|"No second of every 24 hours passes but that the name of William Fox is on the screen in some part of the world." -- W.F.
By the time William Fox opened his new theatre in St. Louis on January 31, 1929, he had parlayed an initial investment of $1,660.67 for a 146 seat Brooklyn storefront theatre into a nationwide circuit of 305 theatres. Just two months later, on March 3rd, Fox shook the film industry with his takeover of the Loew's Corporation, swallowing up an additional 500 theatres and the Mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture Studios to boot.
At the age of nine months, Baby William was moved by his parents from his birthplace in Tulchva, Hungary, to the ghetto of Manhattan's Lower East Side. By age eleven Fox was already in business, selling penny-candy with his pals in Central Park. Born New Year's Day, 1879, Fox married 16-year-old Eve Leo on December 31, 1899. He claimed this timing was most efficient, allowing him to celebrate his anniversary, his birthday and New Year's all at once.
W.F., as he was addressed, was a publicity-shy man, called in the press "a brilliant, excited, energetic, roughneck." Niece, Angela Fox Dunn, recalls her Uncle Bill was given the title "The Lone Eagle" of the film industry. At the height of his empire-building, Fox was known never to carry anything smaller than a $100 bill. He would not wear a watch and kept his office blinds drawn in an effort "to make time stand still."
For 25 years the Fox fortunes improved steadily. With his fledgling Greater New York Film Rental Company (formed in 1904) Fox fought against the movie monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The fight ended in the Supreme Court in 1912, deciding in W.F.'s favor.
Fox Films, which produced four films a year, had its own studios in New York by 1915. Four years later, the company moved to 13 acres in Hollywood. Finally, in 1923, the Fox Film Corporation began to build on the 100 acres of the famed Fox Hills Studios (the present side of Century City, home of 20th Century-Fox, the studio of Shirley Temple and Star Wars.)
Early Fox Films were real crowd pleasers, if something less than artistic masterpieces. A string of Westerns with Tom Mix grossed almost $1 million a piece for Fox. It was Fox who featured the first manufactured movie star, Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati. As Theda Bara, "The Vamp", she whispered the immortal line, "Kiss me, my fool" in the Fox Film, A Fool There Was.
As a mark of his shrewdness in business, William Fox acquired the North American patents for the revolutionary Movietone sounds. Warner Brothers, with the wax discs of Vitaphone sound, had the first Talkie (The Jazz Singer). Still, it was the light-bands-on-celluloid of Movietone that became the industry standard.
A major outgrowth of the new sound patents was the series of Fox Movietone News Reels. Featuring the likes of Edison, Mussolini, and George Bernard Shaw, the series had auspicious beginnings with film of "the teetering take-off of an unknown boy", Charles Lindbergh enroute to Paris.
The year of 1929 was pivotal for William Fox. In addition to the St. Louis Fox, he opened great palaces in San Francisco and Atlanta. But tragedy struck in a late July auto accident which killed the family chauffeur and seriously injured Fox. He had barely recuperated before a different kind of crash hit the nation in October. A headline of December 6 read, "Stock Market Crash Traps Movie Czar in $91,000,000 Debt."
By 1932 W.F.'s financial interests in the theatre circuit were gone. Four years later he lost his sound patents. Although he lived until 1952, with an estimated personal fortune of $20,000,000, William Fox was never able to re-establish his entertainment empire and died "the film industry's forgotten man."
From information compiled by Mary Bagley - Author of The Front Row: Missouri's Grand Theatres.
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