Not a few books have been written about Jewish immigrants' behind-the-scenes, yet paramount, role in the creation of the American film industry. Neal Gabler's 1989
An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood
is the bible for anyone interested in how the kingpins of the silver screen, from their sun-soaked Southern California thrones, brought mass entertainment to millions and shaped the careers of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Back here, on the grittier streets of Chicago, Jewish immigrants also played a pivotal role in the nascent film industry: as movie theater owners. As the late Sidney Sorkin wrote in 2001 in "Reel Men: Chicago's Jewish Movie Exhibitors," an article published by
Chicago Jewish Histor
y, the quarterly publication of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, many, if not most, of the developers of The Windy City's movie palaces of the early 20th century were Jewish immigrants or their children.
Perhaps no two names in Chicago movie theaters were better known than Balaban and Katz, a family operation that, during its heyday, built, owned, and managed more than 100 theaters. Most were in Chicago, including the Chicago, Oriental, Uptown, and Riviera, but they spread across the suburbs and state - in venues such as Bloomington, Peoria, and Joliet - plus beyond Illinois' borders, South Bend, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio, among them.
As Balaban and Katz family historian, author, and documentarian David Lee Balaban recounts, the seed for the success of the family - there were seven Balaban brothers and one Katz, the husband of the brothers' lone sister - was planted by the matriarch, Augusta "Gussie" Mendeburskey Balaban. A Russian Jewish immigrant, she ran a small grocery store around Maxwell Street in Chicago's old Jewish immigrant neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century.
"'Instead of squeezing cantaloupes, which they never buy, you can get a nickel'" from paying customers for movies - and they can't get their money back if they don't like them. That was Gussie's advice to her sons, said Balaban, the author of
The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz
, published in 2006, and grandson of one of the brothers, also named David.
The eldest two, A. J. (Abraham) and Barney, embarked on the movie theater business in 1909. Eventually, all seven were involved. Barney subsequently was named president of Paramount Pictures, which bought a controlling interest in Balaban and Katz, and brother-in-law Sam Katz became a bigwig at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The youngest two, Harry and Elmer, father of actor Bob Balaban, formed H & E Corporation, which ran the Esquire theater on East Oak Street.
The Balaban and Katz theaters were known for their ornate interiors and exteriors - heated entryways, plush carpeting, majestic balustrades, gilded fountains, original murals, and chandeliers. Some even featured playgrounds. Many were built by the Chicago architecture firm Rapp and Rapp, and were the first to feature air-conditioning, a godsend to Chicagoans eager to escape blisteringly hot summers.
Escape was key to the Balaban and Katz entertainment philosophy. As the country reeled from the Great Depression and World War II, Balaban and Katz moviegoers, for a coin apiece, could take in vaudeville acts and stage shows before enjoying film shorts and a feature flick, along with music by a live organist - all in luxurious surroundings.
"People of modest means could experience the world," said David Lee Balaban.
Today, that world is gone. As the
June Sawyers noted in a 1989 article, the Balaban and Katz names faded from brand awareness by the 1960s and 70s, thanks to corporate mergers and acquisitions.
Yet Balaban perseveres in his efforts to chronicle his family's contributions. He is working on a documentary, clips of which can be seen on YouTube, and city preservationists seek to restore the Uptown Theatre to its glory days. Coming soon - to a theater near you.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.