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Spyros P. Skouras



PREFACE


This webpage is dedicated to the remarkable life of Spyros Skouras, a philanthropic movie mogul who reigned supreme during the pioneer days of cinema and throughout the golden era of Hollywood.  


Spyros began his life in a remote Greek village under extremely impoverished conditions and went on to become one of the most powerful men in show business history, where he would spearhead technological advances in the movie industry and where he would make a star out of such iconic celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, among many others.  


His business acumen was internationally renowned, as was his sense of civic duty towards both his countries; Greece, where he was born and raised, and the United States, where he achieved countless impressive accomplishments, all of them through true grit, mettle, and brains.  Spyros was forever grateful to ‘the land of opportunity’ and showed this through his unwavering patriotism to the stars and stripes.  He was also very proud of his ethnic origins and came to the aid of the people in Greece when they needed it the most.  He was a person of tremendous insight and influence who helped shape many cultural, socio-economic and political aspects of the western world.  


Sadly and strangely however, there isn’t much awareness about this amazing personage.  Notwithstanding his numerous feats and deeds to be observed throughout these next few pages, and despite his immense contributions to actors, movie-goers and to society at large, an extensive biographical research conducted on the Internet established that there is unbelievably very little recorded information on the personal life of Spyros Skouras.  


Nor are there practically any pictures of Spyros Skouras publicly available; a thorough search on Google’s ‘Images’ search engine yielded only a few shots of him.  I kid you not!  In fact, I have made a video compilation of all the handful of photos that exist of him, here it is:



That picture in the video above featuring Spyros on the cover of Life magazine and standing next to the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev during his much heralded visit to the United States, is my favourite. Such an incredibly influential man Mr. Skouras and so little footage, it's absolutely astonishing!


This enigmatic obscurity is primarily what prompted me to construct a webpage dedicated to Spyros Skouras.   


In the absence of anything official, such as an A&E special on the life and times of Spyros Skouras, the aim of this webpage is simply to pay homage to a newfound hero of mine, but also to serve as a repository of any obtainable information relating to this wondrous man; a kind of ‘virtual fan club’ if you will, as a tribute to him and his legacy.


It is hoped that any visitors to this site who might have further minutiae on Spyros Skouras would be generous enough to share their knowledge or photos through this webpage.  Even without any further leads, feel free to contact me if you are a Spyros Skouras fan, here's my email: motafov@gmail.com

 

And now, please enjoy the biography, I’m certain you will be duly impressed and slightly envious, not of Spyros Skouras’ immense wealth, but of his rich spirit and zest for life.  His story is truly inspiring.


Note: 


* While the contents of this webpage rely heavily on the 1967 unauthorized biography by Carlo Curti entitled, “Spyros P. Skouras: King of Fox Studios”, this manuscript also contains a synthesis of all accessible literature found on the Net.  Rather than flood the text below with quotation marks, I obtained copyright permission from the publishers to use excerpts from Curti’s book wholesale.  The result is a pastel of all available reference material, edited or added upon accordingly; I used my own verbosity to weave it all together.  There is a bibliography at the end of this webpage for those interested in consulting it.


** Printable version is available at the bottom of the webpage attached as a Word document.


The Life of 

Spyros P. Skouras


INTRODUCTION

Spyros Skouras was born in 1889 in a small town of Greece called Skourohorion, and like most people of that generation, he worked tirelessly from a very young age. Spyros held any and every menial job he could find in order to feed himself, his frail mother, and his numerous siblings. Starvation was commonplace in Greece during the early 1900s. As such, for reasons unknown but somewhat easy to understand, in 1912, Spyros immigrated to America in search of a better life. He boarded a ship but when it docked in New York City, Spyros had no success finding work. So he made his way to St. Louis, Missuouri, where, according to varying biographical sources he managed to find employment via his brother, Charles Skouras who had already been in the United States a year prior to Spyros' arrival. 

According to Carlo Curti's book, a more romanticized account has Spyros boarding a train not knowing where it was bound and fatefully finding himself in Missouri. Either way, what's certain is that his first job was working as a waiter at the Jefferson Hotel in St. Louis where he learned to speak his first English words and where he earned his first money that he would soon thereafter invest in his first nickelodeon.


EARLY NICKELODEON YEARS

In the early 1900s, motion pictures were a novel form of escapist entertainment for the working-class masses where one could spend an evening at the cinema for a cheap entry fee. The normal admission charge was a nickel, hence the name nickelodeon. Nickelodeons were the first real movie theatres, and they usually remained open from early morning to midnight. One-reel shorts, silent films, melodramas, comedies, or novelty pieces were typically accompanied with piano playing, sing-along songs, illustrated lectures, and other kinds of 'magic' shows, skits, or vaudeville-type acts. 

Spyros Skouras became interested the motion picture business in 1913, when he was working at the Jefferson and had a $3,000 savings account built up from his tips. Spyros quickly realized that there were 6,000 nickelodeons in America and still room for plenty more. Spyros knew that somehow he was going to get into this thriving business. His chance came when three fellow Greek-Americans approached him and asked him and his brother, Charles, to become partners in a building containing a 400-seat nickelodeon on 14th and Market Street in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Spyros had already learned not to appear externally excited at a good business offer but quickly accepted nonetheless, mainly because of such an ideal location; Spyros always used to say, "you can have a lousy theatre and poor movies, but you can't help not to make money if you're in a busy location." The new Greek owners aptly named this theatre the Olympia.

Spyros continued to work as a waiter during the first year learning the theatre business from the ground up, and without pay. He kept depositing his tips in his bank account, which was ripe for when the opportunity came for the Skouras brothers to buy out the three other partners and begin to make innovations to the theatre that would become the first of many 'Skouras Bros' owned theatres. First order was to add the name 'Skouras' above the marquee reading Olympia. Next, Spyros hired two usherettes, a Missouri first, since only male ushers had been hired before. This was because male ushers doubled as bouncers and were effective in removing drunks and loud teenagers. Thanks to his thick muscular body and knack for wrestling, Syros often performed the bouncer role himself. 

While he himself was rough around the edges, Spyros figured that when a customer entered a theatre he or she wanted to have a pretty female lead them to their seats, and two instead of one was a luxury. Always opting for "the best," which was his favorite expression, he instructed his usherettes to smile at all times to the customers in order to make each and everyone of them feel special. After just a few months, Spyros sold the 400 bench-style seats of the Olympia and bought tip-up chairs, then considered to be the epitome of luxury. On the screen of the newly renovated nickelodeon flashed a sign that read: "REMOVE YOUR HAT: DON'T PUT YOUR PEANUT SHELLS ON THE FLOOR," and one that is still in use today, "NO SMOKING." 

The Skouras brothers began running a five-show-a-day routine instead of the customary three. They combined shrewd showmanship with outrageous customer pampering. Spyros was a natural in the industry; for example, if a picture was so bad that he didn't dare advertise its name, he promoted "Take-A-Chance Week." By 1915, he went along with the new advertising methods that eliminated the use of big expressive adjectives and relied instead on large open spaces. Where Skouras approved, other nickelodeon owners disapproved and wanted to stick with the cluttered and gaudy signs that, according to Skouras, "where going out with vaudeville." The more Skouras approved of the new advertising methods the more business and first choices from exhibitors came his way. His business savvy was making him a name and earning him the attention of 'big leagues' players. 


PIONEER MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY

Like the 'big five' exhibitors of the forties and fifties (Paramount, Fox, Warners, MGM, Columbia), during the early 1920s, America's entire motion picture industry was controlled by a group of ten movie companies, namely: Vitagraph, Kalem, Pathe, Edison, Selig, Essaney, Biograph, Lubin, Melies and Kleise. These studios were thriving in an era before big taxes, big government and something called the Divorce Decreement, which was an anti-monopoly law. These ten power houses were aware of their collective power and took advantage of it by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), whose first duty was to make sure every movie producer in America paid one-half cent a foot for a movie filmed with any of the equipment made, rented, sold or manufactured by its members. Since the members of the MPPC had invented just about everything in movies up to then, including film and cameras, every non-member company and freelance producer was tied.

The MPPC also formed a subsidiary called the General Film Company (GFC); its basic job was to make sure that no one filmed a movie without a license issued by the MPPC. The GFC sent financially shaky movie companies out of business and its mother corporation, the MPPC, then bought up the vacant studios and theatres left behind by the defeated showmen. Another repressive rule made by the GFC was that the name of the producer, director, and stars should not appear on the screen. The only words they allowed were: the General Film Co. In addition, the MPPC imposed a fee on exhibition houses for releases shown. 

Spyros had one small nickelodeon, albeit the top grossing nickelodeon in St. Louis, and enough guts to speak his mind against these injustices. In a momentous meeting with the Board of the MPPC, he told them straight out that he did not want to pay $2 a week and that he did not want to do business with them or their respective companies. Members of the Board replied that he may leave their office and that he was "through." Skouras fired back "There's still William Fox." At the time, William Fox owned more theatres than anyone else in America and was part of a group of movie producers known as unlicensed independents, dubbed 'pirates' or 'outlaws'. The flexible, stealthy, and adventurous independents avoided coercive MPPC restrictions by using unlicensed equipment and obtaining their own film materials. Soon, these independents moved to California and opened up a rival film-making industry that would become Hollywood. Spyros contacted the local Fox distribution man and said, "I will do business exclusively with you." 

The big chance for Skouras to help free his fellow showmen from the bondage of the MPPC soon came when William Fox asked Spyros to join him in a lawsuit against the MPPC for $6,000,000. Spyros was honoured to join the battle, and although Skouras did not benefit financially or even testify, it did bring about a meeting with 'the Fox' who was to remember the name Spyros Skouras. Eventually, the breaking up of the MPPC allowed Skouras the chance for expansion, especially since he now had the blessings and bookings of William Fox; any bank president would loan money on the news of such a highly important contact. 

Spyros decided his next motion picture house would not be a 'nick', but a theatre, the Rolls Royce of exhibition houses. Accordingly, in January 1925, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced plans for a 22 story office building containing a Skouras theatre; the entire structure was to cost $2.5 million. What was eventually constructed was a 17 story building, with a 3,000-seat theatre occupying the first six stories. The theatre cost $5 million and the organ alone cost $115,000. The grand opening was held on August 26, 1926, and the Ambassador Theatre welcomed 2.6 million patrons in its first year!


GROWING THEATRE CHAIN

The starting years in a business are the hardest, but Spyros had quite a few breaks such as the law closing down competitors. Another great advantage to Spyros was the fact that local dance halls and cabarets were going out of business, because seven or eight dances for a quarter were no bargain compared to a five-cent movie theatre. Between 1914 and 1919, movies were the top branch of show biz, and when the cabarets were closed down, by law or financial reasons, Spyros was doing better than ever. 

As such, in 1917, Spyros bought his second theatre with cash; so wisely had he saved cold money by penny-pinching. The sacrifice of being stingy for those first few years had benefited him enormously, for by so doing he had the liquid capital to invest when opportunities arose. By 1926, Spyros controlled some 37 theatres in St. Louis, and had branched out to Indianapolis and Kansas City. Spyros was on his way up!

In the late 1920s, the news of sound was spreading and so Spyros invested $500,000 worth of sound equipment in his chain of theatres, spending $38,000 on his huge Ambassador Theatre alone. By 1929, Spyros Skouras was owner of some of the 4,000 theatres in America which were equipped for sound. This was out of 20,500 theatres in all of America, and within two years after the now-famous, first-ever movie to be displayed with sound, "The Jazz Singer", only 400 theatres remained silent houses. On top of each Skouras theatre read the words: "THIS THEATRE WIRED FOR SOUND."


WALL STREET CRASH

In 1929, Variety Magazine, a popular publication of the day, spelled out five words of its own: "WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG!" The day was October 30th and Spyros Skouras had within three days lost over $8,000,000 in hard cash, as well as being in debt for on-margin buying. He had almost that much in stocks, and a week after the crash his stocks were worth less than a day's tip he could have collected in his former job as a waiter at the Jefferson Hotel.

That same year, the Warner Brothers made a bid for Spyros' theatre chain. Spyros accepted. In exchange he got Warner Brothers stock, which although almost worthless, was still the hottest stock in America. It was Spyros who advised the Warner Brothers to pick up the financially troubled National Film Company. This wise business move immediately made Harry Warner realize that Skouras was too valuable a man to be out of a job-and holding so much of their stock. One week later, Spyros Skouras was made General Manager of the Warner Brothers Theatre Circuit in America. By changing the advertising system, rearranging picture bookings and theatre policies, he was able within three months to eliminate losses and show a profit, a feat that was not accomplished by any other circuit during that first year after the crash. His salary was $3,500 weekly plus a percentage of the profits. This kind of salary, even today but especially during the depression is indeed impressive. 

Despite his handsome salary, Skouras soon enough had a desire to be his own boss again. Expressing such intentions to Harry Warner, in January of 1931, his contract was terminated, much to the chagrin of Harry. Spyros had quadrupled the profits of the chain. That same year, Spyros formed the Skouras Theatres Corporation and leased 45 theatres owned by Fox Metropolitan Playhouses that were bound to go into bankruptcy. From October 1931 to October 1932, which was one of the worst years of the depression, the theatres operated by Skouras Theatres Corporation showed a profit of about $200,000, whereas the operation for the proceeding year, when they were owned by Fox Metropolitan showed losses in excess of $1,000,000. 


FOX WEST COAST THEATRES

Spyros sent weekly profit-and-loss statements of the Skouras Theatres Corporation to his New York bankers, Charles Hayden and Richard F. Hoyt, who had great admiration and respect for Spyros and his ability in the theatre business. Hayden was so impressed by the almost phenomenal success of the operation of the Skouras Theatres Corporation that he brought the matter to the attention of the management of the Chase National Bank.

Chase National Bank, through its ownership of stock in Fox Film Corporation, had the controlling interest in Wesco Corporation, which operated a chain of theatres extending from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast and which at this period was doing very badly. As soon as the Chase Bank management was informed about the successful operation of the Skouras Theatres Corporation, they approached Spyros with a proposal for him to operate the Wesco Chain of Theatres under a contract similar to the arrangement Skouras had with Fox Metropolitan Playhouses, Inc. 

With his entrance into the activities of Wesco, Spyros took up the responsibilities of Fox West Coast Theatres, a subsidiary of Wesco with $27,100,000 debt, and naturally became close to the staff at Fox Studios on the West Coast, which he was to eventually head after pulling some 500 Fox Theatres and Wesco out of debt. On other cultural and historically significant business grounds, Spyros bought Grauman's Chinese landmark theatre for Wesco, securing for Fox West Coast Theatres the world's most famous theatre (where Hollywood stars mark their footprints in cement outside of its doors).

In the early 1930's, Spyros helped merge the Fox Film Corporation with the 20th Century Company to form 20th Century Fox. Artistically speaking, 20th Century Fox became a "star studio", that is, a studio that builds its stories around its stars instead of anything else. This was a policy Spyros followed in later years as president of this powerhouse when he discovered and had under contract people like Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Victor Mature and Marilyn Monroe. Joe Schenck, co-founder of 20th Century Fox, was astounded by Spyros Skouras' eye for star material and once called him 'The Greek star gazer'. Skouras would soon earn another title, 'The saviour of Greeks'.


GREEK WAR RELEIF

The job that put Spyros on the world map as more than just a movie man was the Greek war relief and is a part of a great undertaking on his behalf in the interest of his home country. It all started in 1941 when the first political call of Greeks starving was announced in the United States. Many American politicians and philanthropists discussed who should be made head of the Greek cause; Spyros Skouras was the unanimous choice. 

The National Greek War Relief Association, chaired by Spyros Skouras, was formed in October 1940 within two weeks of the invasion of Greece by Axis forces. The goal of this association was to collect ten million dollars to procure foodstuffs, medical supplies and clothing for war-torn Greece. Skouras visited numerous Greek communities in the Unites States to urge the formation of local War Relief committees and by November 20, 1940, over 300 local committees had been established. During the next five months, $3,336,700 was cabled to Greece for the purchase of ambulances, the building of bombproof shelters, the setting up of soup kitchens for refugees, and to furnish financial assistance to the destitute families of slain soldiers. The program functioned two and a half years and resulted in the shipment of more than 700,000 tons of food, clothing, medical supplies and other vital commodities, which were valued in excess of one hundred million dollars. 

Since this was almost a government job, Spyros spent several weeks in conferences in Washington with the State Department arranging negotiations with foreign powers. He raised $9,700,000 at the administrative cost of 4 percent, which is said to be the best fund raising campaign ever held in the United States. Much of the expense was met by Spyros and his personal funds (such a love for his mother country and so intensely proud of anything Greek was he that Spyros would name his five children Daphne, Diana, Dionysia, Spyros Jr., and Plato).

As a further illustration of his passionate assistance, to get food into his native country, Spyros negotiated with the International Red Cross and arranged with Prince Charles of Sweden to make Swedish ships available to carry food to Greece. Due to the seizure of food supplies to Greece by Germans, Skouras flew to Sweden to do the impossible: persuade Prince Charles to gain the consent of Hitler to let food enter the country of Greece. He was successful in this shrewd and daring manner of finding a way through Axis authorities, and the final results of his efforts resulted in $125,000,000 worth of American and Canadian food making its way into Greece and saving over 3,000,000 lives. 


PRESIDENT OF 20th CENTURY FOX 

At around the same time back in Hollywood, in early 1942, Spyros Skouras was voted President of 20th Century Fox. Favoring popular biographies and musicals, Skouras quickly built up 20th Century Fox to profitability. Thanks to record attendance during World War Two, 20th Century Fox passed Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) and mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to become the third most profitable studio. 

After the war, Skouras continued to make money for 20th Century Fox with such hits as: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Winged Victory, Twelve O'Clock High, The Razor's Edge, and, All About Eve; the last of which was Marilyn Monroe's first movie assignment under her new contract with 20th Century Fox. Four years earlier, in 1946, when President Skouras had seen Marilyn's screen test, it was his idea to have her hair dyed blonde, her eyebrows plucked different, and to have her put on ten pounds. The results, of course, are now well known; she became future box-office dynamite and a screen legend.

During the late 1940s, under the leadership and oversight of Skouras, 20th Century Fox attacked controversial issues in several financially successful movies, such as: The Snake Pit, Pinky, and, Gentleman's Agreement, proving that audiences would not shy away from such topics as mental illness, race relations, and anti-Semitism. It was Skouras, as president of the studio, who had the guts to give Darryl Zanuck the go ahead to produce such contentious films at the expense of Spyros being picketed by several organizations. With the courage of Skouras, 20th Century Fox was truly the first company to bring sensitive topics to light (and at the same time to exploit and cash in on taboo themes). 

Probably the most famous move made by Spyros Skouras as president of 20th Century Fox was his agreement with professor Chrétien in 1952 to manufacture the Cinemascope wide lens. The wide lens was a process based on lenses that employed an optical trick producing an image twice as wide as that of conventional lenses. This invention made viewing experience much more enjoyable for audiences. At Spyros' request, Chrétien's wide lens process was further developed by putting the picture soundtrack on a single film. "Stereophonic sound it must be!" ordered Skouras, and stereophonic sound it was-and only 20th Century Fox had it. This, to Spyros, would be the highest attainment in sound and visual effects to ever be presented in motion picture history. Indeed, no other business achievement stamped the Skouras name on the Hollywood or world map like Cinemascope did. Besides securing Spyros a huge spread in Life magazine, it earned Spyros the title of "The man who saved the movies" because he nurtured this new way of showing films and raised box office receipts 25 percent in the early 1950's, when TV was doing its best damage against films. 

This new screening method, Cinemascope, lured viewers away from their TVs and back into movie theatres, and was the main reason for the world theatre and film gross of $2 billion in 1953, the year movies were supposed to be "washed up." 20th Century Fox's famous advertising slogan, "Movies are Better than Ever," gained credibility when Spyros introduced Cinemascope in the studio's groundbreaking feature film The Robe. The biblical spectacle was an enormous hit. Made for about $5 million, it grossed more than $17.5 million in North American film rentals to theatres ($125 million in today's dollars). This blockbuster film saved 20th Century Fox, won four Oscar nominations, and set the 1950s trend in Hollywood for swords and sandals. 

Securing further profits for 20th Century Fox, Spyros licensed use of this wide-screen lens to other Tinseltown studios, and the innovative technology of Cinemascope was soon copied by all the major studios. One rule Spyros made on the availability of the lens was that other studios use it only for important films and not films of B or C category, given that Spyros wanted to ensure that when the public would see a Cinemascope film, they would be seeing 'the best'. Spyros strove to add a new class to the movies and he spurred American exhibitors to spend $50,000,000 for Cinemascope installations; another one of his goals was to have 1,500 sets of Cinemascope lenses installed in the top 500 cities of the world. Correspondingly, in Italy, Israel, Africa, and Japan there were 40,000 theatres with Cinemascope, and by 1953, 17,500 of the 20,000 theatres in America had installed Cinemascope as standard equipment. 

Armed with Cinemascope, Spyros decided to combine every show business vein in his body and make an all out musical that would top all musicals and the title would be the Irwin Berlin-inspired tune, "There's no business like show business". For the rights of the title he gave Irving Berlin's favorite charity over $100,000. This was to be Marilyn Monroe's biggest screen exposure yet, and set her on her way toward movie stardom with some of the scenes being the most suggestive ever put on film up until that time. Censors wanted to cut some steamy and racy for the time scenes and Skouras successfully pleaded with them not to, which indubitably catapulted Marilyn Monroe to world stardom. Another Marilyn Monroe hit was How to Marry a Millionaire. It cost $2.5 million to make and it grossed $12,000,000.

Yet, even with its shining stars and technological advancements, Cinemascope was merely a pill that only gave 20th Century Fox and movies a temporary lift, financially and emotionally. By the early-to-mid 1950s, Hollywood's heyday was being eclipsed by the onslaught of television. Attendance at movie theatres declined sharply, and film production declined along with it. Studios like 20th Century Fox could no longer afford to maintain exclusive contracts with directors and film stars. Still, even as the novelty of Cinemascope was wearing thin, in the mid-to-late 1950s, Skouras managed to maintain for 20th Century Fox an average annual profit of $6 to $7 million with such box-office winners as: The King and I; Anastasia; and, Love Me Tender. But despite such hits, the 20th Century Fox pictures scheduled for 1959 debuts were slim pickings. This left Spyros Skouras vulnerable to increasingly dissatisfied stockholders and Wall Street investment firms. 

During this period, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal studios were selling their ranches to stay alive. To save 20th Century Fox from financial crisis, Skouras tasked Edmond Herrscher, the studio's Director of Property Development, to examine the company's real estate holdings. Herrscher saw the possibility of selling parts of the back lot for business and commercial development, which he named Century City. Welton Becket and Associates, one of Southern California's leading architectural firms, was hired to submit in March of 1958 a financial analysis of Century City for possible self-development. The following month, Skouras was handed a preliminary Century City development study which stated: "It is our opinion that you possess a strategically located property which can well be described as one of the outstanding undeveloped real estate assemblages in America. It is also a holding which lends itself admirably to a highly profitable development." 
The report listed the following options: outright sale of the property, self-development by 20th Century Fox, participation in a joint-development program, ground lease program, or a combination of any or all of the above. Herrscher convinced Skouras that the best plan was not to self-develop the property, but to sell it in one piece, while leasing back the minimum acreage needed to operate the studio. Skouras agreed and the studio conducted a groundbreaking ceremony on May 25, 1958, in order to attract buyers. 

When the final deal was completed, it was the largest real estate deal ever made west of Chicago, and it involved more money, combined, than what was spent for the entire purchase of Alaska and the Louisianan Purchase. Part of the final agreement was that 20th Century Fox would lease 75 acres for 99 years at $1.5 million a year. Spyros held on to 145 acres because of functioning oil wells and put in the contract that when the oil wells dried up, the purchaser, Alcoa, had the option to buy them and the property.


THE DECLINE

Even with the proceeds from this real estate venture, Skouras was still deeply troubled over the company's dim fiscal prospects. With an adverse economic situation underway, Skouras was looking for a tremendous picture that could restore the company's economic lustre as The Robe had done a few years prior. He believed that the studio could still cash in on the biblical-picture craze, a rejuvenated movie genre bolstered first by The Robe and then by Paramount's commercial success in 1956 with The Ten Commandments. Such box-office winners had convinced Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to undertake a costly remake of its 1925 box-office winner Ben-Hur. The 1959 MGM release, made for an estimated $15 million, would gross more than $70 million. For these reasons, orders were given by Spyros for staff to search the 20th Century Fox script library to find a proven property (film) that could be remade. 

The project chosen was Cleopatra, a 1917 Theda Bara film that had been a smash hit for the studio. Skouras envisioned the remake of Cleopatra as a $1 million production to be shot within a month on the company's back lot. As a further cost-saver, Skouras planned to use talent already under contract to 20th Century Fox. One possibility for the title role was Joanne Woodward, the Georgia-born actress who had won an Academy Award in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve. An alternative was the comely Joan Collins. This British-born performer had already played an ancient Egyptian princess in Warner Brothers' 1955 spectacle Land of the Pharaohs. Countering Skouras' concept was the famous producer Walter Wanger, who told Spyros that he wanted to use Elizabeth Taylor in the crucial lead. Wanger theorized that if Elizabeth was cast in a well-mounted production (that is, a blockbuster), it could emerge as an important feature that would garner tremendous reviews and huge box-office returns.

By the late summer of 1959, Wanger was more determined than ever to have the luscious Taylor portray the Egyptian royal figure-at whatever cost. He dismissed Skouras' concerns that Elizabeth had a track record of being difficult and was prone to health problems on film shoots. She was the Queen of Hollywood when Walter Wanger went ahead and offered her Cleopatra. Its said that, in a bubble bath, with a pink telephone cuddled in one hand, she cooed, "Well, Walter, I'd love to do it-for one million dollars." The leadership of 20th Century Fox gulped. Skouras took another poll, asking, "Is she worth it?" The distributors replied, "Affirmative."
In the seesawing negotiations, Taylor finally agreed to do Cleopatra for a fee of $750,000; $4,500 in weekly living expenses for her and her entourage; 10% of the box-office gross; and $50,000 a week if the picture went over its planned sixteen-week schedule. She demanded directorial approval and that the film be shot abroad for tax purposes (Skouras was to take the heat from the American Screen Actors Guild for shooting abroad). Other requirements and perks stipulated by Taylor included deluxe living accommodations during the shoot and a $150,000 salary for her husband Eddie Fisher to handle unspecified duties as her assistant. Elizabeth also insisted that the epic be lensed in the Todd-AO wide-screen process. This had an adverse effect on the studio, as it required 20th Century Fox to make hefty licensing payments to the company founded by Elizabeth's late husband, Mike Todd. Moreover, using this filming process necessitated extra-careful attention to the lighting of the sound-stage sets, which was both time-consuming and expensive.

In a short time, and millions of dollars later, Spyros Skouras was losing his battle with irate stockholders who held him accountable for the folly of this runaway production. Spyros could have shut down the film and collected insurance (films were insured in those days, and likely still are), but he wanted to make a great film; evidently, Skouras was not only a businessman but also had a soft spot for art. Yet, due to 20th Century Fox's near-bankrupt status, production was nearly nonexistent. As a result, what remained of plant expenses was almost entirely thrust on Cleopatra, thus adding to its out-of-control costs. Inevitably, Spyros Skouras became the scapegoat for what many people in the industry at the time called the Cleopatra fiasco.

Cleopatra, however, was to become a Hollywood classic in later years, and eventually the film more than recuperated its cost. In 1966, ABC-TV paid 20th Century Fox a record $5 million for two showings of the film. When the film broke even in 1973, 20th Century Fox closed the books on Cleopatra, therefore keeping secret all future profits grossed by the film. But it was too late; Spyros was removed from the presidency of 20th Century Fox in 1962 and was made its Chairman of the Board, where he served up until 1969. Chairmanship has been described as being "an office for the ex-president of a company who is too powerful and rich to fire outright." This was true of Spyros Skouras, who was at the time the second biggest stockholder of 20th Century Fox.


END OF 20th CENTURY FOX YEARS

Skouras was held responsible for putting 20th Century Fox in the red with the soaring costs of Cleopatra, but few are aware or seem to acknowledge that he was also responsible for the 1964 topper of $43.7 and even the $44.5 million high in 1965, seeing as Spyros Skouras was the first studio boss to branch into television. His last move was to make sure that Peyton Place got on the tube. Besides Batman, Peyton Place was Fox TV's most popular television program in those years. Fox TV, that others took credit for, was an organization that Skouras built during the studio's threat of being engulfed by television. He also set a precedent by suggesting that shows run two and three times a week. Nor did Spyros receive any credit for the nine hours of ten Fox TV shows that were shown on American television at prime times, thus putting Fox TV far ahead of the nearest competitor at the time, Universal TV. 

What's more, even if Cleopatra did nearly topple 20th Century Fox (primarily due to factors and circumstances not entirely under the control of Skouras), two years later the studio was back in the money with the massive success of The Sound of Music. As Variety Magazine once pointed out, Spyros Skouras was responsible for obtaining the rights to The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox. The release of this film in 1964 became one of the top ten box office hits ever, bringing 20th Century Fox more than $79 million in revenues. Only a year and a half after its release, the movie had already out-grossed "Gone with the Wind", the reigning box office champion for nearly 27 years. 

Notwithstanding these and many other meaningful contributions, as the saying goes in this industry, "in Hollywood you are only as good as your last picture." Spyros took the blame like a man and shortly thereafter died dignified in 1971 at the age of 79 leaving behind a colossal legacy and spectacular career. At the time of his passing, he wasn't sulking or waiting for death to come, he was in the process of designing a massive shipping docks project that did not come to fruition given his departure from this world.


CONCLUSION

In 1983, the owners of the dwelling that once housed the Skouras Ambassador Theatre were contemplating converting the theatre to 54,000 square feet of retail space. Meanwhile, the Theatre Historical Society Guide declared the Ambassador the 'flagship' of the Skouras chain, and stated that it was "considered by historians to be St. Louis' most aesthetically pleasing theatre." Still, it sat empty.

In 1986, a "Save the Ambassador" group was founded. No positive action was forthcoming, and in 1988, exasperated owners declared that the theatre was no longer for sale and would, in fact, be gutted for use as a parking garage. The following year, all of the interior fixtures- including stairways -were auctioned off. Having basically destroyed the first six stories of the building from within, the owners had set the stage for demolition. The sordid, protracted annihilation of the Ambassador was to become one of the most pointless tragedies in twentieth century American cultural and architectural history.

Knocking the Ambassador down was no easy task at all. The upper stories were no problem, but toppling the reinforced steel-and-concrete columns shaping the theatre space was the most difficult job the seasoned wrecking company that was contracted for the job had ever tackled. It's no wonder; this was a theatre that had been built by a Titan. At one time, Spyros Skouras controlled 20th Century Fox, National Theatres, Fox West Coast Theatres, United Artists Theatre Circuit, Skouras Theatres, Magna Corp., and Todd-AO. Skouras' assets in 1952 were valued at $108,000,000, a point of power which has never been attained before or since by any other family or individual in the film industry, including the Warner Brothers. What's more, Skouras was offered the Ambassadorship to Greece four times, once by President Roosevelt, and three times by President Eisenhower. 

While Spyros Skouras was far more than just a successful Hollywood mogul, his influence is still largely felt in the movie industry. Aside from the production end, he used and sold ways of running theatres and showing movies that will never disappear. He was the first man to sell popcorn in movie theatres during World War I. He was also the first to sell candy, and institute the idea of selling hot dogs and pizza in drive-in movie theatres. Refreshments in hardtop theatres, which in some years have accounted for one-third of circuit net incomes, was an idea that Spyros could have patented and just kept for his Skouras Theatres if he was greedy. But he didn't and this benefited the entire movie industry as much as his push for Cinemascope did. With the introduction of Cinemascope, Spyros did much to save the movie world from its newly invented competitor, the television. From these facts, it is safe to say that Skouras' influence in show business will probably never fade, as long as there are films exhibited in movie theatres. 

During his overall tenure in the movie industry, he was able to give movie fans such show business firsts as: 

* Beamless theatres
* Children's matinees 
* Precision dancers called Rockettes 
* Racial integration in St. Louis, Missouri theatres 
* Popcorn and other concessions in a movie theatre 
* Wide-screen processes 
* A foreign distribution firm with a foreign country (Fox with Australia) 
* Theatre chains under one banner; Theatre Owners of America (TOA)

Even though Spyros Skouras had lost everything in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, he shortly thereafter rose to become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood as President of 20th Century Fox. Of course, some individuals in Hollywood can condemn Spyros Skouras for 'mistakes' such as the expensive making of Cleopatra, but they should remember to give him credit for great classics and money-makers such as The Robe (grossed $17.5 million); The King and I (grossed $8.5 million); and, The Seven Year Itch (grossed $6 million), and for wisely investing $30 million into Cinemascope to pull the movie attendance up 25 percent when everyone thought television had movies dead and buried. Eric Johnston, a former president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, once said that "Spyros [was] responsible for the industry grossing at least $500,000,000 between 1914 and 1958." Up until the death of Spyros Skouras, no one person or family can be said to have been so successful except Walt Disney, the Warner brothers, Dr. Kalmus (the inventor of Technicolor), and Thomas Edison.

Aside from all his success in the realm of business, Spyros Skouras also holds a unique place in movie history by way of concurrently having had under contract two of the world's most famous females, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, a record that will probably never again be attained because the age of the legendary star is gone. By the end of his stint at 20th Century Fox, Spyros Skouras had reached the pinnacle of show business and will forever remain a true pioneer and major influence upon the world of movie magic.

On behalf of those who realize and appreciate your impact and contributions, I thank you Spyros Skouras. God bless your soul.
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motafov,
Jul 26, 2011, 8:56 PM
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