This Day in Jewish History

1873: The Original Movie Mogul, Adolph Zukor, Is Born

The founder of Paramount Pictures was a formal, icy man with strict moral standards - who found himself charmed by 'moving pictures'.

January 7, 1873 is the birthdate of Adolph Zukor, the movie mogul whose vision, more than anyone else’s, provided the business model for the motion picture industry during its first century. Zukor took over a company called Paramount that took care of getting movies into theaters, and only that, and turned it into a corporation that controlled production, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures.

Like so many of the founding fathers of Hollywood, Adolph Zukor was a European-born Jew, in his case from the Hungarian village of Ricse in that country’s northeastern Tokaj region. Adolph’s father, Jacob, died when the boy was only one, and his mother, the former Hannah Liebermann, died six years later, so that Adolph and his older brother Arthur were raised for the most part by a maternal uncle, Kalman Liebermann.

A rabbi, Liebermann expected his nephews to follow a similar path, and was severely disappointed that Adolph was uninterested in pursuing a rabbinical career. (His brother, Arthur, did). Instead, Adolph served a three-year apprenticeship in the dry goods store of family friends, before receiving permission from the local orphans board to emigrate to America in 1889, at age 16.

In New York, Zukor learned the lucrative furrier’s trade, and while visiting the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1892, was convinced by a friend he met there to stay in the city and go into a partnership selling furs. Within a year, Zukor and his partner, Max Schosberg, had 25 people working for them, and had opened a branch store in Peoria, Illinois.

By 1900, Zukor had a new partner, Morris Kohn, and was married to Kohn’s niece, Lottie Kaufman. The business partners decided to move their enterprise back to New York, where they continued to thrive. They were making good enough money that in 1903, a cousin of Zukor’s approached him for a loan to invest in a chain of penny arcades in Buffalo.

Zukor liked these halls filled with machines into which individuals could peer and see very short films, usually no longer than a minute or two. But he was already thinking bigger, and insisted on opening an additional arcade in Manhattan, on busy 14th Street.

The new business, called Automatic Vaudeville, was successful enough that at the end of 1903, Zukor and Kohn dissolved the fur business and went into arcades full-time, expanding from New York to Boston and Newark.

Part of Zukor’s genius was his ability to anticipate the future of a technology or service, and to persist even when others resisted his logic. It was Zukor who, seeing the future of motion pictures as a mass-appeal art form, decided to invest in theaters with seats. Then, in 1912, he introduced the full-length feature film to the United States upon buying the rights to distribute a French film (silent of course), “Queen Elizabeth,” starring Sarah Bernhardt. Next he formed a partnership, Famous Players Film Company, with a prestigious Broadway producer, with the goal of bringing popular plays to the screen. None of these innovations were obvious at the time, and many people scoffed at Zukor.

Over the next few years Zukor systematically went about creating a vertically integrated studio, Paramount Pictures, that controlled movie production, distribution and exhibition. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Paramount was in violation of antitrust regulations, and forced it to divest itself of its theater ownership, but that was not until 1948, by which time Zukor already had an emeritus role at the studio.

Having grown up with little, Zukor wanted very much to be accepted into the top ranks of American society, and he played the part, wearing the most elegant clothes, driving the finest cars, and owning an 800-acre estate in Rockland County, New York, complete with 18-hole golf course.

Zukor was a formal, even icy man who had strict moral standards and would not tolerate dishonesty or sloth. He was a fierce competitor. But he could see beyond the horizon, and the industry he helped create ushered in a cultural revolution that changed the world.

Zukor died in Los Angeles on June 10, 1976, at the age of 103.