The Death and Funeral of
Carl Laemmle, Sr.
January 17, 1867, Laupheim Wurttemberg, Germany —
September 24, 1939, Beverly Hills, California
By Allan R. Ellenberger
He was lovingly known as “Uncle Carl” and the “Little Napoleon” to those who knew and worked for him. Carl Laemmle, Sr., motion picture pioneer and founder of Universal Studios, was the first of the movie moguls to pass away since the death of Irving Thalberg just two years earlier.
A German immigrant, Laemmle had only $50 when he first arrived in the United States in 1893. In his early years, he first was a package-wrapper in Chicago, and then a clothing store clerk in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where he eventually became manager and saved $2,000.
In 1906 he returned to Chicago and opened a 5 and 10-cent store where he happened to behold a line of people waiting to pay their nickels to see a motion picture and decided to become a film theater operator instead. He named the theater the White Front and charged 5 cents, offering whatever crude films he could find.
From this he established a film exchange and from that success, went to New York where he began to produce his own films. This ultimately led to the founding of Universal Studios and film history when he sent a company to England to film Ivanhoe (1913) in its original setting.
Front view of the main administration building of the Universal Pictures Company taken shortly after completion of the building in 1915.
Moving operations to California, he eventually purchased 230 acres in the San Fernando Valley, just outside of Hollywood, and here founded Universal City on March 15, 1915. His most successful films included Traffic in Souls (1913), Foolish Wives (1922), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Phantom of the Opera (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. When talkies arrived, he remained president but handed much of the studios production to his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Carl Laemmle, Sr. and son
In 1936, because of financial problems, most notably due to the overruns on the budget of Showboat (1936) and the ravages of the depression, Laemmle was eventually forced to retire, selling the studio to Standard Capital Company.
For the next three years, Laemmle maintained an office in Hollywood to take care of his various business interests. He finally ceased this activity, and spent most of his time at his home at 1275 Benedict Canyon, which was the former residence of producer Thomas H. Ince.
Laemmle suffered his first heart attack on July 14, 1939; this was followed by several milder attacks. On September 23, he went for a car ride hoping to gain some relief from the heat. Upon returning he declared that he felt a “little wobbly” but slept soundly the rest of the night.
Early the next morning he suffered two more heart attacks and his doctor was called. The third and fatal heart attack occurred while he was still in bed. Present at the time of his death was his son, Carl, Jr., his daughter, Rosabelle Bergerman and two physicians.
Laemmle was also survived by two brothers, Siegfried and Louis Laemmle and two grandchildren, Carol Bergerman, 9 and Stanley Bergerman, Jr., 7.
Tributes immediately began to pour in. From Mexico City, Joseph M. Schenck, president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, paid high tribute to Laemmle by issuing the following statement:
“The passing of Carl Laemmle was a shock and a great loss to the motion picture industry.
“Carl Laemmle was more than a pioneer, he was a builder. A kind, gentle man, he fought for the industry at a time when it was weak and shackled, and due to his courage and independence, the fight that was of nation-wide importance in its time was won.
“The whole motion picture industry must mourn the loss of Carl Laemmle, but in Hollywood where he lived and worked, his memory will be enshrined.”
That day, Laemmle’s will was taken from a bank vault and scanned to learn whether he had expressed any last wishes as to his burial — which he had not. At the time, his family was undecided as to whether he would be buried beside his wife (who died in 1918) in a mausoleum in Salem Field Cemetery in New York, but finally determined that he would be laid to rest at Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
It was also announced that Rabbi F. Edgar Magnin, the “Rabbi to the Stars,” would give the eulogy and read the ritual over Laemmle’s body, which would lie in state at the Wilshire B’nai B’rith Temple from 11:30 AM the next day up until the time of the services.
Wilshire B’nai B’rith Temple
As a mark of respect, at 12:30 PM on September 26, there was a five-minute period of silence at all of the studios in Hollywood, at the home offices of Universal in New York and at all of the Universal film exchanges throughout the world.
Rabbi Magnin intoned prayers over Laemmle’s body as nearly 2,000 of his friends and former associates listened at the Wilshire B’nai B’rith Temple. The ceremony was simple, as requested by the family. Laemmle lay in a copper coffin at one side of the pulpit, banked high with flowers.
Touching briefly on Laemmle’s rise to success from a poor immigrant from Germany to a leader in the film industry, Rabbi Magnin pointed out it was not the money he made nor the power he wielded but what he did with his wealth and his power.
A PORTION OF RABBI MAGNIN’S EUOLOGY:
“Many people are mourned after their death but not loved while they are alive, particularly those who have power which makes them so susceptible to hatred.
“But here was a man who was loved by all. He was kind and sweet. He saw all who needed him and never with a display of arrogance. He was always the same, sweet and simple. He never forgot he was a poor boy.
“He gave generously of his purse and his heart. His charities were widespread and of this I, personally, am acquainted. He gave to the organized charities but he helped more people in an individual way. He established a foundation and he took a personal part in it.
“He always gave to people who needed help, but he made them feel that they were earning what he gave them.
“He was a fine American. He was born in Germany and he always had a tender spot for the German people. He full well realized in the World War as today that they are victims of a government.
“His love for his home and his family was second to none.”
During the service, Laemmle’s daughter, Rosabelle almost broke under the strain and it was minutes after Magnin’s closing words that she was able to leave the temple and enter a car to go with relatives to the cemetery for the interment.
Laemmle family room at Home of Peace (findagrave / A. J. Marik)
Carl Laemmle was laid to rest in a private family room of the Chapel Mausoleum at Home of Peace Cemetery. Universal Studios is still a major film company; one of only a few that still survive at their original locations in Hollywood.
(findagrave / Gerald N. Davis M.D.)