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May 23, 2013

Stanford scholar sheds light on Greek immigrant's rags-to-riches story

Archival investigation reveals life of Spyros P. Skouras, film industry mogul and philanthropist who made indelible impact on postwar American culture.

By Kelsey Geiser

Immigrant Spyros Skouras became a top Hollywood executive and American philanthropist, but his life story was buried for years in the Stanford University Libraries' Department of Special Collections. (Photo collage by Anna Cobb)

Spyros Panagiotis Skouras escaped childhood poverty in Greece to become a top Hollywood executive and organizer of a successful World War II foreign aid campaign, making him one of the most noteworthy Greek American immigrants of the 20th century.

And yet, 86 boxes of documents chronicling Skouras' remarkable achievements sat virtually untouched in Stanford's Cecil H. Green Library for two decades.

Over the past year, however, Stanford alumnus and Continuing Studies lecturer Ilias Chrissochoidis has spent countless hours sifting through the contents of each box.

A Greek immigrant himself, Chrissochoidis developed a deep admiration for Skouras that is compelling him to publicize Skouras' impact on postwar American culture.  

In addition to publishing Spyros P. Skouras, Memoirs (1893–1953), the first researched account on Skouras, Chrissochoidis has launched a campaign to celebrate his 120th birth anniversary by creating a research web page, writing articles for mainstream newspapers and producing tribute videos.

Chrissochoidis is currently assembling a library of Skouras footage and hopes to secure funding to digitize the Skouras papers and to write a large-scale monograph based on them.

During the course of his investigation, Chrissochoidis, who received a doctorate in musicology from Stanford, found unpublished transcripts of Skouras' autobiographical recordings.

"One of the folders contained the transcripts of tape dictations from 1953 and 1965," Chrissochoidis said. "When I realized that this precious material had never been published, I knew I had to take action."

He also found "an amazing record of continuous activity in fields as varied as philanthropy, technical innovation in film and TV," as well as ample evidence of "Skouras' close ties to the White House under different administrations."

Immense contributions

As he began reading through reams of production files, paperwork and correspondence, Chrissochoidis began to realize the scope of Skouras' "immense contributions to philanthropic causes and his leadership in the Greek War Relief Association."

Skouras, born in 1893, immigrated to the United States in 1910. He operated a family-run theater chain in St. Louis until Warner Brothers bought the chain and hired Skouras as manager. His entertainment career took off from there.

In 1935 he masterminded one of the first big film industry mergers between Twentieth Century and Fox Studios. As president of Twentieth Century-Fox from 1942 to 1962, he green-lighted films on hitherto taboo themes, such as racism (Pinky), anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement) and mental illness (The Snake Pit), as well as the classic film adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

"Being the head of one of the world's top film corporations, he was very influential in shaping America's image after World War II," Chrissochoidis said.

In 1953, when the new medium of television had slashed movie ticket sales by half, Skouras introduced CinemaScope, a widescreen format that became the industry's standard for years. 

Despite his exceptional business achievements, Skouras never lost sight of his civic responsibilities. During World War II, in the midst of a major career change, he led the Greek War Relief Association (1940–46), one of the most successful American foreign aid campaigns.

"Skouras' turn of mind was one that saw no incompatibility between business objectives and humanitarian action," said Chrissochoidis.

As a major player in Hollywood, Skouras recruited celebrities such as Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Ed Sullivan to support the aid effort and enhance the association's public profile. He also visited President Franklin Roosevelt and pressured British leaders Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden to lift the British naval blockade on Greece to allow for the influx of assistance to starving Greeks.

In addition, Skouras Brothers Enterprises Inc. movie theaters in New York were the first to become issuing agents for Treasury Department war bonds. As Skouras recalled, "By setting the pattern for movie houses throughout the nation they were instrumental in selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of war and victory bonds to the public."

Referring to Skouras' role as America's cultural ambassador during the Cold War, Chrissochoidis said, "Nobody can have political access to the White House under six different administrations, from FDR to Nixon, without being an extraordinary individual. Skouras was exactly that and I resolved to make his story known."

Bringing 'Skouras Papers' out of the archives

Despite Skouras' impressive career and achievements, Chrissochoidis found that few people were aware of the significance of his contributions. Even fewer knew that the only primary source on his life, and probably on Twentieth Century-Fox's company history during his presidency, is kept in the Stanford University Libraries' Department of Special Collections

An expert on composer George Frideric Handel, Chrissochoidis never thought of expanding his research agenda to modern Greek history. But a string of 20 research fellowships beginning at the Stanford Humanities Center helped him develop a keen eye for archival discoveries. 

During a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress, he discovered unpublished correspondence of the legendary Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. Later, at Harvard's Houghton Library, he found two unexplored boxes with writings of 1963 Nobel literature laureate George Seferis

"Both discoveries alerted me to the fact that there has been no serious archival research on modern Greek subjects in this country," Chrissochoidis said.

Returning to Stanford in 2011 as an American Council of Learned Societies fellow, Chrissochoidis was curious to explore the university's modern Greek collections. By happy coincidence, Skouras' granddaughter, Damaris, a Stanford alumna, had arranged the donation of the "Spyros P. Skouras Papers, 1942–1971" to the university in 1988.

For Chrissochoidis, the discovery of the memoirs was not only an important contribution to Greek American and film history but also a confirmation of the vital role of archival research in academia. 

Humanities scholars, Chrissochoidis said, should "take a lesson or two from the sciences and put more emphasis on the excitement of discovery and innovation. Discovery, not discourse, should drive the humanities in the 21st century."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

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Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

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