MELISSA BLOCK, host:
When Hollywood turned out for last night's Academy Awards, there among the stars was a motion picture veteran nearly 10 years older than the Oscars themselves. A.C. Lyles is a producer, and still active at age 92. He spent his entire career at one studio - Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
That's where NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates got to meet him.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Every day, visitors make their way across the Paramount lot to the Hart Building. There, in a fourth-floor suite, with a panoramic view of Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign, A.C. Lyles delights his guests by pointing out photos of the people he's worked with over the years.
Mr. ANDREW CRADDOCK LYLES (Producer, Paramount Pictures): This is Steve McQueen. This is John Wayne - and Barbara Stanwyck.
BATES: Lyles may be the last living link to old Hollywood. He saw his first movie when he was 10 years old, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. Today, he keeps a reminder of it near his desk.
Mr. LYLES: Over there, in the corner, is an old, hand-cranked camera. And that was one of the cameras used to photograph "Wings." And that camera made a picture that changed my life.
BATES: "Wings," a World War I flight epic, was given the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, 83 years ago. It made 10-year-old Andrew Craddock Lyles determined to work in the industry that made such magic. He got a job sweeping up popcorn at a local Paramount theater. And after a chance meeting with the studio's founder, Adolph Zukor, he wrote Zukor weekly until he was hired right out of high school.
Suddenly, he was surrounded by some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, like Gloria Swanson. He remembers seeing her arrive at the studio's famous, wrought-iron gates.
Mr. LYLES: And she had two young girls there in advance, and they had big baskets of rose petals. And she got out of her chauffeur-driven car. The young girls would walk in front of her and toss up rose petals for her to walk on. That was her entrance.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BATES: Swanson's star faded with the advent of the talkies. But she was back in the spotlight years later, when she was cast as movie goddess Norma Desmond in the 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard." It was an eerie collision of art and life since it mirrored Swanson's own career at Paramount.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sunset Boulevard")
Ms. GLORIA SWANSON (Actress): (as Norma Desmond) Where is Mr. DeMille shooting?
Mr. ROBERT EMMETT O'CONNOR (Actor): (as Jonesy) Stage 18, Ms. Desmond.
Ms. SWANSON: (as Norma Desmond) Thank you, Jonesy. And teach your friend some manners. Tell him without me, he wouldn't have any job because without me, there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio.
Mr. O'CONNOR: (as Jonesy) You're right, Miss Desmond.
BATES: Lyles likes to say he didn't need college; Paramount became his university.
Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille and Adolph Zukor both educated Lyles on everything from how to run the business to how to dress.
Mr. LYLES: Mr. Zukor said now, this is important. I want you to repeat it every day. Very important. I said yes, Mr. Zukor. He said dress British, but think Yiddish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BATES: Lyles took that advice. To this day, he's known for his elegant Savile Row suits and his business savvy. From the late '50s through the '60s, he produced a string of profitable, B-movie Westerns like "Black Spurs" and "Johnny Reno."
(Soundbite of movie, "Johnny Reno")
Unidentified Male (Actor): (as Character) Crime against an Indian is under government jurisdiction. The trial will be in Kansas City.
Unidentified Male (Actor): (as Character) Well, don't you bother none, marshal. We'll see that he gets to Kansas City. I'll see to it.
BATES: Lyles believes there's a reason for the genre's enduring popularity.
Mr. LYLES: The Western is the most moral story you can tell - good against evil, with the good always winning out.
BATES: At the height of the studio system, Lyles says Paramount was able to crank out 40 movies a year, constantly recycling its talent, directors and producers. He says that couldn't happen today.
Mr. LYLES: Well, money is a big problem. I think if Mr. Zukor were to come back today, I think the cost of production would shock him because costs have gone up so high.
BATES: His office walls are testament to Lyles' years of close relationships with major Hollywood players. One of his best friends sent taped congratulations when Lyles celebrated 50 years at Paramount.
President RONALD REAGAN: A.C. and I, in fact, arrived in Hollywood at about the same time.
BATES: Yup. That's Ronald Reagan speaking from the White House, the very place Lyles once predicted his good friend Ronnie would end up one day. He'll be 93 in May, but A.C. Lyles still goes to work every day as the studio's goodwill ambassador. There, he makes new friends in rooms filled with pictures of old ones.
Mr. LYLES: That's Mr. DeMille, and he gave that picture to me when I was his office boy.
BATES: He says retirement is not part of his plan, and laughs that they'll probably have to carry him out of here.
Mr. LYLES: I do come in every day, and I can't imagine not doing it. It's just a great, a great life.
BATES: We should all be so lucky.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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