The Shubert Brothers

Biography by

Lee (b. Levi Szemanski, 15 May 1873, Lithuania, d. 25 December 1953, New York City, New York, USA), Sam (b. Samuel Szemanski, 1876, Lithuania, d. 11 May 1905, Pennsylvania, USA), J.J. (b. Jacob Szemanski,…
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Artist Biography by

Lee (b. Levi Szemanski, 15 May 1873, Lithuania, d. 25 December 1953, New York City, New York, USA), Sam (b. Samuel Szemanski, 1876, Lithuania, d. 11 May 1905, Pennsylvania, USA), J.J. (b. Jacob Szemanski, b. 15 August 1878, Lithuania, d. 26 December 1963, New York City, New York, USA). These three remarkable brothers, the Shuberts, went to America to escape anti-Semitic persecution. They supported their mother and sister when their father fell victim to alcoholism. Sam did odd jobs at the Schenectady Opera House and was captivated by the spectacle and atmosphere. Thus inspired, he and his brothers decided to make their way in showbusiness. Within a short time, the brothers bought the Opera House and had interests in other theatres. As they expanded they came into conflict with A.L. Erlanger, head of the near-monopolistic Theatrical Syndicate and a man with an appalling reputation in the business. When Sam was killed in a train wreck, Erlanger proved his reputation true by declaring that he would not honour any agreements they had. He had picked the wrong people to offend and Lee and Jacob determined to systematically bankrupt Erlanger. When the struggle was over, the surviving Shubert Brothers were the most powerful men in America’s legitimate theatre. They proved to be as ruthless as Erlanger and it was their treatment of actors that was a factor in the formation of Actor’s Equity Association.

The Shuberts had major shareholdings in almost 100 theatres in America, a third of them on Broadway and over the years produced some 500 plays and musicals. Among the musicals were Maytime (1917), Blossom Time (1921), Big Boy (1925) and Hellzapoppin (1938). They encouraged the careers of composers and performers, among them Sigmund Romberg, Al Jolson, Marilyn Miller and Ed Wynn. Symptomatic of their methods, many of their shows cut budgetary corners although their stages were often filled with poorly paid chorus girls. During the Depression, the Shuberts resisted those who recommended they sell off their real estate holdings. Some believe that the Shuberts’ decision not to sell was a significant factor in Broadway’s survival. Over the years, Lee and Jacob became estranged, suing one another as readily as they sued others. Their empire survived, however, and continued to function after their deaths.