Monday, March 30, 2009

Wards - Fort Worth, Texas, Early 1930's

Pictured above is Montgomery Ward’s Fort Worth, Texas “Mail Order Catalog House”, opened in 1928, as it appeared in an early 1930’s photo. This was the company’s fourth major mail order plant, preceded by their Chicago, Oakland and Baltimore units. Wards, who claimed a customer base of “500,000 Texas families, or more than half the customers in the state”, according to a December 1927 Wall Street Journal article (which also references Wards’ special edition of their catalog for the Texas market – I’m picturing “Lone Star” curtains, among other things), could now service them out of one facility. Prior to this building’s opening, Wards operated out of four different locations in the Fort Worth area – two warehouses, a three-story former Chevrolet plant and some rented office space in a downtown building.

Half a million square feet and eight stories high, lined with store display windows on the first floor and an entranceway that emphasized its Spanish-style architecture, the building made for an impressive sight. The photo also shows the botanical version of the company’s original “MW” logo, which was in use until Wards’ image overhaul in the late 1950’s when it was replaced with a more contemporary rendering.

Having finally ramped up their store construction program in the late 1950’s, Wards decided to construct a store distribution center adjacent to the mail order plant in 1961. Two years later, the retail portion of the main building was expanded (a large two-story portion was added) and completely reconfigured to match the company’s new look, including blue-glazed brick and modern signage. The resulting look was a bit odd – a Mid-Century Modern ground floor with seven stories of Spanish design “sprouting up” from it. Something for everybody!

The Fort Worth facility continued on as a Wards retail location even after the demise of the legendary Montgomery Ward catalog in 1985. In 2001 it closed, along with the rest of the chain.

After sitting vacant for a couple of years, the building began to attract the interest of developers, who saw the historic old building as an ideal candidate for renovation and conversion into a combination of condominiums and specialty retail, as had been done with Wards massive Chicago catalog facility some years earlier. The project ran into controversy when preservationists objected to plans to remove sections of the front and rear of the building, essentially creating a road through it, a move that was considered necessary by retailers and potential condo buyers who wanted additional window exposure. When the project lost some preservation grants due to the proposed modification, the city of Fort Worth stepped in and saved the day, guaranteeing loans on the construction costs.

Additional plans included the teardown of the 1961 warehouse and construction of a SuperTarget in its place, which opened in 2005. The main building, now called “Montgomery Plaza”, was completed this past fall. I saw it recently, and feel they did a very tasteful job. Amazingly, the general contractor that built the original 1928 building, Fort Worth-based Thos S. Byrne, fulfilled the same role in the renovation project.

Here are a couple of very interesting links – a series of posts on the “Fort Worth Forum” site showing great views of the 2004-5 demolition work on the project (you'll have to click down into the thread to see the many pics, but it's well worth it!), and the main Montgomery Plaza website. Click on the “History” tab for a great progression of 1928 construction photographs and other details.

The photo above appears here courtesy of the Tarrant County College Northeast Heritage Room Collection.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wards, America's Cheapest Cash House

The 1872 founding of Montgomery Ward & Co. was not just the beginning of a company, but of an entire industry – one that thrives today, years after Wards ceased to be a major part of it, or to exist at all. Mail order pioneer, Chicago legend, and nationwide department store fixture, Montgomery Ward is part of the American story – mention the name “Monkey Wards” and most folks will know what you’re talking about, whether their family shopped there or not.

The company’s founder, Aaron Montgomery Ward, was not a Midwesterner by birth. Born in Chatham, New Jersey in 1844, Ward and his family “headed west” when he was 8 years old, settling in Niles, Michigan. Later on, Ward moved some 30 miles away to St. Joseph, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where he took a job as a retail clerk. Within three years, Ward was running the store. In 1866, at age 22, Ward moved to Chicago, where he accepted a position with the new wholesale “dry goods” firm Field, Palmer and Leiter, forerunner to Marshall Field and Company. After two years with the Field firm and one with another company, Ward moved to St. Louis to work as a traveling salesman for another wholesaler, calling on stores via horse and buggy. Before long, Ward was back in Chicago, working for yet another wholesale firm, C.W. Pardridge Co.

Over the previous couple of years, while in the employ of others, Ward was diligently developing his own business idea, one based on his observations of the farmers who patronized the stores on his wholesale routes. In those days, rural customers generally had to contend with high prices on a very limited merchandise selection. Ward came up with an idea for a “mail order store”, where catalogs (which were initially just “merchandise price lists”) were mailed out to potential customers far and wide. Orders would be mailed to and shipped out of a centralized warehouse. By 1871, Ward had saved up enough money to give it a go, and began to stock up on merchandise to sell though his own catalog.

On October 8, 1871, the great Chicago fire struck, destroying major parts of the city, including countless homes and businesses. While Ward’s employer’s (the Pardridge firm) business escaped unscathed, the stock of merchandise Ward had put together for his own fledgling business was destroyed. “Like the rest of the city”, as Ward’s 1972 100th anniversary publication put it, “Ward dusted himself off and went back to work”. By the following August, two of Ward’s fellow Pardridge employees had joined him, and with $1600 in hand Ward purchased new goods, rented an office on North Clark Street and issued his first one-page price list.

The rise of Montgomery Ward & Co. coincided with that of the National Grange of Husbandry, an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the farmer. Known popularly as “the Grange”, local chapters were set up in rural areas far and near. Starting as basically a social organization, the Granges quickly gained power and political influence in their communities. Wisely, Ward closely aligned his company with the Granges, sending out price lists to each Grange Hall and encouraging members to pool their orders to save on shipping costs. For decades, even after the Granges’ influence had receded, Montgomery Ward was thought of by many as “The Grange Supply House”.

Ward received an unlikely boost from what could have been a disastrous event in the young company’s life. On November 8, 1873, the Chicago Tribune published a blistering editorial about the company entitled “Grangers beware. Don’t Patronize Montgomery Ward & Co. – They are Dead-Beats!” The rousing headline was followed with a series of charges – “Another attempt at swindling has come to light”…”they keep altogether from the public gaze, and are only to be reached through correspondence sent to a certain box in the Post Office.” Ward’s customers were caught in the crossfire as well – “it is known that a certain proportion of the multitudes of circulars issued fall into the hands of credulous fools, who place boundless faith in anything which is set up in type and printed. If such fools would only consider how easy a thing it is to start a swindle of this kind, the dead-beats who get them up would be driven to hard work, or still better, perhaps, starvation.” Ah, the journalistic restraint of days gone by! Ward threatened to sue.

The Tribune’s retraction, published in the December 24th edition, would prove to be worth its weight in gold to Wards. An early paragraph read: “The (November 8) article was based on what was supposed to be correct information, but a thorough investigation by this office satisfies us that the article was grossly unjust, and not warranted by the real facts. The firm of Montgomery, Ward & Co. is a bona fide firm, composed of respectable persons, and doing a perfectly legitimate business in a perfectly legitimate manner.” Ward was so pleased with it that he reprinted the article in its entirety in his next price list.

In 1874, Ward, now joined by his brother-in-law George Thorne as a partner, moved his business to a larger building at the corner of State and Kinzie Streets. Through the remainder of the 19th century, Montgomery Ward & Co. grew impressively, and the Wards catalog, which had evolved from the simplest type-set sheet to a 150-plus page magazine with ornate engraved covers, was wildly popular with consumers across the entire country, but especially so in the nation’s frontier heartland. In addition to clothing and farm goods, Ward carried groceries, and for a few years, liquor. In these years, Wards advocated for their customers by battling a number of industry trusts, which had attempted to fix prices on such basic needs as sugar and binding twine.

Ward and Thorne gradually turned the day-to-day management of the company over to younger men, including Thorne’s five sons, all of whom would eventually join the business. In 1887, Montgomery Ward moved to a new six-story building on Michigan Avenue, which would be expanded many times by the end of the century. In June 1889, the Ward-Thorne partnership was formally chartered as a corporation.

In 1893, Sears Roebuck and Co. was incorporated, moving their offices from Minneapolis to Chicago the following year. In just a few short years, Sears, who adapted the mantra “Cheapest Supply House on Earth” (similar to Wards’ “Cheapest Cash House in America”) emerged as Montgomery Ward’s chief rival, and what would be a century-long rivalry was underway.

1893 was a key year for Ward in a number of other ways. The company gave away tens of thousands of a special “World’s Fair Edition” of its catalog at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Even more important than that was Congress’ passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act (R.F.D.) which opened the door to mail delivery to individual rural homes. Prior to that, most country dwellers had to pick up their mail from a post office. As R.F.D. was implemented, Wards’ catalog deliveries and sales skyrocketed, provoking the ire of local country merchants. A number of them staged “catalog burnings”, encouraging locals to toss their treasured Wards catalogs into a bonfire - something the founder took as a true validation of his company’s success.

That same year, Ward sold his majority interest in the company to George Thorne. By this time, Ward was devoting his full-time energies to a new passion – the preservation of Chicago’s lakefront as a city park, off-limits to developers. More than anyone else, Ward deserves the credit for the priceless asset that is Chicago’s Grant Park. Ward fought for twenty years and through four legendary court battles to achieve this, losing many friends among Chicago’s business and social elite along the way. Aaron Montgomery Ward, retail and environmentalist pioneer, known in his last years as “the watchdog of the lakefront”, passed away at the age of 70 on December 7, 1913.

His namesake company continued to thrive. In 1908, Montgomery Ward opened its massive new distribution center, a 500-foot long, 9-story high, 2 million square foot colossus along Chicago’s riverfront, a facility the company would use into the 1970’s. Wards had opened its first of many branch operation “catalog houses” in Kansas City in 1904, replacing it with a much larger building in 1907. Later on, Wards would open more of these huge facilities – in Oakland in 1923, Baltimore in 1925, Fort Worth in 1928, and Albany, NY and Denver in 1929.

George Thorne’s sons had operated the company with varying degrees of efficiency in the early years of the 20th century. Today, the Thorne name is probably best known in Chicago in connection with the “Thorne Rooms”, a fascinating collection of miniature dioramas first exhibited in the 1930’s at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were conceived and funded by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, the wife of one of Mr. Thorne’s sons.

One brilliant hire they made was Robert E. Wood, a former World War I Quartermaster General, who shaped up their distribution system and advanced a new idea to help the company get the most mileage out of its gigantic branch warehouse operations – to open 40 to 50 retail stores within a radius of each “catalog house”, tapping the revenue possibilities of these facilities, adding a potential $20 million a year to Wards’ coffers. Alas, General Wood proved to be “the one that got away”, leaving Wards, whose top management was painfully slow to respond to his proposal, for Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1924. Wood, who at Sears would become one of the most legendary retail figures of the 20th century, opened Sears’ first retail store the following year. 350 Sears stores would be in operation by 1930, drastically changing the competitive dynamic between the two companies.

By 1927, the Montgomery Ward management had come to view their lack of a retail store presence as a mistake. A decision was made to open a handful of “display stores”, under the assumption that customers would be favorably inclined to buy merchandise they could actually touch as opposed to making their decision based only in catalog pictures. The problem was, the term “display store” meant exactly that – customers could order but not bring home the merchandise! It would be shipped to them in the standard manner from the closest Wards warehouse. The goal was to rotate the selection of merchandise shown in the display stores, choosing from Wards’ then 33,000 different items carried. The first display stores were slated for “Marysville, Kansas, Plymouth, Indiana and Little Falls, Minnesota, all good mail order areas”, according to the Wards 100th Anniversary book.

The conversion of the Plymouth, Indiana store from a purely “display” store to a conventional retail store happened in an interesting way, as related in story in the Anniversary book. Although the Plymouth display store was well-received, there was a fair amount of frustration expressed by customers about the inability to buy and take home the merchandise on the spot. This led to grumblings to the effect that Wards’ display units might be superior quality to the actual products shipped, a classic “bait-and-switch”, that in this case was patently untrue. It all came to a head one day when a carpenter showed up at the store and noticed that a saw was selling for 75 cents less than he could buy a comparable one for down the street. When told of the store’s policy, the carpenter became irate, demanding to buy and take home the saw. Finally the store manager relented and sold it to him. When word of this got around, the store was besieged, and was forced to sell off their sample stock to the clamoring public.

Montgomery Ward brass, upset about this at first, began to come around when the profit potential became too obvious to ignore. A test program was put in place with eight more display stores, now allowed to stock and sell the actual products, was put in place. The following year, now satisfied with the idea, Ward’s board of directors put the pedal to the metal, approving a program to open 212 retail stores in 1928.

Were it not for that carpenter, would any of us have “Monkey Wards” store shopping memories today? It boggles the mind - almost too deep to ponder.

The photo above, from the book “1872-1972 A Century of Serving Consumers – the Story of Montgomery Ward”, depicts the Plymouth, Indiana display store discussed above. Below are two photos from the E.M. Ball Photographic Collection (1918-1969), Special Collections, D.H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville depicting two early Montgomery Ward stores in Asheville, North Carolina, the first on Biltmore Avenue and the second on Patton Avenue, both circa 1930’s.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ready For Take-off With Wards, 1967

I’ve been more than a little swamped in this week leading up to spring break, and I’d hoped to have begun a decent history of Montgomery Ward on here by now. Sorry about that, but we’ll be ready for take-off soon!

In the meantime, here’s a look at the height of Wards fashion, in a great circa 1967 scene. This photo was taken in the ticketing area of the United Air Lines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Evidently, white gloves and men’s hats were still in. (At Wards, at least!) The little girl in front is reading a “Little Audrey” comic book, while the young lady in the background (Older daughter? Secretary? Well-dressed complete stranger?) double-checks her ticket. The nuzzling couple are oblivious to it all.

I remembered today that I had another photo of virtually the same scene, ironically also circa 1967, from a publication entitled "City On The Go", a promotional book from the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry. Fascinating stuff. Of course, it's nowhere near as artistically composed as the previous photo, and no ingenue in a buttercup coat (Thanks, Didi), girl with comic book or sweet nothings-whispering couple are to be seen. Just a few sailors and a bunch of "man in the gray-flannel suit" business types. It does show a much clearer view of the ticketing area, with the massive United flight information board and clock. American Airlines had one almost exactly like it, and both have long since been replaced with smaller TV screens up and down the terminal. The internally lit blue signage in the background was the O'Hare standard for many years after these photos were taken.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Golden Age of Montgomery Ward

High on the list of late, lamented retail chains would have to be Montgomery Ward & Company. For nearly 130 years Americans shopped at Wards, both through their legendary mail-order catalog and at their store locations.

The early years of Montgomery Ward are well documented in history books – a young entrepreneur starts a mail-order catalog business, supplying even the remotest areas with essential goods for home and farm. Eventually, the company would open a chain of retail stores to go along with its catalog business.

And of course, most of us are familiar with the Wards of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s - the mall stores, which grew increasingly dowdy as the company desperately searched for a winning formula to succeed in the brave new retail world. (Remember the “Electric Ave.” electronics departments?)

Between those two eras is a relatively brief period that is more or less overlooked today –Ward’s massive store construction program of the late 1950’s and 60’s. In 1958 the company, having failed to open new locations for many years at that point and in grave danger of being forgotten by the buying public, kicked off a very aggressive building program. Fifty new stores were opened in the next three years, many of which were major mall or shopping center locations. On top of this, hundreds of existing smaller stores were remodeled.

In my opinion, the Montgomery Ward stores of this era, a ten-year period starting in 1958, were some of the best looking retail stores ever. Pictured above is the very first store of what can be called Ward’s “golden age” (of mall stores, at least), at Denver, Colorado’s Lakeside Shopping Center. The 120,000 square foot, two-story store’s opening ceremonies were held on August 13, 1958. In back of the Wards store is The Denver Dry Goods Co. and to the right is a Lerner Shops store.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Matchless Memories of Mammoth Mart

The word “mammoth” calls to mind something big, huge, out of the ordinary. So the giant new discount stores must have seemed to folks who were used to shopping at the traditional “five and ten” - type variety stores that were a fraction of their size. It only makes sense, then, that one of these new “discount houses”, the upstarts of the retailing world, would adopt a “mammoth” as its trademark. And when it happened, did they choose an ancient woolly mammoth, with its ultra-long, curved tusks and generally terrifying appearance? Not at all. Instead, they went with a refined, genteel, bi-pedal elephant, smartly dressed in trousers, a sportcoat and tie. This friendly fellow was “Marty”, official mascot of Mammoth Mart, the late, great New England-based discount chain.

Quincy, Massachusetts native Max Coffman, the founder of Mammoth Mart, was born in 1910 to Russian immigrant parents. Coffman was one of those people of whom it could truly be said that retail was “in his blood”. Starting out as a grocery delivery boy, Coffman worked his way through high school and college performing a number of retail jobs. After four years with Enterprise, a Boston-area department store, Coffman joined Union Premier Food Stores, forerunner to Food Fair, where his responsibilities included overseeing the opening of new stores. In 1937, he joined Economy Grocery Stores, parent of Stop and Shop, a leading New England area chain. At Stop and Shop, Coffman’s responsibilities were once again centered on the company’s new store program. It was here that he learned the benefits of self-service, and especially of having a centralized checkout area at the front of the store - a practice that he would help pioneer later on for the discounting field, where it had previously been a foreign concept.

In 1941, Coffman, along with his brother-in-law Henry Gornstein, went into business for himself, opening an Army/Navy surplus store in Quincy. Problem was, with the outbreak of World War II, the supply of military surplus items had dried up, so Coffman stocked a variety of apparel, mainly work clothes, instead. The end of WWII in 1945 unleashed a flood of surplus items to the market, enabling Coffman to open five more surplus stores by 1948.

By the early 1950’s, as discussed numerous times on this site, a new form of retailer was springing up all over the New England area, known in the early days of the business as the “discount house”. Again, as mentioned, these new stores were often located in old, vacated factories that begged for tenants and were available for a song. J.M. Fields, Ann and Hope and Interstate Stores’ (who would later buy out Topps and White Front) first discount operation all began in this mold. While Zayre chose to come out of the box with new construction instead of the “mill building” approach, their merchandising approach bore some similarities to the aforementioned companies. The stores were very simple, often outfitted only with pipe racks and basic fixtures (as these chains became successful, much more sophisticated store designs would follow), but they made money hand over fist. Max Coffman was quick to recognize the potential of this new self-service, volume based, low price approach, and decided it was the route he needed to take.

In March 1956, the first “Mammoth Mart” (originally Mammoth Mills) was opened in a 51,000 square foot former foundry building in Framingham, Massachusetts. Robert Drew-Bear, in his book Mass Merchandising, describes the opening day scene, where there happened to be a “…very heavy snowfall. As a matter of fact, even the large searchlights were buried by the storm. Nevertheless, the buying public came to the store opening and a new era was born for Max Coffman and Mammoth Mart”.

The profitability of his Army/Navy surplus stores paled in comparison with that of the discount store, so Coffman soon closed them down in order to fully devote his resources to opening new Mammoth Marts. Coffman expanded cautiously, especially in the early years. “I wanted to get a good solid foundation established first”, he was quoted in the Drew-Bear book. In 1959, the second Mammoth Mart was opened in Bangor, Maine, with a third unit in Lewiston, Maine the next year. 1961 through 1965 saw the opening of an average of two new Mammoth Marts per year, and also the company‘s first public offering of stock. 1966 was the chain’s “breakout” year, so to speak, with the opening of six units, one of which replaced the original Framingham store.

The Mammoth Marts were located in strip shopping centers (except the free-standing Bangor unit), usually next door to a supermarket. The store size ranged from 42,000 to nearly 90,000 square feet. The stores’ merchandise mix, was heavily weighted towards apparel. In the early years, factory overruns and seconds were stocked. Drew-Bear’s book notes the chain’s private label brands, including “Princess Anne” for their nylon stockings. (Somehow, that just sounds better than “Mammoth” stockings, eh?) The company also operated their own shoe departments, a rarity in the discount industry where they were generally leased out to others. Small appliances, housewares, cameras, records and books helped round out the mix. Another feature of the stores were their snack bars, de rigueur for the time.

As the Mammoth Mart chain grew, so did Max Coffman’s reputation as a respected businessman, a fact acknowledged well outside his company’s New England trading area. In 1967, Coffman received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, which he accepted that year alongside such other notables as Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon, Lawrence Welk, and Ewing Kauffman, chairman of Marion Merrell Dow pharmaceuticals and soon-to-be founder of the Kansas City Royals.

Coffman’s retailing savvy also caught the attention of one Sam Moore Walton, operator of a small Arkansas discount chain with a big future. In his autobiography, entitled Made in America, Walton specifically mentioned Mammoth Mart. Sam called on the Mammoth Mart offices and was given a tour of the operation by Coffman’s son Jeffrey, which he recalled in his father’s obituary as reported by the Boston Globe - ''I showed him around," said Jeffrey. ''I was only 20 years old. Who knew what he would become?"

At the end of 1970, Mammoth Mart was in great shape. Seven new stores had been added, bringing the company total to 34. Two were located in Maine, one in Vermont, and the company’s first four stores outside of New England – Bel Air (suburban Baltimore), Maryland and Lumberton, Henderson and New Bern, North Carolina. A childrens’ clothing store division,”Boston Baby”, was started around this time.

On a personal note, Mammoth Mart is special to me because it’s one of a handful of classic retail chains outside of the Chicago area that I shopped at extensively. Throughout the 1970’s, my brother and I spent three or four weeks every August with our grandparents in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, where we frequently shopped at the Mammoth Mart at Park Square, an area of town located just on the edge of Woonsocket. It was located in an “L-shaped” shopping center along with a Star Market. A Kentucky Beef restaurant sat on the edge of the parking lot, which later became a Burger Chef. Many times we’d hit all three in the space of an afternoon. Across the street was an Almacs grocery store, a popular Rhode Island chain.

My favorite part of the Mammoth Mart, of course, was their record department, a welcome sight after those exasperating moments spent in the fitting rooms, trying on yet another pair of corduroys. The record department had a great cut-out bin, where I picked up a number of bargains. Without a doubt, the oddest album I found there was Yoko Ono’s 1973 double-album entitled “Approximately Infinite Universe” on the Beatles’ Apple label. It was a bit on the surreal side for Mammoth Mart – I remember thinking “What an ironic juxtaposition - How incongruent!” (Actually, being 12 or 13 at the time, it was more along the lines of “Man, this is weird!”) I didn't buy the album.

Getting back to the storyline, the retail landscape grew bleak for many discount and variety chains in the early 1970’s. Interstate Stores (Topps and White Front), Arlan’s, and Grants, among others, got into financial trouble, leading to the eventual closure of those chains. The stagflation of the American economy caught many retailers flatfooted, especially those with older stores or less than stellar merchandising. Some chains did well, including Kmart on the national level, and local competitors Ames and Caldor. Unfortunately, Mammoth Mart ended up in the former category.

In June 1974, Mammoth Mart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The ten “Boston Baby” stores were closed. Happily, (unlike many other chains) the company emerged from it six months later, and shortly thereafter resumed payments of dividends to its shareholders. In April 1977, a “secret suitor” made an offer to buy out the 51-store Mammoth Mart chain. The “secret suitor” was soon revealed to be King’s Department Stores, Inc., a Boston area discounter (ironically founded in 1956, the same year the first Mammoth Mart, and headquartered in Brockton, Mass, Mammoth Mart’s original corporate home) with 121 stores along the eastern seaboard. The deal was finalized in August 1977. Mammoth Mart was no more.

The next year, King’s was set to merge with W.R. Grace and Company, a firm best known for chemical production but had recently acquired a number of retailers – Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, Sheplers Western Wear and Handy City hardware, to name a few. The merger failed to go through, and King’s more or less faded away over the next few years, closing most of its stores, including several former Mammoth Marts. In August 1982, King’s parent company, KDT Industries, went bankrupt, selling its remaining 42 stores to Ames the following year.

Max Coffman, Mammoth Mart’s founder and early discounting pioneer, spent his post Mammoth Mart years in real estate ventures and philanthropy. Mr. Coffman passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

The North Smithfield Mammoth Mart I referred to earlier was torn down around 1990 (the store, of course, had closed much earlier) along with the Star Market. A Super Stop and Shop was built in their place. The Burger Chef was torn down to make room for expanded parking. The Almacs across the street closed along with the rest of the chain in 1995. A Hollywood Video store and an Ocean State Job Lot (which is actually a very interesting store – I visited it for the first time last year) now occupy the building. Time sure marches on.

And as for “Marty”, the retired Mammoth Mart elephant mascot? Last I heard, he was living a quiet life at his place on the Cape.

The photos above, from a 1962 trade ad, show the brand-new 88,000 square foot Mammoth Mart in Brockton, Massachusetts. Mammoth Mart was headquartered in Brockton, “home of (champion boxer) Rocky Marciano”, as Max Coffman proudly told a UPI interviewer in 1965. The company’s HQ was later moved to nearby West Bridgewater. Here are a couple of links of interest - a list of the Mammoth Mart locations, and a nice photo of the Scarborough, Maine Mammoth Mart circa 1967.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

General Cinema's Feature Presentation

Here are a few scenes from various General Cinema theatres from 1976 through 1980. If you grew up going to any of their theatres during or around that era, these photos should resonate.

General Cinemas were an appropriate fit for the “New Cinema” of the early 1970’s, meaning the Hollywood trend toward “relevant” films as opposed to the popular sugar-coated fantasies of the preceding decades. These new movies – MASH, The French Connection, Shaft , Serpico and The Candidate, to name just a handful , represented a big departure from the “make-believe world that used to pass for ‘real life’ in the movies that enchanted millions a mere 10 or 15 years (earlier)”, to quote GCC ‘s president Richard A. Smith in a fascinating essay entitled “Cinemas for the 70’s”. These films were gritty, depicting the world as it was, however unglamorous it may have frequently been.

The move away from the stately theatres of the preceding decades and toward the comparatively spartan and functional theatres that GCC operated mirrored this trend. Fancy theatres were somehow no longer “relevant” to the moviegoing experience, the audience focus having shifted to the product onscreen, with the auditorium’s physical atmosphere assuming much less importance.

The convenience factor had played a huge part in GCC’s success as well – after all, this was the era of Perma-Prest clothes (or Penn-Prest, if your folks shopped at Penney’s), Hamburger Helper, and the rise of fast food restaurants on seemingly every corner. As Smith says in his essay, people were favoring “clean, comfortable, conveniently located theatres with adequate parking facilities and a reasonable number of entertaining films each year. The best combination of these factors is to be found in the large shopping center in which we have hundreds of successful cinemas established”.

And successful they were. By the end of 1971, the company had 172 locations (with 247 screens), mostly located in shopping centers. Another 49 shopping center locations, with 103 screens, were in the works. There were also 48 drive-ins at the time. The company enjoyed the benefits of being in a fairly recession-proof business, as proven out in the tight years of the early 70’s – commenting in 1971 that “our patrons were willing to give up more expensive forms of entertainment, such as legitimate (live) theatre, dining out, and week-end or vacation trips, but not their movie-going habit”.

By this time, General Cinema was making its mark in a completely different business, one that also proved to be more or less recession-proof – soft drink bottling. In 1968, GCC established itself as a major player in the soft drink bottling industry with four major acquisitions – American Beverage Corporation (Pepsi-Cola in Miami, Florida, several major Ohio markets, and a private label plant in Houston), Miami Seven-Up Bottling Company, Pepsi-Cola Allied Bottlers, Inc. (Multiple cities in Florida and Indiana, plus Savannah, Georgia, Lynchburg, Virginia and Charleston, West Virginia, and the Pepsi-Cola franchise in Cleveland, Ohio. Added to this were several Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up franchises, mostly in cities where GCC held Pepsi bottling rights. In just a year, GGC went from zero bottling holdings to owning 17 plants in seven states, achieving status as Pepsi-Cola’s second largest independent bottler. More bottling territories would be added in the ensuing years. In short order, revenues from the bottling operations exceeded those from the theatres.

In the mid-70’s, GCC became a soft drink franchisor as well. Having hired a successful former brand executive with General Mills, the company sought to market a proprietary brand of its own, and talks were initiated with Sunkist Growers, Inc., with the goal of obtaining soft drink manufacturing and marketing rights to the Sunkist brand. Sunkist, as described in Bettye Pruitt’s book The Making of Harcourt General, conjured up images in consumer’s minds “like motherhood, apple pie and a flag in this country”. In 1977, GCC won out over other companies interested in the Sunkist rights, including PepsiCo. Sunkist Orange Soda was introduced in mid-1978 and quickly became the most popular orange soda in America (a ranking it still holds), surpassing long time brands such as Orange Crush and Coca-Cola’s Fanta. This was no doubt helped by GCC’s memorable advertising campaign for Sunkist, which used The Beach Boys’ classic song “Good Vibrations” as its theme.

The theatre industry was changing by the mid-70’s, with multi-screen cinemas rapidly becoming the norm. In 1970, GCC opened 152 single screen theatres, 45 twins and one quad. In 1978, they opened just 32 singles, 181 twins, 95 triples, 23 quads and one 5-screen theatre. Various factors were behind this, one being an understandable resistance to tie a theatre’s fortunes to one picture – a lousy (or just plain unpopular) movie would depress that location’s profits for the duration of the particular film’s run. The chance for success was multiplied by the number of movies a theater could show concurrently. Also, by the mid-70’s, movies were given longer runs in theatres (in large part to defray the huge rental costs of such blockbusters such as The Godfather), so the size of the individual auditoriums began to shrink appreciably. Many existing GCC singles or twins were expanded to add more screens during the mid-70’s, frequently carved out of existing auditorium space. The increasingly smaller average auditorium size is a major reason why today’s 16-screen megaplexes are housed in buildings not much bigger than the triples or quads of old.

Sadly, as Ms. Pruitt points out, General Cinema was not destined “to be the leader in the multiplexing of America”. That distinction went instead to Kansas City-based American Multi-Cinemas, Inc. (now known of course as AMC), descendant of the family owned Durwood theatre circuit, which was originally founded in 1920. Through the 70’s, AMC made a practice of “shadowing” General Cinema, opening locations in close proximity to new GCC theatres. In the 70’s and beyond, however, General Cinema’s theatre group was far larger then AMC.

A problem that had dogged the movie exhibition business for some time, surprisingly, was a decline in the number of movies available to be shown. The Pruitt book cites industry stats that show a steady decline in the number of Hollywood films produced – from 306 in 1970 to just 199 in 1978. With the growth of the GCC chain and the continual addition of new locations (329 units with 739 screens were operating by the end of 1977), this became an ominous problem. The situation was relieved somewhat with the release of several mid-70’s blockbusters – Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars and as pictured above, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the “message films” had by this time been eclipsed by disaster and fantasy films with evermore impressive special effects), but the company was still anxious for more product.

To alleviate the situation, the company decided to enter the film production business, a move they had previously resisted. In 1975, GCC entered into a joint venture with the British firm Associated TeleVision, (ATV), headed by famed entertainment mogul Sir Lew Grade, later promoted by the Queen to “Lord Grade” (They’d seen his face before –everyone was pretty sure that he was from the House of Lords), and eventually to Baron Grade in the years preceding his passing in 1998. Grade was famous for winning control of the Beatles song catalog, then selling it to the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” years later. The joint venture was named Associated General Films (AGF), and seven films would result over the next couple of years, the best known of which were The Cassandra Crossing, The Eagle Has Landed and Capricorn One. Disappointed in the results, GCC ended up selling out its interest in the joint venture to ATV. Around this same time, the company made a failed attempt to acquire Columbia Pictures, which would later become a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company. General Cinema did retain another subsidiary, GCC Films, whose purpose was providing funding for films by independent producers.

Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the theatre division became an increasingly smaller piece of the General Cinema pie. In the 1980’s, GCC gained a reputation for deal-making, seeking to further diversify their business through “patient opportunism in an age of excess”, to borrow a phrase from Ms. Pruitt. In 1984, GCC took control of Carter Hawley Hale Stores, rescuing them from a hostile takeover attempt by The Limited. Carter Hawley Hale was the owner of a number of venerable department store chains, including The Broadway, The Emporium, Neiman-Marcus and New York’s famed Bergdorf Goodman, along with specialty chains such as Waldenbooks, which was promptly sold off to Kmart Corporation. In 1986, The Limited (in partnership with developer Edward DeBartolo) made another run at Carter Hawley Hale, forcing a split of the operation into two groups – The Neiman-Marcus Group (including Bergdorf Goodman) which remained under the control of General Cinema, and Carter Hawley Hale (the other department store properties), which was ultimately spun off to CHH employees.

In 1984, GCC sold its Sunkist brand to Canada Dry, then a division of R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company. Five years later, the soft drink bottling operations were sold to PepsiCo, then in the process of consolidating of its bottlers, as was Coca-Cola at the time.

The last major step in the reinvention of the company was the buyout of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which occurred in 1991 after months of wrangling with HBJ bondholders. Harcourt, a well known publisher of textbooks, would soon constitute the largest portion, nearly half, of the company’s earnings. The following year, the company name was changed from General Cinema Corporation to Harcourt General.

The theatre business, now accounting for only 4 percent of the company’s earnings, was in steady decline, at least in terms of market position. In 1986, GCC had lost its number one position, and as Pruitt cites, would soon fall to fourth place, behind United Artists, Cineplex Odeon and AMC. In 1993, Harcourt General spun off the theatre group into a new company, called GC Companies, Inc.

In 1999, the Neiman-Marcus group was spun off from Harcourt General, with Richard Smith, whose family remained the major stockholder, remaining as chairman until the family sold its interest (12.7% of $5 billion – not bad for someone who began their career with a small chain of drive-in theatres) in 2005. In 2001, Harcourt General sold out to a European publishing firm, Reed Elsevier, who later sold it to Houghton Mifflin. GC Companies, the theatre group, continued to struggle, declaring bankruptcy in 2001. In early 2002, many of the former General Cinema chain’s theaters came under the ownership of AMC.

The GCC publicity shots above depict the following: (1) Cinema I, II, III, IV and V at the Greenspoint Mall in Houston, Texas from 1977. Cinemas IV and V are showing “Semi-Tough” and “The Goodbye Girl”, respectively (2) Ticket booth and refreshment counter from South Shore Plaza Cinema I, II, III and IV in Braintree, Massachusetts, also in 1977 (3) A wide lobby shot, also from South Shore Cinema, where John Travolta takes his place alongside the art gallery (4) Mesmerized young folks at the candy counter, unknown location, from 1979. (What do theatre candy bars cost these days, nine bucks apiece?) (5) Another candy counter scene from the same year (6) Ticket window scene, 1979 (7) Those ever-lovin’ famous seats, 1976. Below: (8) a 1976 scene from what I believe is the Chestnut Hill, Mass Cinema. GCC ran a straw poll for every presidential election, usually with uncannily accurate results, and (9) A marquee photo from 1979, featuring Caddyshack, the “Citizen Kane” of my high school years.
Additional posts on the history of General Cinema can be found at this link, or you can search by other topics at the right side of the page.

Monday, March 2, 2009

General Cinema Refreshments, 1966

Prior to the 1960’s, concession sales in theatres were not a universal thing, and before the 1950’s, they were rare indeed. It was thought that eating or drinking inside a theatre violated a sense of decorum. General Cinema was no exception to this practice, selling refreshments in its drive-ins but not in its enclosed theatres, or “hardtops”, as they were nicknamed within the industry by that time.

By the time GCC launched its shopping center theatre expansion, the company had undergone a change of heart, and concession counters became a standard component of their theatres, shopping center-located or otherwise. They made such a significant impact on the bottom line that the “sense of decorum” was, shall we say, redefined. Most of their competition followed suit within a very short time.

One thing’s for sure - this great modernist lobby, from 1966’s Richland Plaza Cinema in Fort Worth, Texas doesn’t violate my sense of decorum.