Evening to honor Arthur Mayer, native son and film pioneer

Published 3:12 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Demopolis son and American film pioneer Arthur Mayer will be saluted Friday during a free showing of the 1975 Oscar-nominated film “Arthur and Lillie.” The Southern Literary Trail and other partners are sponsoring the screening.

In his 1953 memoir of life in the movie business, titled “Merely Colossal,” Arthur Mayer confessed he “was born in the metropolis of Demopolis, Alabama, more years ago than I am prepared to admit.”

The son of Simon Mayer, one of the founding brothers of Mayer Brothers Department Store, Arthur was born in 1886.

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Demopolis historian Winston Smith would later write Arthur “carried the Mayer name to new heights” with his exploits and adventures in the film industry.

Over the course of a long life, Mayer operated a theater in the heart of Times Square, received the Medal of Merit for his civilian service in World War II and established a global distribution company that brought classic Italian movies to America.

With co-author Richard Griffith, he published a definitive book about America’s film history in 1957, “The Movies,” that proved so popular it was updated by the writers for multiple editions throughout the 1960s.

Mayer’s father Simon died in Demopolis when Mayer was an infant. The Mayer family was part of a wave of Jewish immigration from Europe to West Alabama in the 1870s.

After her husband Simon’s death, Arthur’s mother left Demopolis with her son and returned to New York City.

His Manhattan grandfather introduced Mayer to his first motion picture in 1898, and he was hooked on movies for the rest of his life.

After graduating from Harvard, Mayer worked for early film tycoons Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor. He and Lillian Hellman were two descendants of prominent Demopolis Jewish families who began their creative careers with employments by Goldwyn.

Mayer handled advertising campaigns for films starring Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. When Zukor fired Mayer over a dispute about how to promote a Mae West film, Mayer was given the Rialto Theatre in Times Square as his severance deal.

During his operation of the Rialto, Mayer became known as “the Merchant of Menace,” since the theater showcased low budget horror films featuring Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman.

During World War II, he organized the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry, which gave thousands of free films to the military forces for entertainment during the war.

In war-torn Italy, Mayer discovered the classic films “Rome, Open City” (1945) and “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), which he imported to America.

Decades after the war, Mayer began a new career as a film lecturer at prestigious American colleges such as Dartmouth, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

His wife, Lillie, accompanied him on his teaching trips and the couple’s remarkable marriage was depicted in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Arthur and Lillie in 1975. The film also depicts Mayer’s life as a movie entrepreneur and writer.

The documentary will be presented on Friday, May 17 at 6 p.m. with a champagne screening at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum in Demopolis at 101 North Walnut Avenue.

Sponsors for the program are the Museum, the Marengo County Historical Society, the Two Rivers Arts Council, the Southern Literary Trail and the Alabama Humanities Foundation. A history of Mayer Brothers Department Store and a gallery of vintage photos from the store will be included.

The evening also features a keynote speech about Southern Jews such as Arthur Mayer and Lillian Hellman who were successful in Hollywood from Dr. Stuart Rockoff, the Director of History at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss. The event is presented in recognition of Jewish History Month.

Call the Museum at (334) 289-0599 for details or visit the Alabama calendar on the Southern Literary Trail’s website at www.southernliterarytrail.org.