One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote a story that shows how the film industry was beginning to consolidate in the early 1920’s:
Articles of incorporation were filed this week for a new distributing organization to be known as the Educational Film Exchange of Southern California. Sol Lesser and the Gore Brothers are interested in the enterprise and Dave Bershon, general manger of the First National exchange, will have supervision.
The company will handle for Southern California and Arizona the Christie comedies, the Chester Outing pictures, the Chester screenics, the Educational Films and a number of other short-reel comedies, travelogues and scenic.
The addition of an Educational Films distribution franchise (there were eight others) was just a small part of the rapidly expanding Abe and Mike Gore and Sol Lesser empire. They already owned the First National Exchange for Southern California and Arizona as well as a chain of theaters that included the Kinema in downtown Los Angeles.* Just four months later in September, they announced they were incorporating their four distribution companies (they’d also acquired the All-Star Feature Distributors and Equity Films Corporation) as West Coast Exhibitors Booking Corporation. Notices about their plans to build more theaters regularly appeared in the trade papers, and in November they signed a lease for the theater in the Ambassador Hotel. In February 1921, they decided to merge everything they owned into one company called West Coast Theaters. At that point their holdings included thirty-two theaters, four film exchanges and real estate holdings for theaters under construction. According to Camera magazine, “the policy of the West Coast Theaters Company will be the expansion and enlargement of businesses by erecting and operating picture theaters on the Pacific Coast and in Arizona.” That’s exactly what they did — the film business was really booming then!
A few years later, the company was part of the next big trend in the film business: studios buying up theaters and distributors, so they could control all aspects of selling movies to the public. In 1925 West Coast Theaters was bought out by the Fox Film Corporation. But Lesser and the Gores were fine. Sol Lesser had also been producing films, so he had plenty to keep him busy. Both Abe and Mike Gore stayed with Fox West Coast Theaters and continued to build theaters; Mike Gore’s obituary in Variety said they built at least 400 of them (August 1953).
This week, Kingsley got to interview Orpheum headliner and retired film star Olga Petrova, who managed to shock her during lunch by lobbing this “conversational bomb”:
Marriage is largely merely an economic question…My husband and I maintain separate ménages. Yet we’re deeply devoted as two people can be. My husband, you see, is a man of whom I’m very proud. I’m quite sure he feels the same way about me. He is Dr. John D. Stewart of New York, head of a big hospital there. His labors are many and heavy. So are mine. So I have my own home on Long Island, where I write and think and plan. When my husband comes to my home it is as my guest. If I happen to be too busy to see him I tell him so frankly. It works like a charm for us.
Petrova’s marriage did work for a long time: she was still married to Stewart during the 1930 census, but by the 1940 census she had divorced him and married Louis Willoughby. Kingsley seemed to find this interview much more interesting than one with the latest ingénue.
This week, Kingsley sat through a stinker, The Girl in Number Twenty-Nine. The woman of the title is prevented from committing suicide by a nice young man, who “from then on finds himself hounded by a gang of mysterious gentlemen, whose mission in life, it seems, is to get innocent people to shoot themselves, though the gang seems to carry no guns of their own. The hero gets deeper and deeper in trouble, but never thinks to tell the police.”
Seeing a bad movie is a perfectly ordinary occurrence, but what’s interesting in this case is that the director was John Ford. It’s useful to remember that not all lost Ford films are undiscovered gems. Furthermore, in the good old days, a director could make a turkey and not torpedo his career.
*You might remember that Kingsley wrote about the Kinema reopening last January, under Thomas Tally’s new ownership. Just two weeks later he sold it to Lesser and the Gores. (“Lesser Buys Out Tally,” Film Daily, January 27, 1920, p.1)
“First National Becomes Important Factor in Big West Coast Circuit.” Exhibitors’ Herald, July 25, 1925, p.25.
“Gore Brothers and Sol Lesser Exchanges Merged to Create One Distributing Center,” Moving Picture World, October 30, 1920, p.1257.
“Lesser and Gore Brothers Merge Big Interests,” Motion Picture News, November 20, 1920, p.3872.
“Lesser and Gore in Four Booking Groups,” Motion Picture News, September 25, 1920, p. 2407.
“New Theater Company” Camera, February 26, 1921, p.7.