Broadway Empire

My Great-Grandfather Helped Create the American Musical

Bright Lights: Chorus girls backstage in the early days of Broadway.
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Bright Lights: Chorus girls backstage in the early days of Broadway.

By Eileen Reynolds

Published June 07, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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Mr. Broadway: The Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars
By Gerald Schoenfeld
Applause, 304 pages, 27.99

In August 2008, my family — parents, grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister — made a pilgrimage to New York City to speak with Gerald Schoenfeld, then chairman of the Shubert Organization, the largest theater group on Broadway. He met them in the heart of the Theater District, at the epicenter of the Shubert empire, in a boardroom above Sardi’s Restaurant, on West 44th Street. With three generations of my stunned relatives installed like executives around a bargaining table, Schoenfeld held forth for an hour, telling stories about the great midcentury heyday of Broadway theater — and about my great-grandfather, John F. Waters. Three months later, on November 25, Schoenfeld died of a heart attack at the age of 84.

I missed the meeting with Schoenfeld for reasons that seemed important at the time, like moving to a new apartment and looking for a job. It’s a decision I regretted almost immediately, and I’ve revisited it with renewed anguish since Schoenfeld’s memoir, “Mr. Broadway,” was published in April. The book is an account of how Schoenfeld came to be one of the most influential theater executives of his generation, but it’s also a link to Waters, the great-grandfather I knew only through my grandmother’s stories about the glamour of old Broadway. In 2008, Schoenfeld was the only Shubert executive old enough to remember Waters, who worked for earlier incarnations of the organization from 1927 to 1953, first as comptroller and then as treasurer. I wish I could have seen the look on my grandmother’s face when she stepped into the building on 44th Street and, even though she was suffering from dementia, recognized the elevator as the same one she took on frequent visits to her father’s office as a young girl.

My great-grandfather crossed paths with Schoenfeld only briefly, after Schoenfeld was brought on at the Shubert Organization as a young lawyer in 1949. But the few years when their careers overlapped were among the most eventful in the company’s century-long history. While beloved musicals like “South Pacific” and “The King and I” played to eager crowds on Broadway, the corporation that owned those packed theaters fought to defend itself in one lawsuit after another, including a massive antitrust case brought by the United States government. At the same time, employees like Waters and Schoenfeld found themselves caught between two feuding brothers who ran their powerful theater monopoly without speaking to each other, from separate offices on opposite sides of 44th Street.

Lee and John Jacob “J.J.” Shubert were most likely born in the 1870s in Neustadt, Poland (though the circumstances of their birth are a matter of some ambiguity), and immigrated to Syracuse, N.Y., with their family in 1882. They followed their brother, Sam, to New York City, where he moved in 1900 and leased the Herald Square Theatre, with dreams of becoming a producer. Tragedy struck in 1905, when Sam was killed in a collision between the passenger train he was riding and a freighter carrying dynamite. He was 26. Their mother threatened not to give the brothers the $200,000 from Sam’s life insurance policy unless they promised to stay in business together. A tortured partnership was born.

Over the next four decades, Lee and J.J. bought up theaters in New York City and throughout the country, taking advantage of antitrust laws to pick apart the Theatrical Syndicate, a monopoly formed in 1896 by six theater owners. The Shubert brothers presided over the golden age of American vaudeville, building many of the exquisite neoclassical theaters that stand on Broadway today. By 1924, they owned and operated 104 theaters in the United States and seven in London, and when Waters came to them from a previous post as treasurer of the United States Lines, a trans-Atlantic shipping company, he used his business contacts to help the Shuberts continue their aggressive expansion.

Schoenfeld fell in with the Shuberts accidentally. After graduating from New York University School of Law, he worried he’d have trouble finding work because, as he writes in “Mr. Broadway,” “the large ‘white-shoe’ firms did not take Jews.” When the father of one of his friends finagled him a job at Klein and Weir, the law firm that represented the Shubert brothers, Schoenfeld, a self-described “good boy from a comfortable middle-class Jewish family on New York’s Upper West Side,” didn’t know what he was in for.


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