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.

On February 20, 1950, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust complaint against the Shubert brothers and their partner Marcus Heiman, who ran the United Booking Office, the only theatrical booking office in America at that time. It was a tough blow, even for the shrewd Shuberts, whose ruthless tactics had pushed the family business to the brink of legal calamity. Schoenfeld, who had no antitrust expertise and had not yet met the Shubert brothers in person, became embroiled in an epic legal battle that would go on for six years and ultimately reach the Supreme Court. In 1955 the court sided with the government, and the Shuberts were ordered to break up the trust.

To make matters worse, Lee Shubert died unexpectedly of a stroke on Christmas Day 1953, and a nephew, Milton Isaacs, the son of Lee and J.J.’s sister Fannie, emerged out of the woodwork to claim his uncle’s estate. That bitter dispute lasted until 1965, when the organization finally settled, agreeing to pay Milton and his wife, Sylvia, $18 million over a period of several years. J.J. died on December 26, 1963, two days after America’s government demanded a whopping $15.7 million in taxes on his brother’s estate.

Tyrannical: Feuding brothers J.J. (left) and Lee Shubert bullied their way to a theater empire in New York and around the U.S.
Courtesy of the Shubert Archive
Tyrannical: Feuding brothers J.J. (left) and Lee Shubert bullied their way to a theater empire in New York and around the U.S.

Lee Shubert’s death was doubly shocking for Schoenfeld, who was surprised to find a rabbi leading the funeral service. He had never suspected that the Shuberts were Jewish — not just because they didn’t attend synagogue, but also because he’d always figured them to be anti-Semites. Schoenfeld later found a memo from J.J. to John Shubert, his son, which read: “I do not think this man, Schoenfeld, is any good whatsoever. I do not trust him. I do not like his methods. I do not care for that kind of people.” Interpreting “that kind of people” to mean “Jews” (rather than, say, lawyers), Schoenfeld stashed the memo in a desk drawer, he writes, “to remind myself of what I was once up against.”

Waters died in 1957, decades before I was born, but his stories about the Shuberts’ eccentricities lived on in family lore. My grandfather recalls Waters sitting down to a family dinner after work, burying his head in his hands and muttering, “There are no Shuberts; there are no Shuberts” — as if simply intoning the phrase could make it so. Another time, Waters went to lunch at Sardi’s with J.J. Shubert, who was fond of vichyssoise. When Shubert ordered the soup, he pronounced it “vishy-swishy,” and the waiter said: “Very good, Mr. Shubert. Vishy-swishy.” No one dared correct him.

Such incidents weren’t uncommon with J.J., who was famously demanding and capricious. Schoenfeld recounts that J.J. fired him on numerous occasions, sometimes locking him out of the office, only to welcome him back the next day. Many a time he would call employees at home to tell them to come in for an urgent meeting, and then promptly forget what he’d asked them in for; in fact, he would often leave the office before the employees arrived. Schoenfeld found J.J.’s son John to be more agreeable, though he came with his own set of legal issues: After fathering an illegitimate child with a woman he met on a trans-Atlantic ship, John, who was married, disobeyed Schoenfeld’s legal advice and traveled to Mexico to obtain an illegal divorce from his wife. After marrying his mistress, he attempted a double life, splitting his time between the two households, but he soon dropped dead of a heart attack.

Despite it all, the Shuberts’ Broadway empire thrived. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” opened at the St. James in 1943, it changed American musical theater forever, with plot-driven songs and dance numbers that served to advance a dramatic story rather than just elicit laughter. This new kind of “book musical” flowered in the years to come, and Shubert theaters mounted many of the midcentury shows now considered classics. Brassy superstar Ethel Merman brandished a rifle and belted out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun”; Mary Martin fled Nazis, climbed the Alps and sang “Do-Re-Mi” as Maria in “The Sound of Music,” and Zero Mostel introduced Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman to English-speaking audiences in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Shubert years constitute the liveliest and most engaging part of Schoenfeld’s book, despite the fact that his own contributions to American theater came long after both brothers had died. Almost immediately after becoming chairman of the Shubert Organization, in 1972, Schoenfeld launched what would become a decades-long campaign to revitalize the Theater District, which by the early 1970s had become a haven for every kind of vice, from drug dealing to pornography. Schoenfeld lobbied the city to create a special midtown court to deal with “quality of life” crimes, like begging and prostitution; solicited developers to turn derelict buildings into new shops, restaurants, apartments and theaters, and on one occasion telephoned the city’s sanitation officials to tell them to “clean up the goddamn streets.”

But what Schoenfeld and the struggling Shubert Organization needed, even more than clean streets, was a hit show. They got it in 1975, when Marvin Hamlisch’s “A Chorus Line” kicked off an unprecedented 15-year Broadway run. A string of Shubert megahits followed, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Today, with tourists streaming into Shubert theaters to see such musicals as “Memphis” and “Mamma Mia!” Times Square is a far cry from the grimy neighborhood that once prompted the company to start shows an hour earlier to help theatergoers get home safely.

Of course, not everybody loves Andrew Lloyd Webber, and there are plenty of New Yorkers who gripe about the overly sanitized “new Times Square.” On my grouchier days I wonder whether the Theater District that Schoenfeld built is a place my great-grandfather would recognize. After growing up with stories of glittering midcentury grandeur, I worry that nothing I experience in a Broadway theater will compare with the fateful moment when, as a young couple in 1949, my grandparents heard the first notes of the overture to the original production of “South Pacific.”

But then I remember that, though he graciously reminisced with my grandparents about the 1940s and ’50s, Schoenfeld never stopped looking forward. He ends “Mr. Broadway” wondering whether a Shubert production might have a shot at the Tony for best musical in 2009. (This year, two Shubert productions, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Once,” were nominated for the June 10 award.) In her epilogue, Schoenfeld’s widow, Pat, writes that “Jerry never talked about retirement or dying. He always told anyone who asked, ‘They will drag me feetfirst (sic) out of Shubert Alley.’”

If there’s one thing that Schoenfeld’s account makes clear, it’s that the theater business is cyclical, with periodic peaks and troughs. The next Rodgers and Hammerstein could be trying out their first musical in a little theater downtown, while the next Ethel Merman might be that chorus girl beaming like she’s already got the starring role. A new “South Pacific” or “A Chorus Line” is always just around the corner. And the next Lee or J.J. Shubert could be stepping into an elevator on 44th Street for the very first time.

I just hope, thinking of my great-grandfather, that they have a good lawyer.

Eileen Reynolds has written about the arts for publications including The Believer, Show Business and newyorker.com.


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