On this day in 1884, in the Russian city of Minsk (now Belarus), Lazar Meir was born. If only those around him knew how very much his life would change over the next seven decades—and how much little Lazar would influence a country an ocean away, all the while changing the rest of the world.
When he was three year old, Lazar’s family moved to America where his name became Louis Mayer. Before long, the family moved north, to Canada, where his unskilled father started a very modest scrap metal company. At the age of 12, Louis left school and joined his father on his truck with the painted sign: “Junk Dealer.” With desperate times at home, Louis hustled, keeping the family afloat with his industriousness and intelligence. His family spoke Yiddish at home and Louis worked hard to educate himself to the ways of the broader world. Those who knew him were impressed by the bright personality and good manners which shone through the boy’s poor circumstances.
At 19, Louis moved again, this time to Boston, where he continued to struggle in the scrap metal business. He married and eventually saved-up enough to buy a run-down movie theatre in Haverhill, Massachusetts. After renovating the premises, he re-opened the theatre, now called The Orpheum, with a religious film—hoping that it would help brighten the tarnished image of the old movie house. Before long, Louis owned all five of the movie theaters in Haverhill. Soon after that, he was a partner in the largest chain of theaters in New England.
In 1918, Mayer moved to Los Angeles where he started a production company. In time, after merging with other Hollywood companies, his name would be found in the title: “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”
Mayer, a staunch conservative, believed in showing idealized versions of everyday American life—where the good guys always won (in the end), and the bad guys always got what was coming to them. He cultivated a stable of stars and he worked hard to micro-manage the public’s perceptions of them. For some, this made Mayer a respected and beloved father figure. Others chafed under his control. Nevertheless, Louis B. Mayer was a remarkable man—a person who lifted himself out of an oppressive, perhaps deadly genesis and fashioned himself into the captain of an industry at the height of its glamour and productivity.
The cast iron lion bookends, pictured above, roaring like the MGM mascot, were made in the 1920’s—about the time Louis B. Mayer was beginning his rise through the Hollywood power structure. Please click on the photo to learn more about them.