Previously on Getting to Know You, our article series introducing Disney fans to 20th Century Fox history and productions, we met the founder of Fox Films, William Fox. After falling on hard times, Fox Films ended up merging with Twentieth Century, a relatively new company that had achieved great success in just two years. This new studio was founded by two men and today we meet one of them, Joseph Schenck.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between Joseph Schenck and William Fox. They were born just one year apart, with Schenck a year older with an 1878 birth year. They were also both born in other countries (Schenck emigrating from Russia) and both made New York City their first home in America. However, Schenck’s entry into the entertainment industry actually has more in common with Disney than Fox.
Joseph and his brother Nicholas became concessionaires at New York’s Fort George Amusement Park, a rival of Coney Island that featured a variety of disorganized amusements when the Schenck Brothers began working there. Foreseeing a more harmonious setting, they used their profits to build Paradise Park, which grew so popular that they set up turnstiles and charged 10 cents admission, a new concept in amusement park business models that previously didn’t charge an entrance fee. The park’s closest neighbors did not approve of the crowds it drew near their homes and local arsons burned it down in 1913. By that time, they also owned Palisade’s Amusement Park across the Hudson River in New Jersey. That park remained a popular attraction until its closure in 1971, the same year Walt Disney World opened, although the Schensks had sold it by 1934.
How does a New York amusement park owner end up co-founding a successful movie studio? One of Paradise Park’s repeat guests was Marcus Loew, whose nickelodeon and theater empire in New York would have rivaled William Fox’s. Both Joseph and Nicholas became associates of Leow’s, Inc. and as their amusement empire began to fall, both brothers began to focus more on theatrical entertainment.
Joseph Schenck met and married a silent movie star named Norma Talmadge in 1916. Schenck helped aid his wife’s career by managing their own production company, Norma Talmadge Film Corporation. The venture was very successful, with Talmadge becoming one the the biggest silent film stars of all time and other studio talent including Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. By 1922, several of the studio’s stars had been relocated to Hollywood on loan to other studios and Schenck made the move west with his movie star wife.
Now in Hollywood, Schenck made a distribution deal with United Artists that ultimately made him President in 1924 when D. W. Griffith dropped out of the group. During his time as President, one of the distribution deals he signed was with Walt Disney Productions for the distribution of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts after Disney’s deal with Charles Mintz soured. This was especially poetic as Mickey’s debut, Steamboat Willie, was a parody of a film Schenck produced earlier in 1928 called Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Joseph Schenck’s marriage began to crumble as early as 1926 when Talmadge began having affairs with some of her leading men. He declined her request for a divorce at the time, but the couple had separated all but their business affairs. He finally granted her a divorce in 1934 after her career and their joint business ventures had declined.
A year prior to the divorce in 1933, Schenck partnered with Darryl Zanuck to form their own studio, Twentieth Century. By that time, Fox Films was operating without its founder, William Fox, who lost everything during the great depression due to his failed attempt to purchase Leow’s, which by then also owned rival studio MGM. It seems all too fitting that one of the two men that came to own William Fox’s empire was more or less a protege of Marcus Leow. This isn’t the end of Schenck’s story and we will learn more about his time at 20th Century Fox in future installments of Getting to Know You. Next time, we will meet the other co-founder of Twentieth Century, Darryl Zanuck.