Southern Literary Trail to salute Demopolis native

In his 1953 memoir of life in the movie business, entitled Merely Colossal, the book’s author Arthur Mayer confessed he “was born in the metropolis of Demopolis, Alabama, more years ago than I am prepared to admit.”

The son of Simon Mayer, one of the founding brothers of Mayer Brothers Department Store in Demopolis, Arthur Mayer was born in 1886. Demopolis historian Winston Smith wrote that Arthur “carried the Mayer name to new heights” with his exploits and adventures in the film industry of the last century.

Over the course of a long life, Arthur Mayer operated a theater in the heart of Times Square, received the Medal of Merit for his civilian service in World War II, and established a global distribution company that brought classic Italian movies to America. He wrote of his experiences in major Twentieth Century magazines such as Harper’s, Esquire, Saturday Review and The New Republic.

With co-author Richard Griffith, he published a definitive book about America’s film history in 1957, The Movies, that proved so popular it was updated by the writers for multiple editions throughout the 1960s.

Arthur Mayer’s father Simon died in Demopolis when Mayer was an infant. The Mayer family was part of a wave of Jewish immigration from Europe to West Alabama in the 1870s. After her husband Simon’s death, Arthur Mayer’s mother left Demopolis with her son and returned to New York City. Mayer began every biography with a reference to Demopolis as his birthplace.

His Manhattan grandfather introduced Mayer to his first motion picture in 1898, and he was hooked on movies for the rest of his life.

After graduating from Harvard, Arthur Mayer worked for early film tycoons Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor.

He and Lillian Hellman were two descendants of prominent Demopolis Jewish families who began their creative careers with employments by Goldwyn.

Mayer handled advertising campaigns for films starring Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. When Zukor fired Mayer over a dispute about how to promote a Mae West film, Mayer was given the Rialto Theatre in Times Square as his severance deal.

During his operation of the Rialto, Arthur Mayer became known as “the Merchant of Menace” since the theater showcased low budget horror films featuring Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman.

During World War II, he organized the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry, which gave thousands of free films to the military forces for entertainment during the war.

In war-torn Italy, Mayer discovered the classic films Rome, Open City (1945) and The Bicycle Thief (1948), which he imported to America.

Now celebrating its sixty-fifth anniversary, The Bicycle Thief was awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1948.

Decades after the war at age 78, Arthur Mayer began a new career as a film lecturer at prestigious American colleges such as Dartmouth, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

He was accompanied on his teaching trips by his wife Lillie, and the couple’s remarkable marriage was depicted in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Arthur and Lillie in 1975. The film also depicts Mayer’s life as a movie entrepreneur and writer.

The film Arthur and Lillie will be presented on Friday, May 17, at 6 p.m. with a free champagne screening at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum in Demopolis at 101 North Walnut Avenue as part of a salute to Mayer entitled, Arthur Mayer, His Story From Demopolis to Hollywood.

Sponsors for the program are the Museum, the Marengo County Historical Society, the Two Rivers Arts Council, the Southern Literary Trail and the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A history of Mayer Brothers Department Store and a gallery of vintage photos from the store will be included.

The evening also features a keynote speech about Southern Jews such as Arthur Mayer and Lillian Hellman who were successful in Hollywood from Dr. Stuart Rockoff, the Director of History at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi.

The event is presented in recognition of Jewish History Month.

Call the Museum at 334-289-0599 for details or visit the Alabama calendar on the Southern Literary Trail’s website at