Educated Chicago public schools.
His father was a grocer, and he himself worked at a cold storage company from the age of twelve, making his way up from messenger boy to chief clerk.
The credit for his entry into the movie business goes to his mother, who accompanied him to a film playing at a nickelodeon and marveled that people would pay for the film, even before they saw it. Recognizing the opportunity to make money, Balaban and his brother, A. J. Balaban, rented the theater and introduced attractions such as a violinist to attract customers, and an electric fan. Balaban himself worked as pianist and usher. The Circle Theater followed two years later, boasting seven hundred seats, an organ, an orchestra, ventilation, and a higher ticket price.
The Balaban and Katz company, founded in 1908, expanded. Soon they were buying interests in other theaters and offering facilities for seating large audiences, air conditioning, comfortable chairs, balconies, plush lobbies, and ushers, as well as long vaudeville programs before he films.
When Paramount Pictures bought two-thirds of Balaban and Katz in 1926, they owned twenty-five theaters in the Midwest. The Balabans, in due recognition of their abilities, remained as managers at Paramount and in 1936 Barney was elected president of the company.
At his death he was still honorary chairman of Paramount Pictures.
Always an astute businessman, Balaban foresaw correctly that the era of plush theaters and superproductions costing many millions of dollars would one day end, and in 1958 he sold the television rights to Paramount’s early movies for fifty million dollars.
Quotations: During the war, he stated “We, the industry, recognize the need for informing people in foreign lands about the things that have made America a great country.” He undertook that Paramount films would bring that message even to taking a loss in revenue, if necessary.
Married Tillie Urkov, February 22, 1929. Children: Burton (deceased), Leonard, Judith R. Messenger boy for Western Union at age 12.