How a Business Miracle Came About in Canada

FLOYD S. CHALMERS February 15 1920


How a Business Miracle Came About in Canada

FLOYD S. CHALMERS February 15 1920


How a Business Miracle Came About in Canada


AN express train raced madly across a cotton sheet, met another train steaming straight at it from the other side of the sheet, and one hundred and fifty people jammed in a little store opened their mouths, half stood up in excitement and heard a mental "C-r-a-s-h!!!"

Brantford, Ontario had seen its first “thriller.”

More important still, Jule and Jay J. Allen had initiated the enterprise that has now grown into the world’s greatest chain of motion picture theatres.

That was on November 10, 1906. The little “storeshow” with 150 kitchen chairs, a projecting camera and a white cotton sheet, representing an investment of three or four hundred dollars, has grown into the Allen Enterprises, controlling more than fifty elaborate palaces of the film art, and representing an investment of nearly $20,000,000, of which the Allens’ share is over $10,000,000.

The story of Jule and Jay J. Allen is not a story of two boys who were lifted by public fancy to a position at the very top of their line of work. Successful motion picture exhibitors are not made like popular motion picture “stars”; and the story of the Allens is a story of vision, aggressiveness, concentration, and the application of good business principles. Jule and Jay J. Allen, at 31 and 30 years of age, dominate the world of film exhibitors because they saw from the first that running a moving picture theatre was much like running any other business. They had to please their customers or drop out.

They Decide on a Career

D RANTFORD, the birthplace of the telephone, was the birthplace also of the Allen Enterprises. Brantford might almost be called the birthplace of the moving picture industry in Canada, for although Montreal and Toronto had between them half a dozen “store shows” when the Allens opened their “Theatorium” in Brantford, it was the establishment of the latter theatre that showed the possibilities of the moving picture as something beyond

the pale of the “penny arcade” type of amuse-

The story of the opening of the first Allen theatre is interesting. It had its beginnings in the town of Bradford, Pennsylvania, where JuleandJay Allen were born, and attending high school. Their father, Bernard A 1 1 e n, w a s a jeweller in the

In September 1906, the father and his two sons held a conference to decide what line of business

the sons would

enter. At that time the five cent

picture shows were flourishing in Bradford and the two made up their minds to open a picture show somewhere. Jay had just returned from a visit to Hamilton, Ontario, and he chanced to remark that that busy city of 80,000 people did not have a moving picture show. It looked as though the "Cinematograph” had not yet invaded Canada. That decided the life work of the Allens. They determined to go to Hamilton and establish a movie theatre.

Jule was appointed the emissary to find a suitable location.

He searched the city in vain; there was not a store that would be vacant in less than thirty days. Probably the ordinary business man would consider thirty days a short time. He would want longer than that to furnish the theatre and prepare for the “Grand Opening.” A city that had never seen a moving picture and was not in imminent danger of seeing one for a long time ^et, could wait thirty days. But to Jule Allen, eighteen years old and fresh from high school, thirty days was longer than he could contemplate waiting. Hamilton was not ready for him; hemoved on to the next town, Brantford, and found a vacant store.

Their First Theatre

I> F.RNARD Allen and the oth-U er son, Jay, then seventeen years old, were notified and they hastened to Brantford.

In ten days—on November 10,

1906—the “Theatorium,” the first moving picture theatre in Canada outside of Montreal and Toronto, opened it doors, or rather its door, to the public.

The place would hardly have

made a good sized tobacco shop, but the Allens crowded in 150

kitchen chairs, tacked up a white cotton sheet on a frame at one end, and set up the projecting machine they had brought with them from the States. There were few films; one which passed under the glorious title of the “The Watermelon Patch,” depicted the just punishment administered to a garden-vandal. Another reel—reels were only a few dozen feet long in those days—was a “thriller,” and centred around a train-wreck. The “shows” were continuous, and each one lasted about fifteen minutes. Five cents was charged for admission and on the first day, 2,000 people paid their money to the

Allens and saw their first moving picture. Two thousand patrons out of a city of 15,000 or 18,000 people did not seem extraordinary to Bernard Allen or to his two sons.

It only took a short time for the Allens to realize all the money they had invested in this enterprise, and the crowds that continued to flock to their performances convinced them that there was room in Brantford for another theatre. Anotherstorewas rented and it was transformed into a comparatively

high-class theatre. The sum of $2,000 was spent on it. It had a decorated front, special chairs made to order, and a continuously-operating phonograph, the horn of which projected over the ticket-seller’s booth, screeching forth the popular melodies of the day to attract the attention of the public.

This theatre was advertised to open on a Saturday night, but the chairs did not arrive until that morning.

Bernard Allen was id favor of postponing the opening for a day or two, but the two sons had lost none of their enthusiasm and they would not agree. Seats were installed on Saturday afternoon in one-half of the theatre, and in the other half the people had to stand. This theatre paid off the capital invested in it n a very few weeks and was soon earning from $30 to $35 a day for the Allens. Later

a third theatre, the

a “Gem,” was opened in another part of Brantford. That made the Allens, two of them in their ’teens, the largest operators of moving pictures in the country.

A Chain Developed in Ontario 'T'HE three Brantford theatres were only the nucleus of a larger organization and there was soon a chain throughout Western Ontario. Difficulty developed over the question of film supply, and to assure that their theatres would always have the best in new film dramas without delay, the Allens organized their first exchange, and supplied the films for their own theatres. From this it was only a step to the point where they could supply other theatres with films.

In the course of a few years Western Ontario seemed to be too small a field for the Allens. Moving pictures were becoming tremendously popular, and many new picture theatres were being opened. The West was almost a virgin field and, moreover, lacked the “legitimate” drama as well. Bernard Allen and his two sons sold out their Ontario holdings and moved their headquarters to Calgary, where they built what was then the first moving picture house in Canada in 1913. But the move to Calgary only enlarged their field and after a few years their activities stretched from coast to coast. It was necessary to move the headquarters of the reorganization to Toronto, where it now is.

One might go on to recount further the story of the Allens, but it would resolve itself into a mere record of new theatres built and old theatres purchased and made over. It is enough to say that the Allens are not through yet. To-day they operate more than fifty theatres of the highest standard in twenty-one Canadian cities. Eight other theatres are now in course of erection. Many others are under contemplationi

They operate six ' film exchanges to supply their chain of theatres and others with film-plays.

Every week-day 80,000 Canadian people visit the Allen Theatres. In a few months, when theatres now in course of being built are opened, the figures will exceed 150,000 a day, nearly 1,000,000 a week and 50,000,000 a year. Tickets used in the Allen theatres in one year if placed end to end would reach from Toronto to Halifax.

Selecting the Films

EVERY film play exhibited at any of these forty-seven theatres is chosen under the personal direction of Jule and Jay J. Allen and is shown at practically every one

of the theatres/ Almost any morning in the week, a miniature grand jury meets in the Allen Theiitre in Toronto. Jule and Jay Allen may be there. Herb Allen, who has direct charge of the booking of all the theatres, and J. Ben Cronk, supervisor of the Toronto theatres, are sure to be there and other members of the Allen organization will also drop in occasionally. This little group chooses the films for the Allen circuit. Many films are exhibited to them but few are chosen. On an average, 75lper cent, of the motion picture films shown at these morning sessions are discarded as being unsuitable for the Allen theatre clientele.

When a filmhasbeen chosen by the jury, it is usually exhibited first at the Allens’ main Toronto theatre.

Sometimes a film about which the jury is not entirely unanimous is shown in one of the smaller theatres before being shown in Toronto, but the Allens usually assume that Toronto motion picture fans are very, very critical.

If they approve of a film and show their approval by giving it a good reception, the film is ready to tour Canada. If the Toronto “movie fans” do not like the film it is not good enough for the rest of Canada. The judgment of the patrons of the Allen To-

ronto theatre is final, in

determining what films

shall reach the Allen

theatres elsewhere. But a film shown at the Toronto theatre is seldom a failure; the “vigilance committee” that chooses the film is too careful in its

When a film is finally chosen, anywhere from three to eight copies will be purchased to be sent to the various circuits throughout the country. The average number of copies of the same film being shown at one time is four. At one time eleven copies of the same film were being shown at Allen

Allen theatres cost from $200,000 to $2,000,000.

The average is $500,000 and their seating capacity is often over 2,000. They represent an investment of $25,000,000. An Allen theatre now under erection m Montreal will seat 3,000 people. The Cleveland theatre will seat 3,500 people and will be the third largest in the world when it is finished. The Detroit Allen will have a seating capacity of 4,000—the second largest moving picture theatre in the world. The total seating capacity of Allen theatres when those actually erected or being erected are in operation will be about 75,000.

And most of this has been accomplished within the past three years, in fact since November 10, 1917, when the Allen theatre in Toronto was opened to the public; for on that date there were only eight Allen theatres in operation. At least, the Allens think the number was eight. When I asked one of the staff how many theatres there were in operation then, he was puzzled.

“That question is like asking a man who is just waking up what he has dreamt about. It takes him some time to collect his thoughts,” he said. “The past two years have been like a dream. Jule and Jay Allen have done things that even to us who have worked with them have seemed too gigantic to be real. I find it hard to remember little things like that, because I can hardly keep up with the things that are happening every day.”

The Two Young Heads

T would be interesting to determine where the dividing line comes in the particular interests within the enterprise of each of the brothers, but the spirit of co-operation has so permeated their every effort that the line of demarcation is very vague. Men who know them say it does not exist.

Nothing is ever done by Jule Allen, or by Jay J. Allen. Everything is done by Jule and Jay J. Allen. Thçre is no way of knowing which details of the daily work should be referred to one or the other of the two brothers. Everything is dealt with by both of them. It would be a peculiar arrangement for some business men; but not for the Allens. The impression that an outsider gets is that Jay, perhaps, is the planner and Jule the executive. Jay revels in planning bigger things, but he is just as enthusiastic in putting his ideas into effect. Jule is a master of detail. Very little transpires within the organization

that does not come to his attention. He makes it a point to visit every new theatre where at all possible and make sure that the little details, that are of ultimate importance, are correct.

When visiting them at their office, one is immediately struck by the simplicity of the two rooms where they

the two rooms where they make their plans and supervise their execution.

The two offices seem almost bare; there is nothing in either that does not bear directly in some way or another on the motion picture industry.

Jay J. sitting at his mahogany desk seems always to be working. There is never a pile of unfinished correspondence, notes and memoranda on his desk. Everything is dealt with as it comes along and, fast as the Allen organization moves, Jay has no difficulty keeping up with it with his hands and ahead of it with his min'd. In) one corner of the room is a pile of drawings of projected Allen theatres; one or two of them are framed and hang on the wall. On the window is an autographed photograph of Mary Pickford.

A ND at five o’clock, when twilight comes, and the big red electric sign flashing “ Allen Theatre” outside, reflects its rays in the room, over

Mary Pickford and on Jay Allen’s desk, he is still busy at work; busy because his day does not end at five o’clock. Making an appointment for five or six o’clock is quite the rule in the Allen organization.

Jule’s office is just like his brother’s, except that the drawings in the pile are of different theatres and instead of Mary Pickford the guardian spirit is Clara Kimball Young.

But while each brother has his own office, the door between the two is always open, and little transpires in one that is not heard in the other. A visitor may be holding a conversation with one brother, and the other will walk in and without interruption the conversation can proceed.

The Allens do not betray in their personal appearance the fact that they are among the world’s “movie magnates.” They are smart, alert young business men; typical of Canada’s younger commercial and industrial

mercial and industrial

leaders. And they are Canadian business men, for although they were born in the United States, they were naturalized in Canada long ago. They have British ideals and aspirations, and they have married Canadian girls who preside over two typically Canadian homes, close by each other, in the heart of one of Toronto’s quietest residential districts. It is their intention to maintain their headquarters in Canada.

T ASKED Jay J. Allen how he accounted for the success of their enterprise.

“Wesucceeded because we built our business as business,’/ was the answer. “When we entered the moving picture business most of the people then exhibiting pictures were making all the money they could without giving the people their money’s worth. They did not realize that moving pictures were here to stay.

“We knew that moving pictures would become one of the greatest industries in the world and we decided to run our theatres as we would run a store. We wanted to build up a steady, satisfied clientele, for only with that could a beautiful theatre such as we wanted be built.

We have followed that policy ever since and that it has proven successful is shown by the fact that, while only a year or two ago when we opened a new theatre we had to build up a clientele before we could have capacity houses every day, now the Allen name is sufficient to insure the success of one of our theatres from the opening night.”

“How do you know that motion pictures are going to be popular for a long time to come?” I asked Mr. Allen.

“Every day there are middle-aged people entering our theatres who have never seen a moving picture before,” he answered. “They have looked on the ‘movies’ as something beneath their dignity, but when they once break the ice they become regular patrons.

“That applies to many people of this generation. It will not apply to anybody in the coming generation.

Every, child who is growing up to-day is growing into a moving picture fan, and every child is going to become a ‘grown-up’ fan. There are millions of ‘movie fans’ in the making now and they are the people who will visit our theatres ten, twenty and thirty years from now.”

To Mr. Jule Allen, I put the same question: “How do you account for the success of your enterprises?”

“One thing has been keeping up the standard of our productions,” he said.“ We are never afraid to establish a moving picture theatre in a neighborhood that already has a theatre, if the other house shows only Wild-West thrillers and such trashy pictures, because we know that everybody wants to see good pictures, and if they go to see poor pictures it is because there are no others for them to see.”

One reason for the success of many concerns has been

the loyalty of the men who have worked with the founder. I asked Mr. Allen about the men under him and under his brother.

“An important factor in our success has been the enthusiasm of the men who have worked for us,” he said. “We have tried to treat them fairly. We give them a stock interest in our various companies, and we have also followed the rule that all our theatre managers and executive officers must be developed in the organization. It makes for greater loyalty within a growing organization like ours for the members of the staff to know that no

outside men will be brought in to be placed over them.”

In allotting stock to their , employees the Allens do not follow any fixed rule, but the policy is to give a stock bonus to each of its more important officials according to the standard of the services he has accomplished for the organization. Men who have been with the Allens for a number of years now hold substantial stock interests in the enterprise.

The man who has been with the Allen organization the longest started in as an operator in the “Theatorium” in Brantford, about a week after it was opened to the public. Now he has authority over the nine Allen theatres in Toronto.

One year ago there was a young lad who was ushering in one of the Allen theatres. To-day he is assistant manager of one of the important houses and in another year, if he continues to give faithful service, he will be a manager himself.

Every Allen official must

be imbued with the spirit of the organization, otherwise he cannot make good. The managers have many problems every day, the solution of which calls for tact and wise judgment, combined with courtesy. 1 was in the office of the manager of one of the theatres when an irate gentleman telephoned in. His two boys had gone to the “pictures” that afternoon, and the ticket seller had

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charged the younger lad ten cents for admission. The father thought that because his boy was only eight years of age that he should have entered the theatre

The manager did not attempt to tell the man that his son was not a “baby in arms,” and that he occupied a seat at the theatre that might have been occupied by a person paying the full admission price. He had a right to do that, but instead he took the old gentleman’s address, and promised to send a complimentary ticket for each of the two sons.

“That will make a friend for the Allen Theatres,” said the manager. “And not one friend but many, because the old man will tell all his friends and neighbors about how good we were to him; the boys will talk about their free pass at school and help advertise the house. If I had been discourteous to him he would have been a

‘knocker’ instead of a 'booster' and he might have done a great deal of harm for us among his friends.”

With all their wonderful organization, the Allens have never produced a moving picture, although the temptation has come to them often to enter this field. There are many reasons why they feel that they could not make a success of it. One is the fact that producing is an art, as compared to exhibiting, which is a business. Canada, too, is not very well adapted to the production of films. There is not enough sunlight, for one thing. The market is very small, for another, as the Canadian market is only 5 per cent, of the United States market.

SUCH Is the beginning of the story of the Allen Brothers. It is only the beginning, for the Allens are only “nicely started.” Henry Ford was forty years old

before he got his start in life. Robert C. McLaughlin, founder of Canada’s greatest motor car organization, at thirty-three was still a very unsuccessful farmer. John H. Patterson, head of the National Cash Register Company, was almost a failure at 40. Frank W. Woolworth really began his mercantile career in middle life. Yet at thirty and thirtyone respectively Jay J. Allen and Jule Allen are the dominating figures among the world's moving picture theatre owners. They control every Allen theatre, for, while they have sold preference stock in many of them, they have retained the bulk of the common stock in every instance and in many cases are the owners outright. They have never been in an unsuccessful venture.

Very few of those who operated motion picture theatres in the early days of the industry are in the business to-day. Too many of them tried to commercialize the novelty of the kinetoscope; they thought it only a passing fad and like the circus that comes to town in the wake of a flashy-tongued press agent they took the people’s money while they had the opportunity, and cared not what they gave in return. Motion pictures could not last, they thought, so why look to the future? The men who went into the game in the spirit of the carnival have gone down and out long ago.

But there were a few exceptions; men

who visualized the moving picture industry as it is to-day and made their plans as a business man would lay out his program. In this class were Jule and Jay J. Allen. They saw from the first the business possibilities of motion pictures. Their vision is even the more remarkable when one considers that only now are bankers and financial men realizing that motion pictures have a commercial value. The Allens realized this thirteen years ago. They can smile when they read such items as the following which appeared but a few weeks ago in an American financial journal :

“Now the motion picture has broken down the conservative barriers of the banker, and theindustry bids fair to be linked as indelibly with the financial centres of the country as is any other undertaking of established worth.

“The motion-picture industry has gone through what might be termed the easy money period. The harvest has been there for the reaping, and it has not been taken always with the greatest degree of business success. Abundance has made for profligacy and the waste has been enormous. But that real value lies back of the undertaking has at last impressed banking men, and from now on there will be the dawning of a new era in the picture industry when tried business methods applied by men of business will supplant the happy-go-lucky customs of the past.”