M. Shapiro, cofounder of Sameric

Posted: April 18, 2002

Merton Shapiro, 77, who with his father, Samuel, built the Sameric chain of movie theaters, setting the cornerstone for the modern multiplex, died Monday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, at his winter home in Los Angeles.

Mr. Shapiro's primary residence was in Center City, the section of Philadelphia where he grew up.

Mr. Shapiro and his father started to build Sameric - named after Mr. Shapiro's father and his son, Eric - after the federal government had ordered major Hollywood film-production companies to sell off theater holdings. Sameric's first movie house, the King Theater at the Valley Forge Shopping Center, opened in June 1963.

By 1977, when Samuel Shapiro died, Sameric was one of the largest privately owned theater circuits in the country, with more than 90 theaters in Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.

The Sameric chain was one of the first to introduce multiple screens to moviegoers. A familiar sign outside Sameric theaters in the 1970s was, "Closed, We're Having Twins," as a theater was converted into two operations.

Sameric's first twin was the Duke and Duchess at 1605 Chestnut St. - named after John Wayne, a close friend of Mr. Shapiro's, and a beloved dog that belonged to Mr. Shapiro's father.

Squeezed by huge corporations, the chain began to shrink after the death of Sam Shapiro. When Mr. Shapiro sold it in 1988 to United Artists Theaters, the nation's biggest movie chain, it was the second-largest chain in the Philadelphia region, with 48 theaters and 124 screens. It also was the only independently owned string of movie houses in the region.

Gregarious and flamboyant, Mr. Shapiro as a young man was known to enjoy having a fine painting before his eye, a beautiful woman on his arm, and a cocktail in his hand.

He was, said his wife of 35 years, Barbara, "larger than life."

But there was another side to him, one that wasn't chronicled in the gossip columns, she said.

"He didn't believe in organized charities," she said. "But he gave on his own to anybody who came to him. I don't know how many kids he put through college."

Mr. Shapiro is survived by a brother, Bennerd, in addition to his second wife.

Graveside services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose.

Memorial donations may be made to the ALS Society, 500 Office Center Dr., Suite 340, Fort Washington, Pa. 19034.

Contact Rusty Pray

at 215-854-2322 or rpray@phillynews.com.

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