If it weren’t for Adolph Zukor, who was born on Jan. 7, 1873, Hollywood might never have started making feature-length movies.
Zukor, a native of Hungary, lost his parents while very young. At 16, the Orphans Board advanced him $40 and he left for New York. Visiting Chicago for 1892’s Columbian Exposition, he found work in the novelty fur business. A few years later, he moved his now prosperous fur enterprise to New York where fate led him to the fledgling film industry.
A cousin asked Zukor for a $3,000 loan in 1903 to buy into a New York arcade showing Edison inventions like phonographs, electric lights & peep shows. Zukor made the loan — and wound up going into arcades, himself, as a side venture to selling furs. He opened Automatic Vaudeville on 14th Street, a busy center for arcades & saloons. It did over $100,000 in Year One and Zukor expanded to Boston, Newark & Philadelphia. By 1906, he’d turned the arcade’s top floor into a theatre showing short films on a screen.
What made Zukor a movie mogul was his idea to show films much longer than 20 minutes, the industry-standard then. He recognized the potential of making features starring “famous players in famous plays.” His new company, Famous Players, started in 1912 by distributing the French production “QUEEN ELIZABETH” with stage star Sarah Bernhardt. Zukor, always the showman, opened it at New York’s Lyceum, a legitimate theatre, where the 44-minute long movie was a big hit.
A year later, Zukor joined forces with powerful theatre producers Charles & Daniel Frohman to cast stage stars in movies of plays whose rights were controlled by the Frohman’s. By 1913, Zukor had produced five features, including “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” & “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.” In 1916, he merged with the company run by Jesse L. Lasky, who produced the 1914 drama “THE SQUAW MAN,” to form Famous Players-Lasky, the major source of product for its distributor, Paramount Pictures.
Plotting from the start to control Paramount, Zukor quietly acquired Paramount shares until he could install Hiram Abrams, a film distributor from Maine, to replace W.W. Hodkinson as president. Hodkinson had created Paramount’s logo by recalling a snow-capped Wasatch Range mountain peak from his childhood in Utah. As for the name Paramount, he’d seen that on a New York apartment building.
Zukor’s ups & downs could and have filled books. When he died in July 1976 at 103, he’d outlived his many rivals going back to the movie industry’s earliest days.