Pat Powers (businessman)
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Patrick Anthony "Pat" Powers (8 October 1870 – 30 July 1948) was an American businessman who was involved in the movie and animation industry of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. His firm, Celebrity Pictures, was the first distributor of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons. After one year, Disney split with Powers, who started another animation studio with Disney's lead animator, Ub Iwerks.
Powers partnered with Joseph A. Schubert, Sr. and sold phonographs from 1900-07. In 1907, they formed the Buffalo Film Exchange, which purchased films from producers and rented them to nickelodeons. In 1910, Powers left Buffalo for New York City, where he founded the Powers Motion Picture Company, also billed in the credits of his movies as "Powers Picture Plays". Early examples of the Powers studio's films include The Woman Hater (1910) with Violet Heming, Pearl White, and Stuart Holmes.
In 1912, Powers' company merged with Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) film company and others to create what eventually would become Universal Pictures. He served as treasurer of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.
Between the 1922 reorganization of Film Booking Office of America and October 1923, Powers, as one of the company's new American investors, was effectively in command. Powers had previously led his own filmmaking company, part of the multiple merger that created Universal Pictures in 1912. Powers apparently changed the name of Robertson-Cole/FBO to the Powers Studio for a brief period, though there is no record of the company ever having produced or released a film under that banner. In 1925 he moved briefly to take over at the distribution outfit Associated Exhibitors. In 1928, Joseph P. Kennedy and RCA head David Sarnoff merged FBO and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater circuit to form RKO Radio Pictures.
Powers invested in what remained of the sound film company DeForest Phonofilm in the spring of 1927. Lee De Forest was on the verge of bankruptcy, due to legal fees from a series of lawsuits against former associates Theodore Case and Freeman Harrison Owens. DeForest was by that time selling cut-price sound equipment to second-run movie theaters wanting to convert to sound on the cheap.
In June 1927, Powers made an unsuccessful takeover bid for De Forest's company. In the aftermath of the failed takeover, Powers hired a former DeForest technician, William Garity, to produce a cloned version of the Phonofilm sound recording system, which became Powers Cinephone. By this time, De Forest was in too weak a financial position to mount a legal challenge against Powers for patent infringement.
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
In 1928, Powers sold Walt Disney a Cinephone system so that he could make sound cartoons such as Mickey Mouse's Steamboat Willie (1928). Unable to find a distributor for the sound cartoons, Disney began releasing his cartoons through Powers' company Celebrity Pictures.
After one year of successful Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons, Walt Disney confronted Powers in 1930 about money due to Disney from the distribution deal. Powers responded by signing Disney's head animator Ub Iwerks to an exclusive deal to create his own animation studio. The Iwerks studio was only mildly successful, with cartoon series such as Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, released through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the ComiColor cartoons, released by Celebrity Pictures. The Iwerks studio closed in 1936 and Iwerks subsequently returned to Disney. As for Disney, he would go on to distribute his cartoons without Powers to Columbia Pictures.
In his lifetime, Powers produced nearly 300 movies, most of them early silent films produced at Universal before 1913 or one-reel animated shorts. However, he is credited as a producer on Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928), along with Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor. (The latter was a former partner of Mitchell Mark who, like Powers, was from Buffalo, New York.)
The New York Times obituary of 1 August 1948 notes that Powers, at the time of his death, was president of the Powers Film Products Company of Rochester, New York. He also had homes in both New York City and Westport, Connecticut.
Patrick Powers died on 30 July 1948 at the Doctors Hospital in New York City after a brief illness. Powers was 77 years old. He was survived by his sister and a daughter, Mrs. Roscoe N. George of San Fernando, California. He is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery near Rochester, New York.
- Richard B. Jewell with Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story (New York: Arlington House/Crown, 1982) ISBN 0-517-54656-6
- Betty Lasky, RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All (Santa Monica, Calif.: Roundtable, 1989) ISBN 0-915677-41-5