March 28th marks the anniversary of the birth of someone I have come to call “one of the greatest Greek Americans.”
It’s a bold statement to make, given the history of so many great, influential and important Greeks who have impacted American society. But it’s a statement and title I stand by when referring to the 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.
Skouras’ story doesn’t stop at the fulfillment of a dream. He changed the world in more ways than one.
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 20th 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 classics such as Don’t Bother to Knock, The Seven Year Itch, The Hustler, The King and Iand Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
One of his greatest achievements was his signing of a young model named Norma Jean Baker to 20th Century Fox. After changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, Baker 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.
A book by Dr. Ilias Chrissochoidis, whose research was funded by the New York City-based Greek America Foundation, tells the story of this amazing man.
In times like these — when Greece faces unprecedented challenges and when Greek America faces threats that endanger Greek American identity — the life and example of people like Spyros Skouras are critical.
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