Jack Fruchtman Sr., 86, theater owner

July 03, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Jack Fruchtman Sr., who for 40 years operated J F Theatres, one of the largest movie theater chains in Maryland, died Sunday of renal failure at North Oaks Retirement Community in Pikesville. He was 86.

In a life that was part Horatio Alger and part Hollywood photoplay, he was a high school dropout turned Paramount Pictures office boy who became a well-known and highly respected figure in the movie exhibition business.

He counted among his friends many Hollywood actors, including Lauren Bacall and Robert Wagner, his family said.

Through his J F Theatres, he controlled all of Baltimore's downtown movie houses and other theaters in Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel and St. Mary's counties.

At one time, Mr. Fruchtman operated nearly 50 screens, including many multiplex theaters.

His theatrical inventory included some of the most revered and fondly remembered movie palaces in Baltimore, including the now-demolished Keith's, Century and the Stanley.

Also under his control were the Little Theater, the Town, Parkway, Aurora, Rex, the Film Centre, the Times (now the Charles Theater) and the Regent and Royal theaters on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the suburbs, his theaters (known as second-run houses) included the Avalon, Uptown, Crest and Pikes.

In 1967, he opened the Tower Theater in Charles Center, which at the time was the first new theater in downtown Baltimore in 30 years. Seven years later, he opened the Rotunda Theaters in the former Maryland Casualty Insurance Co. building on 40th Street, the first twin theaters in Baltimore.

"He was a real exhibitor who lived and breathed the business and loved it very much. He came on like firecrackers," said Don Walls, retired WBAL-TV and Daily Record critic.

"He was right out of Hollywood's Golden Age. A short little man who talked fast, he reminded you of the stereotype mogul," Mr. Walls said.

"The only theater he ever owned was the Mayfair and he rented all the others. In the late 1940s, when the Supreme Court ordered the movie studios to divest themselves of their theaters, Jack was in the right place at the right time," said Mr. Walls.

He said Mr. Fruchtman was a master at promotion and also showed films that drew large audiences.

In 1956, Adolph Zukor, chairman of the board of Paramount Pictures, selected Mr. Fruchtman's New Theater as one of the first 12 in the world to screen "The Ten Commandments."

As the exodus of whites to the suburbs began in earnest and movie attendance fell in the 1960s, Mr. Fruchtman reached out to black audiences and managed to fill his theaters by showing films they wanted to see.

"Blacks weren't going to see Doris Day pictures and Jack knew his audience. During the 1960s and 1970s, when black exploitation films came in favor, he showed them," said Mr. Walls.

In a 1974 article, The Sun said, "By the time the exploitation films began to come along, Mr. Fruchtman had organized the black audience to such a degree that those films did better in Baltimore than they did in most of the other cities in the country."

"He was never reluctant to hide his liberal social and political streak," said his son, Jack Fruchtman Jr. of Mount Washington. He said his father made sure his theaters were open to anyone regardless of race, color or creed.

"He did not want to turn away anyone, because he knew it was wrong. And besides, as he always said, `Everyone's money is the same,'" said the son.

"He was the guy that got all of the first-run theaters under one roof," said movie house historian Robert Headley of Hyattsville. "He always took care of his theaters and because of this, we have many downtown theaters still standing."

Mr. Fruchtman was born on New York's Lower East Side, the son of an immigrant Polish-Jewish tailor. At 22, he was office manager and chief accountant of Paramount's Washington office.

In 1937, he married Goluem K. Bragg, who was a film booker and buyer for a Virginia chain. In 1940, they launched an independent theater company, leasing a theater in Greenbelt. She died in 1991.

Mr. Fruchtman expanded in the 1940s, opening theaters in Leonardtown and Lexington Park in Southern Maryland. In 1954, he came to Baltimore and leased the New Theater.

In 1959, he merged his operations with those of Isidore M. Rappaport. When the merger was dissolved in 1962, he continued to operate the combined theaters.

In 1978, J F Theatres filed for bankruptcy, but Mr. Fruchtman repaid his creditors at 100 percent.

He sold J F Theaters to Continental Realty Corp. in 1984, but continued operating the discount Liberty Road quadraplex with his son. He retired in 1995.

Mr. Fruchtman was a member of Beth Am Synagogue and a sports fan.

Services are private.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Kay Fruchtman Fisher of Coral Gables, Fla.; four grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.

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