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The brilliant Shubert brothers - Lee, Samuel and Jacob

Many thanks to The Shuberts of Broadway by Brooks McNamara (1990). The heart of Manhattan's theatre district is lined with shrines to their great careers, including the Imperial and Majestic.

The three Shubert brothers were Lee (1873-1953), Samuel (1875-1905) and Jacob (1879-1963). They were born in Lithuania before their Szemanski parents brought the family to Syracuse New York in 1882. Father David was an alcoh­olic peddlar who could not support his family.

In the 1880s, 10 year old Lee began selling program­mes in front of a local theatre and Sam got a small part in a play. Sam fell in love with theatrical glamour and went from actor at the Bastable Theatre, to ass­istant treasurer of the Grand Opera House, to treasurer of Syracuse’s loveliest theatre, The Wieting.

The brothers were supporting each other’s work. When Sam became manager of the Bastable Theatre, Jacob was working at The Wieting and Lee was the bookkeeper for both theatres. By being involved in as many theatres as possible, the Shuberts were building an imp­ressive theatrical empire. Their first joint business venture was to get New England touring rights to Hoyt’s A Texas Steer. And soon after the brothers formed their own Baker theatre in Rochester. While Jacob turned The Baker into a successful stock comp­any, Sam and Lee acquired The Grand Opera House in Syracuse.

Brothers Sam, Jacob/JJ and Lee Shubert

By 1900 the bro­thers managed five theatres in New York state. They had also de­fined their individual roles: Sam was creative, Lee was business-minded and Jacob organised out-of-town productions. From poverty, the brothers had become respected theatre man­agers. But now they wanted to produce their own plays, and that ambition drove them to New York City. In 1900 they borrowed money and bought the Herald Square Theatre.

The brothers turned Herald Square into a very successful theat­re with smash hits like the western Arizona starring Lionel Barrymore, and The Belle of New York, an English import. By 1904, after ten years in the business, they had acquired ten theatres, including Cas­ino and Princess in New York; Hyperion in New Haven Conn; Dearborn in Chicago; and Colonial in Boston. Finally they produced plays of their own eg The Chinese Honey­moon and Emerald Isle (1902).

And sometimes the Shuberts were simply impresarios. They presented repertory companies from Italy and Britain and they organised seasons of operettas eg Gilbert & Sullivan.

In May 1905 at 30, Sam died in a tragic train wreck near Har­r­is­­burg Penn. By then the three brothers had 13 theatres in the USA plus two in the UK. Sam’s 15-year career had generated an estate of $500,000 ($14.7 million today).

Unfortunately the rapid growth of the Shubert Co. was a threat to The Syndicate, a group of pro­ducers and theatre owners who bel­ieved they controlled American theatre in the early C20th. Led by Abe Erlanger and some other pro­ducers, the Syndicate owned the majority of American theatres and ran the central booking agency. 

After Sam’s death, Lee planned to sell to the Synd­ic­ate, unt­il Erlanger made the mistake of insulting Sam’s memory. From then on, the Shub­erts fought the Syndicate fiercely. The two surviving brothers clarified they were on the side of the theatre workers and against the Synd­ic­ate’s con­trol. They pro­duced a farewell tour for the idolised actress Sarah Bern­hardt in 1913-4, and when the Syndicate closed them out of a city, they pro­duced the show in VERY big tents.

By the 1920s Syracuse’s underdogs had defeated the Syndic­ate. By 1924 the Shuberts had 86 theatres in the USA alone; they were mak­ing $1 million a week in ticket sales; and they controlled 60% of the USA’s legitimate theatre, owned a dancing/singing school and truckloads of real estate. And Lee was on the board of MGM!!

To honour their late brother, the Shuberts named the Manhattan venue the Sam B Shubert Memorial Theatre. Completed in mid 1913, the five-storey theatre was designed in the Venetian Renais­s­ance style. Ar­ch­itect Henry Beaumont Herts' ornamentation included delicate pan­els with Pompeian frescoes and a stately overall ap­pearance.

The Shubert brothers scored a coup for opening night. The fine British actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson arrived in New York in Sept 1913 to beg­in his farewell tour, which began with Hamlet in Oct at The Shubert. Co-starring with him as Ophelia was his wife, Gertrude Elliott.

Princess Theatre Detroit
Opened 1908
Front entrance of Shubert Theatre, Boston (above)
opened 1910
Shubert Theatre, Boston, 1500 seats (below)

While the brothers had formed their own trust and were in constant litig­ation, they did introduce many of the finest stage-actors, including Will Rogers, Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr, the Barrymores and Spencer Tracy. They also pre­m­iered the innovative director Max Reinhardt’s production of Sumurun (1911); premiered Child­ren’s Hour (1934) by Lilian Hellman; and prod­uced the long running Hell­z­apoppin (1938). Yet despite the fact that Lee had written a play and Jacob directed frequently, their contribution to the theatre was not artistic; just business.

Shubert Theatre saw famous plays and actors for decades. In 1939 Katharine Hepburn opened in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story; in 1941 Pal Joey moved from the Barry­more Theatre bec­ause of the Shubert's larger capacity. The Rodgers & Hart musical starr­ed Gene Kelly opposite Vivienne Segal. And soon Max­well Ander­son's Candle in the Wind opened, starring Helen Hayes and Lotte Lenya.

By the time of Lee Shubert’s death in 1953 at 80, the brothers had prod­uced 600 shows under the name Mssrs. Shubert Presents. And they’d also booked 1,000 shows into their many theatres, prim­ar­ily backing other companies’ productions. In 1956 they were faced with an anti-trust suit and were forced to stop their booking bus­i­ness, yet their acquis­it­ions of theatre real estate continued to make the Shubert Corpor­ation a large theatre oper­at­ion.

With Jacob’s death in 1963, the heirs took over. Although the Shubert domain was reduced to 17 theatres in New York, part control of an 18th and seven outside New York, the Shubert victories in the old wars still im­p­acted the industry.

Shubert and Booth Theatres,
New York, opened 1913

Shubert Theatre, New Haven Conn
Opened in 1914

How Jewish were the brothers? Musical comedy had its sources in the European operetta. Then it moved from Britain to the US where, in the C20th, the genre underwent its greatest devel­opment. Already Jews like the Shuberts were playing a very influen­tial role on the careers of other Jewish artists eg Flor­enz Ziegfeld and the Follies, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Richard Rodgers, George Gersh­win, Arthur Schwartz, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, EY Har­burg, Ira Gershwin, George S Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Frank Loesser etc.

Thank you to Dayton in Manhattan.


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