Chapter 3 The Theatre Business Page II of iII
After the war Tucson had a spurt of growth and a new business block built at the far end of East Congress street included a new theatre, the Rialto, which was leased to Rickards and Nace, a theatre company from Phoenix.
In those days, as now, the houses with the good movies did the business and the others suffered. There was terrific competition to "buy" the best film product from the various distribution companies. Rickards and Nace, with the added buying power of the Phoenix area, made it tough, but, since they had to send a manager to operate for them, my dad and Ben, through long established friendships with the newspapers, managed to out-promote their competition and held their own.
However, competition for the films made the prices rise, and there was little money made by either operation. We had the product of the Paramount, First National and Fox studios tied up, They had the Metro and F.B.O. (later RKO) under yearly contracts. After a couple of years of battling each other, Rickards and Nace made a deal with my dad and Ben to turn the operation over to them -- they had had enough of Tucson.
We closed the Rialto during the summer months but the rest of the year it was operated as a movie and vaudeville house.
From the time I was a freshman in high school I worked every week night at the Opera House, as an usher, with my friend Irving Phillips. I was learning how to check out the box office in the evenings, how to make up the schedule for the subjects on the day's program, how to pay the bills, make up bank deposits, how to book the short subjects, how to make up the payroll, etc. By the time I was fifteen I was running the Opera House in the summertime, in addition to taking tickets and relieving the cashier during her dinner hour.
My dad recognized several years before that the salvation for the show business in the summertime in Tucson was dependent on his ability to develop some kind of a cooling system. He worked with a plumber, and they copied a system someone else had used to cool the air by blowing fresh air through a large metal chamber containing a couple of dozen sprinklers, like those used for watering lawns.
The thing worked like a top and enabled the Opera House to be advertised as the "Coolest Place in Town," and it truly was! People would come in night after night, seeing the same movie, but at least staying cool. The Opera House was the first cornmercial building in Tucson to have air conditioning, and it paid off. When the Rialto was built it had an air conditioning system, but it never did work as successfully as the home-made one my dad and his plumber devised.
In the late twenties sound pictures were being talked about, and some were being made in New York City and in Hollywood. They were mostly experimental productions. None of the theatres had sound equipment so, even if sound pictures were made, where were they going to be shown? But the facts were plain: there were going to be talking pictures in the near future and everyone in the movie business had to take a look at their "hole card" to figure out what this new medium would do for them -- or to them. The theatre owners were really on the spot. The installation of sound equipment was a very costly thing, about $25,000 to $40,000 for each house, and that was a hell of a lot of money in those days.
If the theatre owner did not install sound equipment, he was afraid his competitor would, and then his competition would get all the new sound pictures, and of course, the audiences.
We kept in touch with our friends in the Los Angeles area to see what they were doing. Luckily, we had a few contacts with the studios and could also talk to them about the production end of the business. No one was sure that the public would accept the "talkies," and all the smart guys were hedging their bets by making only parts of the films in sound to test the reaction at the box offices in the large cities which had installed sound equipment in anticipation of what was to come.
The pictures were advertised as "20% talkie," then the percentages increased gradually, and finally all the studios went nuts trying to produce all-talking pictures. The first one was made by Warner Brothers and was directed and produced by Bryan Foy. It was called, The Lights of New York, and I still remember parts of it. It was a hit at the box office, although far from being an artistic sensation. But who cared? All the people wanted was to see a talkie.
The first sound equipment used large records on which the sound was recorded. Very soon, though, the sound was recorded on a sound track on the side of the film, next to the picture. This eventually became the accepted method, but all the early theatres had to install equipment that could play either type of sound picture.
In Tucson, coming up with the kind of money needed to install sound equipment in both the Rialto and Opera House took some doing on the part of those involved in running the two theatres. We had established good credit records at the banks, and they financed this large and important investment.
Our first talkie, and the first ever to play Tucson, was In Old Arizona, which starred Warner Baxter. This was a natural for us since it was one of the big hits of that year. (I believe 1927). Tucson responded like every other city, and the talkies were here to stay. This meant the end of the eight piece orchestra I had employed at the Rialto to play the mood music during the silent film days. It also meant an end to the use of the Robert Morton Organ which for so many years had provided the proper musical atmosphere during the movies at the Opera House. The organ had cost $18,000, but had paid for itself several times.
With the silent movies, we would always receive a cue sheet which would suggest the type of music and even the names of the tunes which should be played. Our orchestra leader, George Marthens, would dig out the sheet music from our rather large library and would have to arrange the scores to conform to the various scenes and moods of the film that was currently playing the Rialto. The organist at the Opera House had to do the same thing. It was a tough thing to tell these old employees, the musicians, that they were no longer needed, except for the vaudeville shows, which, soon after the advent of the talkies, also became a thing of the past.
Later some of the larger theatres in the bigger cities continued to present stage shows such as the Paul Ash Show in the Chicago area and the Fanchon-Marco shows at the Fox West Coast theatres up and down the West Coast. These stage shows augmented the movie bill of fare in the houses which generally did not show the big hit films.
With the coming of sound, the movie theatre industry took on a new dimension. The large production and distributing companies saw the great opportunities that lay ahead of them in owning theatres. They could then control the business from beginning to end, from production to the box office. Fox owned some theatres in the eastern cities. RKO had the nucleus of a theatre chain with their vaudeville houses and hoped to extend their circuit with the addition of movie houses. Paramount, with its Publix theatres, was also very active in acquiring theatres.
On September 29, 1929, all of the theatres in Tucson were sold overnight. My dad, Ben Goldsmith, and their partners, Rickards and Nace, sold the Rialto and the Opera House to Paramount-Publix. The Diamos brothers, who owned the Lyric theatres in Tucson and also the new Fox theatre which was under construction, sold out the same day. At the same time they sold their interests in the theatres in Douglas, Bisbee and Nogales.
Both Fox West Coast and Paramount-Publix had been negotiating with my dad's group and the Diamoses. Neither company wanted to own all the houses because they feared the federal government might step in if either one held a monopoly in a town. So, overnight my brother and I were working for Paramount-Publix, and my dad and Ben Goldsmith each ended up with $62,500 for their interests. They each retired, and were considered to be very well off since they had accumulated some money during the last few years they owned the theatres.
My brother and I were good showmen, knew how to promote the attractions we played and had made quite a bit of money for our bosses. We had been paid pretty good salaries for those times. When I quite school and went to work at the Rialto, I started at the figure of $30 a week. Within a year I had received several raises and was making $50 a week. When I got married in 1927 I was earning $65 a week. I had about $2,000 in the bank and used that to make a down payment on a house, install a coal furnace and buy some furniture.
Working for Publix Theatres was not like working for ourselves. I found out that there were many things that could be done better than the way we had been doing them. But, I also found out that our free-wheeling ways produced profits that exceeded those realized under the chain method of operation.
I always worked like hell anyway and the fact that I now had a boss didn't bother me much. I got along fine with whomever they sent down to supervise our operations. But it wasn't like the old days. This resulted not so much from the fact we no longer owned the theatres as much as from the fact that the business had changed so dramatically with the coming of the sound movies. The stage was seldom, if ever, used. There were practically no traveling shows as we used to know them.
Publix wanted to try the revue type of stage show to augment the movies and booked the Wilbur Cushman Revue into the Rialto for three days a week, while the balance of the week the company would appear at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.
This outfit was owned by Wilbur Cushman and his wife, who were old-timers. They had been performers, singers, dancers, musicians and now were directors and producers of the weekly shows that featured several star performers and a chorus line of eight lovelies. The Cushmans were a smart and very nice couple. They insisted that their people dress well, behave themselves off the stage as well as on, and leave no bad impressions in the community. They were with us for nearly four months in the winter and spring of 1932, and, during this period of recession, increased attendance for us.
I got very well acquainted with the Cushmans, as well as with some of the cast, and they were fun people. It was good to again be around real show people who liked to have fun as well as make money (which was about the only thing the Publix personnel were interested in).
Times were rough in Tucson, and Publix decided that I should run both the Opera House and the Rialto. My brother, Frank, left to go to work for the Tucson Daily Citizen as an advertising account man. We closed the Rialto every summer, but this year, 1933, it was closed earlier than usual. I then spent full time at the Opera House.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, one of his first acts was to close every bank in the U.S. in order to prevent their wholesale bankruptcy. Since the theatre business is a cash business, the bank closures really hit us where it hurt most, at the box office. We printed up some I.O.U's on small slips and had people who didn't have cash sign them for the price of the tickets, hoping that someday they would come around and pay up. Most of them did, much to our surprise. Everyone was in the same boat so we helped each other.
One night when we were playing some big production, I got a phone call from Joe Abbott, who worked at the Consolidated National Bank (later to become a branch of the Valley National Bank). He had a bunch of people at his house for dinner, and they all wanted to come to the movie. Joe said he could bring a wolfskin to pay for the tickets, and I told him we'd accept it. When he showed up with it, I had a photographer take a picture, for which I wrote the caption, telling how the wolf had come to the door of the Joe Abbott home, had been dragged in, killed, skinned and served for dinner, with the skin used to pay for the tickets to the Opera House. The story went out on the wire, and I had clippings sent me from many places throughout the country. It apparently appealed to newspaper editors who needed a bit of humor to offset the overabundance of bad news that was so prevalent then.
In February of 1933, William Jenkins, one of the top executives of the Publix company, came to Tucson to tell me that drastic cuts would be made in everyone's salary, including mine. I was then making $67.50 a week but would be cut to $50.00 starting in four weeks. I told him I would leave as soon as I could find another job. He asked a question that was already going through my mind, "Where in the hell are you going to find another job?"
He also announced that the contract with the projectionist union, calling for two men per shift, was being canceled in two weeks. They could either accept the reduction of projectionists from four to two men for the Opera House or they could walk out. When I told the union agent the news, he hit the ceiling and threatened to strike immediately, picket the theatre and cause all union people to boycott it as well. That's all we needed.
They did walk out and they did picket the place. But they also did much more. They stinkbombed the theatre one night about 3 a. m. despite the fact we had a guard on duty twenty-four hours a day.
I had to rush downtown, open all the doors, try to perfume the place and clean it up so that we could operate the next day. It was a hell of a mess! A local druggist sold me a product called "water glass," which sealed over the chemicals used in the stink bomb. We operated that next day although the place smelled pretty bad. The newspaper made a big deal out of the stink bombing, creating some sympathy for us.
The union men knew that the cancellation of the contract was not of my doing, but I still got a few threatening phone calls and anonymous letters which I ignored. About two weeks later they stinkbombed us again, and this time they did it up in a rainbow of the foulest smelling stuff I ever encountered. The place smelled so bad we had to shut down for a couple of days. The whole downtown area stunk. In fact, the stores on both sides of Congress Street, between Stone Avenue and Scott Street, had to use perfume in their air conditioning system to offset the terrible smell that permeated the entire area.
I had my belly full and was trying to figure out how the devil I could escape this trap. About that time I had gotten acquainted with a man by the name of Percy Kent, an executive with the Fox West Coast chain in L. A., who had been sent to Tucson to "dry out." He was a periodic alcoholic but a wonderfully kind man with whom I spent a lot of time. And how he could drink beer! One night just before he left Tucson after a sixty-day stay, we went into Dooley's place to play pool and drink beer. He ordered a case of beer to be kept on ice while we drank it, a bottle at a time. We finished the case of beer in about three hours, my share being eight bottles. He drank the other sixteen!
Anyway, he thought I should be working for Fox West Coast Theatres instead of Publix. He arranged for me to meet Charlie Skouras, then president of FWC, and, on June 1, 1933, I became manager of the Fox theatre in Tucson, where I remained for six and a half years.
It wasn't quite as simple as it sounds. When Sidney Kent, considered for many years as the top executive among those who ran the large film corporations, left Paramount to assume the presidency of Twentieth Century Fox, many of the Paramount high echelon followed him. An agreement was reached that there would be no hiring of Paramount people by Fox, and, although I was a small potato, the matter was under discussion for about ten days while I cooled my heels in Los Angeles.
A friend of mine by the name of Dan Dereig went over with me. It was his first trip to California, and he was impressed by Hollywood's sights and sounds. During that ten days we did up the town in all the colors of the rainbow. Through my friendship with performers who had been in Tucson with the Wilbur Cushman Revue the year before, we had no lonesome evenings. Some of the dancers were working at the old Paramount Theatre in the stage show; through them we met all the other gals in the chorus.
We would meet the girls between shows in a little restaurant across the alley from the stage door, drink beer and have a lot of laughs. Ben Blue was the star of the show at the Paramount during those two weeks and he was a joy to be around.
Through these show people, we learned where all the best bootlegging joints were in the town. Booze was being legalized at just about that time but in California, for some reason, it was delayed a few months. The police were just about at the point of ignoring the law, but no new legalized bars had yet opened.
There was one joint on North Hill Street that was up at the top of a long flight of stairs. To get in you had to press a button which rang a bell. The door at the bottom of the street would then open by a buzzer control. You'd stick your head in under a bright light and a guy would look down at you through a peephole and decide if you could come in with your party.
I think you had to say something like "Joe sent me," but, at any rate, getting in was not easy. We took three of the chorines with us, and when we got in we found that it was beautifully furnished, served excellent food and had a dance combo. It also had a couple of entertainers to make the time pass by while you guzzled booze.
After a couple of drinks, our girl friends thought they could outperform the paid acts and arranged with the orchestra to play a couple of numbers for them to sing and dance to. This pleased the management no end. So the next night when we showed up under the bright light at the bottom of the stairway, we were greeted with open arms. We were there several nights and had a whale of a time.
Another night we went to a nightclub on West Third Avenue, across from Westlake Park. It was also a second-floor place and very nice. Other girls from the Cushman Revue worked there. The place had a large dance floor and a fifteen piece band under the direction of a young man whose last name was Fisher.
After the first evening show, a large party of people, perhaps twenty or more, arrived, and it was obvious they were not going to have their first drink of the evening in this place. They were a boisterous bunch and took the place over, much to everyone's annoyance. During one of the dances, one of the noisy drunks had words with the orchestra leader and a bit of a fuss took place. The bouncers were on the scene in time to prevent any serious problems.
However, as soon as the floor cleared, this same drunk walked towards the bandstand from his table, shouting obscenities to the band leader. He must have weighed about 220 and was at least six feet tall, The leader was stocky and weighed about 170. When the drunk reached the front of the band area, the leader laid one on his chops that decked him. He was out like Lottie's eye. Cold.
With that, someone from his party ran out on the floor and threw a dinner plate at the leader which luckily missed him and crashed against one of the music racks. The rest of the party of drunks rushed towards the bandstand and were met by a combination of musicians and bouncers.
The battle was on! Others tried to either break it up or get involved on one side or the other. Dan Dereig suggested that we go out and join the battle to subdue the noisy bunch. I pulled him back into the booth where we were seated and told him we were sitting this one out. He wanted to leave, but I told him we'd probably run into the police on their way in, as I was certain they had been called.
Within five minutes about fifteen cops swarmed in the place. We were the only ones in the joint who had stayed out of the fracas. When the cops came around to ask questions, we told them we were just spectators, so they let us be. It was quite a special floor show we saw that evening.
Two of the friends we saw while on that trip to Los Angeles, who had been with the Cushman Revue in Tucson, were Hermes Pan and his sister. He was soon to be famous as the choreographer who arranged the routines for the Astaire Rogers musicals, as well as many others.