Theater Chain Owner, Producer. Nationality: American. Born : 8 June 1887 in Chicago, Illinois. Education : Attended local schools. Family : Married Tillie Urkov, 1929; son Leonard, daughter Judith. Career : After working in his immigrant father's grocery store, was hired by Western Union as a messenger; later was chief clerk in a cold-storage company. Opened a nickelodeon in Chicago in 1908 with his brother Abe and other members of his family; theatrical holdings grew into a prosperous, nationwide chain, though many of the principal houses were in the Chicago area; 1917—profited from his experience in the cold storage business to pioneer ice-cooled
Gomery, Douglas, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States , Madison, Wisconsin, 1992.
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Born in Chicago to parents who ran a small grocery store, Barney Balaban quit school at the age of twelve to work at a number of jobs in order to help support his parents and six younger brothers. It was in 1908, however, at the height of the nickelodeon craze, that Balaban embarked on the venture that would shape his career. Along with his parents and brothers, Balaban decided to rent a small movie theater; the idea, he was later to confess, was really his mother's, who, attending her first picture show, was impressed by the huge crowds that flocked to enjoy the new medium.
Balaban and his brother Abe expanded their holdings slowly; by 1914 they were managing three theaters. They also ran a restaurant, the Movie Inn, located in the downtown film business section; it was here that they met Sam Katz, who also worked in film exhibition and owned three downtown theaters. In 1916, the brothers went into partnership with Katz and embarked on an ambitious program of expansion. Seeing correctly that movie exhibition, which had initially drawn most of its paying customers from the working class, had more of a future with a middle-class clientele, Balaban & Katz determined to build and operate theaters that would appeal to this emerging audience. Because they were not affiliated with any of the major filmmakers, Balaban & Katz would not have access to the very best films then being made in the industry; so, they reasoned, economic success would come from designing and providing a total entertainment experience along the lines pioneered by Roxy Rothapfel's Rivoli and Rialto theaters in New York.
While Katz engineered a series of real estate deals to acquire prime property in upscale suburbs near mass transportation, even signing up as investors some of Chicago's richest tycoons, including William Wrigley, Jr. and John Hertz, Barney Balaban and his brother Abe set about making the resulting theaters attractive to middle-class customers. The Chicago firm of George and C.W. Rapp, soon to become one of the national leaders in "picture palace" design, was hired to create opulent and ornate designs that would accommodate huge crowds both within the auditorium and in the lobby, waiting for the next show. Exits and entrances were carefully planned so that the unending flow of patrons could easily come and go.
Much emphasis was placed on service, as Balaban attempted to run each establishment with the maximum of efficiency. Ushers, for example, were all to be young men, preferably college students, of a certain height and weight; careful training was given to all staff, who were to pamper patrons and cater efficiently to their needs. Though the ushers were to give the impression that they were present only to serve, actually they had another function—to make sure the auditorium was filled as quickly and completely as possible. Well-equipped restrooms provided middle-class patrons with familiar comforts, and most Balaban & Katz houses even featured free baby-sitting services, which certainly increased matinee attendance on weekdays. Because the films they exhibited were often second-rate, Barney Balaban directed his brother Abe to design the very best possible stage shows; film and show always ran 150 minutes, with films even shortened if they ran over the pre-set limit. The organists, stage attractions, and first-rate orchestras hired by Abe packed customers in seven days a week. Often the film on a given program was only an incidental attraction, certainly not responsible for box office success. Another marketing coup was Barney Balaban's inspiration alone. His experience in the meat-packing business had given him some knowledge of rudimentary cooling systems. He hired the best engineers in what was then an emerging field to create satisfactory air cooling for his theaters; this then required whole rooms full of expensive equipment in need of constant service, but the result was certainly profitable, especially in Chicago's often brutal summers, when crowds poured into Balaban & Katz theaters often simply to escape the oppressive heat. Along with Sam Katz and Abe, Barney Balaban was responsible for shaping the movie exhibition business in decisive ways, particularly by emphasizing the total experience provided by the house and thus encouraging what was soon to become a national obsession, "ging to the movies," a social activity indulged in often with little regard for what film was actually playing.
In 1925 Katz negotiated an alliance with Famous Players-Lasky, then the largest movie company in the world, and soon to be re-named Paramount Pictures. Katz himself was put in charge of the exhibition end of the business nationwide, centralizing operations for the resulting chain—Publix Theaters—in ways that would become a model for the industry. Barney Balaban stayed in Chicago to run what formerly had been Balaban & Katz, but soon was promoted to the Paramount board, eventually receiving a directorship. In 1936 Balaban was selected as president of the corporation. In an era of hard times that had seen several reorganizations of the company, and a descent into receivership, the choice of Balaban was a wise one. Moving to the New York offices, where he remained for thirty years, Balaban applied the same lessons of efficient management to the operation of the vertically integrated enterprise of a classic Hollywood studio. Costs were cut, operations made more efficient, and in the space of a year Paramount was again turning a profit, even as the other studios continued to struggle until the highly profitable war years. Balaban insisted that every expenditure meet with his prior approval. As a studio head, he was less interested in art than in the financial bottom line, staying with proven methods of making a collar, including the nearly exclusive use of stars who had already established reputations in vaudeville, radio, or the stage. But, just as he had done with air conditioning, Balaban was eager to invest in technological change; in 1939, at his direction, Paramount became an investor in the DuMont video company, which, in the early days of television, briefly became a fourth network. Balaban also thought that theater television might prove profitable, but, despite his efforts, this use of the new medium never gained enough popularity. After Paramount signed a consent decree in 1947 that forced the studio to divest itself of theatrical holdings, Balaban struggled to find a way to keep the company profitable. Investment in a television station chain proved impossible because FCC regulations forbid ownership of stations by any corporation found guilty of monopoly practices. In the early 1950s, Paramount's fortunes declined despite Balaban's well-executed deal to sell the company's backlog of pre-1948 films to MCA for $50 million.
Unlike other studio heads, Balaban kept a low public profile, emerging into the limelight only to further his patriotic interest in promoting American films abroad. He proved such an able spokesman for the motion picture industry that he was invited to organize a tour abroad, backed by the State Department, to help rebuild Hollywood's overseas markets in the political and economic turmoil that resulted from the end of World War II. Paramount's corporate fortunes, however, did not improve during the general decline of the film business in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Balaban was forced gently from the presidency, and then from membership on the board by 1966, as what had been the most powerful of the majors became part of the international conglomerate Gulf and Western.
—R. Barton Palmer