A humanities treasure in the heart of Silicon Valley

December 14, 2021
Ray Heigemeir

Guest blogger: Ilias Chrissochoidis

The Spyros P. Skouras papers, 1917–2012 is one of the Stanford Libraries’ archival jewels. A robust 137-box collection, it documents the career and multi-faceted activities of one of the founders of the Hollywood System. Greek-born Skouras (1893–1971) and two of his brothers emigrated to America at the dawn of the 20th century and soon they dominated the nascent film industry, controlling hundreds of movie theaters in the country. His lasting fame as President of Twentieth Century-Fox (1942–1962) rests in implementing the widescreen format in movies (CinemaScope, 1953). Hardly remembered, though, is his humanitarian record, comparable to that of Herbert Hoover. During WWII, Skouras was instrumental in lifting the naval blockade of occupied Greece, thus allowing the shipment of food and medical aid that saved up to 3 million lives.

Known to film historians as a major resource on Hollywood’s golden age, the “Skouras papers” is actually unusually diverse in subject matter. It covers areas from cultural diplomacy to plans to modernize the US commercial fleet, investment projects for postwar Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and a tremendous record of philanthropic activities.

Among the subjects that have escaped historiographical attention is Skouras’ intersections with American music. Aside from his personal friendship with major artists, such as Richard Rodgers, Louis Armstrong, Maria Callas, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and his mentorship of a young Teresa Stratas, Skouras deserves credit for two innovations. During the “Roaring 1920s” he and his brothers moved jazz orchestras from the theater pit onto the stage, thus giving them visual presence and artistic dignity.

Decades later, in 1950, and already a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Skouras engineered the “Roxy affair” to boost the income of its musicians. It was the first time that a major symphonic orchestra was performing at a movie theater, thus spreading classical music to thousands of movie goers. 

Fifty years after Skouras’ death (1971) and almost thirty since his archive became available to the public, the “Skouras papers” is one of Stanford’s most exciting archival collections waiting to be fully explored and appraised. 

Ilias Chrissochoidis is the compiler/editor of Spyros P. Skouras Memoirs (1893–1953), listed in Oxford Bibliographies as a core resource on Hollywood Studios, and the editor of The Cleopatra Files and CinemaScope, all based on the “Spyros P. Skouras papers” at Stanford.