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Born into a poor Jewish family in New York City, he was forced by circumstances to work at a very young age and thus had little formal education. Nevertheless, beginning with a small investment from money saved from menial jobs, he bought into the penny arcade business. Soon, in partnership with others, one of whom was Adolph Zukor, Loew acquired a nickelodeon and over time he turned Loew's Theatres into the most prestigious chain of movie theaters in the United States.
By 1905, Marcus Loew was on his own and his success eventually necessitated that he secure a steady flow of product for his theaters. In 1904, he founded the People's Vaudeville Company, a theatre chain which showcased one-reeler films as well as live variety shows. In 1910, the company had considerably expanded and got the name Loew's Consolidated Enterprises. His associates included Adolph Zukor, Joseph Schenck, and Nicholas Schenck. In 1919, Loew reorganized the company under the name Loew's, Inc. In the early 1920s, Loew purchased Metro Pictures Corporation. A few years later, he acquired a controlling interest in the financially troubled Goldwyn Picture Corporation which at that point was controlled by theater impresario Lee Shubert. Goldwyn Pictures owned the "Leo the Lion" trademark which at the time was inconsequential to the importance of its studio property in Culver City, California. Without Samuel Goldwyn, the Goldwyn studio lacked capable management. With Loew's assistant Nicholas Schenck needed in New York City to help manage the large East Coast movie theater operations, Loew had to find a qualified executive to take charge of this new Los Angeles entity.
In April 1924, Loew resolved his problem with the purchase of the film production company owned by Louis B. Mayer. The new conglomerate became known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. As part of the deal, the very capable Mayer became studio head for the three combined Hollywood entities, and Mayer's assistant Irving Thalberg took charge of film production. In addition, the acquisition brought Mayer Pictures' contracts with key directors such as Fred Niblo and John M. Stahl and up-and-coming actress Norma Shearer.
While immediately successful, Marcus Loew never got to see the powerhouse that MGM was to become. He died three years later of a heart attack at the age of 57 in Glen Cove, New York. He was interred in the Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn.
For his very significant contribution to the development of the motion picture industry, Marcus Loew has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1617 Vine Street. To this day, the Loew name is synonymous with movie theaters.