B…Who?: Sumner Redstone

For more than 30 years, the name Redstone has been connected to Boston University. One might have heard it in the College of Communication’s student film festival—the Redstone Film Festival. A longtime exhibitor of student films, the Redstone Film Festival has been the starting point of such Hollywood figures as director Gary Fleder, producer Richard Gladstein, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg.

But even if for those who are not in COM or fans of film,  the Redstone name was more noticeable around campus more recently. Signs have appeared informing pedestrians of detours due to the construction of the new School of Law building between Mugar Memorial Library and the Law tower.

Sumner Redstone | Photo courtesy of Viacom Inc.
Sumner Redstone | Photo courtesy of Viacom Inc.

So who is this Redstone person anyways?

Sumner Redstone (HON ’94) is the majority owner and Chairman of the Board of National Amusements, a Dedham, Massachusetts-based movie theater company. Through this position, Redstone controls media conglomerates CBS Corporation and Viacom Inc.—the parent companies of brands such as CBS, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and MTV.

A distinguished academic, veteran, lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist, Sumner Redstone has risen from his working-class background to become a self-made billionaire and business leader by seizing every opportunity presented to him with determination and perseverance. In other words, Sumner Redstone is an embodiment of the American Dream.

Born on May 27, 1923, Sumner Murray Rothstein grew up in a poor Jewish household in Boston’s West End and Brighton neighborhoods. His father, Michael “Max” Rothstein (changed to the literal Redstone in 1940), was an entrepreneur who started out selling linoleum from a truckbed and eventually, despite the tough times of the Great Depression, became the owner of a local drive-in theater chain and the Boston branches of two famed nightclubs. His mother, Belle, was a dedicated housewife and mother who focused on the education of her two sons, Sumner and Edward, and instilled in them diligence and concentration. In his autobiography A Passion to Win, Redstone attributes his pursuit for excellence to his parents.

The top student at James A. Garfield Intermediate School despite daily bullying from anti-Semitic neighborhood children, Redstone gained admission to Boston Latin School, the oldest and foremost public school in the city, if not the country. For six years Redstone competed intensely with Boston’s other premier students at the demanding institution. In a speech at BU Law in 2010, Redstone described his time at Boston Latin as “the most rigorous and competitive experience I have ever had. And that includes business!” Redstone wrote in his autobiography that he was so determined to be the best student that he forewent friendships and any other aspect of social life in order to study more. The personal sacrifice paid off for the young Redstone. He graduated first in his class with a record-setting grade point average, a grand achievement considering the challenging nature of the school but made even grander when one realizes the school was 305 years old at the time.

Redstone’s superior academic skills carried on to Harvard University, where he had earned a scholarship to. But the world-renowned Harvard was a letdown to Redstone. “There was no feeling of daily individual competition, no sense of intensity, no battle of intellects.” Redstone took many additional classes in order to maintain interest. Again, he hit the books hard and skipped out on a social life. By his junior year Redstone had already amassed enough credits to graduate, but not fulfilling the residency requirement kept him from being awarded a degree, until a special Board of Overseers granted him one in absentium years later.

A student of foreign languages, Redstone was hand-selected by his former Japanese professor Edwin Reischauer, who had been recruited by the military since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to serve under him in a specialized U.S. Army Intelligence unit tasked with cryptography/cryptanalysis operations. Redstone accepted and left Harvard to join the military. In Reischauer’s cryptography program, Redstone worked tirelessly alongside other top academic minds to decipher the seemingly impossible Japanese codes. In a few short years they would accomplish their goal, contributing greatly to the nation’s victory in World War II. For his service, Redstone was honored with two commendations by the Military Intelligence Division and was a recipient of the Army Commendation Award.

Returning from war, Redstone decided to pursue a career in law. He graduated with his degree from Harvard Law School in 1947. This experience would go on to serve him well, as he told BU Law students in 2010, “I apply the mental discipline and guiding principles I learned at law school every day of my life in business.”

Redstone began his law career with a clerkship—the best job in law a recent graduate could get—for federal judge William Moore of the 9th circuit in San Francisco. Not demanding enough for Redstone, he began teaching night classes in labor law at University of San Francisco Law School. From the clerkship he moved to the Justice Department, where he served as Special Assistant to United States Attorney General Tom Clark. Redstone called this “one of the greatest and most intense experiences of my life.” He left the public sector after the head of the Justice department and his deputy recruited Redstone for their private practice. At the age of 28, Redstone was a partner in an elite law firm, making the modern equivalent of over $1 million a year. But he grew tired of it. Redstone left the Washington D.C.-based firm after three years to enter the family business.

At Northeast Theater Corporation, the precursor to National Amusements, Redstone would aid his father’s drive-in theater chain using his acute legal skills. Examples include his role as president of the trade organization Theatre Owners of America, successfully suing a Hollywood studio for the right to screen the more profitable first-run films at drive-ins, and trademarking the term “multiplex” as they began to supersede drive-ins. Over the next thirty years, Redstone would hone his business skills as President and CEO of the family business to make the Northeast Theater Corporation a multi-national motion picture exhibition powerhouse.

Meanwhile, the ever-hungry Redstone supplemented his business career with a return to law and academia. In 1982, the highly regarded executive joined Boston University School of Law as a lecturer. At BU Law, Redstone pioneered one of the nation’s first courses in entertainment law: “The Law of the Entertainment Industries.”

Detour signage for the construction of BU Law's Sumner M. Redstone Building | Photo by Thomas Pelkey
Detour signage for the construction of BU Law’s Sumner M. Redstone Building. | Photo by Thomas Pelkey

As the family theatrical business had grown, Redstone came to believe that content would become more important than distribution. As he later put it, “it’s not what is on that matters, it’s what is on it.” After viewing the spectacle of George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977, Redstone began investing in Hollywood studios. This strategy proved to be very profitable for his entertainment business.

In 1987, at an age when most people enter retirement, Sumner Redstone doubled down. Seeking a new challenge, the 64-year-old used National Amusements massive earnings to acquire cable syndicate Viacom Inc. in a hostile takeover, a move he calls “his proudest moment.” Immediately taking over as CEO and Chairman of the Board, Redstone devoted himself to transforming the struggling Viacom into a vertically integrated media conglomerate and, in his opinion, “the premier content provider on the planet.” Through Viacom, Redstone has shaped the landscape of the modern entertainment industry and risen to the status of global media magnate, a title which was solidified when he was awarded with the 2,467th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year.

And since delegating much of his day-to-day business activities to his businesswoman daughter Shari (LAW ‘78), the aging Redstone has focused more on spending time with his children (especially grandchildren) and giving back. A lifelong philanthropist, he set up the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation to donate more formally. Having contributed more than $150 million to causes such as medical innovation, education, and poverty relief, Redstone aims to advance innovation, empowerment, and progress in multiple ways.

One notable donation was the landmark $18 million grant to Boston University School of Law to help expand and improve the facilities, including the construction of a new classroom building to be named the Sumner M. Redstone Building.

Sumner Redstone is, in a word, distinguished.  From his academic scholarship to his military service to his law career to his influence on the entertainment industry and landmark philanthropy, Redstone has achieved the highest level of success in each. And he attributes all of it to his “relentless passion to win.” In an email interview, he told me that he hopes that his namesakes reflect that zeal and inspires others to do the same. “My message is simple: live every day with passion and be passionate about doing the most you can and giving all that you can to help others.”

About Thomas Pelkey

Thomas Pelkey (CGS '13, CAS '15) is an expatriated Texan hailing from suburban Houston. He majors in American Studies, concentrating on American popular culture and media, and minors in Film and Television. He likes history, business, and especially television. If you want to compliment his writing, vent your outrage, or just hear some trivia fun-facts, email Thomas at tpelkey@buquad.com.

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