Adam Kessel (1867-1946)

Adam Kessel (1867-1946)

Adam Kessel


Born in Brooklyn of a mother who emigrated from Bavaria and a father who was the son of German immigrants, Adam Kessel (sometimes “Ad” or “Addison”) would grow up to be a leading pioneer in the production and distribution of motion pictures in the early years of the film business. In time, he would employ many of the leading figures of the industry, including Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith. Kessel’s power was most in evidence during the 1910s, as the film business organized itself around the twin axes of West Coast production and East Coast financing.

Born on April 4, 1867 in Brooklyn of a mother who emigrated from Bavaria and a father who was the son of German immigrants, Adam Kessel (sometimes “Ad” or “Addison”) would grow up to be a leading pioneer in the production and distribution of motion pictures in the early years of the film business. In time, he would employ many of the leading figures of the industry, including Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith. Kessel’s power was most in evidence during the 1910s, as the film business organized itself around the twin axes of West Coast production and East Coast financing. While greater fortunes would be made (and lost) with the coming of sound technology in the mid-1920s, Kessel sold his business interests in 1919 and invested the proceeds in real estate in upstate New York, where he developed campgrounds and holiday cottages in the Adirondacks. He died by accidental drowning in Lake Champlain in 1946.[1]

Family Background

Kessel was the eldest son of Adam Kessel Sr. and Christine Petermann, the first of nine children. His father was the middle of five children born in New York to parents who had both emigrated from Bavaria, most likely in the mass migrations of the 1840s, and he was employed in a wide variety of professions, including as a bartender, liquor dealer, real estate agent, and as commissioner of deeds. His mother most likely emigrated from Bavaria with her own parents. The couple lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The father of Adam senior, Frederick Kessel, had died prior to the taking of the 1860 census, which lists his widow—Elizabeth Kessel, née Gross—as a tailor with real estate assets of $1400 (around $40,000 today).[2] This figure suggests an early commitment to home ownership in the Kessel family that continues through subsequent generations, as well as an interest in the real estate market that Adam Kessel, Sr. would share with his eldest son.

Adam, Sr. pursued a variety of business ventures, of which perhaps the most interesting were his experiences in the developing entertainment industries. In the 1890s, he served as a director of a local brewing company and also worked with his sons to attempt to renovate a rundown variety theater, the People’s Theater. He is also reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as having made “considerable money with a device in Ridgewood Park” (the site of public celebrations staged by the local German community), which may have been some sort of optical device or illusion.[3]

According to a 1913 profile, Adam, Jr. attended a Brooklyn public school until the age of 15, when he began work in a print shop. In an 1890 directory, the twenty-three-year-old was listed as a printer, having by then become a co-owner in the business he shared with four of his brothers (Frederick, Joseph, Louis, and Charles); as we shall see, Adam would go on the employ family members in his motion picture businesses as well. By the late 1890s, Brooklyn business directories give various listings that suggest the Kessels branched out from printing into forms of gaming, involving themselves in the manufacture of “cardmachines” and “slotmachines,” and it is possible, given the absence of standardized terms at the time, that these business ventures indicate an early acquaintance with the machinery used for the rapid projection of images. One such device, the mutoscope, which displayed a series of moving pictures on the deposit of coins in a slot, is listed under Adam Jr.’s name in the 1900–1901 directory, the same year that his brother Charles’ work is designated “amusements.”[4] In later accounts of the early film business, Kessel is often figured as a neophyte with little working knowledge of the industry, whereas this range of family ventures around the turn of the century would instead seem to indicate a detailed knowledge of the leisure activities of area residents, as well as familiarity with some of the technical apparatuses (e.g., printing, optics, viewing devices) that would become critical in the development of moving pictures.

At the same time that the family was developing this entrepreneurial expertise, it was receiving negative publicity connected with a series of personal and professional scandals. Adam Kessel, Senior, who was active and respected in the local Republican Party, had by the mid-1890s developed a thriving insurance business. In 1897 he was reported to own property worth $35,000 (approximately $950,000 in 2010 dollars) and yet he is also recorded as having absconded with unpaid insurance payments, amid rumors that he lost money at the local race tracks as well as in failed investments in local theaters. He is reported to have only returned to Brooklyn in November 1897 on account of his wife’s funeral.[5] Meanwhile, Adam Jr. had married Elizabeth Bittner eight years earlier in 1889, but his wife filed for separation after six years of marriage citing “cruel and inhuman treatment,” and he was put under arrest due to fears he would flee the jurisdiction (as his father did two years later). Although Kessel returned, promising “to make everything right,” the marriage soon ended in divorce; by 1903, he would be remarried, to Katherine Storm, who had grown up at the foot of the Catskills Mountains in upstate New York, perhaps an indication that by then Kessel had set his sights beyond his immediate Brooklyn neighborhood.[6] The second Kessel brother, Frederick, was also divorced in 1900, and the same year a major scandal occurred when a much younger brother Michael (then only nineteen) had his marriage annulled because his bride, Lillian Levy, had been only sixteen and pregnant at the time of their elopement. (The couple would secretly re-marry later in the year).[7]

These scandals complicate what otherwise seems to be a picture of rising social status and professional success for the Kessel family. As we shall see, Adam, Jr. would go to considerable lengths to provide himself with an image of bourgeois respectability later in life, but only after dealing with recurrent insinuations that his family background and work experience were somehow disreputable. Of course, the film business as a whole arose from humble origins and up to a point prided itself on drawing upon the entrepreneurial instincts and street smarts of lower-class immigrants. In this sense, Adam Kessel’s background, including its often jarring interweaving of success and scandal, would have helped to prepare him to successfully navigate the complexities of this new entertainment industry.

The story of how Adam Kessel got his start in the film business has been told many times over, with minor variations, including in his own words. It is clear that at some time in the 1890s, the brothers’ printing business began producing materials designed for sports enthusiasts and gamblers, including a newspaper called The Sporting Gazette, and that this in turn led Adam Kessel to set up a sideline for himself as a bookmaker. This activity mainly took place at race tracks close to Coney Island, the epicenter of leisure and entertainment for the New York metropolitan area. As the symbol of an emerging mass culture, Coney Island brought together in one place a range of amusements and activities—from drinking and gambling to vaudeville theaters—that had been the focus of the Kessel family’s business ventures. It was also a regular site of filming for early documentary filmmakers, including Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter, and the location for a high concentration ofmutoscope parlors and nickelodeon theaters. As Lauren Rabinowitz has argued, the forms of consumption that dominated at Coney Island were also consistent with the forms of spectatorship that the arrival of movies would require: “The amusement park’s mechanical rides, displays of human and animal performances, pyrotechnics, and recreations,” she suggests, “were the most important model for training moviegoers to become fascinated rather than distanced spectators, to become pleasure seekers at the cinema.”[8] Crucially, like the visitors to Coney Island, those spectators of silent film did not need to know the English language, which meant that the early cinema audience, especially in cities like New York, was multi-ethnic from the outset.

According to Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, an intimate understanding of—and immersion within—the American immigrant experience was crucial for success in the nascent film business, and Gabler privileges Jewish immigrants on this basis: it was men like Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, he suggests, “who were most sensitive to the movies’ low esteem, and the Jews who had the most to gain by raising it.”[9] In theory, there is no reason why other ethnic and national identities might not have served the same purpose, and yet our understanding of early cinema has tended to reproduce a hierarchy of nationalities. In a study of Nickelodeon ownership in New York City around 1906–1908, for instance, the film historian Ben Singer cross-referenced business directories and ownership records with reference works on the geographical etymology of surnames to produce a table that ranked Jews as much more likely to own theaters than immigrants from France, Scandinavia, or Germany. While acknowledging that such research tools could not necessarily tell German immigrants apart from German Jews, Singer nevertheless hypothesizes that “perhaps the ‘upright’ German immigrant community found the nickelodeon unappealing, particularly in light of its association with newer and poorer immigrants such as the Italians and East European Jews.”[10] There is enough in Kessel’s own family background to question this characterization, and yet the stereotype of the “upright” German Protestant might well be one reason why he has not been given credit for the important role he played in the early years of the American film industry. He was also, as we shall suggest, somebody who got out of the industry before the volatility of the 1920s, when many entrepreneurs lost out as ownership was consolidated into the major studios that are more or less still dominant today.

Business Development

Alongside national and ethnic identity, the issue of social class has been equally important in evaluating both the rapid popularity of moving pictures among urban audiences and the equally rapid technological development of the industry itself. As early as 1910, the editor of the leading trade journal, Moving Picture World’s Thomas Bedding, was asking “How can an ex-huckster, ex-bellboy, ex-tailor, ex-advertising man, ex-bookmaker know anything about picture quality? Hands that would be more properly employed with a push-cart on the lower East Side are responsible for directing stage plays and making pictures of them.”[11] We can recognize Kessel in this list as the ex-bookmaker, taking his place alongside leading entrepreneurs such as the former tailor William Fox or the former ad-man Carl Laemmle, who went on to found Universal. Beddings’ concern ran contrary to another school of thought that praised film pioneers for their showmanship, as essentially self-made and self-promoting figures who built empires out of next to nothing. Such myths have tended to erase people like Kessel, who worked behind the scenes for the most part and was reluctant to mythologize himself, even if some of his own self-flattering autobiographical statements were misleading.

The crucial event in his transition from printer-bookmaker to film pioneer occurred in 1908, when Governor Charles Evans Hughes outlawed race-track betting in New York State. Kessel recalled that he still needed to collect on a $2500 ($61,100 in 2010) debt owed to him by Charles Streimer of the Empire Film Exchange in Manhattan, which rented out short films to nickelodeons at $10 per reel ($244 in 2010); given his familiarity with the popular movie theaters around his Brooklyn home, Kessel calculated that he could make more money and find a new line of work by becoming a partner in the film exchange than by collecting on the gambling debt. In time, he would buy out Streimer for $1000 ($24,400 in 2010) and become one of the leading film distributors in New York City, one of the first to import films from Italy.

Two problems beset film exchanges in this period. The first was that Thomas Edison was seeking to assert monopoly rights over equipment and to insist that distributors sign licensing agreements with his Motion Picture Patents Company, in part to combat widespread piracy but also to inflate rental prices. The second problem, which contributed to the first, was the scarcity of films themselves, in a market that produced an incessant demand for new product. Kessel was central to efforts to oppose Edison’s motion pictures “trust” on both fronts. In 1909, he helped to establish a national organization of independent distributors, the National Independent Motion Picture Alliance, and through that organization he participated in important antitrust legislation that would eventually break up Edison’s monopoly in a landmark 1915 decision. At the same time he began to produce films under the umbrella organization of the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMPC), initially genre films like the popular Westerns produced under the “Broncho” imprint that began filming in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The company was headed by Kessel, along with long-time associate and Brooklyn neighbor Charles Baumann and camera operator Fred Balshofer. In time, the company would also employ Adam’s brothers Charles, William, and Nicholas.

Kessel would later recall that their first film, Disinherited Son’s Loyalty” (1909), cost around $200 ($4,940 in 2010) to make over a three day period, yet it made a $2000 profit ($49,400 in 2010).[12] The early years of the NYMPC were dominated by conflicts with the Edison Trust that were litigious and sometimes violent; Balshofer’s memoir One Reel a Week suggests that threats of legal action and harassment during filming were critical factors in the decision to move filmmaking out to California, which had the additional advantage of plentiful natural light. Getting away from Edison’s home base in New Jersey, the company soon moved all shooting out to the West Coast, becoming one of the first companies to film in the Los Angeles area and in the process helping to develop what we now know as Hollywood. By November 1909, Balshofer established a foothold in the Edendale area of Los Angeles, and the company was soon producing a steady stream of films, mostly genre Westerns and comedies.[13] By early 1910, the NYMPC released four new reels of film per week, two imports and two self-produced. Kessel remained in the East, overseeing two important business developments: first, the opening of a prestigious new company office in Manhattan’s Union Square, and second, the purchase of the Carleton Film Laboratory on Long Island in order to process incoming film stock. With these developments, a bi-coastal model of film production was established, matching West Coast production with East Coast technical and corporate components. Unlike many of his peers, Adam Kessel resisted the temptation to move to California, which is one reason he is less known to film historians. In early 1911, he took the first of many trips to Los Angeles, during which he announced plans to construct a substantial new studio, primarily for the production of Westerns, which the company was now producing under the “Bison” brand. Within a year, the company hired a well-known Wild West show from Oklahoma to lend authenticity to its Westerns.

The NYMPC continued the practice of releasing films under a variety of named imprints (such as Broncho, Kay-Bee, Domino and Reliance), so that each built up a brand identity. Kessel also capitalized on his background as a printer and publisher, quickly recognizing new opportunities to publicize the company’s releases. A 1909 report in Moving Picture World credits the NYMPC with developing new forms of movie posters that featured short synopses of the films and color lithographs with images of the film’s actors, which were distributed free to all exhibitors.[14] By far the company’s most important brand, and the one associated with some of the biggest names in silent film, arose out of a meeting in 1912 with Mack Sennett, an actor who had begun with D. W. Griffith at Biograph Pictures and wanted to move into film production for himself. Teaming up with Sennett, who is now considered one of the leading figures in the development of silent film comedy,[15] Kessel and his partner Baumann established Keystone Pictures Studio in July 1912. One month later, they sent a collection of comedic talents lured away from Biograph out to California to begin a hectic production schedule of semi-improvised slapstick comedies, most famously those featuring the comedic ensemble team “The Keystone Kops.” Production took place at a refurbished studio in Edendale later renamed Mack Sennett Studios.

A much more aggressive self-promoter than either Kessel or Baumann, Sennett tended to take the bulk of the credit for developing Keystone, and in the process underplayed their considerable experience and knowledge of the film business. His version of the founding story, for instance, recycles aspects of the anecdote about how the partners had become owners of the Empire exchange three years earlier, in the process getting more mileage out of Kessel’s former bookmaking career. In Sennett’s version, he claimed that in 1912 he owed a $100 gambling debt to Kessel and Baumann (even though Kessel had long given up his former business), and that he had the two men “barred from the Biograph studios so they couldn’t get in there and break my legs.” After learning that they had “invested in a small film exchange,” Sennett claims to have represented himself as a “well-known director” and suggested that they invest $2500 instead of collecting on the $100, in return for which “I’ll make you rich.”[16] Not surprisingly, Kessel would remember events differently, recalling in 1936 that he offered Sennett “25 per cent of a new comedy film company he had in mind” only after first failing to lure Griffith to the NYMPC.[17]

A similar discrepancy occurs in accounts of who was responsible for the company’s biggest success, the signing of Charlie Chaplin to his first contract as a film performer in September 1913. What is not disputed is that Chaplin was performing in New York for a traveling music hall troupe assembled by Fred Karno, and that his performance was witnessed by one of the principal figures at Keystone. In one version of the story, Sennett took the credit, insisting that he had to convince “my New York partners” to trust his talent-spotting judgment; Chaplin’s own autobiography confirms this version, whereas Adam Kessel would insist that he saw the Karno show and made an immediate backstage offer to hire Chaplin for $150 per week ($3,410 in 2010). To add to the confusion, Balshofer’s One Reel a Week insists that Adam’s brother Charlie Kessel was the one to see the show![18] What is less in dispute is the rapid popularity of Chaplin as a star performer or his role in securing the prestige of the Keystone brand, even though he would leave a year later and sign for Essanay Films at $1250 per week (a tenfold pay increase, $28,100 in 2010) plus a $10,000 signing bonus ($225,000 in 2010).

Behind the story of Chaplin’s defection, we can recognize Kessel and Baumann’s key business miscalculation, which was their inability to recognize the rise to prominence of movie stars as a marketing tool to recruit audiences. For someone with a background in printing and publicity, this surprising miscalculation would consistently check Kessel’s success in the film business, as a number of key actors and directors would repeat Chaplin’s move and capitalize on their developing name recognition elsewhere. In March 1914, the NYMPC made a public point out of its devaluation of star actors in afull-page trade advertisement, in which it insisted “A HIGHLY ADVERTISED STAR working under a poor director, with a weak scenario, dragging along a mediocre company, are methods that have never been employed by the NEW YORK MOTION PICTURE COMPANY, which did not require any of these so-called STARS to make KAY-BEE, BRONCHO, KEYSTONE, DOMINO the most popular brands of films on the market today.”[19] As the association of the Keystone film brand with the “Keystone Kops” troupe suggests, the company was prepared to back its decision to invest in corporate branding at the expense of star performers.

Keystone would soon recognize its mistake where Chaplin was concerned, however. A June 1915 letter from Baumann to Sennett suggests that they would be prepared to offer the comedian $3000 per week ($67,200 in 2010) to lure him back from Essanay. Kessel, however, remained skeptical, predicting in a 1918 profile published in the New York World that the escalating contracts of stars were unsustainable because “These $10,000 a week salaries [$224,000 in 2010 dollars] are too great a strain on the exhibitors. Better plays with competent casts will replace many of the present day features,” he asserted, essentially repeating the gamble he had made five years earlier.[20] Instead of star actors, the NYMPC based its business model on developing differentiated brand identities, as the advertisement quote above suggests, and also on the name recognition that came from a long-term association with powerful directors, most notably Sennett and Thomas Ince, who took charge of the company’s production of Westerns, drama, and historical epics. Ince is perhaps best known now for directing the 1916 antiwar film Civilization, which is said to have been instrumental in President Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign on a pacifist platform.[21] His directing work was mainly confined to such large-scale projects, however, and by 1913 he had already shifted much of his energy into organizing studio production in California on a model of economic efficiency, becoming famous in the industry for rationalizing shooting schedules and subdividing the overall work of production into discrete tasks that could be carried out by smaller units.

The same 1914 ad that repudiated star actors proclaimed Ince and Sennett the “world’s greatest directors,” but it is possible to see that as a loaded compliment. It disguises a sharp debate that was occurring within the company about who was in charge, as well as a larger discussion within the film business about which jobs and titles—directors, producers, stars—carried the greatest weight and prestige. Matters came to a head in 1914 when Sennett was producing an unprecedentedly long and expensive comedy feature, Tille’s Punctured Romance, instead of his usual production-line of slapstick shorts. Company concerns over the cost and need for a new marketing strategy to promote such a one-off film led Sennett to hide the film negatives in a vault and to be summoned (along with Ince) back East for talks with Kessel and Baumann. Kessel had by this time welcomed the long-awaited birth of his only child, Jean, and lived in partial retirement in the Lake Champlain region of upstate New York. It was here, at what would in time become known as “Kamp Kessel,” that Sennett and Ince were brought for crisis talks, one immediate result of which was a series of advertisements in trade journals that can be read as a re-assertion of the power held by East Coast management and as a form of organizational chart of the company: Baumann and the Kessel brothers at the center, surrounded by a periphery of acting talent that included Chaplin and “Fatty” Arbuckle in the top-right corner; Ince and Sennett, at the top, are pictured larger than their stars, but smaller than (and clearly subordinate to) the trio in the center.

It was not all bad news for the rebellious pair, however: ads from the same period list them as holding the titles of “Managing Directors” and “Directors-General,” each of which indicates a movement away from the day-to-day work of actually directing the films themselves. Ince in particular would be rewarded further in 1915 with a massive new studio, nicknamed “Inceville,” that was built for him in the Culver City region of Los Angeles and remains in use today as a production and public tour location for Sony Pictures; Mack Sennett Studios in Edendale also saw a major expansion the same year.

Kessel and Baumann joined forces with Harry Aitken of Mutual in 1915 to form Triangle Pictures, an even more ambitious experiment with consolidating production, distribution, and exhibition in a single company—a form of “vertical integration” in the film business that was eventually outlawed by antitrust legislation. In the 1920s and 1930s, such a model, in which a single company produced and distributed its own films to be screened in so-called “block bookings” in its own theaters, would benefit major organizations like Paramount, Warner Brothers and Twentieth-Century Fox, so the Triangle project can best be seen as a premature, but costly failure. According to company records, the corporation had assets of $4,000,000 ($89.6 million) when it was incorporated in August 1915, although the figure was most likely exaggerated.[22] In addition to Sennett and Ince, it also had the leading director, D. W. Griffith under contract on the basis of his prior employment with Mutual, and thus could claim that three of the leading film producers were all working under its umbrella—indeed, “S-I-G” was one of the company’s prototype names, and it was ambiguous whether the eponymous “triangle” referred to the three producers, the three company heads (Aitken, Baumann, and Kessel), or the three branches of the production process that were being consolidated.

Triangle’s guiding vision, as outlined by Aitken, was “to furnish the public with a better class of motion picture plays than they have ever had before; to put together the greatest directors; the most perfect equipment; to gather the greatest array of players, and with no limit on the sums that might be needed to produce perfect pictures, to turn out film of such quality that the public would gladly pay an increased price if necessary to see the plays.”[23] Miscalculating the public’s readiness to pay for such expensive productions turned out to be only one of the conceptual weaknesses that would doom Triangle to failure. None of the three producers had much to do with the hands-on direction of the company’s films, each preferring to work only on special projects that would further drain finances and cause problems for the standard block-booking policy; Sennett, in particular, would chafe against the demand that Keystone function as a junior partner, producing slapstick shorts to support the serious dramas that were supposedly being overseen by Griffiths and Ince, especially as the comedies proved to be more popular. At the same time, Kessel allowed his longtime aversion to high-price acting salaries to be overcome, and Triangle committed inflated sums to theatrical actors as part of its effort to appeal to a higher-class audience, even though few of those actors successfully transitioned from stage to screen.

Within a year, Ince and Griffith had resigned as company directors and rumors circulated that the company would fold. Adam and his brother Charles Kessel officially resigned from the Triangle board in December 1918, but had in reality sold out to Aitken the previous year by handing over control of the NYMPC, the price for which was variously quoted as $500,000 (in the trade press, $11.2 million in 2010) and $3,000,000 (as recalled by Kessel himself, two decades later, or $67.2 million in 2010).[24] In the agreement, Adam Kessel would be paid $400 per week over the next three years (the equivalent of an annual salary of $300,000, in 2010 dollars), far less than the exorbitant actor salaries that he was cautioning would bring financial ruin to the industry. Triangle formally declared bankruptcy in 1923.

Kessel and partner Baumann tried at least one more venture into the film business, teaming up to form Kessel-Baumann Pictures in 1920, a company that was most likely formed for the purpose of financing the film Headin’ Home, featuring the baseball player Babe Ruth. The film sought to capitalize on Ruth’s celebrity, which was at a peak following his move to the New York Yankees and breaking of the home run record first in 1919 and again in 1920.[25] As with Triangle, the project was conceived on a grand scale and was not entirely successful, collapsing into a series of acrimonious lawsuits. Shot on location around Fort Lee and at Yankees Stadium and sold to individual exhibitors state-by-state, Headin’ Home had a spectacular premiere at Madison Square Garden on a massive screen (27 feet by 36 feet), which required a special projection apparatus claimed to be the largest ever constructed. Reviews were poor, however, and the production was dogged by legal troubles, first with a rival production company for releasing compilation footage of Ruth to cash in on his celebrity and then in a lawsuit brought by Ruth to try to collect his $50,000 salary ($544,000 in 2010); by this time, Kessel and Baumann claimed to have no formal connection with the film, and there were rumors that it was being backed by one of the gamblers involved in the “Black Sox” match-fixing scandal. Given how Kessel got into the film business after ventures in sports publications and illegal bookmaking, it seems appropriate that one of his last ventures would be beset by the conjunction of sports and gambling!

By this point, Kessel had other business interests competing for his attention. He and his wife had begun buying up real estate in the Lake Champlain region as early as 1912, gradually extending their holdings through the purchase of small parcels of land surrounding their holiday home up to around 600 acres total. Katherine Kessel had grown up in rural upstate New York and it seems likely, then, that she encouraged the move to Keeseville; in any case, it produced a partial break from the old Brooklyn neighborhoods in which Adam had been born and raised. As early as 1913, the Kessels’ lakeside estate was being described in local newspapers as “without doubt one of the most prominent show places on Lake Champlain.” Judging from property tax, census, and directory records, the value of their real-estate holdings fluctuated through the 1920s, however, and what scant evidence of the family we can find in public records of the period suggests a complicated picture that seems at odds with the dominant image of the 1920s as a “boom” decade; it is perhaps more consistent, however, with Kessel’s own business origins, which (as we have suggested) present a peculiar juxtaposition of rising gentility with the threat of scandal and collapse.

By the 1930 census, for instance, Katherine Kessel was being listed as head of household, back in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, while a 1933 local directory indicated that Adam Kessel, now in his mid-60s, was working at a gasoline filling station. The obituary notice in the New York Times following his death in 1946 reported that he had “operated a parking lot” on the same Brooklyn street.[26] At the same time, however, the Lake Champlain land development was being converted into a tourist holiday resort, aided by the Delaware and Hudson railroad that connected New York City with Montreal. In advertising materials, “Kessell’s Douglas Park in the Adirondacks,” which was billed as being located in “The Bay of Naples of America,” boasted attractions that included the Kessel Park Inn and lakeside cottages to rent. An obituary published in the local Plattsburg Press Republican misleadingly reported that Kessel “had retired a few years ago and moved to Keeseville where he made his home and operated the camp colony at Port Douglas, south of Keeseville.”[27] Evidence instead suggests that through the 1930s the family divided their time between their holiday home and their old Brooklyn neighborhood, possibly only moving into sole residence by Lake Champlain for the final few years of Adam’s life.

Social Status

While it shares some key features, Adam Kessel’s story is not exactly the rags-to-riches (or even rags-to-riches-back-to-rags) narrative that is often the default for histories of early film pioneers. As we have seen, his origin is not exactly that of the newly-arrived immigrant, but instead that of a second-generation German Protestant born into a relatively prosperous and property-owning family that had entrenched itself within the local Brooklyn community. His father, as befits his social status as a commissioner of deeds, was a pivotal figure in that community: reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle highlight his nomination by the Republican Party to the state legislature, serving as a judge at the 1890 Schwaebischer Saengerbund [Swabian Choir] festival, and being a prize winner in the vegetable exhibits at the 1893 and 1894 “Swabian [sic] Volksfests.”[28] There is little evidence, however, that his children placed the same emphasis on civic duty or ethnic identity, instead embracing the more integrated and deracinated American identity to which the film industry encouraged its audiences to aspire.

Of course, the positive news coverage of Adam, Sr.’s community engagements was interspersed with reports of failed business ventures, lawsuits, fraudulent dealings, and family scandals. Growing up in this background perhaps helps explain Adam Kessel’s own complicated life, which was split between work and leisure, New York City and upstate, a new and not entirely reputable industry and well-established forms of conspicuous consumption that seem designed to signify a more respectable social standing.

To illustrate the polarities of Kessel’s life, we can compare two news stories that appeared almost exactly a year apart. In the summer of 1912, the NYMPC was embroiled in a bitter dispute with other independent producers, the largest of which was Universal Pictures (led by Carl Laemmle), over two California studios in Edendale and Santa Monica that were producing “Bison” brand Westerns starring the recently-signed Miller Brothers troupe of Western actors. When the NYMPC tried to withdraw Bison and its other brands from the distribution agreement with Universal, they were hit with a restraining order and a claim that Universal could take possession of the studios and the Bison brand. Fred Balshofer, who was head of the studio unit at Edendale, resisted an order to be replaced and organized the Miller Brothers performers, who had been real-life cowboys and were hired to bring authenticity to the company’s Westerns, to guard the building. According to reports, “The revolvers and rifles in which they have been accustomed to fire blank cartridges were loaded with steel-jacketed bullets.”[29] The following week it was reported that the siege lasted several days, with the plants being defended with “rifles, sawed-off shotguns, and portable Gatling guns of Colt design.”[30] The dispute was ultimately resolved through the courts, but only after Kessel and Baumann were indicted on grand larceny charges that were later dropped.

If this suggests an image of the film industry as a quite literal extension of the “Wild West,” we glimpse a very different picture a year later, as Adam Kessel is profiled as having “become a yachting devotee. He has purchased a veritable floating palace, named ‘Orson,’ and intends cruising with her up to his summer home on Lake Champlain this summer.” This more respectable business executive is also said to be spending his summers at the lake house and his winters in Brooklyn, where he was now “a member of Bensonhurst Yacht Club.”[31] A year later, a reporter for the same magazine was given a ride on the sixty-foot yacht and wrote admiringly ofKessel’s “summer home at Lake Champlain; his mania for these restful moments; his yacht; his automobiles; the joy he finds in living.” Perhaps recognizing the incongruity with its subject’s just as carefully established reputation as a tough negotiator, the article confirmed that “Ad Kessel with his chickens at Lake Champlain and with his yacht in Graveshead Bay is the same Ad who makes pictures branded Kay-Bee, Broncho, Keystone, and Domino.”[32] In some ways, we can recognize a growing separation between these two sides that coincided with the birth of the Kessels’ only child in September 1913, as the upstate residence was designed with family in mind.

The years 1913–1914 saw the wider Kessel family being further drawn into the film business, yet also suffering a series of setbacks. Younger brother Nicholas bought two New York City film exchanges in November 1913 in a move that was headlined “Another Kessel in the Game” in the trade press; he would stay in the industry at least through the end of the decade, when he set up a laboratory in Fort Lee handling industrial, independent, and feature film productions, although the 1930 census listed him as teaching at a private school.[33] More tragically, two brothers died in 1914, first Frederick, who had remained in the original printing business; and then younger brother William, who was reported to have worked at various times as “a manufacturer, state rights buyer, exchange manager, and exhibitor” of film. At the time of William’s death, which the death certificate reports as from a heroin overdose, he was reportedly “doing confidential work for the NYMPC” and had been guiding the company’s business interests in Europe.[34]

Frederick Kessel’s death is a reminder of the seamier side of the film industry, as famously documented by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1965).Figures associated with the NYMPC, and especially Keystone, played central roles in some of the most spectacular scandals of the 1920s and ‘30s: Chaplin had well-publicized problems with underage actresses; Fatty Arbuckle’s career never recovered after he was acquitted of rape and manslaughter in the death of actress Virgina Rappe; the leading Keystone actress Mabel Normand was implicated in one of the great unsolved Hollywood mysteries, the murder of her friend William Desmond Taylor; while the precise cause of Thomas Ince’s death in 1924, on board William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, has also not been determined.[35] In each case, these scandals occurred after Adam Kessel had resigned from the NYMPC, however, amid indications that the industry would struggle to secure respectability throughout the booming years of the 1920s.

Kessel worked hard to isolate his family from the darker side of Hollywood, beginning with his decision to remain on the East Coast after helping to establish California as the industry’s new base. The crisis meetings with Sennett and Ince in July 1914, for instance, occurred at the holiday home in Keeseville and on board the Orson. One report downplayed the tense negotiations that were taking place by relating how “the big league directors of the NYMPC spent several days at Kamp Kessel, the beautiful home of Adam Kessel Jr, president of the company, near Keesport [sic], Lake Champlain. Much of the visit was spent on the water on Mr. Kessel’s yacht Orson, but it is said that Mr. Sennett put in a good part of his time doing comedy stunts for tiny Jean Carol Kessel, who, by all odds, is the principal personage in the Kessel ménage.”[36] Accompanying photos showed Kessel in a yachting cap and Sennett playing with the baby.

The image being projected here feels almost a cliché of WASP gentility, and there is some evidence that it appealed to others in Kessel’s cohort. An essay profiling “The Magnates of the Motion Pictures” appeared in Munsey’s Magazine in late 1912, when the NYMPC was still legally extricating itself from Universal. It tells a variety of success stories to delineate what it terms the “autocracy of the amusement world,” pioneers in an industry it claims has achieved status as “full brother to the United States Steel Corporation, the American Tobacco Company, and the Standard Oil Company.” At this point, Adam Kessel was perhaps not sufficiently important to be included, and yet a familiar portrait is offered of Siegmund Lubin of Philadelphia, “a tall, lank, raw German lad—landed in New York from the steerage of an ocean liner.” While Lubin’s origins were not exactly like Kessel’s, his manner of displaying the newly-made wealth he derived from film production is nearly identical: a “five-hundred acre place outside of Philadelphia” on the Schuylkill River, over which “presides a patriarchal man of sixty-two who looks more like a kindly German burgomaster than the dominating head of one of the most dynamic and enterprising of commercial institutions,” complete with “a yachting-cap on his head.”[37]

As this description suggests, we can read the lifestyle and image that Adam Kessel projected for himself in Keeseville as signs of upward mobility, and a desire to distance himself both from his original Brooklyn neighborhood and from the film industry. If the Great Depression forced him back to the city during the 1930s, it is significant that he retained his place on Lake Champlain and seems to have passed his final years there. Indeed, there remains some mystery about his final resting place. According to the Plattsburg Press Republican, he was cremated at Troy with the expectation that “the ashes will be taken to Brooklyn, his former home,” but there is no record of a burial at the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens where other members of his family were buried, including his grandmother, both parents, and at least two of his brothers.[38]


Already in 1918, when he was still nominally involved with Triangle, at least for purposes of public perception, a profile of Adam Kessel began “‘A. KESSEL JR.’ That name doesn’t mean anything to you, does it, reader? You never even heard of it before, perhaps. Yet A. Kessel Jr. is not only one of the biggest figures in the motion picture industry, but one of its pioneers.” This suggests the extent to which he had already managed to efface himself from the public eye, a process that was simply accelerated as he sold his company and faded (for the most part) into a life of private semi-retirement. Karl Kitchen’s profile goes on to claim that his subject was “one of the very few men in the so-called picture game who has made millions out of it—and still has them.”[39] There is some uncertainty, as we have seen, about exactly how much Kessel made when he sold his company, although even the more conservative estimate of $500,000 (or $6.1 million in 2010 dollars) afforded him the ability to finance an eventual second career in upstate New York. Meanwhile, Kitchen’s mention of the “picture game” reminds us that the film industry was still something of a gamble in its early years, and we know that many more fortunes would be made and lost in the following decade, especially with the beginning of sound films in the mid-1920s.

In this sense, we might liken the movie business in these years to the “start-up” culture of modern-day Silicon Valley, a place where vast fortunes can be made by some while the greater majority loses out. As a “pioneer,” however, Adam Kessel should be credited with a number of important innovations that helped to shape the future direction of the film industry, as well as with a few significant missteps. His was a crucial contribution in breaking the monopolizing grip of the Edison Trust, at a time in the early 1910s when the production and distribution of films was in jeopardy. Working with figures like Sennett and Ince, he helped to rationalize the processes by which films were made, working out a more defined division of labor and separating production from financing between Los Angeles and New York; in the process, he invested heavily in major studio buildings at the beginning of Los Angeles’ emergence as the film capital of the world. He would employ many of the key players of the early years of film at one time or another, even if he had trouble retaining their services; in this context, one major miscalculation turns out to have been the faith he placed in brands as opposed to movie stars.

While Triangle turned out to be his greatest failure, it was in most respects merely ahead of its time, anticipating the emergence of major corporations like Paramount or Twentieth Century Fox which would similarly develop the practices of vertical integration and block-booking that underwrote the era of the major Hollywood studios. As the son of a German immigrant, Kessel built up a substantial family business that extended a set of professional skills and practices that his grandmother, father and brothers shared. In his early essay on the figure of the film magnate, the contemporary journalist Isaac Marcosson delineated a series of “types” that would thrive in the new industry: some were “showmen” who got their start in traveling exhibitions; others were businessmen who made money in other trades first and reinvested in the risky proposition of moving pictures; others had a more technical background in areas like photography or projection. The Kessel family, with its amalgamated work experience in popular theater and exhibition, sports, gambling, real estate, manufacture, and printing, stands in some respects at the confluence of these three types. As a result, it is notable that such a background not only produced one of the industry’s forgotten pioneers but also somebody who knew when to get out and move on to other ventures.


[1] One of the co-authors is a great-grandchild of Adam Kessel. Some material derives from family sources.

[2] All current values (in 2010 U.S. dollars) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, using the Consumer Price Index (accessed May 5, 2016).

[3]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1897. Three years earlier, the same newspaper reported that attractions at the “Swabian [sic] Volksfest” in Ridgewood Park included an “optical delusion” of a fountain, “produced with the aid of looking glasses” (Sep. 10, 1894).

[4]Lain’s Business Directory of Brooklyn, 1890–1891 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lain & Co., 1890); Brooklyn General Directory, 1900–1901 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: George Upington, 1900).

[5] “Adam Kessel Home Again,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 9, 1897.

[6] “Kessel Put Under Arrest,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 16, 1895.

[7] See Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2, 1900 and August 14, 1901.

[8] Lauren Rabinowitz, “The Coney Island Comedies: Bodies and Slapstick at the Amusement Park and the Movies,” in American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), ed. Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp, 171–190, here 172–173.

[9] Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), 26.

[10] Ben Singer, “Manhattan Nickelodeons: New Data on Audiences and Exhibitors,” Cinema Journal 34:3 (Spring 1995): 5–35, 23.

[11] “Lux Graphicus” (Thomas Bedding), “Notes of the Week,” Moving Picture World, Dec. 24, 1910, 1470.

[12] Adam Kessel, “When the Field was Fresh,” Moving Picture World, March 10, 1917, 1523.

[13] The Edendale area is now known as the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

[14] “Notes of the Trade,” Moving Picture World, Oct. 9, 1909, 486.

[15] For recent studies of Sennett and his importance in the development of silent film comedy, see Simon Louvish, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (New York: Faber and Faber, 2003) and Rob King, The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[16] Mack Sennett, The King of Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1954), 78.

[17] Douglas Gilbert, “Came the Dawn,” New York World-Telegram, June 22, 1936.

[18] Sennett, King of Comedy, 151; Gilbert, “Came the Dawn”; Fred Balshofer and Arthur Miller, One Reel a Week (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 91.

[19] NYMPC advertisement, Moving Picture World, March 21, 1914, 1557.

[20] Karl Kitchen, “Kessel, Pioneer of the Movies,” New York World, April 28, 1918, 15.

[21] See Josh Glick, “Wilson and the War Effort: Film, Pedagogy and the Presidency,” in Film and the American Presidency, ed. Jeff Menne and Christian B. Long (New York: Routledge, 2015), 72–95.

[22] Triangle Film Corp. Minute Book volume 1, entry of Oct. 20, 1915, Triangle/Reliance Film Corporation Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

[23] Harry Aitken, “Where the Exhibitor Stands,” The Triangle, Oct. 23, 1915, 1. This was the inaugural issue of The Triangle, a film trade magazine published by the company itself, a common practice at the time.

[24] The figure of $500,000 was reported in Motion Picture News March 10, 1917; Kessel recalled the figure as $3 million in Gilbert’s “Came the Dawn” series, June 27, 1936.

[25] See also the biography in this project of Otto Y. Schnering, whose Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar in 1921. Samantha Chmelik, “Otto Y. Schnering,” Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, ed. Jeffrey Fear.

[26] “Adam Kessel, Got Chaplin into Films,” New York Times, Sep. 23, 1946.

[27] “Drowning Victim was Chaplin’s ‘Discoverer,’” Plattsburg Press Republican, Sep. 25, 1946, 5. It is unclear if the misspelling of Kessel’s name was a printer’s mistake or an attempt to slightly anglicize it.

[28] See reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for August 25, 1890, September 12, 1893, September 10, 1894.

[29]Moving Picture World, July 20, 1912:235.

[30]Moving Picture World, July 20, 1912, 235, and July 27, 1912, 335. For background on this dispute, see Andrew Brodie Smith, Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Westerns, American Culture, and the Birth of Hollywood (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003), chapter 4.

[31] “Kessel Buys a Yacht,” Motography, June 14, 1913, 444.

[32] “On the Outside Looking In,” Motography, June 27, 1914, 468. See also “Who’s Who in the Film Game,” Motography, Nov. 1, 1913, 325–326.

[33] “Another Kessel in the Game,” Moving Picture World, Nov. 22, 1913.

[34] The deaths of Frederick and William Kessel were reported, respectively, by Moving Picture World on April 4, 1914 and by Motography on November 14, 1914.

[35] For lively, if not entirely trustworthy, accounts of these film industry scandals, see Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

[36] “Real Tales about Reel Folk,” Mutual Reel Life, August 29, 1914, 18.

[37] Isaac F. Marcosson, “The Magnates of the Motion Pictures,” Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1912, 217–218, 221.

[38] “Drowning Victim was Chaplin’s ‘Discoverer,’” 5.

[39] Kitchen, “Kessel, Pioneer of the Movies,” 15.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Adam Kessel
  • Coverage 1867-1945
  • Simon Joyce
  • Author Jennifer Putzi
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018