How a Mouse With a Huge Florida Footprint is Tantalizing Wall Street and Hollywood While Causing Minor Graveyard Tremors
Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn – the “G” in MGM – was as famous in his day as Yogi Berra was in later years for uttering malapropisms and making oxymoronic statements such as Yogi’s odd restaurant review: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
One such utterance attributed to Goldwyn – and of a kind attributed to many others through the years – went like this: “If Roosevelt were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”
Well, a similar posthumous disturbance might be expected soon from a different movie mogul who led a truly remarkable life and whose name lives on quite prominently worldwide in realms as varied as low-brow entertainment and serious public policy.
Indeed, much of the nomenclature of American pop culture might be different except for an action this man took early in his life. More about that in a moment. First, let’s meet this man:
He was born on New Year’s Day 1879 in a small village in Hungary. Historians disagree regarding his name at birth. Some say it was either Vilmos or Wilhelm Fuchs, with Fuchs being his mother’s maiden name. Others say it was Wilhelm Fried, with Fried being his father’s surname. For this article, let’s use the historians’ more common preference, Wilhelm Fried.
Wilhelm’s parents, Michael and Hannah Fried, were Jewish. Luckily, they had the foresight to get out of soon-to-be war-ravaged Eastern Europe and emigrate to American that same year, when Wilhelm was nine months old. The couple settled in New York City’s lower east side and had 12 more children.
Detailed biographies covering Wilhelm’s early life – and, ironically, his later life – are relatively scarce, especially considering the prominence he achieved in between. But this much we do know: His rise began with a small purchase he made at the age of 21 after dropping out of school at age 11 and knocking around New York City in various menial jobs while also trying his hand at business.
As for that transformative purchase, in 1904 he paid $1,600 to acquire a nickelodeon. Somewhat resembling the video game arcades of recent years, nickelodeons were establishments that housed an early method for individuals to view the end product of one of Thomas Edison’s remarkable new inventions, motion pictures, generally one customer at a time.
View of nickelodeon theater, ca. 1910s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that by then young Wilhelm Fried had “Americanized” his name by changing it to … William Fox? Anyway, young Mr. Fox converted the nickelodeon into a movie theater to screen the silent films of the day.
Prospering, he soon acquired or built other theaters, moved west to California, and opened a movie studio to provide content for his theaters. At his studio and in his theater business he pioneered and patented many important advances, including the sound-on-film technology that became the industry standard.
In his theater chain were several ornate “movie palaces.” Unfortunately, many of these architectural wonders were torn down as the movie business shifted to suburban multiplexes, but some bearing the Fox name still stand.
Moreover, several have been lovingly restored. Among the noteworthy examples is the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Originally built as a Shrine Temple, it closed and fell into disrepair until it was rescued and restored for use as a performing arts venue.
Iconic sign in front of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Courtesy of JlWelsh/Flickr.
Also noteworthy is the Fox Theatre in Detroit, which was the site of the first Presidential “debate” during the 2016 election cycle. It was broadcast by the Fox News Channel. Some post-debate analysts remarked that the theater fared better than several of the 17 Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, as Fox’s theater chain was growing, his movie studio was cranking out films that caught the public’s fancy. Several featured Theda Bara, one of the first actresses to become a bonified movie star. Significantly, the legal ability of his studio and everyone else to make movies was the result of an anti-trust lawsuit that Fox won in federal court, dismantling Thomas Edison’s monopoly.
Through much of the 1920s Fox was a multimillionaire. By 1930, however, he was broke and had even lost control of the studio he founded. It was later bought out of bankruptcy by a company led by Darryl F. Zanuck and others. They merged Fox Films into 20th Century Pictures, thereby creating 20th Century-Fox. Years later, the hyphen was dropped, but the distinctive searchlight logo and opening fanfare remain.
Portrait of William Fox, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By the early 1940s, William Fox was in trouble, accused of bribing a federal judge. He eventually served six months of a two-year prison sentence. He eventually retired to a reasonably comfortable life back in New York, where he died in 1952 at the age of 73 and was buried in Brooklyn.
By then, William Fox the man was largely forgotten, but his chosen surname has lived on in a variety of enterprises that have continued to expand. That survival in and of itself is something of a miracle worthy of a movie script.
Imagine that it’s 1963. You’re asked to bet which brand name will be in a better place 50 years hence, Fox or RCA? If you had answered “RCA,” that was understandable; at the time it was a major manufacturer, a regular presence on the Fortune 500 list of the largest American corporations, and a force to be reckoned with in broadcasting through its ownership of NBC radio and TV.
That same year William Fox could only watch from afar as 20th Century Fox, the studio he founded and lost, struggled to avert bankruptcy thanks to the enormous cost overruns and countless delays of the release of Cleopatra.
At the time Cleopatra was the most expensive movie production ever undertaken. To make matters worse, the production was delayed again and again by petty spats, even as the stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, found plenty of time for romance.
Promotional poster for Cleopatra. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Nowadays RCA isn’t much more than a familiar but fading nameplate used by other companies. Meanwhile, the Fox brand lives on in a variety of enterprises ranging from Fox Sports and the Fox News Channel to a parent company dubbed 21st Century Fox.
In a sense, that’s the good news for William Fox and his descendants; the Fox name will live on. The bad news is that the movie studio’s parent company has been in negotiations with Disney, the studio the show-biz newspaper Variety refers to as “the Mouse House.”
The Wall Street Journal – which ought to know because it’s part of the same media empire assembled by modern-day mogul Rupert Murdoch – broke the news that Disney will pay $60 billion to add the Fox movies studio and several other of Fox’s assets to those in its expanding empire
Wall Street, now enjoying record highs because interest rates have been hovering at record lows ever since the Great Recession, reacted positively, with both Disney and Fox’s parent company enjoying a rise in the price of their shares.
Unaffected — and not for sale — are the numerous other enterprises bearing the Fox name, so there’s no cause for alarm among fans of the Fox News Channel or among its liberal critics, who apparently never watch it but think they’ve reached the height of cleverness when they refer to it as the Faux News Channel. Just imagine the fun they would have had if it were the Fried News Channel.
If the deal gets regulatory approval and Disney does acquire the Fox studio and certain other assets, there are implications for Florida. For instance, such a deal would make it easier for Disney World to add rides and other attractions based on movies that have been the intellectual property of Fox.
So even then the Fox name will live on, but the film studio’s long tenure as one of Hollywood’s “Big Six” will be over. Whether this turn of events causes a minor tremor in a Brooklyn graveyard remains to be seen.