May 18, 2006
Ex-Movie Exec Isn’t Silent About Films
Roger Mayer lounges in the living room of his house on Benedict Canyon Road, a comfortable two-story clapboard structure in Beverly Hills. His dress is conservative, yet casual -- dark pants, dark shoes, light-gray shirt and what appear to be horn-rimmed glasses -- but he sports no tie, as per industry custom. He relaxes with his arms behind his neck, occasionally pressing his foot against the coffee table.
The newly minted octogenarian, who looks at least 10 years younger, effortlessly recalls dates, numbers and deals from decades ago. For instance, when it is suggested that Turner acquired the MGM library and pre-1950 Warner Bros. library in 1986, he points out that the deal also included the entire RKO library.
In 2005, Mayer won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar, which honored his years of public service, particularly in the realm of film preservation. After a distinguished 53-year career in the film business, Mayer has reason to rest easily.
Even though he retired last year after 19 years as president of Turner Entertainment, Mayer remains active, heading the National Film Preservation Foundation and co-chairing the 17th annual Silent Film Gala to be held June 3 at UCLA's Royce Hall. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will perform accompaniment to two classic Harold Lloyd films from the silent era, "Ask Father," a one-reel comedy, and "Safety Last," a film known to cinephiles for the famous image of Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock on a building.
Mayer, whose New York accent comes through primarily when pronouncing his native town, "New Yawk," was born in the Big Apple in 1926, the year before the first talkie. He does not remember going to see silent pictures in his childhood.
What he did see were Broadway musicals. He had a "maiden" aunt who sought his company for such outings. He loved the Broadway shows so much that he considered working in legitimate theater after he graduated from Yale in 1948. He spent that summer in Abington, Va., at the Barter Theater, so named because of its origin during the Depression, when theatergoers would exchange things "like a ham," he said, for a ticket. He was not an actor but rather an assistant stage manager, "painting scenes, handing animals to the actors through the holes in the scenery," he said.
After the summer, he decided to become a lawyer. Although there was a Jewish quota at Yale, he did not experience any real prejudice there; in fact, Yale's provost gave him a scholarship for 50 percent of his tuition, after his father died in his freshman year.
After graduating from law school in 1951, Mayer moved to Los Angeles. The only real prejudice he encountered was when he tried to get a job at an L.A. law firm. All of the downtown firms turned him down; a partner at one actually said to him, "We'd love to hire you, but we just don't hire Jews."
Mayer sold pajamas at the May Co. and studied for the bar. Then, a lawyer at one firm suggested that he try getting a job at Columbia Pictures, a client. He worked there for nine years, primarily doing contract and copyright law before joining MGM.
Despite the seeming pedigree of his name, Mayer is not related to Louis B. Mayer, who had headed MGM. At the time Roger Mayer became assistant general manager of MGM in 1961, Louis B. Mayer, who had been fired a few years earlier, was engaged in a proxy fight against the company.
"I had to convince people I wasn't related to him," said Mayer, who has a modesty about him, despite his recent Oscar. He also has an Emmy as executive producer of "Judy Garland: By Myself." Both awards rest discreetly out of sight on the mantel in the den.
Mayer has no entourage, no servants in his home. He doesn't put on airs.
He doesn't even particularly want to talk about himself as much as he wants to promote the Silent Film Gala and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which he called, "one of the cultural icons of Los Angeles that kind of gets lost in the shuffle."
Maybe, Mayer is a little like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, an underrated talent, overshadowed by more glamorous types. He has always felt more comfortable around the set designers, musicians and composers than the actors, many of whom he calls "self-absorbed." Perhaps, this down-to-earth quality is a function of his many years as a behind-the-scenes executive, whose bailiwick was not creative matters but rather physical production at MGM and Turner Entertainment.
Describing a typical workday, Mayer said, "On an average day at MGM, there would be 4,000 people on the lot, and all of them would report to me, except the actors, the directors, the producers and the writers. But that's 3,500 people."
At MGM, Mayer met Ray Klune, a legendary executive who had been the production manager on "Gone With the Wind" and headed up physical production for David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer and Howard Hughes. Klune showed him the concrete vaults that contained the film negatives on MGM's 200 acre-lot, then based in Culver City; he said to the young executive, "One of your jobs is to make sure we have proper security for the vaults and that these things aren't deteriorating."
"I found out that the security was great, but that in the summer, in the 100-degree heat, the film was deteriorating," said Mayer, who then instituted a film preservation program at MGM that included the first air-conditioned, refrigerated vaults.
He found his calling and, after more than 40 years of leading efforts to restore film, Mayer received his Oscar, following an introduction from director Martin Scorsese, well-known for his own dedication to film preservation.
"I was never out of work in 53 years in the motion picture industry. Either they didn't know what I was doing, or I was doing something right," Mayer said with a smile.
The 17th annual Silent Film Gala, featuring two Harold Lloyd films and accompaniment from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, will be held at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m. (213) 622-7001, Ext. 275.