By Scott Essman
Over the weekend of August 5 and 6, 2007, film historian Alicia Mayer presented dozens of family photographs in Los Angeles-area presentations to celebrate her legendary lineage. In point, Mayer is part of the historic Mayer family, of whom Louis B. Mayer was studio chief of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios from 1924 through 1951. Alicia spoke about her family’s history and showed dozens of newly discovered family photographs in presentations on Saturday at the Central Public Library in downtown Los Angeles and on Sunday at Culver City Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. Sunday’s presentation coincided with Culver City’s centennial celebration, significant as it is the city which housed MGM Studios’ complex from its inception until its purchase by Lorimar Pictures in 1986. Sony Pictures Entertainment currently occupies the same Culver City lot.
For Alicia Mayer, her family’s notable roots were ‘in her blood,’ since she was very young. “Myself and my cousins always knew in some form or other,” she said. “It was hard to avoid. I spent a lot of time with my older relatives who also had been filmmakers over decades; as a kid, I heard them speak a lot about filmmaking. I’d be the youngest one in the room by about 60-70 years.”
In the golden era of Hollywood, roughly spanning the mid-1930s until the early-1960s, Alicia Mayer’s great-uncle Jack Cummings produced dozens of MGM films and his younger sister, Mitzi, worked at MGM and had a Photoplay column. “I knew her to be a fairly glamorous person,” said Alicia. “By the time that I came on the scene, she was still then an elegant person, well dressed wherever we went. She came from a family and an environment who were extraordinarily classy.”
Alicia Mayer, in her early 50s, decided early on that she would shield her children by adopting the Mayer name as a pen name of sorts—she has lived out of the spotlight in Australia for 30 years. Of interest, Louis B. Mayer’s older sister had four children, one of whom was the aforementioned Mitzi; Mitzi then had two daughters, one of whom is Alicia’s mother. Until she turned 40, Alicia did not reveal her historic lineage. “It took my closest friends by surprise,” she said. “I was paranoid of being given anything I didn’t deserve because of that name. That was unnecessary psychological baggage.”
Nonetheless, approximately 12 years ago, Alicia recollected that there were stashes of old family photos which had not been unearthed in decades. “I remembered that my mother’s sister, my aunt, had them in a moldy basement in a house in New Hampshire,” she said. “If we do not do something about those, they will be destroyed.”
Alicia’s aunt and cousin, who, at the time, lived in the New Hampshire house, found the photos and had them professionally scanned. “Hundreds of photos, the ones I use in my blog and on Facebook, were all scanned in,” Alicia revealed. “On this particular night, I was given a link to all of these photos. I just lost it. It was an incredibly magical moment to see them on my computer. It was from that point that I started to turn a key to a tsunami of childhood memories. It was an opportunity to honor those people who have passed away—they meant so much to me. I started to research the photos and in that process, I fell in love with them; it was an unfolding love affair with the photos.”
Then, in 2015, Alicia’s aunt sent her another wave of boxes with photos and memorabilia that she had never seen. “I’m still discovering photos that need to be scanned in,” said Mayer. “I need to take them to a scanner in Australia. I wish to open people’s eyes to their own ancestors. In every photo is a story. What drives me crazy is when we miss this opportunity to tell these stories.”
Alicia’s presentation is equal parts Mayer family heirloom and pioneering film history seminar. By 1925, she related, MGM had already become a “completely thriving little beehive of activity,” and her photos reflect that. “It was a conglomeration of several production companies who were already ready to burst forward in that way,” she said of the studio. “The perfectly brought together chemical components that came together to form this new star.”
In her August 5 and 6 presentations, the first of their kind anywhere, Alicia aimed to first orient people as to who she is before she can tell this story. “Then, I’m going to tell the story in three parts,” she explained. “Start with Uncle Louis; without him, the story doesn’t get told. Go from him to my grandmother. Then explain my great-uncle and great-grandmother.”
Audiences saw dozens of rare photographs and heard many untold tales from Hollywood’s classic years. At the Los Angeles Central library, Alicia is collaborating with a senior photo archivist; in Culver City, she is working directly with that city’s centennial committee.