Visit a fabric shop, and you may stumble upon a product called sponged wool. The term has become obscure in modern times, but in the late 19th-century, sponged wool was in great demand, and the sponging process had a big role in the clothing business. New York City’s garment industry, then dominating a large swath of Manhattan from the Bowery up to the southern edge of Central Park and across the breadth of the island between 14th and 34th Streets, alone employed thousands of cloth spongers.
A sponger’s job was to pre-shrink fabric through the application of steam. As with many positions in the garment trade, manual sponging was hard, menial labor that required real skill. But New York was teeming with newly arrived European immigrants willing to accept low wages for steady employment. A typical sponger in the 1890s earned as little as eight dollars for six long days a week, sweating in clouds of steam and puddles of stagnant water, cheek-by-jowl with other laborers. The shop floors were ready incubators for every imaginable kind of germ (tuberculosis—the “tailor’s disease”—was especially feared). Until the deaths of 146 garment workers in New York’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, workplace-safety laws were almost non-existent and child labor was common. To be a cloth sponger was to spend one’s days dreaming of a better life.
One especially successful dreamer was a young New York City sponger named Benjamin Moss, who quit his job in 1900 after his boss refused to raise his pay. Together with a fellow sponger named William Fox, Moss set up a fabric-supply company called Knickerbocker Cloth Examining and Shrinking, just south of Washington Square Park.
At the time, neither man seemed destined for greatness. Their new business suffered a series of disasters from the get-go. In one particularly dangerous 1901 incident, Fox and Moss confronted a Knickerbocker sales agent who’d borrowed twenty-five dollars from their company under false pretenses. The agent, one Nathan May, had claimed he needed to treat his sick child; in fact, he was financing an affair with his mistress. In the ensuing fracas, the salesman pulled out a gun and put a bullet through the brim of Moss’s hat before killing himself in front of police and horrified witnesses.
Shortly thereafter, Fox and Moss went their separate ways. In 1902, Fox opened a slot-machine arcade in Brooklyn. He also bought one of New York City’s first nickelodeons and started a film-production company, which he named after himself. From there he expanded into many branches of the film industry, eventually making an international name for himself by producing movies. He fell on hard times in the Great Depression and lost control of his company, Fox Films. But his name would live on at Twentieth Century Fox.
His fellow cloth sponger, Benjamin Moss, also put down stakes in the entertainment field, and lent his name to an enduring corporate empire. But his career would follow a different path and produce a much different—and, in important ways, more impressive—legacy.
B. S. Moss had been born Bernhard Moskowitz in 1875 to Albert and Rose Moskowitz, residents of what is now the Polish town of Wisnicz. Five years later, Albert, a tailor, sailed to New York to start a new life, sending for his family when he was confident he could house and support them. Rose, Bernhard and three other Moss children crossed the Atlantic on a Hamburg America steamship, sailing into port on July 28, 1881, a few months before Bernhard’s sixth birthday. As was customary at the time, family members adopted shorter, Americanized names. Bernhard became Benjamin. Moskowitz became Moss.
Albert’s three older brothers had already established themselves in New York’s textile business. Settling the family up in a heavily German area known as Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Albert seems soon to have been afflicted by a debilitating psychiatric condition. His listed address on both the 1910 and 1920 censuses was Manhattan State Hospital (then referred to as The New York City Asylum for the Insane), a hulking edifice on Ward’s Island that Albert’s family members would have been able to see from the Yorkville side of the Harlem River.
On March 3rd, 1922, the day after Rose’s death from colon cancer, Albert was transferred to private care at the more upscale Fair Oaks Sanatorium in Summit, New Jersey, a facility dedicated to the “treatment of all forms of nervous diseases and selected treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.” He would spend the last eleven years of his life there. Family lore casts Rose as a beloved matriarch, but also a penny-pincher, as suggested by the timing of Albert’s transfer to Fair Oaks only upon her death.
Then again, it made sense for Rose to pinch pennies. The young family had little on its arrival in America. Benjamin took odd jobs from a young age to support his mother and five younger siblings. An early profile of Moss published in a Jewish magazine notes that he sold newspapers on the streets of New York as a child, even throughout the Great Blizzard of March 1888, which dumped 22 inches of snow on the city and chased away other vendors, allowing the gleeful Moss to sell his own copies for the windfall price of 25 cents apiece. Benjamin was enrolled for a time in New York’s public-school system but eventually dropped out for the good of his family, finding find full-time employment producing sponged wool.
B.S. Moss (no one called him Benjamin) was in his mid-twenties by the time he and Fox broke out on their own to found Knickerbocker Cloth Examining and Shrinking. The choice of name, being thoroughly American, reflected the mixed feelings that many early Jewish entertainment-industry titans had about their faith and background, which some chose to shed entirely en route to assimilation. (At least one of the Jewish, Lithuanian-born Shubert brothers who dominated the Times Square theater industry for half a century would go further, and become a notorious anti-Semite.) When it came to the actual content of their productions, in particular, Hollywood’s Jewish “emperors” scrupulously avoided themes or influences that might raise eyebrows among gentiles. Even Jewish actors were looked at askance. As Heywood Gould has written, Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn once “refused to sign a Jewish actor for an important part, saying, ‘Around this studio, the only Jews we put in pictures play Indians.’”
B.S. Moss was not a particularly observant Jew. He certainly did not dress in a recognizable Jewish style, and his social life appears to have revolved more around the Friars Club than the synagogue. Moreover, his surviving business ledgers indicate that he at least occasionally worked on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. But there isn’t any evidence to suggest that Moss took steps to disguise or reject his Jewish heritage.
Rather, he married Estelle “Stella” Dreyfus, a strong-willed Jewish woman from Kingston, NY, whose Bavarian-born cowboy father delivered cattle to New York City’s processing plants in the mid-19th century. B.S. would also take a leadership position in the United Krakauer Aid Society, a charity that helped integrate new Jewish arrivals (such as Moss’s own family once had been), and used his professional connections to stage benefit performances on its behalf.
B.S.’s primary sense of identity was rooted in American citizenship. He was a full convert to the American way of life, including its religion of self-improvement. As a young man, he would write down words to upgrade his vocabulary and speak like a proper American. He would expound earnestly of America’s history and civic traditions, and collect signatures of former presidents, later naming his first theaters after four founding fathers—Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin.
The careers of storied moviemakers such as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor are marked by eureka moments—either real or mythologized—whereupon the young moguls are seized with the realization of how big the entertainment business could become. But B.S. Moss’s transition from the cloth trades to entertainment was tentative. He hung onto his more mundane cloth-treatment business interests as he made his first investments in entertainment, and he would not fully divest them until significantly later in life. As it turned out, his caution was warranted: The nickelodeon business into which his former partner had plunged in 1902 was a new and unproven branch of filmed entertainment. And even by that time, the technology, films, and methods of exhibition had gone through several revolutions.
Culturally, the foundations of the motion-picture exhibition business were laid during B.S. Moss’s childhood years, when phonographs (then newly invented) would be set up in downtown shopping arcades, allowing passersby to pay a few cents to listen to music, theatrical recitations, political speeches, or sermons by using individual ear horns. Believing that the commercial possibilities would be greatly expanded if visuals were added, Thomas Edison developed a method for putting photographs on spinning cylinders that could be coordinated with the sound from his phonograph technology. The device, as put into retail operation, was called the Kinetoscope, and required the viewer to stoop down and put his eye over a peephole as film spooled over a light source. One of the very first Kinetoscopes appeared in 1894 at the corner of Broadway and West 27th Street, where an arcade offered “peep shows” for 25 cents admission, a high price considering many laborers were making less than $10 a week.
Edison wrongly imagined that the potential of his invention lay with individual consumers hovering over their own Kinetoscope boxes, each looking at his or her own private shows. His genius was in the sphere of technological invention, not human social habits. And so it was left to others to turn motion pictures into a public spectacle. Nevertheless, Edison was shrewd enough to realize that whatever the medium of delivery, the real industry bottleneck would be the availability of content: he’d observed that consumers quickly bored of filmed vaudeville acts with titles such as Trained Bears and The Gaiety Girls Dancing.
Over time, the term “peep show” became synonymous with pornography, as this turned out to be the only type of film most people preferred to watch in the isolated way Edison had imagined. Across the Atlantic in 1895, the Lumière brothers famously staged a public viewing of their Cinématographe at a room in the basement of Paris’ Grand Café. The actual technology was similar to what Edison had produced. But crucially, the images were projected sideways, not vertically, and the light’s target was a large screen, not a human eyeball. Hundreds, or even thousands of people could watch the same movie at once, and film became a social experience. Edison knew a good thing when he saw it, and quickly adapted the concept into his next major product, which he called the Vitascope.
The Lumière brothers thought seriously about the possibilities of this new medium, not just as a tool to record and re-monetize stage entertainment, but as a vehicle for both art and journalism. Even the inaugural set of short films (each forty-odd seconds long) they showed at Grand Café illustrated the way film could transform mundane forms of human behavior—a baby having breakfast, workers leaving a factory, a random street scene in the city of Lyon—into compelling and thought-provoking vignettes.
The development of film technology did not immediately kill vaudeville, the most popular form of American live entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. Rather, during the early years of film, popular vaudeville theaters became the main outlet of movie distribution. Short films were swapped in among live orators, singers, puppet shows, trained animals, magicians, comedians, and abbreviated theatrical dramas. At first, the content of the films was rudimentary, with some being nothing more than vaudeville acts recorded at Edison’s West Orange, N.J., studio. They were designed to please men with short attention spans, some sober, some not.
Also exhibiting films in the days before movie theaters were itinerant entrepreneurs who traveled from town to town with projectors. Amusement parks, too, got in on the act. By 1904, visitors could ride on something called The Hale’s Tour Car: “passengers” were loaded into a stationary coach that was shaken back and forth by a mechanical apparatus while a film of passing landscape was played on the side—an early prototype of today’s 3-D rides at modern amusement parks.
The first theaters that catered exclusively to film were nickelodeons, which, within a few years of William Fox’s 1902 investment, were sprouting up everywhere in the United States. As with vaudeville, the nickelodeons offered a continuous run of entertainment during the day—typically an hour-long succession of very short films repeated on cycle. Viewers came and went as they pleased after paying their nickel entry fee. Even then, New York City was at the center of America’s nascent movie business. And during the nickelodeons’ heyday, many of the city’s venues were concentrated in B.S.’s childhood neighborhood of Yorkville; or in the Bowery, an area Moss also would have known well as a hub for clothing production; not to mention the Jewish parts of Brooklyn, where William Fox had first set up shop.
The second half of the word “nickelodeon” originated with the melodion, a small German-style accordion that was popular with folk musicians. But apart from the melodion (or a piano), operators did not invest in atmospherics or creature comforts. They worked out of converted arcades and other low-rent storefront locations, often adjoining dance halls and saloons catering to immigrants and tenement-dwellers. “The auditorium, typically the only room inside, was little more than a converted screening room, long and narrow and darkly lit, even when patrons were streaming in and out,” wrote historian Douglas Gomery in his 1992 book Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Customers would perch on benches or cheap chairs and stare at screens that were often made out of bed sheets. A typical nickelodeon could break even if it brought in 200 dollars, or 4,000 customers, every month, or about 60 customers per show cycle.
Cloth-sponging and entertainment weren’t as disconnected from each other as one might imagine. Until the emergence of anti-competitive film trusts, both fields presented few barriers to entry for ambitious men. They required no academic or professional credentials, and could be learned from the bottom up. Perhaps most importantly, they rewarded businessmen who maintained a close, everyday connection to the fickle tastes of ordinary consumers. Entrepreneurs who combined local market knowledge with the ability to raise even small amounts of start-up capital could strike out on their own and be successful. In 1906, Carl Laemmle, who’d immigrated from Europe at an early age, opened up his first nickelodeon in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago. Within a decade, he’d founded Universal Pictures, and was running the biggest film-production facility in the world.
By the time B.S. Moss was ready to make his move, there was a well-trod path of young men who’d had fled the miseries of European ghettos to reinvent themselves in America, first in the garment trade or retail, and next in entertainment. They tended to be rough-spun individuals with sharp elbows. “Lewis J. Selznick, who came from a family of eighteen, migrated from Kiev to London at the age of twelve,” writes Gould. “Samuel Goldwyn left Warsaw when he was eleven. Adolph Zukor arrived in England from Hungary at the age of fifteen, with forty dollars sewn in his pockets. The moguls began in the retail trades traditionally followed by Jews. Goldwyn was a glove salesman, Selznick a jeweler, [William] Fox a cloth sponger, Zukor a furrier … They were drawn to what was then the nickelodeon business by retailing, not by artistic interests … The set-up was ideal: quick turnover, cash customers, and no returns.”
The path into entertainment was so attractive that it soon became overcrowded. Competition in the nickelodeon business was fierce, and the sector became oversaturated. A 1907 editorial in Moving Picture World lamented the “cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners … they are beginning to compete each other out of existence.”
The problem was that nickelodeons, like the films they showed, had become a low-brow commodity market. Most people of means—and women more generally— wouldn’t be caught dead in these places. And so the men who eventually went on to make great fortunes in the film business tended to be those who figured out that respectable Americans wanted more than to sit on a bench and be titillated by the gimmicky likes of The Fete of a Millionaire at Budapest and Shooting the Chutes at Geneva. They wanted to be truly entertained in a setting the whole family could enjoy. That meant better content and better theaters. But early exhibitors were in a chicken-and-egg situation: They couldn’t attract a better class of customers without making longer and superior films. Legitimate stage actors, however, refused to risk their good names by appearing in a medium widely regarded as a cheap novelty.
As it turned out, better theaters emerged before better content, and B.S. Moss was among the leaders in this trend. Newly married, but as yet without children, he had money to invest. A surviving set of handwritten ledgers from his Consolidated Cloth Sponging Works (located at the corner of Prince and Lafayette Streets in the neighborhood between the Bowery and Soho now known as Nolita) put his 1903 weekly take-home pay at 30 dollars a week, about four times the average American weekly salary. The ledgers also show that Moss employed eight workers in 1903 and more than thirty by late 1905. Business was good, and whereas most of his earliest employees appear to have been menial or semi-skilled workers earning relatively modest wages, Moss by 1905 had acquired a set of managers earning as much as 50 dollars a week (more than Moss was paying himself ). The presence of such men suggests that Moss had the time and means to look beyond his cloth-sponging business to new ventures.
His first major theatrical project was to lead the syndicate behind the Washington Theatre on Amsterdam Avenue between 149th and 150th Streets. Designed by the Scots-American architect Thomas W. Lamb, who would become one of the foremost theater and cinema designers of the golden age of film, it began operation in the summer of 1910, and was later described by The New York Times as “the first real ‘movie palace’ in the city.” (The building is still standing as the New Covenant Temple.)
The Washington was followed on January 23rd, 1913 by Moss & Brill’s Hamilton Theatre, a magnificent venue in Hamilton Heights (West Harlem) that hosted both vaudeville and cinema. Also designed by Lamb, it was done up in Renaissance Revival style, and took only six months to build, start to finish. On opening night, there were performances by the house orchestra, an acrobat, several comedians and actors, and short motion pictures. The first theater to bear the Moss name, it would be rechristened as B.S. Moss’s Hamilton Theatre after partner Solomon Brill sold his share.
As with the Coliseum in Washington Heights, which Moss built in 1920, the Hamilton profited immensely from the increased development and foot traffic spurred by the newly constructed Interborough Rapid Transit subway, now known as the 1 Train. It ran from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Bronx, and made suburbs such as Hamilton Heights more accessible. New York City, at that moment, was experiencing what the Real Estate Record and Guide called “one of the greatest theater building booms in its history.” Although Times Square, with its legendary Palace Theatre at Seventh Avenue and 47th Street (it opened two months after the Hamilton), was shaping up as the entertainment capital of Manhattan, many other important theaters were built along the “subway circuit” that followed the development of public transit. It was a pattern mirrored in major cities across the United States, including Chicago, where the Balaban and Katz Theatre Corporation built its first three cash-cow movie palaces—the Central Park, the Tivoli and the Riviera—in outlying business areas along the trolley lines.
The Hamilton made an impression in New York. After its opening, B.S. Moss began to attract regular notice in the local entertainment press as a film and vaudeville showman. Thanks in large part to Lamb’s design genius, the Moss “brand,” even at this early stage, was trending to the higher end of the market. Yet no matter the fine architecture, quality content remained scarce.
It was the Lyceum in 1912 that helped fix this problem. Zukor, who would later found Paramount Pictures, had gone to Europe in search of upscale features to show a US audience. In Paris, he found a four-reel French film (silent, of course; “talkies” would not be exhibited until the 1920s) called Les amours de la reine Élisabeth (The Loves of Queen Elizabeth). The movie chronicled a 16th-century affair between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Its star was the famous stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, playing Elizabeth opposite her real-life lover, the Dutch-born Lou Tellegen.
Renamed for Americans, the film oozed mainstream respectability and attracted positive reviews when it premiered on July 12th, 1912. While Zukor could have saved money by holding the opening at one of his own facilities, he opted instead for the Lyceum, a lavish Beaux-Arts playhouse, knowing that, in the long run, the high-rent optics would pay dividends. The whole endeavor, Zukor later said, went “a long way toward breaking down the prejudice of theatrical people toward the screen.”
Although the vaudeville circuits would last through the 1920s, the way was now paved for impressive purpose-built movie houses with proper lighting and sound that would exhibit first-rate popular entertainment to general audiences. Viewers could comfortably immerse themselves in a make-believe world for hours at a time. And exhibitors saw a new kind of customer sitting in their comfortable chairs: well-heeled families, women looking for something to do in their free time, and university students.
All of these people had money that the nickelodeon owners had been leaving on the table. B.S. Moss would become expert at picking it up.
Adapted, with permission, from Magic in the Dark: One Family’s Adventures in the Movie Business, by Charles B. Moss and Jonathan Kay. Published by Sutherland House.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.