All of Hollywood roared for famed film producer Louis B. Mayer. Today, the Grace Dee May Museum is celebrating the birthday of this legendary film producer and Freemason – who rose from poverty to become the head of the MGM studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Born on July 12, 1884 in Minsk, Russia, Lazar Meir was a young boy with big dreams who would face a steeply uphill pathway to find fame and build his fortune.
At the age of three, he immigrated with his family to first Rhode Island, then to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada,. In Saint John, his father opened a scrap metal business and needed the help of his son who had to leave school at the age of 12 to help his father scrounge scrap metal to keep the family afloat.
At the age of 19, young Louis B. Mayer, as he was now known, set his sights on finding the American dream. He moved to Boston and found a rundown burlesque theater in Haverhill an Italian neighborhood north of Boston. He called his theater the Orpheum and worked tirelessly to make it a success.
Despite having little formal education, Mayer had vision, determination, and was never afraid of hard work. He soon expanded his entry into owning one theater into purchasing several movie theaters, realizing that the “talkie” films were fast becoming America’s favorite form of entertainment. Within a few years, Mayer’s theater chain expanded and soon he was running the largest theater chain in Boston as well as in New York City.
Not content with simply screening films in his theaters, Mayer set his sights on making movies – and headed for Hollywood in 1917.
After first opening his own film studio, Mayer soon merged his studio with two other up and coming movie moguls, Marcus Lowe (of the Lowe theater chain) and Samuel Goldwyn, to form the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studio quickly known as MGM.
MGM thrived under Mayer’s leadership and the studio made him one of the richest men in America. Mayer worked closely with young producer Irving Thalberg to create crowd-pleasing movies that produced huge profits at the box offices across America and around the world.
L.B. Mayer is credited with developing the “Star System” where talent scouts hunted for actors and actresses who seemingly had potential and then signed them into long term contracts. Among MGM’s stars were Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Buster Keaton and more.
Among the studio’s biggest hits were Ben Hur, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney, the Thin Man series of comic mysteries starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, and the famous MGM musicals starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers, and Gene Kelly. While some rival producers chided Mayer’s penchant for making sentimental family-oriented films, Mayer countered such criticism by saying, “I will only make pictures that I won't be ashamed to have my children see.”
Mayer helped to promote the movie industry by creating a non-profit organization charged with honoring the best films, best performances, and best directors and technicians who created films for the silver screen. Mayer proudly oversaw the very first “award show” of the Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Academy at the first Academy Awards event on May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Mayer was unabashedly proud of his adopted country and put the resources of the studio to patriotic use during World War ll. In 1942, Mayer released MGM’s film, Mrs. Miniver, a story of a woman keeping her family together and surviving during the London blitz. The film would receive 7 Academy Awards, including a best actress Oscar for the star of the film. Both President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were fans of the film. Churchill even sent Mayer a telegram stating that the film was, “propaganda worth 100 battleships”.
During the post-war years, the MGM studio fell into an economic slump. Profits began to slide and Mayer struggled to hold onto his position as the studio head. In 1948, a Supreme Court ruling forced a separation between the operation of the film studio and the film distribution with the ownership of movie theaters which further diminished MGM’s profits.
Mayer resigned in 1951 but his legacy was larger than life as much as any movie he’d ever produced. Coming from abject poverty in Russia and fleeing religious persecution, Mayer had propelled himself from a scrap heap to become the legendary “Lion” of Hollywood.
Louis B. Mayer passed away after a short battle with leukemia at the age of 73. He was mourned by all of Hollywood as well as those Masonic men he called his Brothers since taking his degrees at St. Cecile Masonic Lodge No. 568 in New York City. He was also a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason.
When thanking the University of New Brunswick for bestowing an honorary degree on him, Louis B. Mayer summed up his life’s work ethic which had taken him from humble beginnings to world wide fame with these words:
“Refuse to be discouraged. Sweat and sweat some more, work and work some more. If you have anything at all you’re bound to get there.”