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Fantasy & Failure With Jerry Lewis Cinemas

March 28th, 2009 by ccrouch

Cinemas have stirred the entrepreneurial spirit in want-to-be moguls and dreamers since the dawn of commercial film. Be it the perceived excitement and glamour of being involved in the entertainment industry or merely the draw of a potentially lucrative cash cow, countless individuals have looked on theatre ownership as somewhat of a fantasy business venture. While a few managed to find great success in the exhibition industry, many more found themselves stopped well short of their goals and fantasies, failing to even get a foot in the proverbial door. A situation that laid the groundwork for a doomed chain and concept, that was fronted by an unlikely “get rich guru”.
In 1969, entertainer Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis) partnered with the Network Cinema Corporation to form a chain of theatre franchises, via “Jerry Lewis Cinemas”. The concept was to open the possibility of theatre ownership to anyone who was able to meet initial investment requirements (a $15,000 to $50,000 downpayment), through franchising both individual cinemas and territories. Jerry and company would provide the know how, name recognition, and marketing; franchisees would put up the money and man hours. Promising “if you can press a button, you can own a Jerry Lewis Cinema”, the company appeared to be the “turn key” answer to owning your own movie theatre.
Lewis’ theatres, branded “mini cinemas”, followed a standardized model that called for 1-3 auditoriums, seating 200 to 350 patrons each, focusing on operations efficiency. While similar to the “cracker box” design of most 70’s multiplexes, mini cinemas were generally a notch above their peers in decor and featured what could best be described as mid level amenities (i.e. neither cheap nor luxurious). Perhaps, the key sales point to these venues was the promoted automation of projection, concession, and box office, which was alleged to make the theatre an ease to operate. Billed as requiring as few as two individuals to run a theatre, the Jerry Lewis business model was targeted to increase profit, through lower overhead costs.
Implementing a heavy sales push, throughout the early 70’s, franchise seminars were held across the country, instantly pulling from the long standing pool of want-to-be cinema owners. Franchisees were given the option of either owning an individual site or becoming an “area director”, who oversaw a protected territory and licensed cinemas within their area. By mid decade, the chain had grown to include some 200 sites, with another 100 slotted for development. Yet, despite the company’s rapid growth, cracks in the Jerry Lewis business model soon became apparent.
Almost as quickly as the chain had spread throughout the country, mini cinemas began to fold at an alarming rate. Initially, owners cited the company’s policy of only booking “family friendly” films as the trouble spot, but, the decline continued, even after the policy was expanded to include more competitive booking practices. The finger pointing then turned to the company’s lack of continued support and lackluster marketing of venues; with owners feeling that they were left out in the cold once a cinema had been purchased and opened. Additionally, owners had discovered, much to their dismay, that the “push button automation” fell well short of what was advertised, leaving many sites in a continuous state of chaos. The end result of all these issues being a growing series of lawsuits and the company grinding to a near halt towards the close of the decade. By 1980, the chain was completely defunct, with both Jerry Lewis and the National Cinema Corporation filing for bankruptcy.
While a host of poor business decisions likely played a role in the failure of Jerry Lewis Cinemas, the most glaring flaw was the very concept that anyone could own a theatre and operate it with minimal effort. As with far too many “get rich” schemes, all of the involved parties had been “blinded” by their fantasies and failed to consider the practical realities of running a successful business, let alone a business as unique as a movie theatre. Most franchisees entered in to the venture without the skills or experience to properly operate their theatres; in turn, Lewis and company failed to adequately prepare or support their, primarily inexperienced, cinema owners. The “ease” of running a movie theatre had been highly exaggerated, the extensive demands of operating a successful  business had been overlooked.
There were few positive notes left In the wake of Jerry Lewis Cinemas’ disastrous run. Former franchisees tend to reflect on shattered dreams, broken promises, and ruined finances; one particular individual I corresponded with relayed that, even thirty plus years after the fact, Lewis’ yearly telethon appearance never fails to anger him. Mr. Lewis went on to release the dreadful 1981 film “Hardly Working”, to aid in his financial recovery, managing to emerge from bankruptcy shortly thereafter. The former mini cinemas, once touted as “a big money making business”, are all but gone, with only a handful of structures still standing in any form. At best, Jerry Lewis Cinemas’ overall legacy stands as part cautionary tale, part obscure trivia on a legendary entertainer’s biography.

Tags: 10 Comments

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 rob boehm Feb 12, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    All of the Jerry Lewis on Long Island went on to have subsequent lives. But there was the problem of too many theatres, too little product and TV. The Lakeside still looks like an old theatre despite the fact that it’s now and OTB. The twins in Massapequa folded very early on. The twins in East Meadow lasted the longest. Look for them as Flicks. The structures still stand as they were part of shopping centers..

  • 2 rob boehm Feb 12, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Also forget the one in Center Moriches which became the Center Cinema. It’s now a bank.

  • 3 Shari Baker Dec 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    My father, Vic Baker, operated two Jerry Lewis Cinemas in the State of Massachusetts….Agawam and Springfield to be exact. When he lost his entire fortune in Jerry Lewis Cinemas he never truly recover3ed. At the age of 55 no one wanted to “hire” him so he spent three years looking for something. He had to pull my sister and I out of college as he could not afford it and we eventually relocated across the country to Arizona. Shortly thereafter he had a heart attack, which led to a stroke, which eventually led to his death.
    Do I think the demise of the theaters played a role in my father’s ill health and eventual death? You bet ya.
    I used to watch Jerry Lewis movies as a child groiwing up and he always made me laugh. Not anymore.

    Shari Baker

  • 4 Jef Mar 16, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Please click on
    for a list of locations. The Jerry Lewis Cinema in my hometown of Wayne, NJ would later became an adult movie theater. It is now a private room for children’s parties.

  • 5 Jim Tedesco Mar 24, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    My Dad, Horatio Tedesco worked for Jerry Lewis Cinema and traveled around the country to help Franchisee owners set up and open for business. He didn’t think it was going to be a successful venture at the time, but did his best to make the openings successful. He was a theater manager most of his life, most notable was the Brooklyn Paramount, Brooklyn Fox, Loews Capital (NY,NY), and several others in the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s. Dad passed last year and we’ll try to remember all the great old stories from that golden era. Long live the great old and new movie houses throughout the world!

  • 6 John Aug 31, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Full-page ad in LIFE magazine, 1971:

  • 7 John Jordan Sep 26, 2011 at 1:13 am

    I have vivid memories of watching kids’ movies at the Jerry Lewis Cinema in San Jose, CA. It was a madhouse. Pretty much only kids, continually throwing food all over the place, often through a double feature. My Dad told me they closed it because they couldn’t keep up with the wear and tear.

  • 8 A Star Studded Grand Opening Past Dec 5, 2011 at 9:05 am

    […] run after its big night. As with most of the Jerry Lewis Mini Cinemas (a subject covered in an earlier post), the theatre soon fell on hard times and never quite managed to establish a steady business level. […]

  • 9 David Fellows Apr 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Jerry Lewis showed up at my theatre …four hours late and drunk. He swore at some children who saw him. He is a disgrace to himspelf and the theatre industry. Shortly after leaving my “Jerry Lewis Theatre”, I had my attorney change the name of the theatre.Jerry Lewis is the worst person that I have ever met.

  • 10 Earl Jul 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    I remember the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinema in Northamption Ma.It opened back in ’71 and lasted only a few years.What did it in was the arrival of the AMC & Hoyt’s chains into the area and the fact that the cinema itself wasn’t kept up that well.It was vacant for most of the 70’s into the early 80’s when it was torn down so the local supermarket next door could expand.