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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,474

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This is the grave of Adolph Zukor.

Born in 1873 in Ricse, in what is today Hungary, Zukor grew up in a middling Jewish family. His father ran a store. When his father died, Zukor and family moved in with an uncle who was a rabbi. The uncle wanted Adolph to become a rabbi too, but the kid wasn’t interested and instead was apprenticed into a dry goods firm. At the age of 18, he decided to follow many other Jews and head to the United States. He arrived in New York in 1891 and worked in an upholstery store and then for a furrier. Nothing too interesting or unusual here.

By 1893, Zukor was moving into doing independent work as a furrier, becoming an independent contractor. He decided to head to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He liked Chicago and decided to stick around and start his own fur business out there. Zukor’s Novelty Fur Company became a pretty important little Midwestern company. He made a ton of money in the fur business, moved back to New York, lived in a swanky house, and decided to go into new enterprises. That included the movies, which were a totally new thing. That happened in 1903. His cousin was investing in movie theaters and he asked if Zukor wanted to give him a loan for this. Zukor found this whole thing pretty interesting. This Zukor-based theater chain quickly opened places across the Northeast.

Zukor liked spending his money on this new entertainment. In 1912, he decided to sell his share of the theater business to fund the making and acquisition of pictures. He, with the help of Thomas Edison, created the first feature length film. Queen Elizabeth starting Sarah Bernhardt is not considered a good movie at all. First of all, Bernhardt may have been the most famous actor of her time, but she was old by this point and she had lost a leg, so when she moved, you could see her hobbling around on a poorly fitted wooden leg. The quality of the film was also terrible. But people still were happy to see such a thing. And they all knew who Bernhardt was at least and now they could see her! The potential for feature films was established.

He started working with New York theater people to bring their top talent to the screen. This started with The Prisoner of Zenda, from 1913, directed by the great Edwin S. Porter and Hugh Ford. That film survives today, though I don’t think I have seen it. He had just founded Famous Players Film Company at that time, but Zukor had bigger aims in mind. In 1927, he bought stakes in a bunch of small but active film companies and pulled them all together under a new name–Paramount Pictures. That company of course remains with us today and is one of the oldest film studios around. When I was in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, I happened upon the Paramount studio lot and I have to say that even though I didn’t go in, seeing those old sound set buildings and such even from the outside made me warm and nostalgic inside for the classic days of the great old films. Zukor then bought hundreds of theaters in the South to guarantee a nice big market for his own films. In many ways, Zukor created the modern film industry. He was a monopolist who believed in the vertical integration model, so he had his hands in the entire film industry.

Now no one really should be nostalgic for the old studio system in terms of how it treated its stars. Men like Zukor were tyrants controlling the lives of great artists and they often didn’t have much choice but to go along. It wasn’t great. But Zukor at the very least did have a good eye for talent and believed that the top stars should be paid well enough that they wanted to stay with him. He had a lot of the great silent stars under his roof–Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolf Valentino, Gloria Swanson and many others. So if you wanted his pictures with all the stars that audiences wanted to see, you had to sign contracts with Paramount that would effectively put your theater under Zukor’s control for the next year. It should be not be surprising that the government came calling with antitrust suits against this ridiculousness.

By 1920, Zukor had enough power in the industry and produced so many films that he could pioneer the idea of the distributor getting a cut of the theater’s profit, which is normal today. He was a tough financial guy. But he would invest in his stars. Mary Pickford, even though she was only 19 years, came to him and demanded $20,000 a year. He didn’t want to pay it, but she insisted and he gave in. Soon, he was paying her $100,000 a year. Good for her. He understood that paying talent was the cost of doing business. He didn’t mind extravagances of his own anyway, including putting up a big new building in New York. He also was more hands off in the artistic side of the business than a lot of the other early moguls. This was a good thing. He left this to the experts and knew he was a businessman, not an expert on how to make a good movie.

But things went south for reasons that are very typical of the time. For one, he had a great investment that he sold too soon. That was the Columbia Broadcasting System. He sold that in 1928. Bad call. Meanwhile, being a businessmen of the 20s, he was funding Paramount’s expansion through super sketchy stock options and margins. It overvalued the stock. So when the Depression came, it hit Paramount very hard. Most of his partners were thrown out of the company. Paramount filed for bankruptcy. Luckily, it was not liquidated, but rather reorganized. However, Zukor was forced out of any meaningful role in 1936. He was named Chairman of the Board, which basically gave him a big office. But in terms of real running the company, he was out. Paramount of course survived and Zukor made his money back. He lived the good life in New York and Hollywood in the winter. He would even come into the office when in California!

But he was a senior figure who at least has a voice. When the film industry freaked out in the early 50s that TV would replace it, Zukor publicly stated that this was ridiculous and instead the existing film companies should just adapt to television, which they did and continue to do. He retired in 1959 and gave up any involvement at all in 1964. He died in 1976, at the age of 103.

Adolph Zukor is buried in Temple Israel Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Hollywood moguls, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jack Warner is in East Los Angeles and Joseph Schenck is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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