Studio Shtetl

L.A.’s Academy Museum (finally) acknowledges Jewish founders of ‘Hollywoodland’

New exhibit about Jewish history of the modern entertainment industry will be made permanent after museum faced blowback for omitting Jews' role when it first opened last year

When The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened its doors in the fall of 2021, it had something for cinephiles of all ages and inclinations. One room highlighted Oscar winners, including some intricate costumes and facial prosthetics. One gallery profiled the films of Spike Lee; another, the work of Pedro Almodovar. And overhead, “Bruce the Shark” — a.k.a. Jaws — was suspended from the ceiling. But in a museum devoted to movie-making, the contributions of its Jewish founders, who created the studio system and the industry, were notably absent — until May 19, when “Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital” made its debut as the museum’s first permanent exhibition. 

The occasion was marked by a weekend of special events, many featuring Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s director and president, and associate curator Dara Jaffe. 

When the museum opened last year, it met a flurry of criticism for leaving out the role that Jews played in the creation of Hollywood and the entertainment industry as we know it. Speaking to journalists to mark the opening, Stewart said that the critical responses to that omission helped shape the “Hollywoodland” exhibition and were part of the reason why the museum decided to make it a permanent part of the collection.

“I really feel that we’re able to present this exhibition now in a way that’s better than it would have been if we had tried to tell the story when we first opened because we understand our audiences better,” said Stewart. “[We are] listening to a broad range of voices and coming to understand that we really need to be the place to tell this industry’s history. And this industry’s history is a story about Jewish immigrants and the world that they built in Los Angeles.”

Stewart told the press, adding that “the lens of immigration is so relevant to so many people, that we’re hoping that that’s going to be something that makes people who have many different backgrounds feel a connection to this exhibition.”

Jaffe curated the exhibition with support from Gary Dauphin, former associate curator of digital presentations, and research assistant Josue L. Lopez. Film critic Neal Gabler, author of the 1988 book An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood — considered by many to be the definitive chronicle of the industry’s early days — was an adviser for the exhibition, and appeared in conversation with Jaffe during the opening weekend.

Jaffe told eJP that before creating the exhibition, the museum held listening sessions with people in Jewish communities in L.A. and around the country, and she “talked to every single person who reached out to me,” she said, including rabbis. “We wanted a lot of eyes on this. We didn’t want anyone to be surprised by the content. We wanted people to know exactly what to expect and to feel like their voices were heard.”

“Hollywoodland” tracks early Hollywood history, from the founding of the original eight major film studios — Universal, Fox (later 20th Century Fox), Paramount, United Artists, Warner Bros., Columbia, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and RKO — through the late 1920s. 

An immersive map of Hollywood is paired with projections that show Hollywood’s transition “from film frontier to industry town,” including a timeline of where and when studios were developed.

Archival objects, like letters, memos and other communications from studio heads are featured, Jaffe told the press “because that’s where you really get a sense of their voice, their personality.” 

One such artifact, a letter from Universal Pictures founder and first president, Carl Laemmle, to his cousin, director William Wyler — who would later win best director and best picture Oscars for “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), and “Ben-Hur” (1959) — illustrates Laemmle’s efforts to save Jewish Germans in the 1930s, aiming to bring them to America and give them jobs at the studio. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been collecting film-related items since 1927, and its collection now includes more than 13 million photographs; 95,000 screenplays; 73,500 posters; 145,000 production and costume design drawings; 45,000 sound recordings; 8,000 props and other production items.

The exhibition also features a short original documentary — “From the Shtetl to the Studio: The Jewish Story of Hollywood,” narrated by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz — about the contributions of Hollywood’s Jewish founders, in the context of their history and their rise to success. 

“They transformed their own identities from humble peddlers to American monarchs. They turned early movies from technical novelty to entertainment art form, changing Los Angeles into Hollywood,” Mankiewicz narrates, adding that their fear that they wouldn’t be accepted as true Americans and their dream to assimilate and be accepted acted as “twin motivations [that] drove the creation of Hollywood.” 

While writing and producing the documentary, Jaffe told eJewishPhilanthropy that she wanted to hit a celebratory note while addressing the complexities of identity that the studio heads navigated. The film is made up of “11 small chapters that feel like complete stories,” she said, adding that the main theses of the exhibition are repeated throughout, so even if visitors only watch a segment of  the 30-minute film, “they will grasp the most major ideas.”

The permanence of this exhibition doesn’t necessarily mean that the gallery’s contents will remain exactly the same in perpetuity, but it “does mean that we’re dedicated to telling the story,” Jaffe told eJP. 

“It will always be about that story. We will have the opportunity  to refresh it. The only thing that’s certain is that foundational story to the industry and the city we’re a part of,” she said. “The exhibition is a jumping-off point.” The museum is also hosting additional programming this year that will be on-theme with the Hollywoodland exhibit. 

Speaking to eJP, Jaffe described herself as a classical Hollywood cinema fangirl, with a passion for film analysis and a deep love for the Barbra Streisand classic “Funny Girl.” After receiving her master’s degree in film, she had learned that the Academy Museum was being created, and directed her job-seeking energy in that direction. Eleven years later, she has curated multiple exhibitions for the museum, including one about auteur Spike Lee and co-curated the currently featured exhibition on iconoclastic director John Waters. 

Jaffe told eJP that she began researching the Hollywoodland exhibition in 2017, which was itself several years before the museum’s opening.

“When [the museum] decided to create this exhibition, I jumped at the chance,” she said, “between my expertise and my personal investment in this story, it felt right to take it on.” She added that despite growing up as one of only a few Jews — or often, the only Jew — in her Texas hometown, she was “very proud” of her Jewish identity, and felt that as the minority, “I needed to be the loud proud voice.” 

In addition to being the museum’s first permanent exhibition, “Hollywoodland” is only the second to be offered in both English and Spanish, which Stewart said was a step toward making the entire museum bilingual by 2028.

Jaffe told eJP that she hoped that everyone who encounters the museum “can see someone celebrated that they can relate to,” and that one of the museum’s goals is “telling complicated stories and challenging the dominant narratives of history… It’s an opportunity to make a difference,” she said.

“We are thinking about [Hollywoodland] as a very important educational platform to dispel these antisemitic harmful stereotypes, to offer some clarity and accuracy about why the founding of Hollywood is a Jewish immigrant story,” Jaffe told the press.

The museum said the exhibition was funded by a number of donors: the Blavatnik Family Foundation, Margo and Irwin Winkler, A. Scott Berg and Kevin McCormick, Jeffrey Berg and Denny Luria, the Jules Brenner Trust, Bronni Stein Connolly, Dorchester Collection, William Fox Jr. Foundation, Adam and Abbe Aron, the Ronald L. Blanc Family, Barbara Roisman Cooper and Martin M. Cooper, the Mark Gordon Family, Hawk and Molly Koch and Family, Peter, Melissa and Emma Koss, Gail and Warren Lieberfarb in Memory of Ted Ashley, and Elaine Mae Woo.

Among the founding donors of the 300,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 2021, are Cheryl and Haim Saban, the David Geffen Foundation and others. The museum’s accessibility initiatives, including ASL tours, assisted listening devices, physically accessible spaces and others were developed with counsel from The Ruderman Family Foundation, also a founding donor.

“The same kind of antisemitic rhetoric that was leveled at these original Jewish founders of Hollywood is still leveled at Jews in Hollywood today,” Jaffe told eJP at a small press event. Antisemitic narratives, she added, twisted the Hollywood origin story into “conspiracy theories that continue the cycle of antisemitism that’s been there from the very beginning of this industry.” 

“It’s always the right time to tell this story,” Jaffe said at the press meeting. “Unfortunately, antisemitism has always been prevalent and remains so, so this story always remains relevant. There have been so many times throughout the last couple years where I wished that this exhibition was open, so I could point to it and say if you’d like to be educated on this topic, please come to the museum.”