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Overview for Charles Zulkeski
Charles Zulkeski

Charles Zulkeski


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A key figure in the development of the motion picture industry, Adolph Zukor helped to found Paramount Pictures, and oversaw its rise from modest distribution house to one of the most successful film studios of its day. A shrewd businessman, Zukor developed a fascination for moving pictures after arriving in New York City from his native Hungary at the turn of the century. He soon rose from exhibitor to producer, striking deals with a variety of smaller entities to create Famous Players-Lasky, one of the biggest film companies of the 1920s. Zukor also helped to establish the practice of block booking, which forced exhibitors wishing to purchase one of his films to also take an entire year's slate of features. This led to a series of clashes between Zukor and the Federal Trade Commission, which eventually broke Paramount's hold on theater chains and brought the studio system to an end in the 1950s. Though his methods were occasionally unsavory, Zukor's approach was always from a business standpoint, which allowed him to retain his reputation as a movie pioneer in the decades that followed his departure from Paramount in 1959.

He was born Adolph Cukor in the village of Ricse in Hungary on Jan. 7, 1873. He lost both of his parents - father Jacob, who ran a general store, and his mother, Hannah - before he reached the age of 10, and along with his brother Arthur, was raised by an uncle who hoped he would become a rabbi. At 16, he immigrated to America with $40 sewn into the lining of his overcoat. Landing in New York City, he found a job sweeping floors at a furrier before eventually taking up the trade himself. Three years later, the 19-year-old Zukor bought a ticket to Chicago, IL, drawn there by the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which commemorated Columbus' arrival in the New World. There, he joined a fellow former New Yorker, Morris Kohn, in a successful fur business. Zukor, who was somewhat shy and retiring, worked in the shop while Kohn handled the sales and customer relations. In 1900, a newly married Zukor relocated the business to New York. A cousin, Max Goldstein, approached him in 1903 for a loan to invest in exhibition pioneer Mitchell Mark's penny arcade business. Zukor joined forces with Mark to open the Automatic Vaudeville Company, which featured Thomas Edison's phonograph recordings, as well as early motion pictures. The company soon expanded into Philadelphia, Boston and Newark thanks to another investor, Marcus Loew, who would go on to establish the Loews Theater chain and co-found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Zukor's fascination with the growing field of motion pictures led him to create Hales' Tours, a simulated train ride that featured travelogue footage and elaborate sound effects. The venture failed, but Zukor rebounded after joining Loew's growing company as its treasurer. Nickelodeons were its stock and trade, but the public's desire for more motion pictures soon led them to purchase more businesses to convert into movie theaters. But he soon tired of the brick-and-mortar aspect of the business, and left Loews in 1912 to strike out on his own. With the assistance of Broadway producer Daniel Frohman, Zukor purchased the American rights to the French film "Queen Elizabeth" (1912), starring the famed stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. On July 12, 1912, they screened the 40-minute film at the Lyceum Theater for New York's social elite, whose enthusiastic response capped what historians would later regard as the first showing of a full-length motion picture in the United States.

Zukor and Frohman also launched the roadshow by touring the country with the film, which amassed some $200,000 in ticket sales. The pair used the proceeds to establish their own production company, Famous Players Film Company, with which he hoped to create filmed versions of full-length classical plays. Their first production was 1913's "The Prisoner of Zenda," which also reaped a sizable box office reward. The following year, Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky's Feature Player Company signed deals with Paramount Pictures Corporation to distribute their films throughout the United States. Lasky and his brother-in-law, Samuel Goldwyn, had just released "The Squaw Man" (1914), directed by a former stage actor named Cecil B. DeMille.

The picture drew the attention of Paramount Pictures Corporation, a distributor in search of features. Famous Players and Lasky signed an agreement to allow Paramount to handle their pictures, but quickly realized that they could reap bigger profits by controlling the distribution as well as the production. Zukor purchased a large majority of Paramount stock to take control of the company, and in 1916, it was folded into a larger entity, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, with Zukor as its president and Lasky its vice-president. Goldwyn initially settled for vice-president status, but was eventually forced out; he would later help to establish Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before launching one of the most successful independent producing careers in Hollywood history.

After consolidating his numerous subsidiary companies, including Paramount, Realart Pictures and the George M. Cohan Film Corporation, under the Famous Players-Lasky umbrella, Zukor set out to streamline his business. He signed many of the top stars of the period, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. In doing so, he required that any exhibitor who wished to screen their films also had to purchase a year's worth of other Famous Players-Lasky releases, often sight unseen. This practice, known as "block booking," drew the ire of numerous exhibitors, including the First National Exhibitions Circuit, who boycotted Famous Players-Lasky in 1919. Faced with the loss of nearly 600 nationwide theaters, Zukor then began purchasing theater chains. Within a few years, he had snapped up hundreds of movie houses, making Famous Players-Lasky one of the largest theater owners in the world.

In 1921, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) caught wind of Zukor's plan and charged Famous Players-Lasky and its subsidiaries with conspiracy and restraint of trade, which violated their anti-trust laws. Theater owners testified about the company's strong-arm tactics, which included building movie houses across the street from theaters that refused to accept block booking and even outright physical intimidation. In 1927, the FTC ruled that block booking was an unfair trade practice, and filed a cease and desist order against Zukor and his company. But Zukor had built his company into a formidable entity that could withstand such threats, even from the government. The profits he drew from his box office hits allowed him to make several significant purchases, including a hefty share of the Columbia Broadcasting System and the Balaban and Katz theater chain, which allowed him to expand his theater holdings to over 2,000 screens across the United States. He had also built a West Coast studio for production, which would eventually become Paramount Studios. An animation department, headed by Max and Dave Fleischer, was also presenting serious competition for Walt Disney's product. When faced with the FTC's charges, Zukor simply denied them. His stance was regarded as arrogance by both the media and the government, which responded with a massive anti-equity suit in 1929, charging Famous Players-Lasky and nine other studios of monopolizing 98 percent of domestic distribution. The following year, the Supreme Court declared the 10 studios guilty of violating anti-trust law.

Fortunately for Zukor, the United States government was in no position to enforce the law. The country had already sunk into the Great Depression, and the motion picture industry was one of the few businesses that were showing a profit during that period. The Roosevelt administration decided against pursuing the court's decree in favor of a promise from the studios to take a more progressive approach towards labor unionization. Zukor took advantage of the situation to put his house in order. After examining the company's finances, he discovered that it was in serious financial jeopardy from his constant expansion and acquisitions. To deflect the blame, he pinned the downward turn on Lasky, who was removed from the company in 1932. After keeping Zukor on the payroll, a reorganization team was brought in to salvage Famous Players' finances. By 1935, he had shed the last remaining troubled subsidiaries and placed Barney Balaban of Balaban and Katz in the president's seat. Zukor was made chairman of the board, and after renaming the company Paramount Pictures, he was largely credited as its savior during the Depression.

The 1930s saw Paramount develop into a movie factory, turning out 60 to 70 films per year. It boasted a stable of talent as impressive as its roster of silent stars, including Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard and the Marx Brothers. Zukor himself oversaw many of Paramount's best films of the decade, including "The Cocoanuts" (1929), the Oscar-winning "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931) and "The Milky Way" (1937). Other hits films to spring from the corner of Melrose and Gower were "Morocco" (1930), "Duck Soup" (1933), "She Done Him Wrong" (1933) and "Beau Geste" (1939). Its animation department also found great success with two of its creations, Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, which would go on to become iconic figures in cartoon history. Zukor managed all of these various entities with a calm, avuncular manner that belied the accepted notion of the studio chief as tyrant, as put forth by such notorious martinets as Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer and his former partner, Samuel Goldwyn.

Zukor was, first and foremost, a businessman. He retained only as much interest in the artistic side of Paramount motion pictures as was necessary, preferring instead to work behind the scenes to ensure his company's financial stability. When required to deal with his stars, he was a shrewd negotiator who sought to resolve contract disputes and other issues as swiftly as possible. He quashed a feud between squabbling stars Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri by moving Negri to Hollywood while keeping Swanson at his home base in New York, and soothed Mary Pickford's aggressive stage mother by building a clause into her daughter's contract that gave her $25,000 a year for "moral support." A diminutive man, Zukor had a knack for disarming people with his serene demeanor, a quality that earned him the nicknames "Sugar" (which was the literal translation of his surname in Hungarian) and "Uncle Adolph." And if he was occasionally ruthless with business partners or potential adversaries, he did it in a manner that bespoke that the conflict was strictly part of business, and not a personal vendetta. Zukor saved his energies for card-playing and golf, both of which he pursued with such a passion that he built an 18-hole course at his estate in Rockland County, NY.

But as many moguls who came to power in the 1920s soon discovered, the old ways of making movies were gradually rendered irrelevant in the 1940s and 1950s. Paramount, in particular, suffered considerable losses during these decades. The long-dormant specter of block booking returned with a vengeance in 1948, when the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department reopened their anti-trust case against the five major studios. The Supreme Court eventually sided with the government, as seen in the 1948 decision of United States vs. Paramount Pictures Inc., which barred movie studios from owning theater chains. The ruling not only forced Paramount to cut back on production at the height of its popularity - when stars like Bob Hope, Alan Ladd, Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton were on their payroll - but also signaled the end of the studio system. Paramount went into a decline as a result of the court decision. They released their players from contract and produced most of their projects through independent entities. Attempts to break into the television market through the DuMont Network and a pay TV service called International Telemeter also failed, further plunging their finances into disarray. With his empire now in tatters, Zukor decided to avoid the fate of many of his peers who had been ousted by the studios they had built, and retired in 1959. The respect he had earned from his employees allowed him to be named Chairman Emeritus, a position he held until his death at the age of 103 on June 10, 1976.

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