"Everything goes on in this world, until you get caught."
-- Marty Abrams
It didn't matter that Marty Abrams was the smart one. That didn't mean you could turn your back on him. Hell, you didn't turn your back on anyone while the Price Wars were raging. Not your partner. Not your neighbor. Not your own stinking mother. Al Capone was gone, the casinos kaput, Miami Beach's illicit glamour wrung out like a used mop. But to the purveyors of bootlegged movie prints who entertained the hotel lobby crowds 40 years ago, America's southeast crust was a war flick minus the marquee, a place where you stayed on your toes or found your footing gone, your clients swiped, your projectors sabotaged, and your celluloid shredded like cabbage for corned beef.
Remorse? The film pirates didn't feel one iota. These were boys cast in the Depression and tempered by World War II. Maybe not gangsters, but decent enough stunt doubles. They'd scuffle on the sidewalks, slip sawbuck bribes to night managers, dupe FBI agents, and stage stag shows at fading nightspots. The bravest and saddest of the breed, the road show men, drove their makeshift Bijous into the backwoods, pitched a portable screen, and let Fred and Ginger waltz across the crickety night.
To the Walt Disneys of the world, Abrams and his lot were two-bit hustlers who robbed the movie studios by screening films without buying the distribution rights. To just about everyone else, especially the downtrodden, they were scrappy middlemen who provided an uplink to Tinseltown in the pre-VCR era.
Abrams, the smart one, eventually realized that the big payoff lay in foreign distribution. During the Sixties he leapfrogged the globe, building an empire that stretched from Fiji to Cape Town to Bangkok. Then, when the dough got too good, the studios finally moved in on him, hollering copyright murder. Eight lawsuits hit his desk at once. Wayne Huizenga was still knee-deep in garbage when Marty Abrams, notorious film pirate, was dragged into court, looted by lawyers, and blacklisted.
You'd never believe it now, watching Abrams pad around his Coral Gables home, the prosperous retiree with his season tickets and his loyal wife and his walletful of Kodak grandchildren. That this goofy man with limbs thin as tripod legs harbors such a seedy past. But there are hints. The movie posters. The yellowing documents. And, most of all, the stories that spill out once he gets rolling, the candy box of his life overturned, the memories stuck to his teeth like Jujyfruits, picked out in a Bronx mutter that might be Groucho Marx imitating James Cagney.
"C'mon, take a look here," he cackles, dashing across his carpeted living room. He lifts aside a painting to reveal a projector stashed in a hidden cubbyhole. "That's what we used to make sure the films we got were in good condition. Nobody wansta see a picture that's all beatup."
Certainly not when, like Marty Abrams, you had a reputation to uphold.
"You write movies, kid?"
Abrams wants to know because, in his humble opinion, the Marty Abrams Story is Oscar material. And frankly, he's not so sure he wants to waste the good stuff on a novice. "So many stories," he says. "So many angles."
Abrams learned early that a well-lived life was to be achieved through the diligent pursuit of angles. Play the angles -- all the angles -- and you're bound to find a shot worth filming. Line up enough desirable shots and you've got yourself a moneymaker.
It was Abrams's father, of whom he was never very fond, who managed to impart this lesson. A dental technician, the senior Abrams faced a rather unappealing set of angles: wide-open mouths in varying states of decay. Thus it did not take him long to find a different angle, after his two snotty-nosed daughters, both victims of lingering sinusitis, forced the family to relocate from New York to South Florida in 1939.
"He'd take a mimeograph in the back of his car and go out to the race track and get the results for the first five races," Abrams explains. "Then he'd make up a stencil and put those winners on it and pick out the rest of the races, and when people came out at the end of the tenth race, he'd hand out these sheets with his phone number on it, calling out, 'Five winners today!' or, 'Seven winners today!' Then people would call him up, and he'd give them the horses, and if they won they gave him money, and if they lost, well, they lost."
Abrams quit high school in about the eleventh grade, having found the endeavor of little concrete benefit. In winter of 1944 a draft notice rescued him from a job selling nickel burgers at Royal Castle. The nineteen-year-old rifleman landed on the French coast a month after D-day, weighted down with a pack and picking a path around corpses, only to march to the freezing frontlines, where daring German infiltrators were known to blow men to smithereens during visits to the latrine. In sum, the army was gruesome from all angles, until the blessed trench foot.
Less than two months after arriving, Private Abrams couldn't feel his toes. He was evacuated to a hospital outside Paris (damn lucky to have escaped gangrene) and reassigned to a supply command unit along the Champs Ulysees, where he finagled his way into the esteemed position of company clerk. "The clerk runs the business," says Abrams. "He's got the ration books, he makes out the leave forms. Any time I wanted to requisition something, I would go behind everybody's back. It was just like that movie with Tony Curtis -- Operation Petticoat."
Given what amounted to a blank check, Abrams, now a corporal, traveled to Brussels, the R-and-R capital of Europe, where he learned the black market, drank considerably, stayed in fine hotels, jitterbugged with abandon, and fell in love with a girl who had hair like Veronica Lake and a silk shirt cut from a parachute.
He landed back in Miami Beach with a new bride and fewer prospects than he'd enjoyed during wartime. Eligible for college on the GI bill, he spent several years attending night classes at the University of Miami but rarely studied. School was for suckers any-way, for guys who played by the rules and led lives of quiet desperation. The only academic pursuit that fired his belly at all was law school. "Because I have a cunning mind," Abrams notes. "You have to be vicious to be a lawyer. You have to be one step ahead." Soon enough, he would settle on a field for which he was uniquely qualified.
When Larry Imber came to Miami Beach in 1949, the town was, by his own candid assessment, "heading downhill toward Wrinkleville." A former usher for Columbia Pictures, a failed key grip, and a novice collector of Western films, Imber was sorry to see the mob shooed off the Beach but determined to grab his piece of the action in the aftermath. Even if that meant teaming with a penny-grabbing nudnik like Marty Abrams.
Since giving up on college, Abrams had founded Greenwood Film Services and molded it into a thriving concern, thanks to a collection of 16 mm films. These prints, half the size of those shown in theaters, were commonly produced by Hollywood studios to send to schools and churches, or to give to cast members. Many, however, made their way to a booming black market, a journey abetted by industrious photo-lab workers (and archivists, and actors, and -- oh my! A deacons) who reproduced or "lost" their prints at a considerable profit.
While legitimate dealers paid the studios a fee for the right to distribute films, entrepreneurs like Abrams simply bought bootleg prints and rented them out for a profit. Some of their clients were road show men, who, in a primitive approximation of today's VCR, traveled anywhere that people were too poor or infirm or remote to reach a real movie house. "We'd drive all over the state to rent these guys films and show them how to set up the projectors and all," recalls Imber, who teamed with Abrams in 1952. "In winter the trailer parks were packed, and these road show men would also work the carnival circuit. They'd set up their screens and popcorn and cotton candy machines and they'd peddle wares at intermission. Medicine to get rid of warts, that sort of thing. The hick towns loved it." One shrewd showman used to visit churches with a movie called The Birth of a Child, then give a speech about how to avoid venereal disease and pregnancy, vital secrets contained in a book that could be had for a small additional fee.
On Miami Beach the steady market lay in supplying the hotels. But here, where the pall of gangsterism still hung thick, the film-renting biz veered toward chicanery. "We used to do everything," Imber confides merrily. "We'd run these stag shows at the Copa City and show nudie films like The Garden of Eden, and guys used to head backstage with girls we had there. We'd run these three or four times a year. Even the police used to enjoy the show. Hell, we pulled off so much stuff over the years, I can't tell you about half of it. The thing was, you could pick up prints from anywhere. There were guys working in the film labs or guys who'd just plain steal a print. You could pick up a brand-new picture for a hundred bucks! The film dealers would come and say, 'What are you looking for?' You wanted Gone with the Wind for ten days? You got it."
Sure, the FBI would come by and ask questions. But Imber says there were always ways to fool them. One standard tactic was to rename all the bootleg prints that came in. Another was to dummy the company books so that no mention was made of renting forbidden pictures. "Besides, all the feds did back then was confiscate," Imber recalls. "They were busy busting up the mob. We weren't exactly their top priority."
After a falling-out with Abrams, Imber left the business in 1966 and eventually settled in Las Vegas, a town he says reminds him of Miami Beach in the good old days. Some fortuitous real estate purchases have left the 68-year-old flush enough to go legit. His mail-order catalogue now offers fellow cineastes any of 5000 titles on videotape -- all Westerns, his favorite genre.
The kid couldn't have been more than eleven, twelve years old. He stood at the entrance to 681 Collins Avenue on a Saturday morning smack in the midst of the Eisenhower era, sucking up the guts to enter Greenwood Film Services. Inside the office lay a filmlegger's nirvana, a possible job, and a swashbuckler of epic proportions. Little wonder that Stevie Krams, who had arrived unannounced, was butterflying inside.
"I'd heard about Marty," Krams remembers four decades later. "He was kind of like the Blackbeard of the movie business. He would go wherever he could and do whatever he could until somebody stopped him. I thought he was pretty brave to do the things he did -- and for the most part he got away with it."
Abrams liked the kid, who was a whiz for electronics, and gave him a job. Quite by accident, Krams also got a front-row seat to the Price Wars.
By the mid-Fifties the Beach was stumbling headlong into a slump. The goody two-shoes from D.C. had smoked out the infamous S&G syndicate, leaving dozens of aspiring wiseguys out of work. Bookies were reborn as cabbies. Pit bosses became night managers. And some half a dozen new filmleggers began vying to service the hotels, which were desperate for cheap entertainment.
"These hotel guys were like Mafiosos," recalls Krams, who worked as a freelance projectionist throughout high school. "There were physical confrontations, talk of doing other people's cars up, of busting up the next guy's equipment, and stealing accounts. Morris Bass was the silent type who looked like he would shoot you for a nickel. Jack Glasson was the bull in a china shop." They were all larger than life and not afraid to spill a little blood defending their turf, especially when it came to the carpetbaggers from the Borscht Belt who drifted south during winter.
"My customers would just savage each other," seconds Jack Spires, a former film-library proprietor who now specializes in selling and servicing video equipment for conventions. "I tried to stay out of it, but it's hard when people are almost having fistfights in your place." As a legitimate distributor, Spires often competed with pirate libraries. Nonetheless, he admired their ingenuity. "I used to have to watch the musicals I rented to them especially, because they'd cut a song right out of the middle to make a 'soundie' -- like an early version of a music video," Spires reminisces. "Then they'd splice a bunch of these soundies together and use them to promote a dance."
Bernie Lowenthal grabbed his slice of the pie by inventing Quiz-o-matic, a traveling game show staged in hotel lobbies, and Parlor Derby, which used prerecorded horse races to convert those lobbies into fully operational (and profitable) betting centers.
Larry Imber even recalls changing the company name from Greenwood to Amity Film Service, "just so we would be the first place listed in the phone book."
More than anything, though, the operators fought by lowering prices. In one now infamous season -- though no one can remember quite which -- the price for screening a show plunged from $75 to $50 to $35 to $25 to $12.50, a miserly sum that left guys like Abrams with barely enough profit to spring for burgers at Royal Castle.
This dramatic turn of events forced rivals into an uneasy alliance. Treaties were forged. Prices fixed. Glasson, Bass, and Lowenthal joined to form GBL Film Service, one of the most rancorous mergers in small business history. ("You could walk into their shop, and it didn't matter what day it was or what time of day; it was like World War III," Steve Krams says. "They were ready to kill each other.")
It was a rat race and Abrams wanted out. He was a man of vision, singularly obsessed with easy money. And there was nothing easy about competing with "a bunch of vicious maniac bastards," as he regarded his brethren. What he needed was a new angle. And so he hoisted his periscope neck, cranked it around to the south, and fixed his alarmingly blue irises on the Bahamas. An empty market waiting for its supplier.
He took the last name of his first contact on the islands to be an omen. Stanley Toogood, owner of the Toogood Photography Shop, made it clear that any and all films sent his way would be snapped up for use in the barricade of hotels recently erected on his shores. Abrams sold his share of Amity to GBL and concentrated on purchasing films -- many of them bootlegged -- by the truckload.
"There wasn't a whole lot Marty wouldn't buy," recalls Krams, now president of a Miami cinema equipment company. "He had sources of incredible magnitude, so you never knew where he was going to get a picture. I remember once he bought a whole batch at five or six dollars apiece from a company in Miami Shores. It seemed like we unloaded those for days."
Over the next decade Abrams helped found a web of businesses devoted to cinematic imperialism. "From the Bahamas we expanded into Jamaica and Trinidad. Then we moved into the Pacific islands. Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Saipan. These were markets nobody could see," Abrams recalls, cramming ten years into ten seconds. "The Saudi Arabians loved to buy outright. Then South Africa starting booming. Of course, they had no entertainment. You could go to a gas station, and they'd have a library of maybe 50 movies. We bought Westerns and action movies and serials. Oh, they loved those in Tonga, because, you know, a lot of them didn't speak English. Did you know there are over 700 islands in Fiji? Seven hundred! Can you imagine?"
By early 1970 Abrams was king of an empire, with 600 flicks in distribution. His business, relocated to NW Seventh Avenue, had made him wealthy enough to rank a sports car as a necessity. "I looked all around Miami and couldn't find nothing. So I saw this Lamborghini listed in Fort Lauderdale. The guy tells me he just got it in from New York, that Mohammed Ali used to own it. I made a cash deal -- $12,500 -- and my son drove the car back to Miami, because I didn't know how to drive stick. That car was a showstopper. Silver with the trunk done in glass, and four bucket seats. It looked like a damn rocket ship. I found some Italian guy in the Gables who used to tune it up. I had to go all the way to Rome to get a motor for the windshield wiper." Abrams also learned, in his fashion, how to drive the car. "I went from first gear to third to fifth." His mechanic used to scream at him to use all the gears, but Abrams was a man in a hurry. He had no time for all five gears.
Any decent script requires a villain. The Marty Abrams Story had eight, and in June of 1970 they made an abrupt entrance. Two U.S. Marshals barged into his office with a stack of lawsuits, one for each of the major Hollywood studios A American International, Columbia, Disney, MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. -- and a court order authorizing the seizure of more than 200 films. Thanks to Abrams's efficiency as a distributor, however, they came away with exactly two.
Abrams regarded the actions, which sought eight million dollars as punishment for more than 4000 alleged instances of copyright violation, as an affront. He was the one who had gone in and developed the markets; he was the one who should benefit. Finders keepers, losers weepers. But those around him had long sensed that Abrams was living on borrowed time. Throughout the Sixties, as piracy mushroomed, the feds had gone after more and more black marketeers. Pirates in Alabama and North Carolina were shut down. One elderly gentleman in Philadelphia, raided thrice by the FBI, dropped dead of a heart attack that friends chalked up to harassment. One of the studios even sued Miami's own GBL. "These deals would present themselves, and I used to say, 'Marty, let's not get involved,'" recalls Larry Imber, his erstwhile partner. "'You got a family and kids! We're gonna go to jail!' And he said, 'Nah. Nah. We're little. Don't worry about it.'"
But Abrams himself was no stranger to the studios. As early as 1960 Edward Sargoy, the legendary Hollywood copyright counsel, had sent him a three-page letter advising him to make sure he had purchased the rights to any film he acquired. "It is a criminal violation to infringe any copyright for profit," Sargoy frothed. "The FBI has also been concerned in these matters because sixteen-millimeter prints have come into circulation which have been stolen or mysteriously disappeared from governmental agencies." Over the years Abrams had stayed in touch with representatives from the majors, each of whom had expressed varying degrees of dismay at his brazen endeavors. To him, the outrage was that these peabrains continually refused to lease him their movies, selling exclusively to their specially licensed patsies instead. "All I got from them was double talk and promises," Abrams spits. And what was a promise? A bunch of well-scripted air.
He instructed his lawyer to delay the suits and dashed off to South Africa to unload his remaining stock before it was seized. But the government there beat him to the punch, launching its own crackdown. Affairs weren't much brighter at home. As defense motion after defense motion failed, the studios began putting the squeeze on his sources and customers. His connection in Pago Pago was so shaken that he sent back a batch of rentals, unopened. As a warning to other pirates, the studios made a point of publicizing the suits in trade magazines. Lawyers alone were costing Abrams $5000 per month. The Lamborghini was quietly sold to a gentleman in Los Angeles -- "Steve McQueen's neighbor" -- at a $3000 loss.
Abrams filed a $24 million countersuit claiming the studios conspired to block him from "freely purchasing and lawfully dispensing motion pictures." He had big plans: "I was going to subpoena the head of all them studios and force them to come to Miami to testify. And then I was going to go over a list of movies I obtained and bring records of how we got them. Some of these films came from stars themselves, who were also collectors. How would they like it if I subpoenaed Frank Sinatra and Roddy McDowall and Mel Torme?"
Such ambitions, though, outstripped Abrams's wallet. With business in deep freeze, he wrote to 100 fellow collectors, soliciting funds for his legal crusade. Gross proceeds: four dollars.
Instead of grilling his antagonizers, it was Abrams who found himself summoned to deposition. For four days the defendant hedged and dodged and pleaded memory loss. A few months later he gave it up, agreeing to pay $25,000, furnish a list of his suppliers, and cease dealing in unauthorized films. As added incentive, Judge Peter May issued Blackbeard the roughest shave of his life: a $250,000 fine for any future violation.
"I coulda won that damn suit!"
His tush planted on a four-wheeled office chair, Abrams scuttles the length of his study, a flesh-tone crab jabbing at the floor with hiking boots. This method of locomotion, the Abrams shortcut around getting up and walking, propels him, headfirst, into a large closet. "I got letters in here to show how those bastard studios wouldn't give me pictures," he rails. "Here. Look!"
He emerges holding THE EVIDENCE aloft. "Gentlemen," the letter commences, "shortly it will be two years since we settled our film case. At present we are still in business and none of you have made any business contracts for product with us.... We are seriously considering a conference with the local federal judge as well as any local federal agency that might look into these monopolistic practices. Signed, Martin Abrams."
Abrams wheels around and scrabbles back to his desk, triumphant. "All those other dealers, they were scared to death of the FBI. I wasn't scared. I couldn't lose--"
"Maaaahhhty!" The plaintive holler, the latest of several interruptions to his monologue, draws nearer. Rosine, Abrams's Belgian war bride, marches into the room. "Marty, you got errands to run!"
"All right, all right," Abrams sulks. "I'm goin'. Five minutes. Five minutes. We're almost at the end of the story."
At 69, his unruly mob of hair has been reduced to a nimbus of wiry curls. His skin, mottled with tan from frequent and nearly religious golf outings, hangs in delicate folds. Three phones guard his desk, wood paneling peeking from behind movie paraphernalia, touristy doodads, and the masterpiece: a framed photo of Marilyn Monroe naked, her glorious boobs awash in studio photons.
One of the phones squeals and Abrams leaps at the receiver. Another fellow old-timer. "Yeah, I got a reporter here. He's doing a story on the Price Wars and all that business," Abrams says. Then, in what he takes to be a whisper, he adds: "No, of course I'm not going to name any names!" He is big on not naming names. In fact, he remains relentlessly vague about the shadier aspects of his career -- like so many Americans who are proud of the money, not necessarily how it was earned.
He fumbles for his mobile phone and half-jogs out to his minivan, fretting over errands undone. Though officially retired, he continues to help his son with a mail-order videotape business. (While Abrams prefers not to discuss the exact nature of the films he now deals in, one promotional poster in his office offers a pointed hint. Its title: Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleader.)
He pulls up to a UPS outlet, zips into a handicapped parking space near the entrance, and slips a handicapped-driver's permit onto the rearview. "Those frozen feet," he grins, then skips inside.
Over lunch at a deli, Abrams rototills the events of twenty years ago. He nibbles at sliced cucumbers, searches for the angle from which the lawsuits, his life's nasty fulcrum, might be erased. After those suits, he laments, the distribution game dwindled to nothing. For a time he and his son made a go of it with films that, by his determination, had become public domain. Then he swapped configurations, cashing in on the VCR boom. "We were the second company to go video in the U.S.," he brags. "We'd buy rights to pictures like The Blob for $200. They were worth $2000 a year later."
Abrams insists he'd have amassed a nifty nest egg were it not for some disastrous investments. But he remains flush enough to afford season tickets to just about every team sport in South Florida, vacations in Vegas, and a fully stocked wet bar at his Coral Gables home, next door to the Italian consulate. He also spoils his granddaughters. "I'm close to my family," he says. "I give them whatever I can because my parents were always fighting. I was in orphan homes, all that. I could never talk to my father A hey, what's the name of that picture, I Never Sang for My Father? A 'cause he was a good businessman but he destroyed the people in his life. Treated strangers better."
On the way home, his frantic mind is off again. "You see that van?" he squeals. "That guy controls all the magazines for the Southeast. Playboy. Penthouse. All of 'em." He stifles a corned-beef burp.
"He's got it made."
And what became of the hotel-lobby movie houses? "They're still around," reports Paul Levine, whose Movie Film Service is the sole surviving local source of 16mm reels. "We used to have over 300 hotels on the Beach. We're down to about five percent left. It's a dead and dying circuit," Levine says, referring as much to the clientele as to the phenomenon.
Witness Wednesday nights at the venerable Shore Club on Collins Avenue. In a small room off the lobby, 30 bent-back troopers sit in neat rows, watching Till the Clouds Roll By, a musical based on the life of Broadway tunesmith Jerome Kern. Besides the songs, the only sounds in the Mentholatum-scented room are the projector's clacking and the periodic rattle of a medication bottle. The lullaby of Wrinkleville.
"Forty years ago I was showing the same movies to these same folks," whispers Chris Dalton, the Shore's salty social director. "Back then we did it out by the pool, under the stars. The pools were all lit up like emeralds. We sold hot dogs and soda for a quarter. Nearly put the clubs outta business! The old-timers still love these pictures. The Jazz Singer. I always get that for the Jewish holidays. That's the one with Al Jolson singing 'Kol Nidre' A they love that." With the proliferation of VCRs and cable TV, few hoteliers bother with rented films nowadays, Dalton says.
"LAST REEL!" shouts Harriet Braelow, the Shore's social hostess. By the time a baby-faced Frank Sinatra croons "Moon River," half the crowd has departed, and most of those remaining have slumped into dreamland.
Toward the back, though, one gentleman has kept conspicuous vigil. He sings along with Judy Garland's syrupy "Look for the Silver Lining" in a soft tenor dampened with phlegm and a thick Yiddish accent. "Look fer de silvah linink," he warbles softly. Gradually, those still awake pick up the chorus, the projector's soft light bathing the speckled skulls and fading wigs.
What Marty Abrams wants to know is what's in it for him. He wants to know where all this interviewing is headed. He wants to know if anyone at the newspaper writes movies. This is a frequently sounded theme in Abrams's world, one that cuts to the core of his on-the-make persona. Money may be the trigger, but in this case it doesn't seem to be the target.
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As he careens around his kitschy home and shuffles his papers and lays out his stories like a road show man's candy apples, one can't help but hear a certain kind of yearning. What does he want? Pride, maybe? Glory? The honor bestowed upon the legitimate?
No! What Abrams wants -- he insists over and over -- is a screenwriter. Somebody to commit this thing to film. Stories, he's got so many stories. Knock at his life and you can hear the echo of an empty reel case.
Mostly, he wants a sneak preview of the picture he's going to see when the final credits roll, the epic they say flashes before your eyes in those waning moments. He needs to know it's going to be a helluva film with plenty of action and drama and a real hero, not some chintzy, hacked up B-grade you wouldn't pay ten bucks for. Because Marty Abrams can tell you, folks, that's the last screening you get before you have to face the two saddest words in the world: