”
As to the advent of talkies, the West Coast leader proclaimed
William Fox has earned the esteem of the industry for the development of Movietone. This device, together with Vitaphone [developed by Bell Telephone and Western Electric for Warner Brothers], has brought a second chapter of prosperity to the industry. Talking pictures are not a fad—they are here to stay! And it is my belief that through sound synchronization the greatest of all motion picture entertainment is still to come. Our obligation is to exert our fullest energies towards the encouragement and development of this new device.
There was also some significant coverage of the conventions in San Francisco and Seattle, with, at the former, 43 managers waiting for Franklin’s arrival and it was reported that at 10 a.m. :the little Napoleon of the theatre world strode into the room and a hum of voices instantly still with an electric anticipation of what was to come.” Joining the chief were officers, including publicity head Jeff Lazarus, who was the supervising editor of NOW, but who was chosen in September by Sheehan to join him at the Fox studio, and Howard Sheehan, vice-president of construction.
Sheehan told the managers that “West Coast Theatres will, in the next few months occupy the important position of having in operation one-tenth of all the ‘talking pictures’ equipment installed in the United States.” Soon, he continued, the company would erect ten theatres at a cost of some $2 million and which would “be the final word in theatre construction.”
Echoing what Franklin stated, the buyer and booker of pictures, Jack Sullivan reminded the assemblage that the programs offered at West Coast venues would be the finest because of the cooperation of major studios and exulted, “Think of it! Every program, picture, special and super production of William Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and First National will be yours.”
At the Seattle confab, Franklin told the attendees that the major investment in sound devices for West Coast theatres was such that he stated, “in my personal opinion, sound synchronization has added a new chapter of prosperity to our business, because it has served to bring a tremendous new interest in the motion picture industry.” The company head praised Fox and Warner Brothers “for sticking to a thing (the Vitaphone) that anyone else could have had for a song because it was considered worthless.”
He affirmed the preeminence of newspaper advertising, highlighting the Star Guessing contest and the Greater Movie Season promotion, and also mentioned many films from various studios that would soon be appearing in West Coast venues including Air Circus, “the first Fox picture with talking sequence,” directed by a young Howard Hawks and starring Arthur Lake (recently of Harold Teen fame) and Sue Carol; Wings, a Paramount hit from 1927 and featuring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen; Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot and starring Emil Jannings as Russian Czar Paul I as well as Florence Vidor and Lewis Stone and which was “considered the finest thing accomplished on either stage or screen;” MGM’s first sound picture, Alias Jimmy Valentine with William Haines, Lionel Barrymore and Leila Hyams; Lilac Time, a First National production with a young Gary Cooper and major star Colleen Moore; and the Warner Brothers picture, Noah’s Ark, with Dolores Costello, George O’Brien, Noah Berry, Louise Fazenda and a virtually unknown Myrna Loy.
With the Star Guessing contest successfully completed in Los Angeles, the publication reported that the day of the announcement “proved to be one of the biggest box office Mondays in many, many months” while it was added that “some mighty fine prizes have been lined up” for Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Another interesting marketing ploy was shown through an advertisement used to promote Forgotten Faces starring William Powell, Mary Brian and Olga Baclanova (listed only by her surname) and involving a space for a reader to put their thumbprint and then use a guide to determine purported character traits.
It was also reported in another article that
All house records of the Criterion Theatre Los Angeles, were smashed to bits when ‘Wing’ opened its world premiere engagement there at popular prices. Los Angeles new saw anything like the veritable stampede that resulted hours before the box office opened. A double line formed that wound its way from the theatre to Seventh Street, a distance of approximately 500 yards, and then continued for a solid block to Olive Street.
With the name of the World War I-themed picture and the theatre, as well as the word “NOW” painted on the wings, a biplane was flown over the Angel City “with a siren blowing” for three evenings, while “black letters were stenciled on sidewalks” and a crashed aircraft was placed on a pedestal filled with promotional material. Not only that, but there was a light beacon; an exhibit of military equipment from the National Guard with parachutes, machine guns, bombs, a plane’s wing and other material; two men dressed as aviators at the box office; and a contest to guess a half-dozen aviators to promote the film.
For Clara Bow’s The Fleet’s In from Paramount, publicity included cards left at hotel that purported to be from the star saying that she called and “said she would like you to see here at the ——- Theatre as soon as possible, because ‘The Fleet’s In” and will be leaving next —— [day].” Roads to the San Pedro base of the Pacific Fleet were “sniped with the name of the picture,” while store windows featured stills of Bow (a sporting goods store featured swimsuit photos) or, in the case of the Max Factor shop, images of the star endorsing its makeup line.
The Fox production, Four Sons, directed by John Ford and another of the run of World War I-themed pictures from the period and featuring an uncredited appearance by an unknown John Wayne as an officer, was said to be bringing in large crowds at the Metropolitan Theatre after a run at the Roxy in New York where 52,000 persons saw it in just two days. Among the PR components was a sheet music “tie-in,” which was very popular at the time, but which also involved displays in 14 downtown windows, displays at Victor record stores, and copies for sale at the theatre. Because of the use of telegrams in the picture, Postal Telegraph allowed for 25 windows at its stations for promotion and the theme song was played on the radio, among other gimmicks.
Among smaller pieces in the publication was an announcement that Fox intended to spend $16 million on a Philadelphia movie palace and more than triple that for a chain of a half-dozen or more “de luxe” venues in the City of Brotherly Love. Henry Busse, a noted cornet player with the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra, was also hired to be a master of ceremonies of the Metropolitan Theatre on an indefinite basis because “Busse is expected to fill a permanent niche in the hearts of theatregoers” in the Angel City venue.
These NOW publications are filled with much interesting material regarding the movie theatre sector of the film industry and we’ll certainly look to feature more of the several we have in the Homestead’s collection in future “That’s a Wrap posts” on this blog. So, be sure to keep an eye out for those!