After getting his law degree at Yale University, Mayer went to Los Angeles to be a lawyer. “We’d love to hire you,” at least one firm’s partner told him, “but we just don’t hire Jews.” He turned to the movie studios, and was hired as a lawyer at Columbia Pictures. After several years there, gaining experience, he was hired at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mayer (not related to MGM founder Louis B. Mayer) was given a tour of the film vaults — concrete bunkers with security guards, but the contents inside were baking at up to 130 degrees in the California sun. It was 1961, and film studios didn’t see much value in old movies; video cassettes, DVDs, and home video streaming were not even on the studios’ radars.
But Mayer saw value in them: he asked for permission to air-condition the vaults to preserve the films there, and to create a film preservation laboratory. The vaults were upgraded, and Mayer was made president of MGM Laboratories. “Gradually,” Mayer said in 2005, “the concept prevailed that it was almost as important to preserve what had been made as it was to produce something new.” The lab not only saved features, but also newsreels and shorts. “He was a visionary,” says Jeff Lambert, executive director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which Mayer helped to found. “He saved hundreds of films that would have been lost had he left them where he found them.” Mayer was also a member of the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board. Of course, Mayer’s desire to preserve history paid off financially, too, when hundreds of cable TV channels went looking for content to fill their time slots — not to mention the advent of streaming video to “smart” TVs connected to the Internet. He left MGM in 1986, when its film library was purchased by Turner Entertainment — he went with the films. He retired in 2005, the same year he was awarded an Oscar — the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — for his film preservation work. Mayer died March 24 after suffering a heart attack at his doctor’s office. He was 88.