Nathanson, Zukor, and Famous Players: Movie Exhibition in Canada, 1920-1941
Seiler, Robert M., American Review of Canadian Studies
For many years, during the heyday of the indoor, single-screen facility, exhibitors focused on providing the public a quality movie-going experience, in terms of the films screened and the environment in which those films (1) were "consumed" (Valentine; Dombowsky; Jancovich and Faire). At this time, North Americans regarded movie-going under these conditions as an important social and cultural practice (see, e.g., Friedberg; Hansen; Mayne; Acland, 2003, 49; Moore, 2003). It can be argued that the development of television, plus the development of the megaplex, destroyed the "magic" of the movie-going experience as it came to be understood, beginning with the emergence of the "movie palace" in the 1920s. As we prepare for yet another change to the way films are disseminated, i.e., in light of rumors that Hollywood studios are gearing up to release their films simultaneously on a variety of media, such as the internet, DVD, and television, it is helpful to put the matter of movie-going into context. One way to do this, particularly in Canada, is to revisit the career of NX. (Nathan) Nathanson, (2) arguably the most important showmen in the history of movie exhibition in Canada. Like the Allens before him (see Seiler, 2006), Nathanson offered the movie-goer a unique experience. In creating two national movie theater chains, Famous Players and Odeon Theatres, this Minneapolis-born, Toronto-based entrepreneur created the duopoly that defined movie exhibition in Canada for more than half a century (Globe and Mail, May 27, 1943, 6; Lanken, 26; Moore, 2003, 24). Utilizing a variety of materials, including architectural plans, public records, local and regional histories, newspapers and motion picture trade papers, business periodicals, and photographs (Allen and Gomery, 38-42), I examine the dynamics that shaped Nathanson's campaign (3) to create a Canadian-owned, Canadian-operated movie theater chain, which meant wresting the control of movie exhibition from American interests, represented by Adolph Zukor, who exerted influence from Broadway and Hollywood (Toronto Daily Star, September 19, 1925, 5). Zukor may well have developed an interest in Canada as a market as early as 1916, when Toronto was well on its way to becoming the largest market for movies in the country.
Nathanson's remarkable career is a Horatio Alger story (CFW, June 2, 1943, 6). He started life with few worldly goods, but through his ability, ingenuity, and perseverance rose to a position of importance in Canada. He was born in 1886 in Minneapolis, a Midwestern center of finance and industry. As a youth, he worked as a newsboy, enjoying the highly competitive environment, and after leaving school he worked as an agent selling railroad tickets for a cut-rate concern (CFW, June 2, 1943, 6).
In 1907, Nathanson moved northeast, planning to make his way in the entertainment industry of Toronto, which was quickly becoming the second largest urban center in Canada (Russell, 1989, 17). Between 1911 and 1921, the population grew from 376,538 to 521,893, an increase of 139 percent (Nader, ii, 199-207). The boom was conspicuous in the expansion of the streetcar system, road paving, and water and sewer installation. One could see the city's affluence in terms of such cultural developments as the founding of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Royal Ontario Museum. During this period the city was also becoming the largest movie market in the country, i.e., there were twice as many movie theaters in Toronto than in Montreal, despite the latter city's greater population (see Russell, 1989, 17-18; Pendakur, 54; Drabinsky, 63; Cox, 2000, 52).
Initially, Nathanson managed the concession stands at Scarboro Beach, Toronto, and then at Dominion Park, Montreal, which were owned by H.A. Dorsey, an entrepreneur who ran amusement parks in a number of eastern cities. While managing the refreshment stands at Scarboro Beach, Nathanson introduced the ice cream cone. …