A ghost hangs over an American media empire.
Over one hundred years ago, a Brooklyn-based movie impresario named William Fox helped shape the direction of the nascent motion picture industry, building a film-production empire in New Jersey and New York and operating a string of theaters that would introduce millions to the possibilities of moving pictures.
Fox died almost 70 years ago but his name has perpetually lived on within the titles of media properties derived from his early businesses — 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, Fox Network, Fox Sports and, yes, Fox News.
But in the era of corporate mega-mergers and broadcast political propaganda, Fox’s name has become something of a distraction and an inconvenience. This month, Disney — who owns the film vestige of William Fox’s former empire — has scrubbed his name from the company.
Courtesy Justin CaydCourtesy 20th Century Studios
20th Century Fox, the result of a 1930 merger between Fox’s Fox Films and 20th Century Pictures (led by Joseph Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck) which has produced some of the world’s greatest films, is now just 20th Century Studios.
Fox Searchlight, the production company which has delivered Oscar winners as Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years A Slave, is now simply Searchlight Pictures.
As a result, the Fox legacy now has nothing to do with film. In fact, drop the Fox name into any conversation and images of The Simpsons and FOX 5 New York (or Sean Hannity and Fox and Friends) are conjured.
It’s a world that William Fox — who wasn’t even born a Fox — would have hardly recognized.
William Fox Albemarle Theatre (973 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn) Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
His name was actually Vilmos Fuchs, born in 1879 in Hungary, his name changed that same year when his parents immigrated to America through the Castle Garden Emigrant Depot, located in the Battery.
They settled, like millions of other Jewish immigrants to come, on the Lower East Side. He was already working in New York’s thriving garment industry by age 10 — disturbingly young, even for a city with virtually no child-labor restrictions.
By the 1890s Fox was a young man attuned to the rising activism of the Lower East Side, political movements driving by work and living conditions. According to author Vanda Krefft in her book The Man Who Made The Movies, Fox “began to question capitalism and for three years became a socialist.”
Stanton and Sheriff Street in the Lower East Side, pictured here in 1920. Young Fox and his family lived on this block. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
But entertainment was more his forte — first as one-half of a comedy troupe called the Schmaltz Brothers, then as a theater owner from his new home in Brooklyn. (He moved to 1055 Myrtle Avenue less than two years after Brooklyn consolidated with New York.)
Fox’s first theater — purchased in 1904, at 700 Broadway in Williamsburg — was a nickelodeon, filled with arcade amusements and an exciting new form of entertainment: moving pictures. These early pictures were usually three minutes in length, visual trifles that people paid a nickel to view.
Below: Edison’s The Magician, a popular nickelodeon attraction
In the years before the Hollywood film machine, New York and New Jersey were the centers of American film development. And New Yorkers were often the first to witness newly made films and technologies.
Fox found exhibition spaces like Manhattan’s Eden Musee inspiring models to emulate, an exotic mix of sideshow, vaudeville and curiosity. And these new moving pictures, so novel and captivating, were being produced rapidly — sometimes in his own backyard. (The first film ever produced in Brooklyn, for instance, was made only a few miles away from 700 Broadway.)
Success at his nickelodeon allowed Fox to greatly expand throughout New York City and into more legitimate theatrical venues such as the 1,600-seat vaudeville Comedy Theater at 194 Grand Street. (In an accidental tribute, Williamsburg Cinemas sits on the same block today.) Small films were soon shuffled into the vaudeville lineup; he charged ten cents for the added entertainment.
At left — Fox’s Japanese Garden Theatre, at Broadway and 96th Street on the Upper West Side, 1920. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
By 1910 Fox owned several theaters in the New York City area and almost all of them presented moving pictures in some form. He never considered himself a provocateur. But Fox was on the forefront of a movement that polite society considered vulgar and amoral.
He forcefully led a group of local theater owners as head of the Moving Pictures Association, battling the city for the right to exhibit films.
But it wasn’t just morality squads who took aim at the impresario. Fox soon owned his own film rental company, battling Thomas Edison, Eastman Kodak and other members of the so-called Edison Trust for the rights to produce movies.
Fox Audubon Theatre – August 3, 1929
The trusts and the moralists were responding to inevitability; the allure of the moving image was so intoxicating that it appeared poised to take over the world. (Spoiler alert: it did.) Fox understood this and planned for a future of unlimited, unrestricted film enjoyment by the general public.
He would need to collaborate with politicians to achieve his ambitions.
For instance, thanks to his associations with Tammany Hall and Big Tim Sullivan, Fox bought the Dewey Theatre on 126 East 14th Street and transformed it into one of New York’s most lavish stages — and screens.
The Dewey Theatre, courtesy Cinema Treasures
Later rebuilt by Fox, the Dewey would be renamed the Academy of Music and later the Palladium. (Later he would even rent out the actual Academy of Music — the famed cultural center of New York’s elite — across the street.)
Fox soon would take over the 14th Street entertainment corridor, his chief competitor being Marcus Loew (another Jewish immigrant-turned-theater owner). Together, Fox and Loew would craft the early American movie-going experience and help invent the movie palace.
Facilitating the growth of the American movie industry was the Supreme Court case United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. which dissolved the Edison Trust stranglehold upon the industry. The case grew from a lawsuit by the one film distributor who refused to bow to the Edison Trust’s demands. That distributor was Fox.
Writes Krefft,”The end of the MPPC opened a new chapter in film history. Now, anyone in the United States who wished to make movies could do so legally. Thanks largely to Fox, the foundation had been laid for the American movie studio system.”
And no surprise, William Fox decided to dive right in.
Fox Films studio, courtesy Fort Lee Film Commission
Think of all the entertainment properties made under his name in the 105 years since then. The Fox entertainment production juggernaut begins here — the Fox Film Corporation, founded on February 1, 1915, funded with money from New Jersey investors and centered in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
“The Fox Film Corporation has forged to the front of picture making concerns since its inception as a producing company,” said the Buffalo Courier. [April 1915]
Box Office Gold
Fox Studios were located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. But their first Manhattan office — 130 West 46th Street — was situated just one block away for the location of the current headquarters of Fox News — 1211 Avenue of the Americas.
The first Fox logo:
William Fox was directly involved with film production in the early years, often dreaming up the movie concepts himself. “Fox never intended to shake up the movie industry,” writes Krefft. “[H]e was and would always be a social conservative who wanted to change nothing except his own status from outsider to insider.”
And yet Fox Films’ first major film star was anything but conventional — Theda Bara, the intense raven-locked seductress who quickly embodied the late 1910s stereotype of the vamp. Bara made dozens of films for Fox; almost all of them were destroyed in a 1937 fire.
By the 1920s, Fox Films — as well as most film production companies in the region — would move out to Hollywood. But Fox would leave his name on hundreds of theaters across the country. And many of New York City’s finest movie palaces would wear the name FOX.
Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre at Flatbush and Nevins in Downtown Brooklyn. Demolished in 1971. Courtesy Library of Congress
In 1930, however, Fox was essentially severed from the industry that would continue to bear his name.
He lost most of his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, then lost control of his production company in a hostile takeover the following year. By 1935, the struggling Fox Films was acquired by Twentieth Century Pictures.
By the 1940s, the name Fox was essentially represented a set of assets, a reputation — a ghost. It made sense for the new film merger to become Twentieth Century Fox because the Fox name still hung from hundreds of movie theaters across the country.
Mew owner Rupert Murdoch oversaw the studio’s transition into television in the 1980s — the Fox Broadcasting Company. By the 1990s, the successful broadcast network (of Simpsons and X-Files fame) gave birth to a further iteration — the Fox News Channel.
All of this traces back to that one Brooklyn nickelodeon, William Fox’s risky venture at 700 Broadway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
And you can still find William Fox in Brooklyn today. He’s buried at Salem Fields Cemetery in Cypress Hills.