Arthur Mayer has become a matinee idol to a generation of college students.
In a few weeks, at age 92, he begins a nine-month tour making personal appearances at some of the nation's most prestigious universities.
He doesn't sing or dance, but his performances of wit and style and occasional expletives undeleted have played to SRO audiences across the country for 15 years.
Mayer has become a star because he has been in the movie business since there was one. As a peripatetic professor, he skillfully intertwines his 75 years in films with what the books say, teaching film history to students at Dartmouth, Stanford and the University of Southern California.
His easy-going, popular classes, usually taught in the afternoon, are something of a matinee for students, letting them escape from their college rigors.
Their professor began as a salesman for Goldwyn, then went to work for Paramount's founder, Adolph Zukor, commuting back and forth from New York to Hollywood as the chief publicist for the company. He operated the famous Rialto Theater on Broadway and battled to have the best foreign films imported into this country.
"I was getting on in years," he said recently, seated in his New York apartment. With Lillie, his wife and costar at his side, he was recalling how he had launched his second career.
"Just by chance I got a letter from Brandeis. They thought I was Louie B. Mayer from Metro (MGM) and had money to contribute to them.
"I went up and told them they were right - I was Jewish. But I had no money to give them." Then he offered them something better - his uncensored, unsentimental oral history of the movies.
So now each fall the couple pack their bags in their beloved mid-Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park and migrate across the country.
While her husband is the star, Lillie receives almost equal billing. She is always there suggesting another story or helping him to grasp that memory that is just a bit out of focus.
The Mayers are lively, current and regularly invite students, young enough to be their grandchildren, to their temporary homes for dinner and movie discussions. They talk as easily about a 1930s movie as they do current ones they have just seen, such as "Grease," which they didn't like, and "Foul Play," which they did.
While he lectures, she attends other classes and pursues her career as a painter.
She steadies her slender body with a cane, her only concession to her age. He reads his 90-minute lectures from note cards and delivers then seated, his only acknowledgment of his years.
"I want to enable you to watch movies with expertise and to value excellence," he told his Stanford class, explaining his teaching missions.
And during a recent interview, he continued, "I want to try to raise their standards of taste in motion pictures, which I never succeeded in doing."
Nine years ago "Star Wars" creator George Lucas took the class at USC, Mayer recalled. "I gave him a C. I hope he doesn't remember."
Here is a sampler from the Mayer class, offered for academic credit at all three universities:
"All the pictures were G's in those days, suitable for children and morons."
"The movie business has a habit of treating its pioneers - like the Griffiths, the Chaplins, the Orson Welles - very shabbily."
"Louie B. Mayer started as a junk dealer in Boston and was destined to become the biggest junk dealer in the world."
"Ancient commentators like myself must not reject everything because it's new or accept it because it 's novel."
"Warner Bros. paid $5 million for 'My Fair Lady' which went beyond the dreams of avarice."
Speaking of his former boss Adolph Zukor, "I often wondered if he had any heart at all. . . Assuming he wanted control of a theater, one method he would use was to use stink bombs. The theater smells badly for months, it hurts business and the owner is better off to sell."
When Mayer was his students' age, motion pictures were just some new-fangled flickering form of entertainment that lasted a few minutes and could be viewed mostly by looking through tall square boxes at penny arcades.
He saw his first movie at 10. "It only lasted a minute, but people moved," he recalled.
After this brief introduction, Mayer thought no more of moving pictures until 1910 when, as a recent Harvard University graduate in English, he was having trouble earning money and a banker friend, through a misunderstanding, sent him to Sun Goldfish (who later changed his name to Goldwyn) about a job.
"I found Mr. Goldfish in his office with a pretty young girl that I was later to know as Mable Norman," an early film comedienne, he said.
"She was on his lap as I understood it," Lillie appended, casting Mayer a knowing side glance.
"I told Goldfish I wanted to be a director. It was the only thing I knew to do in pictures," he said.
Goldwyn felt Mayer lacked the necessary experience for directing, so the young man became a salesman in Chicago instead.
"After a week on the job I was foolish enough to report that I was rather distressed that they were paying money each week to gangsters."
"He got into trouble wherever he went because he was young," Lillie interjected.
"Goldwyn was so pleased that I reported this thing," continued Mayer "that he told me, 'We are going to send you around the country to find out if this goes on everywhere.' I realized I wouldn't be used as a director."
So in 1913, he went to work for another newcomer to the emerging movie industry, Zukor of fledgling Paramount. Mayer took over the publicity department and went on location to Utah for the filming of the early Western, "The Covered Wagon."
"I went to write stories to keep the newspapers interested," he explained.
"Zukor wired to stop the movie because there were too many Westerns being produced. He didn't realize they would be making Westerns 50, 60 years later. Since I was regarded as the intellectual in the group, they told me to write him back something. I told Zukor we were not making a Western but an epic. He didn't know what an epic was, so he wired back later that it was okay to proceed with it."
In the 1930s, Paramount acquired on of its biggest box office attractions, Mae West, and Mayer handled the publicity for her movies.
For the film "She Done Him Wrong," Mayer recalled that he took a picture of West from the bust up, had printed over it, "hitting the high spots of lusty entertainment," and used it as the poster for advertising the movie.
Another publicity gimmick involving a Western led to his parting with Zukor.
Mayer had 50 parrots trained to repeat the title of the movie, "It Ain't No Sin," and planned to place the birds in the lobbies of large theaters a few weeks before the movie opened.
But the Catholic Legion of Decency, which advised its members on a movie's suitability, objected to the word "sin." Zukor changed the name at the last minute.
Mayor told Zukor that a name change was impossible because of the parrots. They couldn't learn the new name in the alloted time.
"We had offices next to each other and he sent me a wire discharging me and said to give his regards to Mrs. Mayer.
"I told him he couldn't fire me because I had a contract, so to get rid of me he offered me the lease to the Rialto Theater at 42nd and Broadway. Lillie said, 'Take the theater.'
"Once we advertised one movie as the worst movie ever made. It broke the house records. We played almost nothing but gangster and horror films."
During World War II, he talked his way into uniform by helping to organize distribution of current Hollywood movies to soldiers in the field.
The film distribution assisgnment took him to Europe and that led to another to help reorganize and de-Nazify the German film industry after the war - which introduced him to the emerging new wave of European directors.
European filmmakers, especially the Italians, were making movies about man's battles against an indifferent society. They were far different from the empty-headed American films predominant at the time.
When he returned home he and his partner Joseph Burstya started importing and distributing these early foreign films.
They had no trouble with censorship until they imported "The Miracle," about an Italian peasant girl who becomes pregnant and believes hers is the Immaculate Conception.
While the New York censors approved it, the New York Board of Regents and several religious groups labeled it sacrilege, Mayer said. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled for Mayer and Burstyn.
"It was the first case decided against the censors. The court said they could not object to the movie on the grounds of sacrilege because New York had not defined the word sacrilege. The censors were not to make that mistake again," he said.
After nearly eight decades in the film industry, Mayer finally became a movie star himself. A few years ago a group of Stanford students made a movie called "Arthur and Lillie." The documentary about the couple was nominated for an Oscar.
The money for the film came from the six-year-old Arthur and Lillie Mayer Foundation, which gives an annual $2,000 grant to a film student at one of the colleges where Arthur teaches.
"We were going to put the money aside in our will," Lillie explained, "but we changed our mind and decided to do it now because we wanted to see what they were doing."
But, she admitted, the foundation has run into financial trouble recently because of the high costs of filmmaking.
"The foundation doesn't have that much money in it. . . Today to make a short subject costs between $5,000 to $6,000. We don't know what will happen with it," she said.
And their children and their grandchildren inherited their love of the movies. One granddaughter makes films "so avant-garde you can't understand them," Lillie said. Another works as a researcher in Hollywood.
Arthur Mayer has followed in his life the advice he gives in his classes:
"If you are to survive this life, you must find new truths - for the truths of the past are dead."