Louis Burt Mayer: July 12, 1884–October 29, 1957


Louis Burt Mayer (born Lazar Meir) was a Canadian-American film producer and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM) in 1924. Under Mayer’s management, MGM became the film industry’s most prestigious movie studio, accumulating the largest concentration of leading writers, directors, and stars in Hollywood.

Mayer was born in the Russian Empire and grew up poor in Saint John, New Brunswick. He quit school at 12 to support his family and later moved to Boston and purchased a small vaudeville theatre in Haverhill, Massachusetts, called the “Garlic Box” because it catered to poorer Italian immigrants. He renovated and expanded several other theaters in the Boston area catering to audiences of higher social classes. After expanding and moving to Los Angeles, he teamed with film producer Irving Thalberg and they developed hundreds of films. Mayer handled the business of running the studio, such as setting budgets and approving new productions, while Thalberg, still in his twenties, supervised all MGM productions.

The exact date and location of Mayer’s birth remain highly disputed. According to Bosley Crowther, Mayer was born “in a little town near Minsk” according to Samuel Marx in “Demre,” according to Gary Carey in “Dmra,” a village between Minsk and Vilnius.” While Charles Higham and Scott Eyman believed that Mayer was born in Dymer near Kyiv in Ukraine.

According to his personal details in the U.S. immigration documents, the date was July 4, 1885. In addition he gave his birth year as 1882 in his marriage certificate while the April 1910 census states his age as 26 (b.1883). His parents were Jacob and Sarah (née Meltzer) Meir (both Jewish) and he had two sisters & two brothers.

His father started a scrap metal business, J. Mayer & Son. An immigrant unskilled in any trade, he struggled to earn a living. Young Louis quit school at age twelve to work with his father and help support his family. He roamed the streets with a cart that said “Junk Dealer” and collected any scrap metal he came across. When the owner of a tin business, John Wilson, saw him with his cart, he began giving him copper trimmings which were of no use and Mayer considered Wilson to be his first partner and his best friend. Wilson remembered that he was impressed with the boy’s good manners and bright personality. Whenever Mayer visited Saint John in later years, he placed flowers on Wilson’s grave, just as he did on his mother’s.

“It was a crappy childhood,” said Mayer’s nephew Gerald. His family was poor and Mayer’s father spoke little English and had no valuable skills. It thus became young Mayer’s ambition and drive which supported the family. With his family speaking mostly Yiddish at home, his goal of self-education when he quit school was made more difficult.

Then in 1904 the 20-year-old Mayer left Saint John for Boston, where he continued for a time in the scrap metal business, got married and took a variety of odd jobs to support his new 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.

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. Mayer made the bid on a film that one of his scouts had seen, but he had not, although he was well aware of the plot surrounding the Ku Klux Klan; his decision netted him over $100,000.

Two years later, Mayer moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation.

Mayer’s big breakthrough was in April 1924 when his company subsequently merged with two others to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The 24-year-old Thalberg was made part-owner and accorded the same position as vice president in charge of production.

Mayer and Thalberg were a brilliant team that worked well together. They relied on each other, and neither operated unilaterally. Mayer took charge of the business part of running the studio, such as setting budgets and approving new productions. Thalberg, eventually called the “boy wonder,” took charge of all MGM productions.

But MGM received a serious blow when Thalberg died suddenly on September 14, 1936, at age 37. His death came as a shock to Mayer and everyone at MGM and the other studios

After Thalberg died, many in Hollywood expected Mayer to “stumble and fall” However, MGM under Mayer’s leadership continued to produce successful movies. Mayer made himself head of production as well as studio chief. For the next ten years, MGM grew and thrived. 1939 was an especially “golden” year: besides distributing Gone with the Wind, MGM released The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, At the Circus, and The Women.

Mayer became the first person in American history to earn a million-dollar salary. For nine years from 1937. Mayer was the highest-paid man in the United States.

In his overall management skills, Mayer was considered a great executive, someone who could have run General Motors equally as well as a large studio like MGM, said producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. He worked at the studio all the time, and decisively, without any fixed schedule, but disliked paperwork.

Mayer’s temper was widely known, but most people knew that his sudden bursts of anger faded quickly. With those working underneath him, he was usually patient and preferred to leave department heads alone, and would fire executives if they failed to produce successful films over a long period.

At its peak in the 1940s, MGM employed six thousand people, had three entrances, and covered 185 acres in Culver City, California,

About 2,700 people ate in the commissary every day. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant which could light a town of 25,000. In addition, MGM maintained a police force of fifty officers

When hiring new actors, he typically wanted them to agree to stay with the studio for either three or seven years, during which time they would become one of the MGM “family.” The studio usually succeeded in hiring those it wanted since they offered the highest salaries. Mayer took pride in his ability to hire good people, and once hired, he left them alone to do their job without interference.When meeting a new employee, he always told them to come to him personally for help with any problems.

With MGM’s film output as high as one film each week, he never panicked over a bad picture. If somebody suggested canceling a movie and cutting the studio’s losses, when a film had consistent production problems, Mayer would typically refuse.

After the Second World War began in Europe in September 1939, Mayer authorized the production of two anti-Nazi films, The Mortal Storm and Escape. At the same time, Warner Brothers produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The German government informed the studios that “those films would be remembered by Germany when — not if — they won the war.”

The post-war years saw a gradual decline in profits for MGM and the other studios. The number of high-grossing films in 1947 dwindled to six, compared to twenty-two a year earlier. MGM had to let go many of its top producers and other executives.

Mayer had two daughters from his first marriage to Margaret Shenberg (1883–1955), which ended in divorce in 1947.

At home, Mayer was boss. “In our family, all the basic decisions were made by him”,” remembers his nephew, Gerald Mayer. “He was a giant. … Were we afraid of him? Jesus Christ, yes!”

For leisure activities, he liked going to the Hollywood Bowl, especially the annual John Philip Sousa concert. Sousa’s patriotic-style music built up his pride in America, and he “would be stoked with extra exuberance for days afterward,” states Eyman. Mayer also enjoyed ballet and opera,

Active in Republican Party politics, Mayer served as the vice chairman of the California Republican Party in 1931 and 1932, and as its state chairman in 1932 and 1933. Mayer was also a Freemason.

Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957. He was buried in the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California.✪

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