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New Los Angeles exhibit spotlights Hollywood's Jewish founders

New Los Angeles exhibit spotlights Hollywood's Jewish founders


LOS ANGELES – With the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' third anniversary just months away, a glaring omission has finally been added to its roster of exhibits: Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Cinema Capital.

The exhibition highlights the creation of the Hollywood film industry and studio system in the early 20th century by Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, including Adolph Zucker (Paramount Pictures), Louis B. Mayer (MGM ), Samuel Goldwyn (Samuel Goldwyn Productions), Carle Laemmle (Laemmle Pictures) and Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner (Warner Bros.).

This is the first permanent exhibit at the sprawling Los Angeles museum, which opened May 19. For many in the community, it was long overdue, given that when the museum opened in September 2021, there was nothing about the Jewish founders.

One of the most prominent voices calling out this omission at the time was journalist Sharon Rosen Leib, who criticized the museum in an opinion piece in The Forward.

Academy Museum President and Director Jacqueline Stewart and Curator Dara Jaffe said The Jerusalem Post that they spoke with many members of the community when putting together the exhibit, and at the end of a 30-minute documentary in the exhibit about Hollywood's Jewish origins, the museum includes Rosen Leib in its generic.

CURATOR DARA Jaffe, left, and Academy Museum President Jacqueline Stewart at a press preview of the new exhibit “Hollywoodland” last week. (credit: Jacob Gurvis)

However, Jaffe said that although it took about two years to put together this exhibit, “I started doing research in 2017 specifically on the Jewish founders of Hollywood.”

Reacting to the criticism, Stewart said: “One of the things that people didn't really understand at the time was that we had conceptualized almost all of our exhibitions with rotating elements. And we knew that when we opened, we would have a particular range of content.

“But research on other subjects began well before the museum opened for rotations. I think the important point here is that we decided to make it a permanent exhibition and that came in response to listening to many visitors.

An immersive experience tracing the history of the industry

THE EXHIBITION is in English and Spanish and presented as an immersive experience, with visitors entering a darkened space on the third floor of the museum.

It is divided into three sections: “Studio Origins” explores the founders and founding of the eight major film studios and studio heads and their experiences as Jewish immigrants. The second section, “Los Angeles: From Cinema Frontier to Industrial City, 1902-1929,” describes how the landscape of Los Angeles developed alongside the burgeoning film industry. This section is highlighted by a large immersive table topographic projection map.

The map, Jaffe said, is just one element “that allows us to cover so much of this topic and with such complexity and nuance, and also connect these stories of Los Angeles and the Jewish founders.” She added: “We wanted to give our visitors something that only a film museum in Los Angeles can give, which is the very tangible feeling that you are right in the middle of this story.”

Stewart also noted that part of the plan was to create an exhibit that was “truly accessible to young people; that educators can come with a classroom and find something that would be dynamic.

The third section is the documentary, From the Shtetl to the Studio: The Jewish History of Hollywoodproduced in-house and narrated by Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, with in-depth information on the industry's founders, including documentary footage and film clips.

Author and film critic Neil Gaber was the exhibition advisor. “He had his eyes on everything,” Jaffe said, “but we worked closely together on making this documentary. In many ways, this tells the story he tells in his book (An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood).

The documentary does not shy away from explaining how anti-Semitism is behind the origins of the studios. At one point, Mankiewicz recounts, “Although Jewish studio bosses and executives built a seat of power for themselves at the top of the film industry, it was a precarious perch with a hidden threat. This empire could be destroyed at any time by anti-Semitic forces who constantly questioned Hollywood Jews' commitment to America, and if their Jewish identity became visible in their films, they would suffer the consequences.

Despite their attempts to assimilate into the mainstream – whether it be changing their names to sound more American – (Schmuel Gelbfisz to Samuel Goldwyn) or Louis B. Mayer choosing July 4 as his birthday claiming that his act of Russian birth had been lost – they were unable to avoid efforts to remove them from positions of power, including the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes of Henry Ford in the 1920s and attacks against them from the House Committee on Un-American Activities established in 1938.

The ENTIRE exhibition seems prescient, although Stewart and Jaffe could not have known that it would open amid a huge surge in anti-Semitism following the attack by the terrorist organization Hamas on October 7. Asked about fears of a backlash, Jaffe was not intimidated. “It’s always a good time to tell this story,” she said. ” It is still relevant. And I mean that in a good way, because it's always a good time to celebrate and honor the Jewish founders, but also, more seriously, anti-Semitism has always been prevalent and continues to be.”

Stewart said she hoped the exhibit could be a path forward for dialogue. “It is always important that cultural institutions keep this space open to tell the truth and to serve as a platform for new conversations,” she said.

“The timing of world events is absolutely complex, but we must fulfill our mission no matter what happens in the world. And it's incredibly important to us to be a space for constructive and safe dialogue about the stories we feature.

Ultimately, Jaffe said she hopes visitors come away with “a very deep understanding of who these founders were as individuals.” We want them to understand that they have indeed shared this common trajectory, shaped from the start by a dominant culture of anti-Semitism. And I think these two different approaches make it a very human story.




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