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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Nathan Robbins

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[This information is from Vol. IV, pp. 164-166 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Portraits | Illustrations | Maps

From newsboy to usher, from treasurer to manager, from playhouse lessee to head of a three-million dollar theatre corporation, briefly tells the life story of Nathan Robbins, president, general manager and guiding genius of the Robbins Enterprises, Incorporated, of Utica, now operating a chain of theatres in this city, Syracuse and Watertown, and with an expansion program under way which he hopes will carry the concern to practically every city in the state and beyond, and eventually become one of the largest wheels in the country. Mr. Robbins was born in Syracuse, Onondaga county, New York, on the 18th of April, 1891, his parents being Julius and Anna Robbins of that city.

Nathan Robbins is the subject of the following interesting article which appeared in a Utica newspaper:

"'Nate', as he is affectionately known to thousands, attended a ward school, studied early and late to complete his preliminary schooling ahead of his companions and associates, and at the age of eleven trotted down-town morning and afternoon for his bundles of daily and Sunday papers, which he sold on the streets of Syracuse. The profit was turned into the parental till for the benefit of his brothers and sisters, and his father and mother. Always a hustler, a little quicker with service than his youthful competitors, ever accommodating, prompt, courteous and obliging and religiously honest, 'Nate the newsboy' increased his customers, friends and sales daily. He sold more papers than his ragged rivals in business and consequently reaped a larger and greater reward, but it was not enough for this lively, progressive, ambitious youngster. 'Nate' had frequently told his parents that he had too much time to play, that he was wasting hours that should have been devoted to other matters to increase his knowledge and fatten his weekly income. Hence they were not surprised one day when he proudly announced that he had a new job; that in addition to his paper sales he was going to distribute programs at the Grand theatre in Syracuse at a salary of one dollar per week. That position took this ambitious boy into a theatre for the first time in his life. He liked it and for a year he was at his post handing out smiles and programs to theatre patrons. His devotion to duty and faithfulness in service attracted the attention of the house manager, and when one of the ushers was fired or quit the program boy was picked to fill the vacancy. It was a short jump to the head of this crew, and a year or so later found him in the box office selling tickets. Another promotion made him treasurer, and this advancement made the decision to stick to the theatrical business.

"Young Robbins left his native city while an employe of the Shuberts, and for a time was associated with them in the management of the Majestic at Utica. The Shuberts finally quit this Utica playhouse; and it was but a few years later that Mr. Robbins secured a lease of the property. With only a limited time in which to work and show his ability as a full-fledged manager, he made it a go from the start. The incorporation of the Robbins Amusement Company followed, and then the links began to be added to the chain. From his early success at the Majestic, Mr. Robbins had no trouble in interesting Utica capitalists and financiers and business men in his venture, and some of the city's best known and richest and most influential citizens are numbered among his associates. When he branched out to Syracuse and Watertown, men of influence in those cities were quick to join with him.

"With the Majestic under his management Mr. Robbins set about to purchase the Avon, Utica's best appointed theatre. The owners, a Buffalo corporation, were reluctant to sell, but the head of the Robbins Amusement Company had the determination and the persistency, and in July, 1920, less than four years after he had obtained a lease of the Majestic, his concern consummated the transaction. The DeLuxe, a handsome theatre in the heart of Utica's best residential section, was taken over in the December following. In March, 1921, the Vinney building, containing the Eckel theatre, in Syracuse, was added to the string. It was then that Syracuse recognized the homecoming of a native son. A newsboy on its streets, who returned in just nineteen years to post a certified check for half a million dollars, the purchase price, as he prepared to take over the office and store building and photo-play house. In the latter part of November, 1921, Mr. Robbins entered the Watertown field, purchasing the Olympic, Palace and Antique theatres. The Colonial and Gaiety theatres of Utica became a part of the Robbins wheel in August, 1922. The closing of this deal included the valuable property at the corner of Washington and Columbia streets in Utica, formerly the site of the First Presbyterian church, razed a few years ago.

"In 1920 Mr. Robbins organized the Robbins Film Company and in its infancy it became one of the largest independent distributing concerns in the state. It acquired distributing rights for New York state and booked its productions with the exhibitors. With the rapid growth of the amusement company Mr. Robbins disposed of his film distributing interests. With three separate groups, yet practically the same men, in control of the Robbins Amusement Company, the Robbins-Syracuse Company and the Robbins-Watertown Company, it was but natural that the Utica corporation, capitalized at three million dollars, should obtain a state charter to do a theatrical and motion picture business.

'Our proposed expansion', said Mr. Robbins in outlining his plans, 'will be acclaimed the largest and most ambitious in this state, outside of New York city. The plan will not only affect Syracuse, Watertown and Utica, but other municipalities through the state. Architects of the highest class are at work on tentative plans for several new houses which we propose to erect. These theatres will lack nothing which will be conducive to the comforts of our patrons. We are actuated in this program by the positive knowledge that our theatrical business is bound to continue to boom as business conditions in the United States return to a basis of normalcy. We are ready to put this plan into execution because we believe the time is ripe, and that a careful study of present-day conditions warrants the putting into action an ideal which has long been ours. The photoplay business has had marvelous growth. From a penny-in-the-slot contrivance, the industry has become one of the largest in the country. The players get big money, have country homes, and high-powered cars. Scandals at Hollywood only jarred the movement for its own betterment. The result has been better pictures. I am for clean, moral pictures, and the abolition of sex stuff, the nude, and the immoral and the suggestive, met my hearty approval. Time after time I have cancelled orders for films after a private showing has proven to me that the offering is not up to the standard of my houses, that the film is not wholesome and clean and would not work for the welfare, enlightenment, education and proper entertainment of patrons, and especially the young men and young women and those of more tender years who accompany their parents. We are always ready to meet the demand of our patrons, the public.'

"Approximately eighteen million persons find entertainment and amusement in the Robbins chain of theatres each year. The total seating capacity of his nine houses is twelve thousand, nine hundred. With an average of four shows daily, the attendance is fifty-one thousand, six hundred. The total attendance for the week is over three hundred and sixty thousand. This brings the year's total over the eighteen million mark. The nine theatres comprising the present chain are the best in three cities. The Majestic was formerly the Utica Opera House. Several years ago it was remodeled into a ground floor theatre. At one time it was the city's only amusement center. The Avon, opened in 1915, is one of the finest theatres in eastern New York. Its stage is the largest in Utica. The classic style of architecture was followed in its construction and it presents a scholarly and dignified appearance. Its side lines were constructed on scientific principles, insuring to the occupants of every seat a full view of the stage. The DeLuxe is modern in every way, and contains all the features and appliances which go to make up a first-class theatre and which contribute to the safety, comfort and enjoyment of the public. It was erected in 1915. The Gaiety was erected about 1912. It is perfect in appointment and equipment. It is the home of Keith vaudeville. Road attractions hold forth at the Colonial. The Robbins-Eckel in Syracuse, devoted to pictures, is practically a new home. It was erected a few years ago and is regarded as one of the best equipped theatres in central New York. The Vinney building, which houses the theatre, is a seven-story structure in the business district of Syracuse. It occupies the site of the old Kingsley House, which was razed to permit the erection of the Vinney building. The three Watertown houses are up to the Robbins standard. All of them are practically new, having been erected within the last few years."

Besides discharging the onerous duties of president of the Robbins Enterprises, Incorporated, Mr. Robbins is a director of the Utica City National Bank and vice president of the Utica Shares, Incorporated. Fraternally he is identified with the Masons and the Elks and he is also a valued member of the City Club. He is a young man of unquestioned integrity and unmistakable ability, whose many friends feel no hesitancy in predicting for him a future of continued advancement and success.

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