NEW YORK – Greek-American Spyros P Skouras, the motion picture pioneer and movie executive who changed the status quo of American cinema, could undoubtedly see his own life story become a film. He started out taking care of the family’s livestock in a village in the prefecture of Ilia, headed to the U.S. crowded with other Greek immigrants in a boat, spoke little English, but had the basic skills that made the difference: Innate intelligence and an incredible acumen. Spyros Skouras, the man who discovered Marilyn Monroe, saved Hollywood by introducing CinemaScope, and put the famous 20th Century Fox on the map, also helped, along with other prominent Greek-American businessmen of the time through the Greek War Relief Association, to raise millions of dollars in food and medical aid for Greek civilians during World War II.
When Spyros Skouras saw the first light of life in Skourochori, Ilia, nothing foretold his subsequent course. The son of a shepherd, with nine other siblings, in the sunset of the 19th century, in a country that was being formed and where poverty was the norm, Spyros had two options: either to make a living by grazing the family sheep, or to make the great leap, boarding an ocean liner for New York. At the age of 17, with his brothers Karolos (21) and George (14), Spyros chose the latter. An option that changed history.
In short, the Skouras brothers, arriving in New York, which was looking for more builders, decided that they should not follow the path followed by the majority of Greek immigrants at the time: Instead of the Big Apple, they preferred St. Louis, which offered more opportunities for work. They worked at various jobs, until they entered the field they would conquer: the cinema, even if they began with selling popcorn in movie theaters. But it turned out that nothing is impossible.
In five years, with hard-earned savings, they collect $3,500 dollars, a large amount for the time and buy the venue, which they rename Olympia. Spyros comes up with the idea to add, at the base of the big screen, a small orchestra which will accompany with live music the films on the screen, and his idea is rewarded.
The company expands and in 1926 the Ambassador complex opens its gates, with multiple cinemas owned by the Skouras brothers. This is an investment of $5.5 million, which will be later acquired by Warner Brothers, in an agreement that provides for the placement of the brothers in management positions.
The move, inspired by Spyros, will come with the acquisition of the “clean” but small 20th Century Pictures, which was merging with the indebted Fox West Coast. This is how 20th Century Fox is born, which makes big productions, launches CinemaScope – restoring the comparative advantage of the big screen over television – while introducing to the public the previously unknown model, Norma Jean (Marilyn Monroe). Skouras served as president of 20th Century Fox from 1942-1962.
Skouras’ term at the helm of the company ended due to the chaos caused by the costly production of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, but he was not discouraged and also invested, successfully, in shipping. He also remained, for several years, as chairman of 20th Century Fox when Darryl F. Zanuck took over as president.
Skouras passed away due to a heart attack at the age of 78 in 1971. Although he did not reach extreme old age, he lived a full life and left behind an impressive legacy.