By Osita Ebiem*
Magic in the Dark: One Family’s Century of Adventures in the Movie Business by Charles B. Moss Jr. and Jonathan Kay is published by Sutherland House Books and released in hardcover on the 7th of December, 2021. The book is 180 pages including 23 pages of family and business historical photographs. Just like an increasing number of readers today would prefer, I at first wanted to buy the e-book version or at least the paper back copy for easy read in my daily train commutes. But the book is yet to be issued in those formats. Hopefully those versions will be made available to the general public soon. And I hope also that in subsequent revisions that the few minor typos will be taken care of. Otherwise this is a well written treasure trove of history as observed below in this review.
Magic in the Dark is an invaluable book of history about the beginning and evolution of the American movie industry written by industry insiders – Charles B. Moss, Jr. and Jonathan Kay. It covers an indispensable aspect of the American film business – the art of movie exhibition or the showing to the viewing public produced films. Arguably, it can be said that if there were no equally dedicated movie exhibitors at the outset that movie making may never have taken off. The book successfully proves that just as movie making is an art even so is the art of movie exhibition. This is especially so when it involves dedicated and uncompromising entrepreneurs like the Moss patriarch B. S. Moss. The authors clearly show B. S. Moss who undoubtedly represents many others of his era, like a connoisseur of fine architectures of human comfort who invested huge capitals at the nascent and uncertain stage of the industry to sculpt and craft his many “beautiful and sumptuous” movie exhibition palaces around New York City.
Since the end of World War II the U. S. has maintained a leading role as the most powerful military in the world. And this enviable position has not come cheap. In the last few decades the United States has spent trillions of dollars fighting foreign wars to promote liberty and democracy across the world. The country has expended a huge amount of both human and material resources in this process. The social and political freedoms and economic successes of places like South Korea stand as testaments to how these benevolent American sacrifices have paid off to make the world a better and safer place.
However, looking at it from a different perspective, perhaps the United States would have spent far less in terms of military hardware and human lives and would still be the most respected and admired country across the world. Perhaps the country would have achieved most of this through its equally large investments in the export of America’s most potent soft power – America’s movie business. In page 28 the authors write; “The American film industry always has reflected the wider political and social attitudes of society at large.” Yes, America’s cultural export as produced by its movie industry is perhaps the most valuable and influential export that America sells to the rest of the world.
As we already pointed out we must reiterate that going by all available evidence that all expenditure made by the United States in its military is worth the investment. Yet it can still be argued that America’s real power does not consist solely in its military hardware. And it’s not hard to see that perhaps America’s more subtle and potent power lies in its ability to culturally influence on a global scale the rest of the world without needing to throw any bombs or lose any human lives and limbs in the process. The truth is that America has a huge reservoir of a “more beautiful and sumptuous” subtle cultural power into which it can always tap and deploy more systematically and effectively across the world.
Joseph Nye came up with the concept of “soft power” to describe how nations have the capacity through their cultural influence to get others to do what they want them to do without the need to use any force. Soft power often works when a people are able to present their culture and ways in such a way that they influence the others to admire and adopt these ways while developing love and respect for the people who own the culture. America has achieved much of this power mostly through its creative artists in motion picture business, its government’s unparalleled commitment to promoting free enterprise and the country’s extension of helping hands to others in need through its numerous charitable activities all over the world. America’s movie industry has right from its early concept spearheaded the spread of this subtle and pervasive American global power. Since the last one hundred years Hollywood continues to cast a long shadow of American power and influence that encircles the entire globe.
For anyone who is interested in learning the role of some key individual and family players in the American movie business this book will be very helpful. Magic in the Dark is mostly the story of a particular American family which has worked so dedicatedly and, most of the time in the shadows of the klieg lights of media publicity. The founder of the business B. S. Moss may have established a purposeful publicity-shy family tradition where the operators of the Moss business empire are satisfied to work from behind the scene but it seems that that is about to change. The third generation Moss, Charles B. has broken out of this tradition to tell with Jonathan Kay the fascinating story of the family business and by extension that of the movie exhibition industry from the inside. This break from tradition is necessary because the American movie industry is richer for it.
B. S. Moss was the founder and operator of multiple theater houses and first generation chain of movie exhibiting facilities throughout New York City and beyond. Making great movies and corresponding great movie-exhibiting centers go together. And B. S. Moss and a few others like him realized this earlier on and set out in the early twentieth century to build more “beautiful and sumptuous” movie exhibiting palaces.
Sometime in early twentieth century, America’s cultural epicenter looked like it was beginning to shift from the Atlantic seaboard in the east to the Pacific coast in the west. But as we approach the middle of the twenty first century America’s cultural heartbeat has never quite left New York. Even after a hundred years of California’s seeming dominance in film making, New York’s Broadway in Times Square along with other iconic American cultural centers in the eastern seacoast still remain at the forefront of America’s cultural race toward creative excellence. Long before California’s Hollywood, New York’s Broadway has maintained its first place and continues to serve as the powerhouse of America’s theater, art and culture.
Magic in the Dark in page 21 also chronicles how America’s industrial golden era of Henry Ford’s innovative mass production assembly lines also produced the inventive years of Thomas Edison’s early peephole silent individualized viewing films and how it evolved into the talkies and then to the present day shared magical big screen of cinematography. The authors Charles B. Moss, Jr. and Jonathan Kay have not just told a “more beautiful and sumptuous” story of the struggles and triumphs of B. S. Moss family business empire to the fourth generation but because B. S. Moss the founding patriarch performed during one of America’s most important formative years of the movie industry, it tells the history of America’s movie business. So, in more ways than one the Mosses’ story is also the story of America’s twentieth century cultural evolution in film exhibition.
By some estimates, the importance of American film industry as America’s biggest cultural export is perhaps only second to the works of America’s founding fathers’ unique visionary social and political framework that produced America’s culture of liberty and free enterprise. Clearly, potential greatness is important, even raw strength and innovations of complex and complicated classy machines and equipment are excellent. But as Einstein would say; the genius of great innovators is the ability to simplify and teach comprehensively the basic principles of complex creations to a sixth grader or the least sophisticated mind. In the same way a great art must be exhibited to be appreciated. So, the role of the film exhibitors cannot be over emphasized.
America’s film and cinema industry has effectively and creditably exhibited and sold America to the world. Without the industry it would have taken America longer time and more resources to influence and dominate the world as it does today. Through the American film industry efforts the rest of the world has not only come to know and appreciate American ways but today, to a large extent they have become adopted as the global culture. American film and cinema took up the idea of exporting the American ways and culture from church missionaries and evangelists and reimagined it. In a way the American movie industry is by extension a different aspect of the works of such evangelical moral giants like Billy Graham and those of the likes of Frank Buchanan of the Moral Re-Armament movement.
Magic in the Dark is an intriguing historical recount of the American film [exhibition] industry during its nascent teething years through to its present enigmatic grandeur and magic. A work of thorough research presented in a readable language. For everyone who wants to know and appreciate the struggles and innovations that went into the process of taking the American film industry from the “silent films” eras when film exhibitions were accompanied by live vaudeville and “symphony orchestra . . . mammoth pipe organ . . . and . . . operatic soloists” up to the present state-of-the-art moving and talking pictures and earth shaking sound equipment, there may not be a more fascinating read than Moss’s and Kay’s Magic in the Dark. This may well be a necessary accomplishment and, another important Mosses’ contribution to American theater and film.
Magic in the Dark as well as being an incredible odyssey of pioneering and adventurous Jewish American family is also an indispensable authentic window into the beginning and development of one of America’s most important cultural industry. This important history is told objectively by insiders and participants who are also unassuming part of the history makers.
In page 36 Charles B. Moss Jr. and Jonathan Kay present the American Moss patriarch B. S. Moss as the self-effacing, non-exhibitionist exhibitor in the showmanship business of the early American movie industry. B. S. Moss was cautionary but nonetheless, just like most pioneers he was a dreamer as well as a daring risk taker who gave to the American theater and film industry everything he had. Charles B. Moss Jr., one of the authors is the grandson of the visionary pioneer, B. S. Moss who on the first glimpse of the yet nebulous and amorphous Edison’s peephole film business chose to give it everything he got. He left the already established and a more certain business of retailing textile and was already throwing in $100,000 in the 1930s to build “more beautiful and sumptuous” movie exhibiting palaces in the very uncertain days of the movie business. Magic in the Dark gives the history conscious reader a panoramic view of the historical evolution of the American cinema and the behind the scene figures who helped to make the magic possible. An example of this panoramic tour of the past is in chapter 11 “Welcome to Times Square” which gives the reader an unforgettable vivid cursory tour through the glitz corridors of time as the authors unfold nostalgic time capsules of the fast changing landscape of America’s glitz and culture center – the Times Square, the neon capital of the world. Actually, the Mosses’ corporate business headquarters The Bowtie Building on Times Square hosts on its roof the second to the largest neon display (by surface area) signboard on the American eastern seaboard.
The story is told in an anecdotal entertaining raconteur fashion such as in chapter 11 where the writers recount the encounter that Charles B. Moss Jr. and his son Ben Moss had with the Richmond, Virginia property owner and his presumed phone calls to “scare” the reluctant clients into making up their minds. Yes, the book in an honest-to-god fashion brilliantly gives the reader from the insider a kaleidoscopic picture of the inner workings of Bow Tie business enterprise. It tells how Bow Tie has the patience and resources to build from scratch ultra-modern movie exhibiting multiplexes and while remaining true to the family’s tradition of a “more beautiful and sumptuous” movie architecture. And in the end Bow Tie story reads more like a study of how to “build a modern and more beautiful and exquisite business.”
The book is written in the era of the China Virus pandemic and compares today’s Covid-19 pandemic to the 1918, 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. It points out that America’s movie industry began evolving about the time that the Spanish Flu ravaged world’s cities and towns. It’s remarkable to note that in the end that the natural disaster of flu pandemic was not enough to abort the fledgling industry. America’s movie business survived the Spanish Flu devastations and came out stronger. So, the authors are convinced that based on that fact of history that today’s movie industry will eventually weather through the trials of the present Chinese Virus pandemic.
Interestingly, this optimistic prediction is made by the authors despite the more realistic gloomy situation and, while most of the movie houses are still under mandatory shutdown due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. At the time when movie houses are still forced to remain closed to operators and patrons alike by governments’ mandates and, revenues to the operators have fallen to zero the authors are still optimistic. This optimism is predicated on two premises.
One, it’s based on this historical fact that the authors contend that nature such as pandemics and most other natural disasters may not always be the greatest threat to human desire for survival and pleasure and entertainment as represented in the idea of movie making. The authors contend that the superseding of other human innovations and technologies like televisions, smart phones, etc. can pose more potent threat instead. The second reason why the authors believe that movie exhibition will continue to survive is because the experience taps into a deep-seated and important socio-psychical part of human nature. The authors argue that basically humans love the social connection that public movie viewing experience offers. For this reason humans will always love to be entertained together as it affords them the opportunity to experience and laugh together.
In conclusion, the authors quote from Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem; If in reference to a Mosses’ family tradition of being able to have their feet on the ground while navigating through everyday realities of movie business and the accompanying trappings of success. They believe that the Mosses have through the years mastered Kipling’s “Walk with kings without losing the common touch.” So, I too will take a cue from Kipling’s concluding line in the same poem and say that the founding Moss must be smiling with satisfaction, saying; ‘if my progeny have maintained and expanded the business as left to them one hundred years ago up to the present generation, the fourth generation, then truly they are indeed Men and the true sons of B. S. Moss.’