William Fox
Motion-picture executive
Born: January 1, 1879, in Hungary
Died: May 8, 1952, in New York City
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2015: Enterprise

William Fox’s massive success as an early film mogul didn’t last long, but his name has endured as one of the best-known brands in American media.

Born Wilhelm Fuchs, the future entrepreneur was just 9 months old when his parents emigrated from Hungary and settled in New York City. Fox was one of 12 children; six survived. To help his impoverished family, the young Fox went to work selling candy in Central Park and hawking newspapers. At age 8, he fell off the back of an ice truck, breaking his arm and leaving him permanently impaired.

According to Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own,” Fox quit school by the time he was 11. He worked in the fur and garment industry, and by age 20 invested in his own company, preparing bolts of cloth for garment manufacturers. By 1904, Fox had enough savings to purchase a penny arcade in Brooklyn. On the second floor, he installed a 150-seat theater known as a nickelodeon, an indoor space dedicated to showing early motion pictures. Admission was a nickel. Recognizing opportunity in the burgeoning film business, Fox purchased more theaters, developing a chain and building a small fortune.

To further his success, Fox started buying movies and renting them to other theater owners. His next step was to begin producing his own films. In 1915, he founded Fox Film Corporation with the financial backing of several New Jersey investors and leased his first studio in Fort Lee. The studio raked in millions for Fox, who gave his personal attention to its every production. Fox also oversaw the construction of Fox theaters in major cities throughout the country; his theaters emphasized comfort and elaborate design.

In 1919, Fox moved his studio to Southern California to be part of the new film community there. Fox continued to innovate, creating an early sound-on-film system. In 1928, Fox introduced Movietone News, a commercially successful newsreel series. At this point, the silent-film era, which had been so good to William Fox, was coming to an end. The cost of converting more than 1,000 Fox theaters to sound, coupled with the stock-market crash of 1929, would spell financial ruin for this film pioneer.

Fox lost control of his business in 1930. Five years later, when Fox merged with 20th Century Pictures to become 20th Century-Fox, Fox himself no longer had any ownership in the company. For much of the decade he fought a legal battle to stave off bankruptcy, and ended up serving more than five months in prison after being convicted of fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice. (Years later, President Harry Truman granted Fox a pardon.)

Although Fox was disassociated with the entertainment business for the latter decades of his life, his name lives on in the Fox Corporation media empire and in the many Fox theaters that remain as memorials to his commitment to excellence. Indeed, at the height of his success, Fox declared his priority was “to make a name that would stand for the finest in entertainment the world over.”

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