A recent issue of New West magazine informs us that in Hollywood there is something called the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It has something like 1,500 stars inscribed in the sidewalk in honor of men and women who have contributed something -- almost anything, actually -- to the movie business. One of them is the late, great Maurice Diller.
Who? I know you are saying. Well, so is everyone else. It turns out that no one -- and I do mean no one -- knows who Maurice Diller is or was or why he deserves or deserved a star. In fact, some say that Maurice Diller is something of a hoax, that he never existed.
He did. Mo Diller, as his friends called him, exists in my imagination as the movie pioneer who figured out early on that the movie-going public was, collectively, a bunch of jerks. He was the one for instance, who discovered that people would be willing to pay a single price for a seat, no matter where the seat might be. This was probably Diller's greatest achievement.
It was Mo Diller who knew that people would pay the same for a seat down in the first row on top of the screen as they would for a seat in the very center of the theater. It was Diller who knew that people would settle for a seat that, had it been a job, would have been outlawed by the federal government on account of the damage it does to your ears, your eyes and the back of your neck.
Until Mo came along, this was never the case. In legitimate theaters then and even today, the customer pays according to the seat he gets. The same has been true on planes awnd trains and ships and even that most democratic of all institutions, the American ballpark. It was Mo Diller who broke the mold when he decided to charge what he called "one price only" for his seats. It worked.
Had Mo Diller stopped right there, he would not have deserved his star and the movie business would have deserved his star and the movie business would not have become the wonderful, terrific business it is. But (as you might have imagined) Diller plunged on, figuring that if people would pay a single seat price regardless of location, they would not protest even if they didn't even have a guaranteed seat.
This innovation is responsible for the stampede at the beginning of each show, as hundreds of people run around like chickens without their heads, looking for seats. No one knows how many people have been killed in fights over seats and no one, I think, even cares. Mo Diller, though, did. As a humanitarian gesture, he concevied the concept of "saved" in which by saying just that and holding your hand over the seat palm down (palm up doesn't work), you can reserve the seat for someone who is coming.
Mo Diller was born Maurice Dalinsky in either Minsk or Pinsk, Poland. (He himself was not sure.) He came to this country as a young man, working first as a cutter in the garment business. But then he opened one of the nation's first nickelodeons on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. It was there that he perfected the practices that later became standard in the industry. He was the first person, for instance, to tear a movie ticket in half at the door and to print something on the back of the ticket. What it says in case you never looked, is that you need the other half to get a refund. This is printed on both halves.
In 1939, Mo Diller went West. He was by then an old man, thrice married (the last time to a woman 46 years his junior), and his enormous contributions to the movie business largely behind him. That year, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards ceremony, but he was by no means through innovating.
Diller became a rich man -- rich, but not happy. He set his sights even higher and became a consultant for the fast foods business. That industry was looking around for fast, efficient and inhumane ways to treat people and turned to the ovie business for ideas. Diller did not fail them. He was the one who introduced the practice of having the customer clear off his own table and tray -- an innovation that some thought would never catch on. Diller even suggested that the customer clean his own glasses. A test conducted in Tucson was a raging success, but the practice was abandoned because of breakage. Hard seats and garish colors were retained, though.
Diller, never discouraged, dreamed on. He came up with the self-service gas station, the air pump that requires a quarter for air, the salad bar where the customer does the work, the strawberry farm where the customer picks the berries, the shared taxi ride where for the same money you get to meet someone you don't want to, and the Eastern Shuttle to New York.
It was Diller who figured out that whenever something was done to make things inconvenient, a sign should be posted saying, "For Your Convenience" and whenever someone puts you through the third degree when trying to cash a check, a similar sign should be posted saying, "For Your Protection . . ."
But it was to the movie that Mo Diller's heart belonged. In his last days, he did away with cartoons, the news, coming attractions and curtains that opened majestically when the titles started to roll. He died in 1975 in Venice, Calif., broke and forgotten, but his spirit lives on. Twice, now, I have been to theaters where the air conditioning was turned off in the middle of the film. Somewhere up there, I know Mo Diller is smiling.