By Bruce Edwin
May 17, 1918 - September 27, 2013
Paramount Pictures held its exclusive memorial celebrating the life of producing legend A.C. Lyles this month on Monday, November 11th, 2013. I was honored to receive a phone call from Pam with A.C.'s office, and from Paramount in the mail, to this legendary event. Like it was for A.C., Paramount has always been my favorite studio, and driving through those famous gates on Melrose Avenue felt great. One of the last times I was here was to visit and interview A.C. in his office, and seeing his building (named after him) again and thinking of him gone was sad. The memorial itself was happy, celebrating his life, and was held in the magnificent Paramount Theater, which reportedly seats nearly six hundred, yet it looked more like one thousand to me. Every seat in the house was full, with around a dozen late comers lined up standing along the wall. My friend Corral Rose, Stanislavsky acting coach who was the only acting teacher A.C. ever recommended to me, rode two and a half days on a train from Chicago for the memorial.
Hundreds of VIP's, industry players, heads of state, friends, and stars lined up to sign the guest book and take their seats in the theatre on the famed Paramount lot, where A.C. Lyles reigned with his illustrious career. Many Hollywood legends of the Golden Era of Motion Picture attended, as noted by The Hollywood Reporter, which aside from The Hollywood Sentinel, was the one other major trade publication in Hollywood wise and fortunate enough to attend this event and take note. The Hollywood Reporter further did a commendable review. As they noted of the following list; classic stars in attendance included the talented legend Mickey Rooney (Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Black Stallion), as well as many beautiful and talented leading ladies including Terry Moore (Peyton Place), Ruta Lee (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Anne Jeffreys (the original Dick Tracy), and child star Jane Withers (Bright Eyes) among others.
Around one thousand Memorial Cards to A.C. for guests were placed in a basket, graced with the above image of A.C. Lyles, which were expertly made. After an array of speakers, the dark velvet curtains covering the motion picture screen closed, and then opened again, heralding back to the exciting early days of cinema going. Two films were shown; an excerpt of then President Ronald Reagan paying tribute to his friend (the complete video also includes video testimonials from former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), and next, part of a new documentary about Paramount that was screened, which consisted of about thirty minutes of digital video footage of A.C. on lot at Paramount, telling stories about the famous studio and its famous players, which was hugely fascinating and entertaining. Seeing A.C. on the big screen and hearing his voice was great. Hearing him speak of how he began and how his obsession fueled his will to succeed, was both inspiring and touching. A.C. refused to believe anything other than what he wanted when it came to getting a job at Paramount. He did not acknowledge failure, and did not ever once consider being told no was no when it came to his one and only great obsession; to work at Paramount, and become a producer. I look forward to seeing the complete film one day.
The Memorial event began at 2pm, with the big screen silently displaying hundreds of beautiful, still photographs of A.C. with the biggest stars in the world including Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Jackson, Mae West, Dick Powell, his good friends Nancy and Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Tommy Lasorda, Mickey Rooney, and many, many more. After playing this 12 or so minute loop two or three times, the C.O.O. of Paramount Pictures took the stage. Paramount President Brad Gray sent word that he was sorry he could not be present, but that he had a family issue to deal with. Former President of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing, who was out of town, sent a nice letter which was read to the audience, stating how dear A.C. was to her, and how he was such a great man, great friend, and was deeply missed. Around a half a dozen other speakers then took turns speaking, sharing their affections and memories with the man that many called, "Mr. Paramount." Chief Operating Officer of Paramount Pictures, Mr. Frederick Huntsberry spoke for about fifteen minutes, giving a nice salutation to the audience and talking of the importance of A.C. to Paramount, Hollywood, and the world, stating how A.C. helped build the studio in to what it is today. A.C. Lyles was the assistant to the founder of Paramount Pictures himself- Mr. Adolf Zukor, and became the President of Publicity for the studio at just 19 years of age. Mr. Zukor and Cecille B. Demille personally mentored A.C. to become a producer. They told him to get a nice car; maybe a Cadillac, because he needed to be seen in something nice. They also told him to buy a home over in Bel Air, and Mr. Zukor funnily told him to "dress British, but act Yiddish." He did all this, and more, becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and went on to coach three U.S. presidents, and countless stars, many of whom became his dear friends.
The President of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Cheryl Boone Issacs gave a nice speech next about how she used to work in publicity at Paramount during the mid eighties, and worked there for fifteen years, rising to become President of world wide publicity. She mentioned how much Paramount meant to her, and how much A.C, who became a dear friend of hers meant to her, and how much he taught her. Ms. Issacs, as well as all of the other speakers, spoke about A.C.'s perfect grooming. She mentioned him meeting her with not a hair out of place, cuff links from President Ronald Reagan, his fine suits, and his always cordial disposition. A.C. did in fact have his suits custom made in London from the very same tailor used by Prince Charles, who was a mutual friend.
Pamela Gibson, A.C's assistant for over seven years spoke next, re-counting a funny story about how upset A.C. was one day because he had lost the gem in his treasured ring given to him by star Ginger Rogers. The gem, a black Onyx, had supposedly fallen out in one of Paramount's theatres that has black carpet. Pamela mentioned how she felt it was a hopeless situation, didn't want to search, but did anyway, stating that "No one said no to A.C." Armed with a flashlight and searching the carpeted floor, Pam felt like it was a needle in a haystack type of scenario, yet to her amazement, she happily found the precious and sentimental gemstone belonging to her boss, Mr. Lyles. Pam said that at this moment, she thought to her self how A.C. Lyles was the luckiest person she ever knew. A.C. couldn't believe his ears until he saw the gem with his own eyes, and was so happy and proud, Pam stated that he went around that whole day telling everything about how great and incredible she was, and reciting the story. A.C. did in fact tell me on numerous occasions how wonderful Pam was, and how lucky he was to have her work for him. And he meant it. Pam stated how honored and fortunate she was to work for A.C., and I know she meant it too. Pam is currently working on completing the editing of the autobiography of A.C. Lyles that he started.
Earl Lestz spoke next. As former President of the Paramount Studio Group, one of the divisions within Paramount Pictures, Mr. Lestz told us of the story about how his first day on the job consisted of a board meeting in which a number of men welcomed him aboard, and then began telling him how his new division was in shambles, a total mess. He said he left the office feeling terribly low, and wondering what he was doing there. At that time, this area of the studio was rapidly losing money. (That is no longer the case). Mr. Lestz then mentioned how after this depressing meeting for his first day on the job, a man walked up to him, dressed to the nines, and knew his name, and all about him. He was shocked that anyone even knew who he was. He recounted how this man, A.C. Lyles, went on to tell him how Adolf Zukor was such a fine man, who gave them all this wonderful studio, and how Paramount was the greatest studio in the world, how such a great person the president of the studio was, and how lucky they both were to be there. Earl said that he went from feeling depressed, to feeling really happy after talking with A.C., and that he carried that happiness with him during his time there.
Earl Lestz also told us of a great story about how A.C. asked him to mark his calendar one day for someone he wanted to introduce him to. He said the date was a month out, and he later heard from the Secret Service that President Reagan was going to be visiting the studio that day. Earl said that he figured the President was meeting then President of Paramount Sherry Lansing, but that it was an odd coincidence, and he wondered who this person was A.C. was going to introduce him to. Earl went on to tell us that studio operations guys were pretty dumb, and that he still didn't get it. The audience laughed, but certainly, they aren't, and Mr. Lestz himself is far from dumb. Earl Lestz went on to transform the studio operations division of Paramount from several million dollars of declining statistics muddled with debt, into a $50 million per year profit leader, as Paramount is to this day. As the day arrived that he had marked down on his calendar, Earl's friend A.C. Lyles walked in to the Paramount Commissary where he was dining, and walked up to Earl who was sitting at his usual spot a few tables down from Sherry Lansing. He introduced him to his friend, President Reagan.
David Milch spoke next, creator and producer of hit shows including Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blues, and Deadwood among others. He mentioned the story about how his father told him how one day he would meet someone who would teach him all he needed to know about writing and success. David Milch mentioned how he went on to attend college, and found two such mentors. The first was a college professor, and the other most important one in his career; A.C. Lyles. He stated how he asked A.C. if he would be a producer on his new show he had written, Deadwood, and A.C. obliged. A.C. went on to serve as consulting producer on 24 of the shows 36 award winning episodes.
A.C.'s friend Doctor Jacob Rajfer spoke next, and then A.C's wife Martha Lyles, as well as a neighbor friend of many years, Ben Wheeler. Martha told us how she had had a wonderful life with A.C, and got to travel all over the world doing the most exciting things. She said how they had recently stayed for a week in the palace of Abdullah II, King of Jordan. Martha also recounted a funny story how she and A.C. used to love to go to the movies playing at The Academy, and A.C. would always say to her every time, "I'll meet you downstairs." He would then go to the lobby and socialize with everyone there, and she said they would always be the last ones to leave, and would tease him saying how they were going to get their car locked in there one night. She said fortunately they never did locked in. She next told us however how A.C. went over one evening to the garage down the street from Paramount, to get some work done on his convertible. She said he was talking to the mechanic Joe there, and that he actually ended up getting locked in the garage. She said they came and put a chain and lock on the door and he was locked inside! After some failed attempts at getting help from passers by, he reportedly convinced a kind man to notify Paramount down a few blocks away, who reportedly summoned the police, who then cut the lock and freed A.C.
The point of the story as I saw it was not of ridicule, but of a reminder that this great legend in Hollywood was human like all of us. And, that A.C. loved people so much, and loved to talk with people so greatly, that nothing would stop his desire to do so. In this way, A.C. Lyles was the great communicator. He spend a good part of his life growing up together with his best friend Ronald Reagan, who this title itself was later applied to. And while his friend Reagan took his expert skills in acting and communication from Hollywood as a screen actor to the stage of Washington, A.C. Lyles similarly took his masterful skills in communication, directing, and producing from Hollywood- to the world of celebrity and public relations, and back to Hollywood again.
Ben Wheeler concluded with a heartfelt speech about his love for A.C., and how he called him one day after realizing the problem that he needed change for a fifty dollar bill, for the pizza he has just ordered to have delivered to his home. After a few rings, A.C. answered the phone, and Ben explained his predicament. A.C., who many will testify was slow- if ever to show anger, simply said, "Ben, I just put the President of The United States on hold to take your call and now I am listening to your problem about the pizza boy." The audience laughed, and Ben told of how bad he felt. Twenty minutes later however, Ben recounted, A.C. was on the phone, and told him that he had the needed change for him. That's the kind of man A.C. was- the definition of a gentleman, and a man of the most noble personality, kindness, and style. I am honored to have known A.C. Lyles, to have had him take my calls, to have had the great honor of having him return my calls, and to have personally and exclusively interviewed the man that was the last greatest direct connection to the Golden Age of Hollywood that ever lived. A.C. Lyles was a legend, and there will never be another like him. There needn't be.
As the Memorial inside ended, guests exited the theatre to the lobby area, and to the outside gardens. As I left my seat, I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger duck out of the side door to avoid the crowd. Ahead of me, I said hello to renowned film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, among other luminaries. Mr. Maltin agreed with me that the tribute and film documentary shown was really great. For the next three hours, guests were treated to endless cups of coffee and tea, and also to literally endless servings of delicious food and desert, from over a dozen servers politely approaching every person literally around every 30 to 60 seconds. I considered how significant this time and event was, and imagined A.C. looking down over it all being very pleased. I asked A.C. what he thought would happen after he died. He told me that he had no idea, but that after he figured it out when he was gone, if he was able to communicate, I would be the first person he would call to let me know. After all, he had my number, he told me. We both had great laughs at that. And, I got the call, from his secretary. Until we meet again A.C. I miss you.
Thank you Pam, and thank you Paramount for the memories. You are greatly loved and appreciated.
To hear an excerpt of my exclusive interview with A.C. Lyles, re-published in the last issue of The Hollywood Sentinel, click here.
Copyright, 2013, Bruce Edwin, The Hollywood Sentinel, all world rights reserved.