September 6, 2010

Barney Balaban -- A Face Behind the Uptown Theatre

Barney Balaban (June 8, 1887 – March 7, 1971) was president of Paramount Pictures from 1936 to 1964, and innovator in the cinema industry. Uptown residents may recognize his name from the famous Balaban and Katz company, which built the Uptown Theatre.

The eldest of the seven sons of grocery store owner Israel Balaban, Barney worked as a messenger boy and a cold storage company employee until 1908, when he was persuaded, at age 21, to go into the cinema business. According to a 1945 article in Forbes magazine, his mother came home from her first picture show and commented, "The customers pay before they even see what they're paying for! There'll be money in that business."

Balaban and his younger brothers rented the 100-seat Kedzie Theater. From there, Balaban's innovations changed the industry. In 1910, Balaban built the Circle Theatre, the first cinema to have a balcony. His sister Ida married Sam Katz, the two in-laws made plans for a chain of cinemas in the Midwest, the Balaban and Katz Theatre Chain. Barney's Brothers, John, Dave, Abe, and Max, all worked for Balaban and Katz. Brothers Elmer and Harry owned their own theater concern, called H & E Balaban.

The first link in the chain, the Central park Theatre in Chicago, opened in 1917. Balaban and Katz set about to create the first air-conditioned movie theater. Their first theater cooling system combined a large fan blowing over cakes of ice in a washtub. Not only was the system noisy, it occasionally blew a shower of water onto the patrons. Balaban enlisted the aid of an engineer friend to create a workable system, and crowds began to go to the movies to escape the heat during the summer months, making motion picture exhibition a year-round business.

A controlling interest of Balaban & Katz was purchased in 1926 by Famous-Players-Lasky Corp. in exchange for thirteen million dollars in stock. On July 2, 1936, Paramount's directors elected Balaban as president of the studio. As president, Balaban had the philosophy that Paramount had a responsibility "to explain America, its customs, and its people, to the world".

Balaban, the son of Russian emigrants who had lived the American Dream, purchased one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights from A.S.W. Rosenbach and, in 1945, donated it to the Library of Congress "as an expression of gratitude for the freedom his parents found in this country".

Balaban continued as president of Paramount Pictures until 1964

This great image, where he is pictured with his wife and daughter, is currently for sale on eBay: Barney Balaban and Family

Text edited from Wikipedia.

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