Louis Burt Mayer
Louis Burt Mayer (pronunciation: /ˈmeɪ.ər/ July 12, 1884 – October 29, 1957) born Lazar Meir (Russian: Лазарь Меир) was an American film producer. He is generally cited as the creator of the "star system" within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in its golden years. Known always as Louis B. Mayer and often simply as "L.B.", he believed in wholesome entertainment and went to great lengths so that MGM had "more stars than there are in the heavens".
He was born Lazar Meir, possibly on July 12, 1884, to a Jewish family in Minsk, Russian Empire. His parents were Jacob Meir and Sarah Meltzer and he had two sisters—Yetta, born in 1878, and Ida, born in 1883. Mayer first moved with his family to Rhode Island, where they lived from 1887 to 1892 and where his two brothers were born—Rubin, in April 1888, and Jeremiah, in April 1891. Then, they moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and Mayer attended school there. He and his brothers often faced anti-Semitic bullies and Mayer was constantly involved in fights.His father started a scrap metal business, J. Mayer & Son. In 1904, the 19-year-old Mayer left Saint John for Boston, where he continued for a time in the scrap metal business, married, and took a variety of odd jobs to support his family when his junk business lagged.
Mayer renovated the Gem Theater, a rundown, 600 seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which he reopened on November 28, 1907 as the Orpheum, his first movie theater. To overcome the unfavorable reputation that the building once had in the community, Mayer decided to debut with the showing of a religious film. Years later, Mayer would say that the premiere at the Orpheum was From the Manger to the Cross, although most sources place the release date of that film as 1912. Within a few years, he owned all five of Haverhill's theaters, and, with Nathan H. Gordon, created the Gordon-Mayer partnership that controlled the largest theater chain in New England.
In 1914, the partners organized their own film distribution agency in Boston. Mayer paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show The Birth of a Nation (1915) in New England. Although Mayer made the bid on a film that one of his scouts had seen, but he had not, his decision netted him over $100,000. Mayer partnered with Richard A. Rowland in 1916 to create Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City.
Two years later, Mayer moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The first production was 1918's Virtuous Wives. A partnership was set up with B. P. Schulberg to make the Mayer-Schulberg Studio. Mayer's big breakthrough, however, was in April 1924 when Marcus Loew, owner of the Loew's chain, merged Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Mayer Pictures into Metro-Goldwyn. Loew had bought Metro and Goldwyn some months before, but could not find anyone to oversee his new holdings on the West Coast. Mayer, with his proven success as a producer, was an obvious choice. He was named head of studio operations and a Loew's vice president, based in Los Angeles, reporting to Loew's longtime right-hand man Nicholas Schenck. He would hold this post for the next 27 years. Before the year was out, Mayer added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing, renaming it Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Loew died in 1927, and Schenck became president of Loew's. Mayer and Schenck hated each other intensely; Mayer reportedly referred to his boss, whose name was pronounced "Skenk," as "Mr. Skunk" in private.Two years later, Schenck agreed to sell Loew's — and MGM — to William Fox, which angered Mayer. But despite his important role in MGM, Mayer was not a shareholder, and had no standing to challenge the sale. So he instead used his Washington connections to persuade the Justice Department to delay the merger on antitrust grounds. During the summer of 1929, Fox was severely injured in an auto accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash had wiped out his fortune, destroying any chance of the deal going through even if the Justice Department had lifted its objections. Nonetheless, Schenck believed Mayer had cost him a fortune and never forgave him, causing an already frigid relationship to get even worse.
As a studio boss, Louis B. Mayer built MGM into the most financially successful motion picture studio in the world and the only one to pay dividends throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although he initially got along well with production chief Irving Thalberg, their relationship soon frayed over philosophical differences. Thalberg preferred literary works over the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted. He ousted Thalberg as production chief in 1932 while Thalberg was recovering from a heart attack and replaced him with independent producers, e.g. David Selznick, until Thalberg's death in 1936, when Mayer became head of production as well as studio chief. He became the first person in American history to earn a million-dollar salary. For nine years from 1937, when he earned $1,300,000—equivalent to $21,016,667 today—Mayer was the highest-paid man in the United States.
Under Mayer, MGM produced many successful films with high earning stars, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland and many others. Mayer was ruthless when negotiating to keep his actors' salaries low, even using blackmail to pay Gable below his worth, although Katharine Hepburn referred to him as a "nice man" and claimed she personally negotiated many of her contracts with Mayer. Elizabeth Taylor described Mayer as a monster, but other actors, such as Robert Taylor, Jane Powell, Greer Garson,and Hedy Lamarr, viewed him as a father figure. Most notably, Mayer acted very fatherly towards Judy Garland, so much so that he gave her away on her wedding day to film director Vincente Minnelli.
Later years and fall from power
By 1948, due to the introduction of television and changing public tastes, MGM suffered a considerable dropoff in its success. The glory days of MGM as well as other studios were also over because of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), a Supreme Court decision that severed the connection between film studios and the movie theater chains that showed their films (though it would be another six years before Loew's sold majority control of MGM).
Under orders to control costs and hire "a new Thalberg," Mayer hired writer and producer Dore Schary as production chief. Schary, who was 20 years Mayer's junior, preferred message pictures in contrast with Mayer's taste for "wholesome" films.
By 1951, MGM had gone three years without a major Academy Award, which provoked further conflict between Mayer and Schenck. Believing that Mayer could not turn the tide, Schenck fired Mayer from the post he had held for 27 years, replacing him with Schary. The firing reportedly came after Mayer called New York and issued an ultimatum--"It's him or me" (or "It's either me or Schary", depending on the source). Mayer tried to stage a boardroom coup but failed and largely retired from public life.
Mayer had two daughters from his first marriage to Margaret Shenberg. The eldest, Edith (Edie) Mayer (b. August 14, 1905 - d.1987), whom he would later become estranged from and disinherit, married producer William Goetz (who became president of Universal Pictures). The younger daughter, Irene Gladys Mayer (1907–1990), married producer David O. Selznick.
Mayer lived on Saint Cloud Road in the East Gate Bel Air section of Los Angeles, California.
Active in Republican Party politics, Mayer served as the vice chairman of the California Republican Party from 1931 to 1932, and as its state chairman between 1932 and 1933.
As a delegate to the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Louis B. Mayer supported Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover of California. Mayer became friends with Joseph R. Knowland, Marshall Hale, and James Rolph, Jr. Joseph Schenck was an alternate delegate at the convention. L.B. was a delegate to the 1932 Republican National Convention with fellow California Republicans Joseph R. Knowland, James Rolph, Jr. and Earl Warren. Mayer endorsed the second term of President Herbert Hoover.
Mayer also loved boats and racehorses, and owned a number of each.
Thoroughbred horse racing hobby
Mayer owned or bred a number of successful thoroughbred racehorses at his 504-acre (2.0 km2) ranch in Perris, California, 72 miles (116 km) east of Los Angeles.
In the 2005 biography, Lion of Hollywood, author Scott Eyman wrote that: "Mayer built one of the finest racing stables in the United States" and that he "almost single-handedly raised the standards of the California racing business to a point where the Eastern thoroughbred establishment had to pay attention." Among his horses was Your Host, sire of Kelso, the 1945 U.S. Horse of the Year, Busher, and the 1959 Preakness Stakes winner, Royal Orbit. Eventually Mayer sold off the stable, partly to finance his divorce in 1947. His 248 horses brought more than $4.4 million. In 1976, Thoroughbred of California magazine named him "California Breeder of the Century".
Death and legacy
Louis B. Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957. He was interred in the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. His sister, Ida Mayer Cummings, and brothers Jerry and Rubin are also interred there.
- The primary screening facility for Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television—the Mayer Theatre—is named after him. Mayer permitted the university's sports teams to use the MGM lion as their mascot.
- The main theatre at Santa Clara University bears his name.
- Mayer was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1990.
- A street in Laval, Quebec a suburb of Montreal, Quebec holds the name of Louis-B-Mayer.
- The Louis B. Mayer Research Laboratories building at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute opened in 1988.
- Former MGM Studio Lot in Culver City, is now Sony Pictures Studios.
Mayer has been portrayed numerous times in film and television including:
- Mommie Dearest (by Howard Da Silva)
- RKO 281 (by David Suchet)
- De-Lovely (by Peter Polycarpou)
- The Aviator (by Stanley DeSantis)
- The Last Tycoon (by Robert Mitchum)
- Barton Fink (by Michael Lerner as Jack Lipnick)
- Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (by Al Waxman)
- Cats Don't Dance (by George Kennedy as the voice of L.B. Mammoth)
- Harlow (by Jack Kruschen)
- Gable and Lombard (by Allen Garfield)
- The Big Knife
- The Scarlet O'Hara War (by Harold Gould)
- The Three Stooges(2000) (by David Baldwin)
Jacqueline Susann portrayed Mayer in Valley of the Dolls as Cyril H. Bean, referred to by his employees as "The Head".
Mayer has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.
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