The founders of the now infamous Academy were a motley crew as individuals, but when they first converged in Hollywood, then just a small town with dirt roads, sparks flew and fueled a common dream: to bring artistic validity to their beloved new medium.
Today, movies are so ingrained in our culture it is hard to imagine a time when former cowpunchers, prospectors, vaudevillians,
even junk dealers made up the rules as they went along. Prohibition and the Great Depression were keeping everyone on edge, and the business was rife with murders and drug scandals. Something had to happen. And so on January 11th, 1927, thirty-six members of Hollywood's elite and not-so-elite came together at the behest of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer. From Cecil B. DeMille to Mary Pickford, Harry M. Warner, who owned a bike shop before launching the revolutionary “talkie” The Jazz Singer, even Joseph M. Schenck, freed from jail just in time to discover Marilyn Monroe—each guest was more colorful than the last. Although they didn’t know it yet, these thirty-six achievers and dreamers gave birth to a golden child.
Who were these movers and shakers who would change movies forever? And what about Oscar, their famous son? He is fast approaching his 100th birthday, and is still the undisputed king of Hollywood. Yet with such dynamic parents, what else could we expect?
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Bringing Up Oscar
The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy
By Debra Ann Pawlak
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2011 Debra Ann Pawlak
All rights reserved.
Once upon a time, before any director ever yelled "CUT!," there was a sleepy little place just outside of Los Angeles with a few ranches and farms scattered here and there. It wasn't yet a town and it didn't have a name, but locals could claim miles of dirt roads and plenty of dust. That all began to change in 1886 when realtor Harvey Henderson Wilcox, along with his wife, Daeida, purchased a 120-acre property on the outskirts of the City of Angels at a cost of $150 per acre.
Soon after, Daeida, on a train trip back east, met a woman who talked about her residence that she had christened "Hollywood." Daeida liked the sound of it so much that she adopted the name for her newly acquired west coast property.
Crops and cattle, however, weren't quite what the Wilcoxes had in mind. They registered a map of their subdivided land with the county recorder on February 1, 1887—the first official document to carry the name Hollywood. They sold sizeable lots to wealthy folks who wanted to spend their winters in California. It wasn't long before large, fashionable Victorian and Queen Anne style homes lined the main street known as Prospect Avenue.
The town became official in 1897 when Hollywood's first post office opened inside the Sackett Hotel. The wooden building was located at Prospect Avenue and Cahuenga. It took another six years before the village was incorporated into a city. The eight-member team who comprised the Hollywood Board of Trustees made up all the rules. Back then, liquor was illegal unless it had something to do with a doctor's prescription. Bicycles were banned from the sidewalks. Cowboys could drive cattle, horses or mules through the city streets, but only in small herds of 200 or less. Hogs and sheep were different—competent men could herd more than 2,000 at a time, as long as the animals were supervised. Fireworks were also taboo.
But it wasn't the illicit hooch or the unruly livestock or the forbidden pyrotechnics that caused the city's biggest headache. It was water—there just wasn't enough of it. By 1910, the situation was so serious residents voted for annexation to the City of Angels, which at that time had enough water for everyone. Before the annexation was official, however, Hollywood's Board of Trustees slipped in a few final changes—like renaming Prospect Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard.
As the first decade of the Twentieth Century came to a close, Hollywood, as well as the rest of the world, poised on a precipice of change. Horseless carriages, flying machines and telephones were just a few of the cutting edge inventions that were slowly reshaping daily life. A newfangled form of noiseless entertainment, affectionately referred to as "flickers," was also taking hold.
Early flickers were brief—hovering right around ten minutes. They consisted of one reel of film—some made for laughs, some for excitement, but all meant to entertain. These one-reelers were often shown on a simple white sheet that hung from the ceiling of a church basement, vaudeville theater or town hall. Sometimes department stores also hosted flickers if the owners wanted to earn extra income after hours. There were even some tent-carrying exhibitors who took their show on the road. For a nickel or a dime, patrons could witness a little action. Before long, entrepreneurs like Sid Grauman, Harry Warner and Louis B. Mayer realized that presenting flickers might well turn into a lucrative business.
Sidney Patrick Grauman's journey to Hollywood began in Indianapolis, Indiana where he was born to Rosa Goldsmith and her husband, David Grauman, in 1879 on St. Patrick's Day—hence his middle name. From Indianapolis, the Graumans trekked across the country touring with vaudeville and minstrel shows. Grauman once claimed: "I went to a hundred schools, and I never got out of the fifth grade." The first time he put on a show, the ten-year-old was simply trying to rescue a friend's birthday party from boredom. Much to everyone's delight, he rounded up the guests and asked them to perform.
In 1898, as the Alaskan gold rush fever spiked, the elder Grauman took his son to the Yukon hoping to strike it rich. Panning for gold didn't quite work out, but there, in the rugged terrain, young Grauman found his calling. The following year, father David was forced to leave Alaska and his son behind due to an illness in the family. Before he left, however, he gave the boy $250. Grauman gambled it away in no time. Now alone and needing money, the resourceful child bought newspapers for eighteen cents each and then sold them to the miners for a dollar. He also arranged for some entertainment—usually boxing matches or other talent when he could find it. He even persuaded budding novelist Jack London to help him sell tickets. (Years later, Grauman took an uncredited part of a poker player in the 1935 movie version of Jack London's famous book Call of The Wild.) Grauman soon realized that entertainment was a commodity everyone wanted. Better yet, they were willing to pay for it.
The younger Grauman left Alaska in 1900 traveling south to San Francisco where he once again teamed up with his father. It was there that they discovered moving pictures at the Cinemagraph Theater, San Francisco's first movie house. Sid Grauman was so impressed with the place, he took a job there selling tickets. His boss gave him fair warning: "Don't let even the wind get by without a ticket!"
Before long, he and his father financed a theater of their own, The Unique, located on Market Street. They set up hundreds of kitchen chairs along with a piano and held fifteen shows daily—a blend of live performances and single reel films. Actors took their meals onstage right in front of the audience to avoid disrupting the schedule. Even then, Grauman had an eye for talent, hiring movie-mogul-to-be Jesse L. Lasky to play the cornet and future movie star Al Jolson to sing.
The Unique Theater was so successful that the Graumans built a second cinema, The Lyceum. The two theaters were popular venues among the locals until the devastating earthquake of 1906 shook things up. The theaters along with most of the city were flattened, and what remained standing was severely damaged. Never one to give in, Sid Grauman believed that, in the midst of tragedy, entertainment was more important than ever. Just days after the earthquake, he raised a large tent, which had been used for revival meetings, where The Unique once stood. Under the big top, he installed old church pews. Holding 3,000 people, Grauman's National Theater brought movies back to San Francisco with a banner proclaiming: "Nothing to fall on you except canvas!"
Each day, thousands of people came to the makeshift theater seeking short-term relief from their troubles. The soft-sided cinema remained in continuous operation for the next two years. To the locals, Grauman was a hero. He even received a commendation from the city for aiding public morale during the disaster. Sid Grauman always had a knack for endearing himself to the people who surrounded him and he certainly knew how to put on a helluva show.
While the Graumans were searching for Alaskan gold, Harry Warner was fixing shoes and selling bicycles in Ohio. Born on December 12, 1881 in Krasnashiltz, Poland—at the time a Russian province—Warner's parents, Benjamin and Pearl Wonskolaser, named their first son Hirsch Moses. Benjamin, a cobbler, found it hard to live and support his family under the unrelenting threat of overbearing Cossacks. He made a difficult decision and left for America without his family hoping life might be better there. Taking the new last name of Warner, he arrived in Baltimore and opened a shoe repair shop. One year later, he had saved enough money to send for his family. That's when Hirsch Moses, newly arrived in America, became Harry Morris Warner.
As the Warner family grew, cobbling shoes no longer provided a steady enough income. Benjamin went on the road attempting to sell pots and pans while Pearl and Harry minded the shoe shop. The traveling peddler business didn't live up to Benjamin's financial expectations so he made another daring move. He left the shoe business behind, packed up his family and, with a horse and a wagon, headed north to Canada. There, he found fur trappers willing to trade their pelts for supplies. What should have been a prosperous business turned into a disaster when a dishonest partner stole all the furs, leaving the hardworking Warners destitute. They had no choice but to return to Baltimore and once again fix shoes.
By now, fifteen-year-old Harry and his twelve-year-old brother Abe had become pretty good cobblers themselves. With two sons to work with, Benjamin decided to leave Baltimore in 1896 and try his luck in Youngstown, Ohio. The shoe business was good, but with nine children to care for (including four-year-old Jack who was born in London, Ontario, Canada in 1892 during the fur-trading days), the Warners needed more. They expanded their business to include groceries and meat. At long last, the tide of instability turned and the family's finances improved. In 1899, Harry and Abe ventured out with their very own bicycle shop.
In 1904, the Warner Brothers, Harry, Abe and now Sam, had a chance to buy a projector. Dazzled by the possibilities that moving pictures might offer, they pooled their resources. Even their father contributed after pawning his watch and faithful old horse. The projector came with one reel of film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), a groundbreaking western by early filmmaker Edwin S. Porter.
Within 800 feet of film, Porter sequenced together several scenes that told a complete and true story in ten minutes. He included a daring robbery, a thrilling chase and a gripping shoot-out—still staples of all good westerns. Porter even incorporated a revolutionary closeup of a six-shooter that appeared to fire straight into the shocked audience. Paying patrons flocked to see all the action and for the first time it was apparent to the Warners that these moving pictures might just have some big business potential. Harry and his two siblings temporarily rented an empty store in Niles, Ohio and played to sell-out crowds making $300 the first week the film rolled, which is the equivalent of more than $7,000 today.
While Harry tried to find a more permanent place to house their burgeoning business, brothers Sam and Abe went on the road. They traveled around Pennsylvania and Ohio until the reel of film literally wore out. Back home, Harry sold the bicycle shop when he found a former penny arcade in Newcastle to rent long-term. They built a stand for the projector and then painted the opposite wall white. All they needed now were seats. No problem. The innovative brothers visited the funeral parlor next door where they persuaded the undertaker to loan them 99 chairs. The Cascade Theater held its first showing on May 28, 1905.
While Harry took care of the business, Abe and Sam manned the projector and carefully handled the nitrate films. Younger brother Jack was brought in to sing and recite poetry in between showings, which guaranteed the audience's quick exit making room for the next group. Their venture was a huge success, but Harry was always thinking.
Renting movies one at a time from the actual filmmakers was expensive and finding good movies was even harder. Abe Warner described what happened next:
One day a man came around and told us he was getting twenty representative theater owners to pay him a hundred dollars each for ten weeks' supply of films—twenty reels. Well, we gave him the hundred dollars each and got our films. It was a good plan and it worked. Everyone was satisfied, you see, and at the end of ten weeks the man still had his twenty reels of film that he could take to another territory and begin all over again.
Harry soon realized that more money could be made renting movies than showing them. He sent Abe and Sam to New York instructing them to buy films—as many as they could. There, the two brothers met Marcus Loew who owned several successful movie theaters. Loew never rented films, he bought them and once he was done running the reels, he simply stored them in trunks. For $500, Loew sold three trunks filled with film to the Warners.
The brothers' next stop was Pittsburgh where they opened The Duquesne Amusement Supply Company, the first official film exchange, or distribution center, in the country. Harry, now married to a woman named Rea Ellen Levinson, stayed in Newcastle to run the theater while Abe and Sam manned the exchange. A bitterly disappointed Jack was sent back to his father's house in Youngstown to help mind the family store. He desperately wanted to be with his brothers, especially Sam, but Harry gave the orders—something Jack resented for all of his days.
Harry, however, had good business sense and knew what he was doing. The exchange was so successful, bringing in about $2500 weekly, that Harry sold The Cascade in 1909. He then opened a second exchange in Norfolk, Virginia and this time gave a happy Jack the position of Sam's assistant while Abe remained in Pittsburgh. The Warner Brothers, with Harry at the helm and Jack bringing up the rear, were finally on track to a future with unlimited potential.
Like the Warner family, Jacob and Sarah Meir were originally from Russia where they were married in 1874. The Jewish couple had three children, Yetta, Ida and their first-born son Lazar. Later in life, when Lazar turned into Louis (pronounced the French way "Louie"), he would claim that his birthday was July 4, 1885, but his father reported it as July 12, 1884. Either way, the boy grew to be his mother's favorite.
By 1886, the Meirs were one of many Jewish families who left their homeland to escape the oppressive Russians after they had enacted a series of severely anti-Semitic laws including the forced conscription of at least one boy from every Jewish family. The Meirs fled to England and then to Ireland before finally coming to America and settling in Long Island. There, Jacob, a small man with a big temper, worked as a peddler/junk dealer for the next few years and Americanized the family name to Mayer. In New York, the couple had two more sons, Rubin and Gershon. Moving from the east coast, the Mayers migrated to St. John, New Brunswick near the Bay of Fundy. The exact reason why they headed north is unclear. Some say that Jacob's temper got him into a spot of trouble with the law. Crossing the border may have been his version of the "get out of jail free" card.
Once in Canada, Jacob continued collecting and selling unwanted items. He even salvaged shipwrecked objects that found their way to shore. Eventually, the Mayers became Canadian citizens and Lazar, now using the name Louis, attended school. He also helped his father in the scrap business, by collecting bits and pieces of metal. By 1899, young Louis Mayer was doing a lot of Jacob's legwork. Then the boy got arrested for running a business without a license. As it turned out, Louis wasn't even old enough to hold a license. Upon hearing that the lad was simply trying to support his family, the judge assigned to the case helped Jacob obtain a license and legally hire his son so that everything was on the up and up. In his down time, Jacob's eldest son escaped the daily drudgery by visiting the local theater—a place he found fascinating.
In early 1904, as Sid Grauman was opening up a movie theater in San Francisco and Harry Warner was acquiring his first projector, Mayer left his father and struck out on his own. He traveled to Boston where he met bookkeeper Margaret Shenberg, three years his senior and the daughter of a kosher butcher/cantor. The couple married on June 14, 1904 and Louis, like his father, went into the junk business. Their first daughter, Edith, was born the following year. Shortly after, the young family moved to Brooklyn where a second daughter, Irene, joined them in 1907—a momentous year for the Mayers.
Intrigued by flickers and the fact that patrons were willing to part with a nickel to see one, Mayer changed professions. He found an empty, rundown theater called The Gem in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Years later, Mayer recalled: "What I saw in front of me wasn't that dingy theater. I saw what it could become, and I convinced Margaret that I knew what I was doing."
Excerpted from Bringing Up Oscar by Debra Ann Pawlak. Copyright © 2011 Debra Ann Pawlak. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 You Oughta Be in Pictures! 1
Chapter 1 The Flickers 3
Chapter 2 Welcome to Hollywood! 14
Chapter 3 Team Biograph 27
Chapter 4 The Scribes 39
Chapter 5 The Silent Types 52
Chapter 6 The Idols 64
Chapter 7 Calling the Shots 75
Chapter 8 How Did They Do That? 91
Chapter 9 Head of the House 103
Chapter 10 The Guardians 121
Part 2 You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet! 133
Chapter 11 On Top of the Mountain 135
Chapter 12 Lions and Tigers and Brothers, Oh My! 148
Chapter 13 The Lunatics 160
Chapter 14 In The Zoo 173
Chapter 15 The Rest of 'Em 187
Chapter 16 The Gang's All Here 200
Chapter 17 Let's Go On With the Show! 218
Part 3 Baby, Take a Bow! 225
Chapter 18 Scholars, Tough Guys and Bishops 227
Chapter 19 Three Men and a Lady 243
Chapter 20 Mad Hatters, Macho Men and Mexican Divorces 256
Chapter 21 Businessmen, Artists and Mediators 270
Chapter 22 Mogul to Mogul 281
Chapter 23 Ancient Slaves, Bad Facelifts and Broken Towel Bars 297
Chapter 24 Pretzels, Lawyers and Potentates 315
Chapter 25 Last Founders Standing 330
That's a Wrap! 347