Monday, November 29, 2010

20th Century Fox and Philadelphia

A movie chain's early ties to the City of Cinematic Love

Contributed by Mike Gaines

When people think of 20th Century Fox Studios, or simply Fox, the first things that usually come to mind are Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. The company and its founder, however, have a much more colorful history than people actually realize and has very strong ties to Philadelphia’s illustrious theatrical past.

In 1917, William Fox, a Hungarian immigrant, founded the Fox Film Corporation when he merged two separate companies he had established four years prior – the Greater New York Film Rental and Fox (or Box) Office Attractions Company, the former a distribution company and the latter a production company. By consolidating these two entities, Fox was able to control his growing theater chain with greater efficiency.

Pictures were secondary to a man who has always been considered more of an entrepreneur than entertainer and his focus was on acquiring and building theaters as opposed to producing the attractions. His theaters were known for their opulence, grandeur, and seating capacities at well over 1,000 per theater.

In 1927 Fox saw a prime opportunity to expand his cinematic empire through the acquisition of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, one of his biggest rivals. That year the head of MGM, Marcus Loew passed away and within two years Fox had acquired the Loew family’s shares of MGM. Unfortunately for Fox, this outraged the studio bosses of MGM, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, since they were not shareholders and left out of any profits from the merger.

Using his political connections, Mayer urged the Department of Justice to investigate Fox for violating antitrust laws, which tied up the merger for the next several years. A combination of the stock market crash of 1929 and recovering from serious injuries in a car accident wiped out Fox’s financial holdings so severely that even if the Department of Justice had given its eventual blessing to the merger it could not go forth.

The following year Fox lost control of his company and theaters during a hostile takeover, which combined with his other ails, forced him into a six year long battle to stave off bankruptcy. In 1935, the Fox Film Corporation merged with 20th Century Productions, only two years old at the time, to form the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. A year later, Fox was sentenced to six months in prison for attempting to bribe a judge at his bankruptcy hearing. Upon his release, Fox retired from the film business and into seclusion. He died at the age of 73 in 1952, so forgotten that not one single Hollywood producer attended his funeral.

Two examples of Fox’s theatrical opulence existed in Philadelphia, the first thirty years gone and the second still somewhat extant.

The Original Fox Theatre

In January 1922, a permit was issued to the Fox Film Corporation allowing them to build a brand new theater on the southwest corner of Sixteenth and Market Streets at a reported cost of $1.1 million.

The 17-story, steel frame, fireproof building was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, who had already designed six similar theaters in other cities including Atlanta, Brooklyn, and Detroit. The theater's seating capacity topped out at 2,423 seats and featured 15 varieties of imported Italian marble throughout. The box office was hexagonal in shape with a marble base that supported handmade bronze pillars and topped by a brass dome.

Fox Theatre Building seen from City Hall on West Market Street in 1926. The Arcade Building with its bridge to Broad Street Station, and the Harrison Building can be seen in the foreground outside City Hall.

In addition to motion pictures, the Fox had a Grand Orchestra which featured staff-produced shows that were aired twice weekly from its in-house radio broadcasting facilities.

In 1931 a proposal to sell the Fox theaters to Paramount fell through since not one of its theaters were profitable, save for the original at Sixteenth and Market. The following year, Alexander Boyd took over control of the theater, as well as the theater on Locust Street, after having sold his namesake theater on Chestnut Street, and continued to operate them until 1936 when Stanley Warner took control.

As cinematic technologies advanced, so did alterations to the theaters. In 1939 all stage shows ceased production, and when Cinemascope films were introduced in 1950, the staff is said to have taken the original organ console out to the back alley and burned it.

What had been the stage space was carved into a second, smaller theater called the Stage Door Theatre, fronting on Sixteenth Street. With the Fox chain now focused solely on motion pictures, it became home to several world premiers including Knute Rockne All American (1940), Centennial Summer (1946), and The Street with No Name (1948).

In 1959 the Milgrim Theatre chain leased the Fox Theatre and purchased it two years later, making the movie house at Sixteenth and Market their flagship theater. To maintain a reputation of excellence, as well as patronage from the Main Line ladies who frequented the theater, meticulous care was taken with the space.

In addition to boasting the best projection and sound capabilities available, supervisors checked every movie lens with white gloves daily to make sure they were clean and changing rooms were even installed in the basement for ushers. Before long, the Fox Building became Philadelphia’s movie exhibition headquarters where it housed local offices for every movie chain in the country, complete with a screening room on the 17th floor.

In March of 1980, the Fox Theatre finally closed after its final movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture finished its run. Milgrim claimed that it would cost over $1 million to restore and repair the plaster in the auditorium, most of which had long since been draped over, though a preservation committee, the Committee to Save the Fox, objected to these findings and began protesting its demolition.

One proposal for the site included building a new office building around and above the Fox, but in the end its owner won and the building, along with the rest of the block, was ultimately demolished to make room for a new office building which stands on this site today as home to PNC Bank.

After its demolition, some of the 87,000 tons of Italian marble were sold off, including the marble balcony railing which is now used as the communion railing at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania. The Shubert Foundation bought many of the seats, chandeliers were sent to Columbus, Ohio for a theater restoration project, and the ticket book was sent to Los Angeles, California.

The Fox-Locust Theatre

The second Fox theater in Philadelphia opened in 1927 as a part of the Equitable Trust Building at 1401 Locust Street, on the northwest corner of South Broad and Locust Streets, with a seating capacity of 1,580 (Orchestra 1053, Loge 375, Balcony 152).

Designed by renowned architect Horace Trumbauer, the building was built as the Philadelphia headquarters for the Equitable Trust Company of New York. The building’s design was influenced by one of Trumbauer’s most recent projects, the Chateau Crillon Apartment House on nearby Rittenhouse Square.

Equitable Trust Company and Chateau Crillon designed by Horace Trumbauer

An organ chamber was designed for the theater, though no organ was ever installed, as well as an orchestra pit capable of holding up to 65 musicians. Unfortunately this location was outside of what was then known as the Theatre District along Market and Chestnut Streets and closed sometime after 1929 due to dwindling business.

It reopened in October of 1931 as the Locust Street Theatre, operated by Alexander Boyd. In 1958 new management took over and renamed it the New Locust Theatre, and installed new chandeliers from the recently demolished Mastbaum Theatre in the lobby, foyer, and under the mezzanine.

The theater's final show was Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1980. Despite objections from the preservation community, a majority of the auditorium was demolished to make room for a parking garage while the remaining space was converted into a restaurant.


  1. Correction: Ted's Montana Grill is a block away at Broad & Spruce.