History Of The Shubert Brothers And Shubert Organization looks at the history of three brothers who migrated to Syracuse, New York, in 1882. Their father, David Shubert, was unable to support his three sons as his battle with alcoholism was too much. As a result, Lee, Samuel, and Jacob were forced to seek employment. The history of the Shubert Brothers initially began with three young lads having to find a way to support themselves in a new environment while their father could not. The trio would earn their way to develop what became their legacy, the Shubert Organization.
We Are Three
As small children, Lee and Sam sold newspapers in front of a local theater. This led Sam to earn a small part in a play that was directed by David Belasco. Sam’s experience was positive enough to leave an everlasting impression that would dictate the young man’s life, moving forward. Belasco became a mentor that would groom him to grow from actor to program boy at the Bastable Theatre. He later became the Grand Opera House’s assistant treasurer before moving up the career ladder again to become treasurer of Syracuse’s Wieting Theatre. This was Syracuse, New York’s premier theater. For Sam, his ascension in theatrical management would influence his two brothers, Lee and Jacob. As a trio, the brothers worked together. In many ways, Belasco became the father they never had as he molded them to become successful men in the world of theater. Starting in 1897, Sam ran Bastable Theatre. At the same time, Jacob was working at the Wieting. As for Lee, he became a bookkeeper for both theaters. The trio used the experiences they learned in Syracuse to build upon what they started.
Before becoming the largest theatrical empire in the United States, the first step was to acquire the touring rights to Hoy’s “A Texas Steer.” This New England venture proved to be a successful one. It enabled the Shubert Brothers to put together their own theater. In Rochester, New York, Baker Theatre became a successful stock company, thanks to Jacob Shubert’s business savvy. While he was doing this, Sam and Lee Shubert took over the ownership and management of the Grand Opera House in Syracuse. Upon the turn of the twentieth century, the Shubert Brothers owned five theatres in the state of New York. The road to building the largest theatrical empire in the United States was beginning to pave its way out. By this time, Sam was the creative leader while Lee handled all business concerns, and Jacob focused on out-of-town productions.
Because the Shubert Brothers had to grow up in a hurry, all three of them learned how to discipline themselves in order to succeed in their endeavors. Although they became highly respected managers in theatre, Lee, Samuel, and Jacob each wanted more. They had their sights set on New York City, along with the hope to produce their own plays. In 1900, the Shuberts purchased Herald Square Theatre and moved to the big city at the same time. They quickly turned their new acquisition into one of the most successful theaters in New York, even though they hadn’t begun to produce their own plays yet. That didn’t start until 1901. In 1902, “The Chinese Honeymoon” and “Emerald Isle” became among the first of a series of successful plays to Shubert’s credit.
By the time 1904 hit, the Shubert Brothers owned and operated ten theaters. Aside from making their theatrical presence felt in New York, the Shuberts owned theaters in Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In New Haven, it was the Hyperion while in Chicago it was the Dearborn. In Boston, it was the Colonial. It seemed at the time the Shubert Brothers were unstoppable as a theatrical force to reckon with. However, an unexpected tragedy would occur on May 12, 1905, that would put a big dent into those plans. At only thirty years old, Samuel Shubert died from the injuries he sustained after he was hit by a train near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By this time, the Shubert Brothers owned thirteen theaters. Twelve of them were in America while one of them was in London, England.
The Shubert Brothers vs. The Syndicate
For the Shuberts, success in theatre management meant sooner or later they’d come face to face with the competition. Until the brothers from Syracuse began to make names for themselves, the Syndicate was the biggest theatrical organization in the United States. Approximately seventy-five percent of all the theaters owned in the nation were run by Abe Erlanger and several other producers. Until the Shuberts, the only way to get a job in the theater was to work for the Syndicate. When Sam passed away, Lee Shubert was prepared to sell all thirteen of the theaters he co-owned with his brothers to Erlanger’s Syndicate. However, Erlinger made the mistake of insulting Sam’s memory which would swiftly put an end to what otherwise would have been a sure deal.
Now determined to end the Syndicate, Lee and Jacob Shubert won over the loyalty of the theater workers that were under the Syndicate’s control. Using the power of publicity to their advantage, the surviving Shubert Brothers managed to build their empire to eighty-six theaters by 1924. By then, the Syndicate’s dominance in theater waned considerably as the Shuberts became the new giants by owning sixty percent of the legitimate theaters across the United States. It was also during this time the Shuberts had their own ticket brokerage and their own school of theater. With approximately twenty-five percent of the plays hosted in the United States, the dominance of the Shuberts also enabled them to form their own trust. It was also at this time Lee Shubert was on the board with MGM Studios. In 1929, the Shuberts also acquired New York City’s Winter Garden.
Because the Shubert Brothers had an organization that became so vast and powerful, they were able to introduce to the stage scores of upcoming talent that would become pop culture icons. Such names include Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, and so many more. They were also the men behind some of the most successful theater productions such as 1911’s Sumurun, 1934’s Children’s Hour, and 1938’s Hellzapoppin’. For Lee and Jacob Shubert, their niche was running a highly profitable business. Despite having no artistic contribution to the theater, Lee Shubert was ironically chosen to serve as head of Little Theatre. What made this so unusual was the idea to create a national theater based on an artistic vision instead of going commercial. As fate had it, the decision paid off.
In 1953, Lee Shubert passed away at eighty years old. He, not his wife, had any children. Ten years later, Jacob Shubert passed away at eighty-five years old. By then, these two Shubert brothers produced thousands of shows in their collection of theaters. For the Shuberts, all was going well, even though the company the brothers founded shifted to focus on bookings instead of coming up with new productions of their own. It was business as usual until 1956. This was the year that slapped the Shubert Corporation with an anti-trust lawsuit that forced them to cease operations until the matter was settled. Despite the setback, the Shuberts continued operating all their theaters as a family business. It was also the Shuberts who indirectly engineered the Actor’s Equity.
At the time, the actors got together to form a union as a means to protect their careers from what obviously became a giant in theater management. Unlike their brother Sam, Lee and Jacob Shubert focused more on what made money as opposed to what was truly considered artistic. It was a formula that worked, leaving behind a legacy that would lead to the 1973 founding of the Shubert Organization.
After the death of Lee, Samuel, and Jacob Shubert, control of what was the Shubert Corporation at the time went into the hands of Lawrence Shubert Lawrence Jr. It was supposed to go to John Shubert, son of Jacob, but he died suddenly in 1962. He ran his uncles’ theaters until 1972 before it was reorganized to become the Shubert Organization. Over the years, several Shubert theaters have been sold into the hands of new owners. Despite the ownership changes, many of them are still called by the Shubert name. Aside from the prominence of the Shubert Organization in New York City, these theatrical production giants also have a strong presence in Chicago, Illinois. In 1945, the Shuberts bought the city’s Majestic Theatre before renaming it after their brother, Sam. This occurred the exact same year they founded The Shubert Foundation. They did this in memory of their brother, Sam. Until 1991, it was the Sam Shubert Theatre before it was sold to the Nederlander Organization. Now it’s called the CIBC Theatre. However, The Shubert Foundation continues.
Today, the Shubert Organization continues to run as America’s oldest professional theater company in the business. It’s also the largest theater owner on Broadway with seventeen venues owned and operated by them. There are also six theaters off-Broadway, and Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre. The current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is Robert E. Wankel, who also serves as Chairman. He carries on the Shubert legacy as it keeps one show after another going. As for the official owner of The Shubert Organization, Inc., it belongs to The Shubert Foundation. On the company’s website, archived information regarding the Shuberts and their legacy are kept as a source for interested historians to learn more. As an organization, its goal is to continue with Sam Shubert’s passion for theater. As for the Shubert Organization, its legacy carries on as if Lee and Jacob are still part of what started out as a humble little theater company in Syracuse.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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