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A. J. Balaban

Pioneer Luxury Motion Picture Palaces

Died when: 72 years 195 days (870 months)
Star Sign: Taurus


A. J. Balaban

Abraham Joseph Balaban, known as A.J.Balaban or Abe Balaban (April 20, 1889 – November 1, 1962), was an American showman whose particular influence on popular entertainment in the early 20th century led to enormous innovations in the American movie-going experience.

Following the leasing and operation of a modest nickelodeon house in 1909, Balaban oversaw the commission and design of Chicago's great movie palaces for the Balaban & Katz (B&K) exhibition chain, integrated live performers into themed stage extravaganzas with full orchestras and forever changing vaudeville, and inspired numerous and novel ideas for theatre management.

A.J.Balaban's most productive period of achievement was from 1909 to 1929.It was a measure of his success and respect that in 1929, the February 27 issue of Variety was dedicated to him, and the following August a massive Citizens' Dinner in Chicago was organized to bid him farewell upon his move to New York to assume a creative position with Paramount/Publix, with which B&K had merged in 1926.

The artistic and managerial genius of the Balaban & Katz team (brother Barney was known for his financial and real estate acumen, while Katz was a lawyer), A.

J.Balaban—from his earliest years as a young man singing in small theatres to illustrated glass slides, to the mastery of "presentations" that featured singers, dancers, and musicians in a variety of turns culminating into lavish tableaux—had as an overarching inspiration the comfort and satisfaction of the audience.

According to Abel Green, editor of Variety, the venerable show business trade newspaper, Balaban "did more than any individual to glorify the cinema setting", and his theatre management established a successful model for other national exhibitors.

As for performers and the production of effective shows and pacing, William Morris Senior, the talent manager, wrote in an open letter in Variety to Balaban, "You have done more for [vaudeville's] proper presentation than any other man ever connected with it." Among Balaban's many show-business innovations were large theatres seating thousands of people in grand architectural palaces that resembled "fairy-lands"; the integration of movies and stage shows, alternating throughout the day; the presentation on movie-theatre stages of many of the giants of American show business, including The Four Marx Bros., Sophie Tucker, Gladys Swarthout, Ginger Rogers, organist Jesse Crawford, and the orchestras of Paul Whiteman and John Philip Sousa, among many others; stage bands for every theatre, each with its own master of ceremonies, usually a gifted orchestra conductor "M.C." like S.

Leopold Kohls or Paul Ash; rigorous training for theatre ushers, drawn from the local male college population; theatre checkrooms with courteous "no-tipping" service; and single admission charges for continuous performances.

Between bouts of elective retirement in Geneva, Switzerland, and other locales, Balaban returned to the film and exhibition business periodically.

Beginning in 1942, Balaban began nearly a decade as Executive Director of New York's Roxy Theatre at the request of Spyros Skouras of 20th Century-Fox, restoring the theatre to profitability with access to first-run Fox films, as well as the production and presentation of first-class live shows.

During this time, Balaban installed an ice rink on the Roxy stage, and instigated the first-ever "four-a-day" by the New York Philharmonic for two weeks in September 1950.

Although the "presentation style" mix of movies and elaborate stage shows is no longer in popular or economic favor, it was Balaban's pioneering success in Chicago with this combination that today is often associated with Radio City Music Hall in New York.

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