Book Review: Charles Moss and Jonathan Kay’s ‘Magic In the Dark’

In his 2014 memoir, One Lucky Bastard (review: here), the late Roger Moore wrote of his first introduction in 1939 to the then-obscure television. Rest assured it wasn’t located in his family’s home since broad ownership for families was far off. Moore first eyed “TV pictures on a tiny box with a fuzzy little screen” at the business of the local baker. He was the only individual who owned one, and curiosity about this remarkable technological leap was broad and enthusiastic.

There are so many lessons that spring from Moore’s recollection, but for now it will be said that the anecdote about his early life brought figurative color to Magic In the Dark: One Family’s Century of Adventures in the Movie Business, a new book by Charles B. Moss Jr. and Jonathan Kay. Moss is a direct descendent of B.S. Moss, founder of a chain of movie theatres (Bow Tie) that still exists today.

By 1920 Moss owned 8 theatres, or 19,600 seats. This is notable because of the oft-repeated exaggeration over the last century that the rise of television would render movie palaces yesterday’s commercial entity. Oh please. It was never serious.

Evidence supporting this basic claim comes from Moore’s aforementioned memoir. Television in its early days was fuzzy, the screen was tiny, the content was…As Moss and Kay report a third of the way through Magic In the Dark, the projected television “image had a resolution of just forty-five horizontal lines, a tiny fraction of the 1,080 lines that are standard on today’s high-definition sets.” The simple truth is that television at its inception was primitive, while movie theatres were an event, or an evening. The screens were sizable.

Moss and Kay make a case that television ate into exhibitor or theater prosperity, however. They report that in 1946 “Americans were spending $1.30 on movies for every dollar they spent on radios, televisions and records.” Yet over the next decade, as “the percentage of electrified homes with televisions increased from 12 to 86 percent,” spending “on movies dropped to 30 cents per person.” So spending dropped, at least for a time, and maybe for always as some kind of percentage of entertainment dollars. Except that such a number wouldn’t matter much in an economy the size of the U.S.’s where the amount of disposable income has grown by leaps and bounds in the age of television. A falling percentage of a rapidly growing number is a big number. Think about it.

As Moss and Kay also make plain, theatre screens skyrocketed across the country in the same decades that television density soared. This shouldn’t surprise us. Competition lifts those engaged in it. The bet here is that absent television, the prosperity of the theatre industry would have been less notable. When we’re pressured to compete for the spending of consumers (call it domestic free trade), we improve. And theaters did. It wasn’t just that the Moss’s lobbied the studios hard for the best first-run movies, it’s that they enhanced the quality of the moviegoing experience with the expected big screens, but also movie tie-ins. Indeed, the Moss’s were ahead of their time when it came to selling Alice In Wonderland merchandise in concert with the screening of the movie. Same with a re-release of Pinocchio. In the words of the authors, nowadays “tie-in product rights represent a major line item in the expected profits of any big-budget film,” it wasn’t so then. Wanting to compete, theaters made it so.

After which, please consider how meaningful television density proved to studios eager to win the eyeballs of moviegoers. It’s no mistake that at least historically some of the biggest advertising nights for television have been Thursday based on the desire of businesses (including, most notably, film studios) to win the weekend spending of consumers. In a very real sense television helped make movies and theaters, not to mention that before streaming became all the rage, television was in many ways the “minor leagues” for actors, actresses and directors eager to play in the Big Leagues. That was movies. That was having one’s film screened for moviegoers.

To which some will say the combination of remarkably advanced home televisions combined with endless access to movies and television (new and old) will prove Schumpeterian to the theater industry. No, not likely. Precisely due to the competition described, the theater experience gets better and better with wider seats, lie-flat seats, amazing popcorn, bars, but most of all there’s the brilliant experience of going to the movies.

Figure that people can cook at home much more cheaply than going to a restaurant, and in kitchens that increasingly rival those found in restaurants, but they still go out to dinner. Movies are no different. It’s the experience. Ask the wife of your reviewer what my favorite drive of all is. No thinking is required. It’s the drive west on Massachusetts Avenue, right on Little Falls, straight through Arlington Road, followed by a right on Bethesda Avenue. At the end of the street is Bethesda Row Theatre. Call it my Camp David, my vacation from stress and the outside world. They’ll pry movie theatres from my cold, dead hands. True film fans love movie theatres.

This digression of sorts is necessary simply because Magic In the Dark alludes at times throughout to threats to the viability of the theatre business. No doubt most businesses routinely face extinction in a dynamic economy of the U.S. kind. Still, the view here is that “creative destruction” will prove unequal to the genius of walking into a modern theatre. Let’s hope!

Back to this rather interesting book, B.S. Moss was part of a “small group of mostly Jewish men who” made their way “to the United States from Europe in the latter years of the nineteenth century.” This alone is a beautiful story. And it provides a very clear understanding for readers interested in knowing why the U.S. is the world’s most prosperous country, by far. It’s the people.

To read what will be referred to as Magic going forward is to yearn to learn more about the “small group” described above. “Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle immigrated from Germany when he was already seventeen. Samuel Goldwyn (his name supplying the G in “MGM”) fled Poland as a teenager after his father died, Paramount founder Adolph Zukor was a Hungarian orphan who sailed for the United States at the age of eighteen.” These were people with enormous drive and courage. Imagine crossing an ocean for a country where a different language is spoken, and where there’s no realistic “safety net” of any sorts. The people who made the U.S. the United States of America were thoroughly different people. Immigrants are different people, and in a very good way. They want something better. They doubtless burn bridges as they exit the old in pursuit of something better. Sorry, but we need more of them.

The immigrant in Moss started out in the fabrics business with William Fox (yes, the founder of what became 20th Century Fox), only to eventually migrate toward theaters like so many in his “small group” did. The goal was to entertain a growing middle class in the U.S., and to do so, Moss recognized that he had to be offering something “respectable in both content and venue.” The competition, or what was previously described as “domestic free trade” surely helped in lifting the quality of venue: as B.S. Moss put it over a century ago, he and his fellow theater owners were “vying with one another as to who could put up [the] more beautiful and sumptuous edifice.” In other words, competition would unearth a spectacular moviegoing experience that included ushers “to greet arriving guests,” air conditioners to help guests escape the heat, and advanced projection rooms given the flammable nature of some of the original rooms.

Moss produced a few films, including a “blockbuster” called The Salamander, but he never went the extraordinarily lucrative route (and by extension, high risk route) of the “small group” that eventually turned Los Angeles into Hollywood. In the words of Moss and Kay, B.S. “appreciated that stability” that came “with bricks and mortar businesses sitting on valuable real estate.” About his decision to go relatively small, this truth shouldn’t minimize what Moss achieved. Not in the least. Business is risky. Very much so.

As Moss and Kay explain it, “even before his shows opened” Moss “was paying property taxes, insurance, utilities and wages for accountants and office staff.” And then to “exhibit a movie required a small army of ushers, servers, ticket takers, as well as musical accompaniment for what were then silent films.” Please remember B.S. Moss and his overhead the next time you hear some politician attempting to belittle business (big and small) and their allegedly outsize profits. Let’s be serious. In the real world of business, capital takes all the risks relative to labor. If capital gets the commercial idea wrong, everything is lost for the owner. For labor, the only loss is the job itself. We stand on the shoulders of the courageous like Moss who were willing to take the big risks that improved and improve our living standards, and that frequently employ us. 

More imperiling for theater owners of Moss’s time was that theaters were almost monolithically single screen. What this meant was that there was little room for hedging. Since the theaters had only one screen, “an owner couldn’t cover his bets, multiplex style.”

Worse for the Moss family was change rapidly taking place in New York City itself. They had theaters well north of what most would consider Manhattan, and in areas that gradually lost their luster. Their most famous theater was The Criterion in Times Square, but as some readers know and remember well, Times Square collapsed spectacularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The Moss’s thankfully stuck it out, and better yet, purchased the parts (and eventually all) of the building in which The Criterion was housed, not to mention where Bow Tie was headquartered. This proved prescient with the revival of Times Square in the ‘90s and beyond. While the Moss family had long been well-to-do, the revival of New York City made them rich by most standards.

Where it becomes more than a bit sad is to read the book’s Epilogue. Indeed, keep in mind when Magic was published. It was late 2021. The Moss’s creation had to suffer the unspeakable political panic that resulted in the coronavirus lockdowns. The family recognized before the needless takings of freedom that people on their own were going to take precautions in response to a spreading virus. In Charley Moss’s words, “My first definitive sign that this was going to be a serious blow to the industry was when studios started moving their spring and summer films to the fall.” Please think about what Moss said. Businesses were already adjusting to fear of the virus on their own given intimate knowledge of a moviegoing market filled with people whose habits and inclinations the industry knew well. Translated for those who need it, free people and businesses were adjusting with health top of mind before the political panic began. They didn’t need a law.

More important, “Charley and his colleagues scrambled to find new content for their theaters” in response to a reduced pipeline from the studios. Get it? A four generation family business more than a bit familiar with the needs of its customers was in the process of adjusting to the needs of those same customers. Except that the adjustments and innovations never got to see the light of day. The very political culture that gave us the DMV and the Post Office decreed how businesses would be run, if at all. As Moss and Kay put it, by the middle of March 2020 “mayors and governors across the United States ordered theaters shuttered indefinitely.” Bow Tie’s revenues went to zero, layoffs and furloughs ensued….It makes one sick to read what witless politicians did to real businesses. Will theaters survive this? The bet here is yes as the review’s introduction makes plain, but how tragic (and predictable) if the ultimate vanquisher of movie theatres isn’t market forces, but the sick force that is government.

In reading this review, it’s understandable that viewers would wonder if they should or should not buy the book. It’s an interesting question that raises a variety of responses. To be clear, the pages don’t turn as fast Hollywood histories like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This is not a history of Hollywood’s doings as much as it’s a history of a theater chain. And there’s a reason, as the authors acknowledge early on, that bookstores like Charley Moss’s favorite – Book Soup – have endless content on the film industry, but very few about the theater operators.

It’s all a long way of saying this isn’t Peter Biskind, or Michael Ovitz’s spectacular look at himself and the business (review here), but at the same time it’s an essential read for those eager to better understand the business behind the business. Readers learn about the evolution of single screen to multiplexes, about the gross profit splits entered into by studios and exhibitors, not to mention how much the screening of films has changed. While eight weeks in theaters in modern times signals a pretty big hit, in the days before the ‘70s and ‘80s suburbanized so much moviegoing, city-based movie palaces pulled in viewers from all over given exclusive, long-term screen arrangements. Of note there, The Ten Commandments opened at Moss-owned Criterion in November of 1956, and will still playing there in March of 1958. As George Will has observed about the past, it’s “another country.”

Were there quibbles or disagreements? A few. Nothing too notable, but it seems Moss and Kay lacked an editor to tighten their history. Early in the book they write of the woman (Stella Dreyfus) whom B.S. married, only to lurch to some of B.S.’s charitable endeavors, only to lurch back to Stella’s pride in her “French roots.” All in the same paragraph. There are grammatical errors and mis-written words throughout.

As mentioned previously, it seems the authors were too ready to blame television for limiting the prosperity of film exhibitors. And then in an odd aside about film projectionists and the technology that eventually replaced them, the authors assert that “well-educated, well-capitalized entrepreneurs such as Charles Moss [B.S.’s son]” made out well versus the projectionists who were rendered unnecessary by progress. Supposedly the “the plight of the projectionists seems prescient in today’s era of rising inequality.” This was unnecessary, it was too political, plus it ignores how progress is defined by the evolution of work. In rich, opportunity-laden countries, what people “do” is a moving target. Put another way, absent the very American dynamism that relentlessly pushes the work of “today” into the proverbial dustbin of history, men like Moss, Warner, Laemmle, Zukor et al would never have migrated their talents to the U.S. to begin with. Inequality is a good thing. It signals the mass production of former luxuries. The author were preaching. Needlessly. Think about the television itself. Those who mass-produced what was once incredibly expensive and scarce certainly got rich for doing so, but their wealth was a direct result of our living standards soaring. And arguably the wealth of the film and theatre business soaring.

Furthermore, the authors in a sense ignore the present meaning of the Moss’s own wealth inequality. As their wealth soared in the 1990s and beyond, so grew their ability to better the country that B.S. Moss came to in search of opportunity. Indeed, crucial about New York City’s revival in concert with the fortunes of the family is what it meant for locales well outside of the City. With a greatly enhanced cash position, the Moss’s had the means to revive old areas and buildings in places like New Haven, Richmond and beyond. Wealth begets intrepid investment that begets more of it. Inequality is once again a good thing. Had the U.S. been equal, B.S. would never have come here.

Still, the quibbles are minor. As a lover of movies, it’s always interesting to learn more about the industry sectors that make them possible. Here’s to hopefully another century of Bow Tie. As the authors observe toward book’s end, not as much has changed for theaters as one might think. Much like B.S., Charley and son Ben have “found their solutions” to non-theatre competition for entertainment dollars in “architecture and the viewing experience.” Absolutely. Movie theatres will survive and thrive because we movie lovers want them, and because theater chains are well aware that survival will be rooted in relentless improvement meant to please the customer.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets

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