"Owner of Lyric Theater Grilled at Red Hearing," reported the Monrovia Daily News-Post on March 27, 1953.
We : Simon Lazarus, owner and manager of Monrovia's Lyric Theater was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a result of his involvement with Salt of the Earth, a pro-labor film produced by victims of the Hollywood blacklist.
The story would have ended here, but in response to my article, Lazarus’s daughter, Vita Lazarus Germain, and grandson, Gregory Germain, contacted me and revealed a surprising twist.
“The FBI was paying neighbors to spy on him,” Germain told me. “They filed very funny reports of domestic arguments and the like. It could have been something out of East Berlin.”
After his grandfather's death, Germain and his brother obtained Lazarus’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, and found hundreds of pages of surveillance notes on their grandfather stretching from 1951 until 1973.
“The FBI was really worried about him having some kind of governmental-level relations with Russia, which I’m sure he did not," said Germain, a professor of law at Syracuse University. “There were almost no legal privacy limits on the government in those days. The government could tap your phone line without a court order or probable cause.”
Some of those reporting on Lazarus were close family friends. Daughter Vita remembers when an outgoing couple moved next door to her parents when they were living in Beverly Hills in the 1950s. “They became very friendly with my parents, in fact they came to my wedding and so on. This couple […] was reporting to the FBI about my father.”
When Lazarus made an emergency trip to Russia to visit a dying sister around the same time, heightened scrutiny of him began. "This was at the height of the Cold War and his sister refused to see him (probably scared of a Stalin purge for seeing an American)," explains Germain. "So he flew back home the same day. The FBI thought it was very suspicious that someone would fly to Moscow and back the same day and intensified their spying efforts, paying multiple neighbors for information."
In an effort to gain possible leads, FBI special agents called Lazarus's home under false pretenses, solicited travel agents he had done business with, and obtained information from the DMV, the post office, and even Lazarus's gardener.
“There was always talk that he would know Khruschev," says Vita. "He didn’t know any of these people.” The FBI neverthless exhausted countless hours and resources trying to prove that Lazarus was either a Russian agent or a communist.
Trouble began for him in the 1940s--a time, remembers Vita, when "liberals were doing a lot of writing in the film industry." Lazarus approached a group of actors and writers with the idea of doing a movie together that would reflect their beliefs. “They said ‘why bother? We’re getting jobs, we’re working, we’re all saving money, we don’t need to do that right now," explained Vita.
A few years later, however, many of these same people had found themselves blacklisted by the right-wing establishment. In response, they formed the Independent Production Company, which sought to produce films outside the studio system, and provide work for victims of the blacklist. Lazarus acted as president and put up part of the money for their first feature, Salt of the Earth--a dramatization of a 1951 New Mexico mineworkers' strike.
Cooperating on the production was the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which had been expelled from the CIO for alleged communist ties. When the film began shooting in New Mexico in 1953, Screen Actors Guild president Walter Pidgeon received a tip-off from a local schoolteacher about the production, and contacted the FBI, the State Department, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who began an immediate investigation into the film.
Soon, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and Simon Lazarus found themselves called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Lazarus and his wife were then living on East Lime Avenue in Monrovia, managing the Lyric Theater. Steve Baker, curator of the Monrovia Historical Museum, who was a child at the time, remembers the rumors of communism ties that spread as a result: “Was there anything concrete? No, of course not. But that was the era when you pointed fingers.”
When the story broke in the local papers, Lazarus began to receive harassing phone calls. “He was afraid of being hurt," recalls Vita, "and he was afraid that they would try to come and hurt the family.”
The Monrovia American Legion threatened to boycott the Lyric Theater, and several days later, Lazarus abruptly resigned as manager, leaving his duties to fellow Monrovian named William Johnson.
At the time, Lazarus issued a press release defending himself and the film. “I have been a registered Democrat all my life," he stated. "I have never belonged to any other political party. The picture in which I invested my money and energy is an honest and encouraging portrayal of American life." Lazarus and his wife moved away from Monrovia in October 1953, fearing other repurcussions.
The FBI continued its scrutiny of Lazarus for another 20 years, but never produced a shred of evidence linking him to any communist plot.
Germain holds little love for the anti-communist establishment of the time.
"They harassed anyone who dared to question their methods," he told me. "The bedrock principles of the First Amendment were ignored in the hysteria, and there were politicians aplenty willing to exploit the public's fears.”
“[Lazarus] deserves a lot of credit for having the strength to stand up and fight back.”