March 28th marks the anniversary of the birth of someone I have come to call “the greatest Greek American”. It’s a bold statement to make, given the history of so many great Greeks who have impacted American society. But it’s a statement and title I stand by, when referring to a man named Spyros Skouras.
Born in a sheep-herding village in the Peloponnese in 1893, he arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. Although his story is typical of the immigrant experience of many of our forebearers– hard work, determination, dedication and resilience lead to the fulfillment of the American Dream– Skouras’ life became more than just your average success story.
Spyros Skouras’ story doesn’t stop at the fulfillment of a dream. He changed the world.
In Hollywood, he was an innovator, investing in new technologies that would ultimately “save” the movie industry. He introduced Cinemascope, which effectively widened the screen and made watching movies a much more exciting experience at the time when television was on the rise and box office numbers had dropped to all time lows.
Martin Scorcese sums up the true impact of Cinemascope, which Skouras championed.
“I’ll never forget going to see this film, the first one shot in CinemaScope, on its initial release. I sat there, and the curtains kept opening wider and wider and wider. None of us, not me or anyone else in the audience, was prepared for the experience and it changed the movies forever.”
Scorcese is referring to the film “The Robe”, which premiered in September 1953. Under Skouras’ vision and leadership the first films in history were made in Cinemascope by Twentieth Century Fox. It was one of the biggest gambles in film history, but one that revolutionized the Hollywood– forever.
Skouras also oversaw the production of such classics as Don’t Bother to Knock, The Seven Year Itch, The Hustler, The King and I, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. One of his greatest achievements was his signing of a young model named Norma Jean Baker to 20th Century Fox, who after changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, would rise to fame and become the most famous Hollywood sex symbol of the 20th Century.
But Skouras’ real legacy was in philanthropy. He single handedly saved millions of Greeks from starvation during the Second World War by organizing the Greek War Relief Association– a massive umbrella movement of thousands of Greek organizations that rallied together to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Greek relief efforts during the massive starvation that followed the Nazi occupation. He also pulled his weight in Hollywood and had the entire nation behind the Greek War Relief effort.
Of course, the list of his accomplishments can go on and on, for days, weeks and pages and pages of books– which is why I have initiated, via the Greek America Foundation, a project that will culminate in a documentary film and extended digital collection of Skouras life and body of work.
This first phase of this effort resulted in a new book by Dr. Ilias Chrissochoidis, whose research was funded by the Greek America Foundation.
In times like these, when Greece faces the challenges and threats never before experienced in history, and when Greek America faces existential threats that threaten the very existence of a Greek American identity in this country, the life and example of people like Spyros Skouras are critical.