The Shuberts. As in the Shubert brothers. As in Shubert Alley. Or "a show that's typically Shubert-y," the phrase that Cole Porter rhymed with "puberty" in Kiss Me, Kate. (He went on to describe such shows as having "a multitude of girls.")
Shubert is a surname, like Drew, Booth, or Barrymore, that is freighted with the glamour of a bygone era in American theater. It's also the name of a thriving business, The Shubert Organization, which has changed with the times and maintained a place at the forefront of commercial theater.
And then there's The Shubert Archive. For the past 25 years, this nonprofit organization has preserved a vast and growing collection of documents and memorabilia relating to the Shubert brothers, their heirs and assigns, the family business, and the artists and performers who contributed to Shubert shows. Located at the top of the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street in rooms that were once the abode of producer Daniel Frohman, the archive is a treasure trove of photographs, costume sketches, scenic designs, posters, scripts, clippings, memoranda and letters, architectural renderings, paintings, legal and financial documents, and equipment salvaged from Shubert playhouses. A big, beautiful new volume, The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater, has been written by the staff of the Shubert Archive, designed by Judith Michael, and published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The book uses the resources of this magical realm to chronicle a theatrical dynasty and the history of the 17 theaters still under Shubert control.
Born in eastern Europe in the 1870s, the Shubert brothers--Sam, Lee, and J.J.--were raised in Syracuse, New York, where they made a name for themselves as provincial impresarios. Then, just as the 19th century was giving way to the 20th, they commenced their assault on Manhattan, leasing two playhouses near Herald Square. As their prosperity grew, the brothers produced operettas and plays for New York and the road; they bought and built theaters in three boroughs of New York and around the country. They published sheet music from the scores of Shubert productions, licensed their shows for stock and amateur performance, and rented costumes to other producers. Responding to real estate availability in Manhattan, the brothers moved northward, playing a significant part in transplanting the heart of the theater district to the area now known as "Broadway."
As their enterprises grew, the Shuberts began a game of King of the Hill with the Theatrical Syndicate, a partnership of Abraham Erlanger, Charles Frohman, and Marc Klaw, which controlled first-class theatrical production in the United States. The Shuberts broke the Syndicate's long-standing monopoly; by the time Rodgers and Hart paid joking homage to them in The Boys from Syracuse in 1938, they were a coast-to-coast phenomenon with an unrelenting grip on the business of Broadway. They were the Standard Oil of the legitimate stage.
The Shubert saga is one of extremes, with sturm und drang aplenty. The brothers bought and sold property, razed, constructed, and refurbished auditoriums at a rate unrivaled in the history of American theater. They produced for the movies; they traveled the world, romanced chorus girls, enjoyed and suffered the ups and downs of family life, and circulated in both café and high society. Sam died early in a train accident. The family firm went bankrupt during the Great Depression, then rebounded with Horatio Alger spunk. In the 1950s, the Justice Department clipped the brothers' wings in the settlement of a high profile antitrust case. The business passed out of family hands in 1972.
Credited to four authors from the Shubert Archive staff, Maryann Chach, Reagan Fletcher, Mark E. Swartz and Sylvia Wing, The Shuberts Present is a sumptuous treasure full of vividly colored illustrations, including a few fold-outs. The book's slick, high-quality pages are pleasant to touch and spacious enough to lend a profound sense of perspective to the exquisite original architectural photographs by Whitney Cox. Cox's pictures take the reader on a tour of the 17 Manhattan venues still under Shubert auspices, with loving attention to idiosyncratic points of design. The book's editorial content is less impressive than the visual elements; the editors have elected merely to hit high points in the history of Shubert productions, with vintage photographs, drawings, poster art, and sheet music covers amplifying the sketchy text. The prose seldom rises above the breezy insouciance of Louis Botto's Playbill column "At This Theatre" and, overall, has the higgledy-piggledy quality of a committee effort. The most enlightening sections, labeled "Interludes," are excursuses on topics such as period costumes and scenic design, Shubert Alley, the brothers' patriotic response to war, and the operettas and revues favored by the Shuberts.
The Shuberts Present is a welcome visual resource, addictive to the browser. While there are a number of useful books on the Shuberts and their legacy, including Jerry Stagg's classic, The Brothers Shubert and more recent studies by Foster Hirsch and Brooks McNamara, founding director of the Archive, this new volume whets the aficionado's appetite for something not yet available. The time is ripe for a comprehensive examination of the Shuberts and their decade-spanning reign--something on the scale of Ron Chernow's 1998 Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Maybe The Shuberts Present, with its delicious evocation of a colorful lost era, will tempt someone like Chernow to embark on the biography that the Shuberts deserve.