Louis B. Mayer isn’t necessarily a household name, but “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios” is, and it’s Mayer — an enterprising theater owner turned Hollywood executive — who was responsible for the third part of the studio’s moniker. After moving to Los Angeles in 1924 to co-found the studio, Mayer helped it become among the most prestigious and successful in Hollywood during the ‘30s and ‘40s.
What fewer people know is that Mayer got his start in Haverhill. One of his first successes as a businessman was transforming the run-down Gem Theater burlesque house — derisively known by locals as the “Garlic Box” due to the large number of poor Italian immigrants who frequented it — into a new movie theater called the Orpheum. Wanting to clean up the image of the place, Mayer made sure the first movie that played there was a religious one: Sidney Olcott’s 1912 silent film “From the Manger to the Cross,” one of the first motion pictures to depict the life of Jesus.
Just a few years later, Mayer owned all five movie theaters in Haverhill, and — after forming a partnership with fellow film executive Nathan Gordon — began to expand his operation across the region. Future successes included obtaining the exclusive rights to show D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in New England (a venture that earned him over $100,000, hardly a piddling amount early in the 20th century) and merging his company with Loew’s, the massive theater chain. That latter designation can still be seen on some theaters in the Boston area despite its purchase by AMC Theatres in 2006.