May 7, 1860, is the birthdate of Marcus Loew, the empire builder whose endeavors helped determine the very nature of the American film industry in its earliest years. Paradoxically, he was a Hollywood mogul who barely stepped foot in California; a film producer who wanted nothing to do with the nuts-and-bolts work of movie-making.
Loew was an entrepreneur who understood intuitively that to survive in capitalism, you need to keep growing and consolidating, and the corporations he assembled came to symbolize the American way in business and culture.
Marcus Loew was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father, Herman Loew, was an Austrian-born Jewish immigrant who had arrived from Vienna a short time before; he worked as a waiter. Marcus’ mother was the former Ida Sichel, a widowed mother of two who had another three children (including Marcus) together with Herman, after marrying him.
The family was poor, and Marcus began selling newspapers on a daily basis at the age of 6; by age 9, he had quit school altogether and taken a 10-hour-a-day job in a map-coloring plant.
Peep shows to property
His adolescent years were filled with many jobs, which proceeded from map-making to printing, to publishing a weekly advertiser, to a long spell in the fur business. After learning every aspect of that trade, Loew tried going out on his own twice, and both times went bankrupt, before he hooked up with a veteran furrier named Herman Baehr.
Working as a salesman-partner with Baehr brought Loew into contact, during a trip to Chicago, with Adolph Zukor, another furrier who wanted to branch into something else, and to that end had just begun investing in penny arcades.
With the encouragement of Zukor and the financial backing of Baehr, Loew established his own entertainment company in 1904. The technology of what was offered advanced from year to year – peep shows, one-reel movies projected on a screen and also live vaudeville – but incrementally, what he was doing was accumulating large amounts of real estate and opening additional venues to purvey the early wares of the American movie industry.
By 1911, Marcus Loew owned some 400 theaters across the United States. As he grew geographically, he also attempted to increase the breadth of his involvement in entertainment, so that he would own not only screening rooms but also distribution rights and, eventually, the creative end, the means of production. He understood tax law and kept consolidating and reorganizing, so that tracing the history of his holdings can be an overwhelming task.
The creation of MGM
The bottom line is this: Between 1920 and 1924, Marcus Loew bought three studios – Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions – and out of them emerged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which over the next three decades became the country’s most successful and acclaimed movie maker. Loew had put together the deal, and financially, MGM was owned by his Loew’s Incorporated, but he steered clear of the creative end of the business.
The application of U.S. antitrust laws meant that Loew’s Incorporated was never able to control every aspect of the film industry – it had to forgo being a distributor – but it held on to its theaters until 1985.
In 1924, the combined revenues of Loew’s Incorporated equaled $43 million; three years later, that figure reached $80 million.
With his vast wealth, Marcus Loew was able to buy a vast estate, “Pembroke,” in Glen Cove, Long Island, for $1 million in 1924, and reportedly spend an even larger amount in improving the property.
But he didn’t have much time to enjoy his success and power. By 1924, he was already very ill, and on September 5, 1927, Loew died of a heart attack. He was 57 years old.
Loew was married to the former Caroline Rosenheim, and they had twin boys, Arthur and David. Both sons went into the movie business, Arthur moving up through the ranks of Loew’s before retiring in 1957, and David going into independent film production.