Lee Shubert

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Date: 1977
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,216 words

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Shubert, Lee (Mar. 15, 1873[?] - Dec. 25, 1953), theatrical producer, was born Levi Szemanski in Shirvinta, Russia, the son of David Szemanski, a Jewish pack peddler, and Catarina Szemanski. In 1882, when David Szemanski immigrated to the United States, officials mistakenly recorded his name as David Shurbent, which was readily transformed into Shubert. The following year the family joined their father in Syracuse, N.Y. Forced onto the streets by his alcoholic father's failure as a storekeeper, the ten-year-old boy sold newspapers, shined shoes, and opened carriage doors for tips outside the Wieting Theater. He then became errand boy to the theater's manager and subsequently worked as a cigar roller, shirt cutter, and partner in a haberdashery. He apparently received no formal schooling.

In partnership with his younger brother Samuel and subsidized by a clothier and a foundry owner from Syracuse, Shubert in 1894 obtained the road rights to A Texas Steer from Charles Hoyt and conducted a lucrative northeastern tour. The following season the brothers and their backers produced another profitable Hoyt play, and during the next three years their group leased and acquired several upstate New York theaters. In 1898 they secured the national road rights to The Belle of New York.

In April 1900, Lee, Samuel, and Jacob Shubert obtained a lease on the Herald Square Theater in New York City, in defiance of the recently formed Klaw-Erlanger syndicate, which then controlled 95 percent of American theaters. Kirk LaShelle's production of Augustus Thomas' Arizona and a short-lived Klaw-Erlanger play were followed at the Herald Square on May 20, 1901, by Sam Shubert's production of an English play, The Brixton Burglary. Early in 1902 Lee Shubert assumed direction of the brothers' business affairs and obtained capital (mainly from New York attorney Samuel Untermyer and realtor Andrew Freedman) for the production and importation of hit shows and for the purchase of theaters in New York, New Haven, Boston, Chicago, and Kansas City.

Following Sam Shubert's death in a railway accident in 1905, Lee Shubert became president of the Shubert Theatrical Corporation. By 1906 the enterprise owned thirteen theaters, and the Shubert brothers steadily extended their control of theaters in major cities. Over the next decade, through skillful, relentless bargaining with owners and managers, and by imperious dealings with playwrights, composers, and performers, the Messrs. Shubert came to dominate American theatrical management and production. Their domain included theaters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cincinnati, and such leading Broadway theaters as the Hippodrome and Winter Garden. "The manager must measure the appeal of the particular play not by what New York wants, but by what the entire country wants," Lee Shubert claimed. "Several times in those early days, it looked as though we would be broken [by the syndicate], but we always pulled through."

In December 1920, over his brother Jacob's objections, Shubert launched a "class" vaudeville war against the B. F. Keith monopoly. This disastrous venture drove up actors' salaries, cost the Shuberts over $3.5 million, and precipitated a futile triple-damages lawsuit against Keith. Shubert was also embroiled in intermittent litigation with Erlanger, public battles with drama critics, and contract disputes with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the Dramatists' Guild, and many performers.

Commencing with Maytime (1917) and their revival of Florodora (1920), continuing with Blossom Time and The Chocolate Soldier (1921), and culminating with The Student Prince (1924), the Shuberts' low-budget, old-school, "Viennese-American" operettas became trademarks--both for good and ill. Although the brothers could keep their houses filled with such shows, they elicited notoriety and then ridicule with what Time called their "low-salaried, second-rate singers" and what others referred to as "bankruptcy auction production [and] pennypinching tricks" (Stagg, p. 350). Artists and Models (1923) was the first of their calculated, declining sequence of revues conflating female nudity with gratuitous farce; the nadir was achieved with their 1942 padlocked Wine, Women and Song.

In June 1924 the Shuberts reorganized their business interests with the establishment of the Shubert Theatre Corporation, a holding company, and obtained $4 million with a bond issue. Their prospectus revealed ownership of eighty-six "first-class" theaters in the United States and Canada (of which thirty were in New York City) and lease or ownership of 750 "one-night stands" in smaller cities; weekly box-office receipts, it was claimed, ran as high as $1 million. By the summer of 1925, Shubert had bought six London theaters; and by mid-1929 he owned or controlled thirty-five New York City houses. His company produced about 25 percent of all American plays, held a tight rein on other bookings through joint pooling arrangements with Erlanger, and controlled about 75 percent of all theater tickets sold. Shubert was also a major stockholder and board member of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Company. His production of Barrie's What Every Woman Knows (1926) had advanced Helen Hayes to stardom, and he had had a silent partnership (with William A. Brady) in Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Street Scene (1929). By then the Shuberts had supplanted the Klaw-Erlanger monopoly as the most powerful entertainment empire of the day.

This empire was toppled by the Great Depression. In February 1933, after relinquishing all nontheatrical properties and satisfying creditors and receivers, Shubert (in the name of Select Theatres, Incorporated) bought the bankrupt corporation for $400,000. Having previously purchased $200,000 of the adjustment bonds, Shubert and (nominally) his brother owned two-thirds of the Shubert Theatre Corporation--which resumed production forthwith.

Although Olsen and Johnson's uninhibited, vaudevillian Hellzapoppin (1938) and Sons o' Fun (1941), and the Shuberts' productions of Ten Little Indians (1944) and Under the Counter (1947) had record runs, Lee and J. J. Shubert progressively withdrew from production, concentrating their energies on their real estate empire and their booking operations. (The last of their 520 productions opened in 1954.) During a World War II show-business bonanza, Shubert donated space for stage-door canteens in New York and Boston, opened the lobby of the Majestic Theater for a Red Cross blood unit, and gave away thousands of tickets to members of the armed forces.

On Sept. 2, 1948, former showgirl Marcella Swanson sued for divorce as Mrs. Lee Shubert, charging mental cruelty and claiming that her marriage to the producer had taken place in Berlin in June 1936, legitimizing a relationship begun in the 1920's. Shortly after the divorce was granted, the couple remarried. They had no children.

In February 1950, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath brought an antitrust suit against the Shubert brothers. In 1955 to avoid litigation, the Shuberts signed a consent decree, which bound them to sell twelve theaters in six cities within two years and to give up the booking share of the business.

At his death in New York City, Shubert's estate was valued at about $16 million. "We began building theaters, and introduced practical commercial methods into a flagrantly impractical and precarious profession," Shubert had asserted in 1924. "This sordid commercialism has helped to make the American stage a legitimate, financial risk, stabilized its revenue, attracted real money to it, reduced the margin of chance, increased its facilities, and widened its opportunities." He also once said, "Greed is what makes some people successful. It's what makes some actors stars, and the rest just actors. You have to want something . . . so much, you can taste it."

FURTHER READINGS:

[The most comprehensive full-length study is Jerry Stagg, The Brothers Shubert (1968). Accounts of Shubert's early years include New York Times, Oct. 11, 1903; Julian Johnson, "The Little Brown Buddha of the Play," American Magazine, July 1913; Lee Shubert, "Picking Amusement for Ninety Thousand People," Forum, Apr. 1919; Keene Sumner, "Sometimes You Fight Better If You're Driven to the Wall," American Magazine, Oct. 1921; and Lee Shubert, "The Truth About Commercialism in the Theatre," Theatre Magazine, Apr. 1924. Other aspects of his career are covered in Robert Sylvester, "Dream Street," Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 31, 1942; and Bruce B. Klee, "Woollcott vs. Shubert: Dramatic Criticism on Trial," Educational Theatre Journal, Dec. 1961. On the Shubert monopoly and antitrust suit, see "Anti-Shubert," Newsweek, Mar. 6, 1950; "Hogging the Act?" Time, Mar. 6, 1950; and Dorothy G. Baker, "Monopoly in the American Theater" (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1962).]

 

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310003533