Louis Burt Mayer: the boy from the small Ukrainian town, who lit all-American stars
Lazar was born to a Jewish family of Jacob Meir and Sarah Meltzer in the Western part of the Russian Empire. The precise time and place of his birth are shrouded in mystery, as was the case with many an immigrant in those days...
The official documents quote July 4, 1885 as Lazar's birth date, and Minsk as his hometown. But it is more than probable that, in order to facilitate leaving Russia due to precarious political situation there at the time (a lot of Jewish emigrants had to move to cities from smaller towns and villages - to make it harder for the eager authorities to track their origin and levy the heavy "leaving fees"), and in order to successfully entering the new homeland, Jacob Meir hid the original date of July 12, 1884 and the original place of birth of Dymer (Russian: Дымер), which is in modern Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl.
Whatever the reasoning of his father, later Louis used to say that he himself had always wanted to "recreate" his personality, showing the first glimpses of the actor and extraordinary figure he was destined to become...
After coming to Rhode Island, the family moved to Canada, where Jacob started his scrap metal business. 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.
His first step on the path to fame was the renovation of the Gem Theater, a large but greatly dilapidated burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Mayer reopened the place as the Orpheum cinema in 1907, and, with a stroke of genius that would later make him the founding father of Hollywood's most renowned studio, chose to debut with the deeply religious film "From the Manger to the Cross" - to wash away the bad reputation Gem Theater had suffered from. Only several years later he owned all of Haverhill's theaters, and very soon controlled the largest theater chain in New England!
The next step was forming his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, in Los Angeles, and producing his first movie the "Virtuous Wives" (1918). The big breakthrough followed only four years later, when Marcus Loew, owner of the Loew's chain, merged several of his studios with Mayer's company, creating the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer giant.
Mayer became the boss of MGM and made it into the most financially successful movie studio in the world - the only one to not only pay actors, but also to pay dividends throughout the Great Depression!
According to people who knew him well, Mayer was a man with an undeniably bright and powerful personality, which, of course, tended to polarize those around him. Yes, Elizabeth Taylor called him a "monster" for his tough negotiation methods and Clark Gable had a personal reason to dislike the man for nearly blackmailing him to lower his pay! At the same time, he basically created a constellation of actors and actresses, including Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Lon Chaney, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and enjoyed their appreciation and support until the very end...
Louis B. Mayer passed away on October 29, 1957, many years and thousands of miles from the small town of Dymer in Ukraine, having written a page (or two) in the history book of American and, indeed, world cinema.