Louis Burt Mayer was born July 12, 1884 in Minsk, Russia. He and his family moved to Rhode Island in 1887, then to Saint John, New Brunswick, where he worked in a scrap metal business with his father until 1904, when he moved to Boston at the age of 19. He worked a variety of jobs there, but eventually found work renovating the Gem Theater, a 600 seat theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He remodeled and reopened the theater, renaming it to The Orpheum, and showed movies there (at this time, still silent films). He eventually purchased the other 5 theaters in Haverhill, and formed a partnership which controlled the largest theater chain in New England.
It’s worth noting that at this time, motion pictures didn’t hold the esteem that they do now. Actors considered them to be second-class work, largely because the movies were silent. Without a voice, actors felt that they were really only displaying half of the skills necessary to be good at their jobs, and the stars of opera and theater held the status that today’s movie stars do. In fact, silent film stars initially weren’t even identified in their films, as many were embarrassed to “stoop” to that level. Early movies were typically aimed toward “the working class” that typically couldn’t afford to see theater and opera productions, and film, in general, was seen as a form of entertainment only slightly above carnivals and freak shows. Producers and creators of motion picture technology (Edison was a main player) basically wrote the rules of film at the time, and wouldn’t allow equipment to be used or money to be spent if directors weren’t following their rules, and they preferred for the glory of films to go to the production companies rather than the actors or directors.
In the 1910s, the public became increasingly interested in knowing and connecting with the stars of their movies. Film fan magazines began to be published, and rogue actors started to develop their own personas to play to their fans. In the late 1920s, moves began to incorporate sound, which began to decrease the stigma associated with the motion picture industry, and resulted in even greater interest from fan bases. At this point, film fan magazines also began to switch from describing movie plots to writing pieces on actors’ lives outside of the films, which audiences gobbled up. This all amounted to an increase in the power of actors amongst the film industry, and served to rustle some feathers with the big wigs.
Now, back to Mr. Mayer. After establishing dominance in the New England film market, Mayer moved to Los Angeles, which was quickly becoming the center of the film universe. LA was ideal due to favorable weather conditions year-round, fewer licensing restrictions than were found in the northeast, and the fact that Westerns (growing in popularity during this time) were easily filmed there. Mr. Mayer set up his own production company in LA, and continued to be successful enough that he caught the attention of Marcus Loew, who had recently merged Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures, and needed a talented leader to head the productions on the west coast. Mayer acted as vice president of the company for 27 years, and his name was eventually added the name of the company, which made it Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM.
Mayer made a good deal of money in this position, and in fact was the first American citizen to earn a salary of more than $1 million dollars. For 9 years, starting in 1937, Mayer was the highest paid man in the US, earning approximately 1.3 million per year (equivalent to a little over $21 million today). Part of Mayer’s success came from his ability to sell pictures that people wanted to see, and he jumped on the public’s insatiable appetite for details of the lives of stars. Mayer is generally credited with creating “the star system,” whereby his stars were forced, contractually, to take part in public activities as the studios saw fit. Studios would set up dates between famous actors and actresses, names were changed (Cary Grant = Archie Leach, Joan Crawford = Lucille Fay LeSueur, Rock Hudson = Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.), and images were maintained. Eventually, actors became tired of the ridiculous ways they were being forced to spend their free time, and pushed back against the star system. Like any good businessman, Mayer was keenly aware of threats to his income, and he saw this threat coming. To make matters worse for him, talk of unions was in the air, so he and some buddies got together in late 1926 to come up with a plan.
They decided they needed a way to stroke the ego of their actors a bit more while maintaining the idea that Hollywood was a magical place. Additionally, they wanted to create an organization that could deal with the changing needs and requests of their actors while keeping an eye on (and batting away) attempts to unionize. They named the organization “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” and held a banquet in January of 1927 to offer membership to others in the industry. It’s generally accepted that someone at this banquet suggested that they should award prizes to actors each year. The story goes that one of the attendees drew a sketch of a man holding a sword while standing on a film reel, which became the iconic statue given to winners each year. Another story suggests that, a few years later, one of the librarians working for the Academy claimed that the statue looked “like my uncle Oscar.”
The movie industry hit hard times (along with the rest of the country) in the 1930s, and actors did eventually unionize, but the Academy grew into an important piece of the American film industry despite it’s nefarious beginnings. Mayer was eventually fired from MGM after (ironically enough) the company failed to win an academy award 3 years in a row.