The Other Joe Schenck

Schenck,Head Of 20Th Cent.Fox And Lawyer

Today is the birthday of Joseph M. Schenck (1878-1961). We refer to him as the “Other” Joe Schenck, because we have already written about another one, who was one half of the vaudeville team of Van and Schenck. We know how liable you are to mix them both up.

This Joe Schenck was actually a much more significant figure in show biz history. Born in Russia, he emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 15. His show business start consisted of operating a concession at an amusement park with his brother and first business partner Nicholas. By 1909 he had purchased Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. Around the same time, he became partners with Marcus Loew in the People’s Vaudeville Company, a chain of theatres that presented vaudeville performers intermingled with silent films (this would grow into the mighty Loew’s chain, and thence to MGM).

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In 1916 he married Norma Talmadge, then a star at Vitagraph. That same year he formed the Comique Film Corporation to produce the independent films of Fatty Arbuckle. Buster Keaton came aboard in 1917 at Arbuckle’s invitation. Keaton’s association with Schenck was to be one of the most crucial relationships of both his career and his personal life. Keaton was to marry Norma Talmadge’s sister Natalie, and he stepped into Abuckle’s starring role at Comique in 1920. It was also on Joe Schenck’s advice that he later signed with MGM, a move which was to prove financially advantageous but artistically frustrating for Keaton.

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In 1924 Schenck was brought in by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to be the first President of United Artists.

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In 1933 he formed 20th Century Pictures with Darryl F. Zanuck. They merged that company with the Fox Film Corporation two years later to form 20th Century Fox. Schenck was its first Chairman. In 1941 he was forced to step down when he did jail time for income tax evasion. Later released by presidential pardon, he returned to Fox and stayed there until felled by a stroke in 1957.

For more on show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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2 Responses to “The Other Joe Schenck”

  1. Hi,Trav….

    You know how much I admire your work, both on-stage and off, and how essential I think Travalanche is to my daily reading…
    But you’re being too kind in this post to a very destructive man (and I say this despite Schenck’s reputation as a liberal who did, in fact, promote African-American talent with equal-pay for equal work policies…)
    And don’t forget the “other half” of the Joe Schenck story: his brother Nicholas!!!
    Both Nick and Joe Schenck were ruthless people who started a life of business success/crime early.
    Their financial contribution to both their Fort George beer concession and Palisades Amusement Park–itself also financed in part by Marcus Loew–was allegedly money made by selling illegal drugs they’d stolen from the Harlem drugstore for which they worked as delivery boys!!!
    (And that “income tax evasion” rap? A default prosecution in an ugly scheme to buy-off unions!!! And there’s more!!!)
    Sorry for the rant, but the Schencks are a sore point with me (can you tell?) and I had to channel my Christmas neuroses somewhere… Lucky you!!!
    My best wishes for a very Merry Christmas to you and the Countess and all lucky enough to live in your orbit…

    P.S. You’ll recall, I know, that Marilyn Monroe used to regale her young actor pals–Montgomery Clift, et. al.–with her stories of the techniques she used to “revitalize” the aging Schenck in the course of their affair… (A heartwarming Christmas memory!)

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