Theater Owner William Milgram Dies at 84

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william milgram
William Milgram (center) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte at a 1972 Fox Theatre preview of Buck and the Preacher. | Photos provided

William Milgram, who helped build his father’s eponymously named movie theater chain into a major local player, died Oct. 4. He was 84.

Milgram’s father, David, had started the chain, but his son took over by the 1970s, son Richard Milgram said.

The showpiece of the chain was three theaters at 16th and Market streets in Center City Philadelphia — the Milgram Theatre, the Fox Theatre and the Stage Door Cinema.

Richard Milgram said the theaters were housed in three separate buildings connected in the back. He recalled that as a child his father jokingly forced him to walk through a dank back corridor that frightened him.

“We ended up at the Stage Door concession stand,” he said.

A view of 16th and Market streets in 1968 features two of the three movie theaters on the block owned by WIlliam Milgram.

The Milgram family exited the movie theater business starting in 1980 when the three theaters were sold, Richard Milgram said. Developers later demolished the buildings and erected Liberty Place — then the tallest building in Philadelphia and the first to void an informal agreement not to build anything taller than the William Penn statue atop City Hall.

William Milgram stayed busy with movies after the sale, continuing his work as a booking agent for as many as 50 theaters, Richard Milgram said. He had originally booked movies into his own theaters, as well as others, and took pride in choosing films that proved to be popular or noteworthy. At the time, he was competing locally for movies against two other Jewish bookers.

The movies included The Godfather and Superman. He also booked the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ into the Ritz Bourse in 1988, Richard Milgram said. Despite protests, the film’s run was a success.

A film buff — his favorite movie was Shane — William Milgram enjoyed the booking role.

“That was his favorite — being able to get and see the movies before they were out,” Richard Milgram said.

Daughter-in-law Marla Milgram noted that William Milgram was able to see beyond color and booked black-oriented films.

“He saw there was a huge market in Philadelphia,” she said. “It was sort of a revolutionary thing to do at the time.

Former wife Harriet Milgram Tarlow said her then-husband was on a California trip meeting with production and distribution companies when he saw the script for Shaft and decided to book the all-black film.

“He was a genius, I thought, in picking films that were right for different areas,” she said, adding that he relied on her to suggest films that were adaptions of books she read, including True Grit, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

His job also allowed him to meet many movie stars, who often actively promoted new releases with public appearances. Richard Milgram said his family has pictures of their patriarch posing with Sidney Poitier, Henry Winkler and Ann-Margret, among others.

The increasing impact of television, combined with options such as home movie rentals, and the death of his father largely pushed William Milgram out of the theater-owning business in 1980. He worked from Florida as a booking agent, later retiring there and becoming an avid golfer and tennis player.

The Army veteran is survived by his sister, Hinda Brown: his daughters, Marilyn Harris and Susan Kinderman; sons Jeffrey and Richard; grandchildren Jillian, Tate, Alex, Dovid, Miriam, Joey, Emily, Lauren and Caroline; and three great-grandchildren. 

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