In 1907, 23-year-old Louis B. Mayer visited a run-down, dingy burlesque theater in Haverhill, Mass., and saw his fabulous future.
Then called the Gem, locals called the theater the Germ. Or they called it the Garlic Box because of its poor Italian customers. Respectable women, they said, wouldn’t go within a block of it. Whores performed on its stage.
Nevertheless, Louis B. Mayer scraped up the money for a six-month lease on the place, fixed it up and renamed it the Orpheum.
And if it hadn’t been for the Orpheum, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would never have produced Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz Ben-Hur and The Philadelphia Story. Nor would it have launched such stars as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Buster Keaton, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
Louis B. Mayer
Lazar Meir was born July 12, 1884, near Minsk in Belarus. When he was two, his family fled the pogroms in Russia. They moved to St. John, New Brunswick, where his father worked as a scrap metal dealer and a peddler.
Louis foraged for junk metal in streets and garbage cans. From time to time his father sent him to Boston to sell the scrap metal. At 19, he decided to change his address to a room in the Jewish immigrant section of Boston’s South End.
“I hadn’t the price of a sandwich,” he later remembered.
He eventually changed his name to Louis Burt Mayer and his birthday to July 4.
He got a job scavenging metal from the bottom of Boston Harbor. Within six months he married Margaret Shenberg the daughter of the kosher butcher across the street. They moved in with her family. Soon after their first daughter was born a year later, they moved to Brooklyn. Things didn’t go well and Mayer, broke and depressed, moved his family back in with the in-laws two years later.
The Germ Theater
By then, a craze for nickelodeons swept America’s immigrant neighborhoods. They intrigued Mayer. He hung out at a South End nickelodeon, sometimes taking tickets and making friends with the owner, Joe Mack. One day Mack told him he saw a newspaper ad for a burlesque theater for rent in Haverhill, Mass.
In 1907, Louis B. Mayer took the train to Haverhill with Joe Mack and $50 in his pocket. They visited 8 Essex St., off Washington Square.
The place was a dump.
The theater had been built only seven years earlier, but it had already accumulated dirt and damp. It had 600 rickety seats and tobacco juice stains along the baseboards.
Legends grew up around the Gem during its short existence. According to one story, a show’s announcer once declared, proclaimed, “Miss Blanche Fernandez will now sing White Wings.”
“Blanche Fernandez is a whore,” yelled a man in the audience.
“Nevertheless, Miss Blanche Fernandez will now sing White Wings.”
Louis B. Mayer later said he didn’t see a dingy theater, but he saw what it could become.
The small city of Haverhill, population 45,000, proved an excellent place to open a movie theater. Its shoe workers, small shopkeepers and tradesmen were an ideal demographic for cheap entertainment.
Louis B. Mayer scraped and borrowed to come up with enough money for a six-month lease.
He and his wife and a handyman cleaned the Gem and put a fresh coat of paint on it. He converted the manager’s office into a small apartment and moved his family into the theater.
On Nov. 28, 1907, Thanksgiving Day, Louis B. Mayer opened the Orpheum, ‘Haverhill’s Home of Refined Amusement.’ A newspaper advertisement promised ‘clean, wholesome, healthy amusement, no waits, no delays.’ (For a picture of the Orpheum, since razed, click here.)
After a slow start, the Orpheum succeeded. Factory workers began to line up outside the theater after their shifts.
Up the Ladder
Louis B. Mayer enjoyed a growing reputation in Haverhill as he moved his family into better and better neighborhoods. Soon he owned all five theaters in the city. He branched out to Lynn, Brockton and Lowell.
In 1915, he bought the rights to distribute D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation throughout New England. He made so much money on the deal he could set up his own production company.
On Dec. 29, 1918, Louis B. Mayer took a train to New York City for the premier of his first film, Virtuous Wives, starring Hedda Hopper.
The silent film was enough of a hit that Louis B. Mayer could devote the rest of his career to moviemaking. He had outgrown New England. Shortly after Virtuous Wives came out, Louis B. Mayer moved his family from his Brookline estate to Hollywood.
He then built Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer into the country’s biggest and most powerful movie studio.
Louis B. Mayer died of kidney failure on Oct. 29, 1957.