Tom McParland traces the fascinating history of the film company that grew from humble beginnings in Chicago to become one of Hollywood’s largest and most enduring studios.


Put another nickel in

In the nickelodeon

So ran the first line of the 1950 hit Music, Music, Music! US/German immigrant Carl Laemmle (‘Lemley’) might have expressed the same enthusiasm about his first Chicago venture in 1906. That year he opened The White Front with a weekly overhead of $200, his first 10-cent nickelodeon theatre – except his business wasn’t music but rather movies, movies, movies.

“Everything I had in the world ($75,000 adj.) was tied up to that little theatre. My friends told me that I would fail, but I had faith”… Soon after he opened a second nickelodeon, The Family Theatre. His business sense and extraordinary timing meant he’d entered the moving picture scene almost at the moment when filmed drama became a worldwide phenomenon and one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment.
Nickelodeons devoured film, requiring anywhere from 30 to 60 reels a week. Producing companies encouraged volume, the belief being that the public’s attention would not endure for more than two reels. The feature film had yet to be born.

Laemmle realised that affording regular programme changes meant reliance on unreliable film exchanges and sometimes the exchange movie wouldn’t always arrive. Or sometimes a higher bidder would outbid Laemmle’s already-agreed hire fee making frequent change erratic.

So Laemmle opened his own film exchange at 111 East 14th Street in New York City. So successful was he that by 1908, Laemmle Film Service had offices in Memphis, Omaha, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis. Within two years Laemmle had become the largest film distributor in America. His rapid ascension was due to his offering a square deal; in stable price fixing, quality, and dependability.

The next obvious move was to make his own movies by forming the Independent Moving Picture Company – IMP – the predecessor of Universal Pictures. His first self-made movie was a short, Hiawatha – one of 950 shorts that he would make between 1909 and 1936.

No sooner had Laemmle, the 5ft-3-ins ‘little firebomb from Chicago’, solved one problem than another one loomed large. Edison, the inventor of motion picture technology, began using patent infringement lawsuits to put out of business those who would not agree to operate under his license.

By 1909 the Edison Trust managed to impose a monopoly on cameras, projectors and raw film allowing it to collect a monthly $2 royalty from all branches of moviemaking – and that included exchange owners. But Carl Laemmle fought back. In over 300 lawsuits over the course of eight years the Supreme Court finally ordered Edison to dismantle his Trust in 1915.

But in any case, by 1914 Laemmle had shifted his operations to Hollywood where he’d acquired 230 oat-covered acres for $165,000. Even while building the new lot he completed his first film. Damon and Pythias (1914) a Roman sandals, spear and gesticulative affair full of now-forgotten names – except for one. An extra named Hal Roach, who would produce 1,204 shorts of his own, including the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang franchises.

Laemmle initially regarded his chosen name Universal as a utilitarian adjective – as in universal joint – a company covering all aspects of moviemaking. He ensured it would become truly universal after 1915, the year he completed the world’s largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own