Michael Joseph Moudabber was born in Sydney, Australia, on 24 June 1895, the eldest son and fifth child of Ferris Moudabber and his wife Elizabeth Ann Akoorie. His parents had emigrated from Lebanon in the mid 1880s, leaving their four daughters in the care of relatives. They sought to make a little money with the eventual intention of returning home. They were unsuccessful as itinerant pedlars with horse and cart, however, and had crossed to New Zealand by 1899. Shortly after their arrival, at the suggestion of a member of the local Lebanese community, they changed the spelling of their name to Moodabe. On 16 December that year a second son, Joseph Patrick, was born in Auckland.
The family ran a small grocery shop in Grey Street, but in 1901 Ferris Moodabe died, leaving his wife almost penniless with two young sons. At a very early age Michael had to go out and work, although he received some schooling from the Marist brothers in Vermont Street, Ponsonby. A peanut cart was the start of his colourful business career. In the evening his mother would roast peanuts over a small oil-fired stove and the next day he would sell them up and down Queen Street and the inner city.
Michael Moodabe's first employment for wages was as a general hand at the men's outfitters E. C. Browne and Company in Queen Street. Later he worked as cleaner and caretaker at the King George Picture Palace, Queen Street. At the time the Globe Continuous Picture Theatre opposite was under the control of F. J. Rayner, a Canadian dentist. He offered 'MJ' (as he would be known for the rest of his life) a half share in the Globe for £500, which his mother was able to provide from money she had put aside from the grocery store. In 1924 he became a partner with Rayner in the renamed Hippodrome Picture Company, with the title of manager and a salary of £6 10s. per week. When Rayner left New Zealand in the late 1920s, MJ began to expand the company, now assisted by his brother Joseph (known as JP), and in August 1928 Hippodrome Pictures became Amalgamated Theatres.
Both brothers were married in their 30s to cinema employees. On 31 October 1927, at Auckland's St Patrick's Cathedral, Michael married Alma Maude Vercoe, a cashier at the King George theatre. Joseph was married on 8 January 1930, at St Patrick's, to Dorothy Josephine Bendall, a theatre attendant.
The Moodabe brothers took over Thomas O’Brien’s Auckland theatres in 1932, including the Civic Theatre, the Princess (later the Plaza), the Rialto in Newmarket, and the Tivoli in Karangahape Road. These cinemas, and later the National Picture Theatre (formerly the King George), gave Amalgamated a strong base in New Zealand's largest city. However, the Civic was to remain out of their full control until 1945, when, against stiff competition from both the American company Warner Brothers Pictures and local cinema magnate Robert Kerridge, Amalgamated obtained a 50-year lease.
Late in 1936, in order to guarantee film supply, MJ persuaded the American giant Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation to buy a half interest in Amalgamated. By 1938 the company's circuit had grown to 65 cinemas, and attendances that year were said to be five million – equivalent to three visits by every New Zealander. When television came to New Zealand in 1960, the Moodabes arranged for Fox to buy the remaining half share; the latter agreed on condition that the Moodabe family remain in management control.
MJ was a born showman. Short and heavily built, he possessed an open, effusive personality. He was rarely seen without a large cigar ('Here, have a good cigar' was his popular greeting to smokers and non-smokers alike), and he was described as 'New Zealand's Sam Goldwyn', after the Hollywood producer known for his colourful turn of phrase. A shrewd businessman and gifted publicist, he often deliberately created queues outside his cinema to stimulate public interest in a film. On one occasion he spread a load of sand outside a theatre to publicise a western; unfortunately, when it rained cinema-goers trudged much of it inside. From 1941 to 1947 he served as an Auckland City Councillor under Mayor John Allum, and in 1952 he was made an OBE.
JP Moodabe was almost the exact opposite of his brother: shorter still, slim and conservative, he was the financial watchdog for the circuit, perfectly balancing MJ's sometimes extravagant personality. There is no record of their ever fighting openly over a point of business, although after a disagreement JP would simply not show up at the office for a day or two. As brothers they loved each other deeply; as businessmen they respected and carried out each others' decisions. In the 1960s JP made an emotional visit to Brazil to meet one of his sisters for the first time.
In 1962 the Moodabe brothers retired from the cinema chain they had created, leaving the executive management (with Fox's blessing) to MJ's three sons, Royce, Michael and Joseph. JP's wife, Dorothy, died in May 1967, and on 29 November that year, again at St Patrick's, he wed Leila Dunstan Macknight (née Maher); neither marriage produced children. The Moodabes' mother, Elizabeth, died in 1973, aged 104. Michael Moodabe died in Auckland on 20 September 1975, survived by his sons; Alma had died in 1956. His brother Joseph, whose second wife predeceased him in 1976, died in Auckland on 15 February 1985.