The best way to get a feel for the Shuberts’ place in American theater history is to go up to the penthouse apartment that visionary producer-manager Daniel Frohman built for himself in the Lyceum theater and look through the secret peephole that afforded a private view of the stage below. There is something remote and magisterial about that god’s-eye view, like the presence of power that clings to the apartment itself, which for some years housed the treasures of the Shubert Archive in cardboard boxes. Failing a pilgrimage to the Lyceum, the next-best way to get a grasp of the empirical role that the three Shubert brothers (and their successors in what would become the Shubert Organization) played in shaping theater history is to plunge into the sumptuous “The Shuberts Present.”
Despite its sparse text, this picture-history book, assembled by the curators of the Shubert Archive to mark the centennial of the producing organization is given a drop-dead-gorgeous presentation by Abrams. It records the empire-building sensibility of men who envisioned the theater as a vast kingdom of magnificent palaces — and who regarded themselves as its sovereign heads of state. (The book’s spirit does not allow for a the contentious legal posture taken by the org — including a series of unsuccessful libel suits against Variety in the early half of the 20th century.)
The theatrical dynasty established by Sam Shubert (who died at the age of 29 in a train crash in 1905) and built, house by gilded house, by his brothers Lee and J.J., hit its peak in 1927. It was booking productions into more than 1,000 theaters nationwide while owning and operating more than 100 theaters of its own.
“Today the Shubert business is vastly different — and quite a bit smaller,” says Gerald Schoenfeld, who was brought into the business in 1957 by “Mr. J.J.” and has been Chairman of the Board of the Shubert Organization since 1972. The comment, from the introduction, injects a rare wistful note into a chronicle that is largely — and deservedly — celebratory.
The faces you most want to see are all here, in luscious color and incisive black-and-white: the regal Lunts and Barrymores; a rapturous Jolson; an eerily demonic Bert Lahr; the whimsical Imogene Coca and the ravishing Lena Horne; Baby Snooks and a baby Streisand; the casts of “Chicago,” “West Side Story,” and “A Chorus Line.” There are also vintage shots, many of them candid, of the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Bob Fosse, Bette Davis, Zero Mostel, Katharine Cornell, Al Pacino, Laurence Olivier, Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando. Stars aside, images of nameless chorus girls must have made the curators gasp when they came upon them in those old cardboard boxes.
But this is, above all, a book about the pride of the Shubert empire — the magnificent buildings that the brothers built and their torchbearers have restored to glory. Major chapters are devoted to each of the 17 Shubert houses extant on Broadway, and each is given the royal treatment, from the close-up of an elegant chandelier in a box of the Royale to the two-page color spread that bends its knee to the ornate riches of the Lyceum. The superb visuals, rich in ornamental detail, spill over into the “interlude” chapters given over to architecture and design: the advertising bills, window cards, three-sheets, posters, programs, costume sketches, architectural drawings, set designs, and sheet music that, in the poignant way of ephemeral artifacts, convey an unearthly animation.
But if the freshness of these paper objects is an illusion, the vitality of the theaters is not. As Hugh Hardy puts it in the afterword, “these historic halls are as familiar as old friends, echoing with memories.”
They do live, in all their historic glory, but “each theater is an empty shell that must be brought to life again with each new production.”