Life and career
The eldest of the seven sons of Bessarabian Jewish immigrants Augusta "Gussie" (née Mendeburskey) and grocery store owner Israel Balaban, Barney worked as a messenger boy and a cold storage company employee until 1908, when he was persuaded, at age 21, to go into the cinema business. According to a 1945 article in Forbes magazine, his mother came home from her first picture show and commented, "The customers pay before they even see what they're paying for! There'll be money in that business."
Balaban and his younger brothers rented the 100-seat Kedzie Theater. From there, Balaban's innovations changed the industry. In 1910, Balaban built the Circle Theatre, the first cinema to have a balcony. After his sister Ida married Sam Katz, the two brothers-in-law made plans for a chain of cinemas in the Midwest, the Balaban and Katz Theatre Chain. Barney's brothers John, Dave, Abe (aka A. J.), and Max all worked for Balaban and Katz. Brothers Elmer and Harry owned their own theater concern called H & E Balaban.
The first link in the chain, the Central Park Theatre in Chicago, opened in 1917. Balaban and Katz set about to create the first air-conditioned movie theater. Their first theater cooling system combined a large fan blowing over cakes of ice in a washtub. Not only was the system noisy, it occasionally blew a shower of water onto the patrons. Balaban enlisted the aid of an engineer friend to create a workable system, and crowds began to go to the movies to escape the heat during the summer months, making motion picture exhibition a year-round business.
The Balaban and Katz chain (B & K) incorporated in 1923. A controlling interest was purchased in 1926 by Famous Players-Lasky Corp. in exchange for thirteen million dollars in stock. On July 2, 1936, Paramount's directors elected Balaban president of the studio. As president, Balaban had the philosophy that Paramount had a responsibility "to explain America, its customs, and its people, to the world." Balaban, the son of Bessarabian emigrants who had lived the American Dream, purchased one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights from A.S.W. Rosenbach and, in 1945, donated it to the Library of Congress "as an expression of gratitude for the freedom his parents found in this country."
Balaban continued as president of Paramount Pictures until 1964. The Balaban and Katz trademark is the property of the Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation. He was the father of the producer and director Burt Balaban and uncle of actor Bob Balaban.
- Foreword by Joseph R. DuciBella; David Balaban (2006). The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban and Katz (IL) (Images of America). Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-3986-4.
- Forbes, February 1, 1945, cited in Current Biography 1946, p. 26
- "Original Copy of Bill of Rights Presented to Library," Mason City (Ia.) Globe-Gazette, February 21, 1945, p. 3