The Warner brothers – Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack – were different from the other Hollywood moguls in the early years of the movie industry. They were shrewd, brash, outspoken and passionate in ways that deviated from the industry norm. The most publicly consistent brother was Harry, a stoic businessman and proud immigrant. Sam was the technical visionary who passed away too soon. Albert largely avoided the public eye, though he served as a loyal ambassador for the family brand. Jack was the wild kid, the entertainer, the sometimes unpredictable.
Those talents served them well during a transitional period for what would become the filmed entertainment industry. The year 1903 marked that transition from what historian Tom Gunning calls a “cinema of attractions,” based on the simple spectatorship of an event, to narrative storytelling, allowing audiences to get lost in what they saw on screen. There was only one way to test the viability of this new trend: with an audience.
Sam Warner presented the idea of investing in this new technology to his family. The projector cost $1,000 and came with a copy of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). The brothers put all their money together, but it was not enough. Their father, Benjamin Warner, put on his gold watch to make up for the difference.
The brothers set up a tent in their yard and invited neighbors and community members to witness the moving images coming out of Sam’s projector. The attraction was a hit. Now the brothers needed a more permanent location. Knowing that a carnival was coming up in the town of Niles, northwest of Youngstown, Ohio, they found a vacant store there and settled in, hoping to capitalize on the influx of people attracted by the carnival.
Albert (still called “Abe” by the family) sold tickets and Sam worked the projector. There are conflicting reports about Harry and Jack’s whereabouts. According to family history, Harry resided in Youngstown and worked to ensure that the family had an income. Jack was still quite young, and he may or may not have gone with Niles.
A history written by a Youngstown resident claimed that Harry and Jack were also in Niles, with Harry taking care of the finances and Jack running errands. During the shows, the seven hundred feet of shredded celluloid often broke or frayed completely, but Sam quickly learned how to fix the film and stay on schedule. The Warners’ show was a hit, the first film ever shown in Niles. Curious crowds filled the venue, proving the viability of a small movie theater.
Once the carnival left Niles, Sam and Abe presented their show in other nearby towns until a massive snowstorm discouraged patrons, unwilling to stand in the drafty and often unheated storefront theatres. The brothers had made $300 a week along the way, after expenses. Harry realized the key to making a real profit was renting their own venue and building a following. The brothers soon found a former Nickelodeon in New Castle that was spacious enough to show movies.
As the story goes, the brothers ran out of money before they could buy seats for their theater, so they made a deal with a local funeral home to use the seats, provided they were not needed for a funeral. The theater seated ninety-nine; keeping the capacity under a hundred meant avoiding costly safety regulations such as fire extinguishers and emergency exits. Soon the brothers were running two theaters, the Cascade and the Bijou, which stood on opposite sides of a penny arcade just a short trolley ride from the Warner house.
The Cascade opened on May 28, 1905. A funeral for the local school superintendent was scheduled for Memorial Day, which meant the funeral home needed its seats. Desperate to keep their operation running over the holiday, the brothers called the superintendent’s widow and promised that if she postponed the service until the next day, her children would be able to watch movies for free all year. She agreed. The Cascade was an early success, attracting both the working-class community and a stylish environment not yet associated with movie theaters, which were often located in the seedy neighborhoods of major cities. A sign outside the Warners’ venue read: “Sophisticated entertainment for ladies, gentlemen and children.” Every woman who came to the theater was given a carnation. The Warners made filming a social event.
Before the movie started, Sam opened the show with some informative slides for the audience. The first stated, “Please read the titles [to] yourself. Reading loudly annoys your neighbours.” This was followed by “Ladies! Please take off your hats” and “Gentlemen! Please don’t spit on the floor.” As the first reel of the film ended, a slide appeared that read, “One moment please while the operator changes reels.”
Ben Warner was proud that his sons had brought this new cinema technology to the community, but he was even prouder when on the second day of operation there was a line down the street as patrons waited to see the show. Ben and Pearl closed the shop for the day and watched the spectacle. After the first show, the audience was so stunned that no one got up to leave when the house lights came on. In another well-known bit of Warner history, Ben encouraged Jack to get up and sing his terrible version of “Sweet Adeline.” “Jack’s voice, which skipped octaves from tenor to baritone, sounded like ice cracking off an ice floe and drove customers away.” Sister Rose accompanied him on the piano, which she also played during film screenings.
The brothers capitalized on the period from 1895 to 1905, when nickelodeons made the transition from sideshows in saloons and amusement parks to mainline attractions. The timing was perfect to take advantage of the cinema’s improving social status. Movies became most popular outside major cities, where traditional theater had less financial support for audiences.
In rural areas and smaller towns, nickelodeons and theaters with storefronts boomed. In nearby Pittsburgh, vaudeville mogul Harry Davis became interested in the burgeoning film industry and opened the Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street. Given the wealth of Pittsburgh, Davis’s operation benefited from the community’s disposable income. By the end of 1905, “films were not mere gathering places … they were centers of communication and cultural dissemination.” Warners’ Cascade Theater followed the trend by combining movies with vaudeville performances.
The early film industry could be extremely dangerous, especially at a time when smoking was commonplace. As the film rolled through the projector, it did not land on another spool (which would come later). Instead, the film piled up on the floor or in a bin. In his autobiography, Jack tells a story about a safety inspector who was advised not to smoke near the highly flammable celluloid, but walked into the projection room with a lit cigarette. “There was a rumbling explosion that blew part of the projector through the ceiling into the air. The windows and doors collapsed and the hapless inspector was dead when we finally dragged him into the air with his clothes on fire.” Jack always had a penchant for the hyperbolic, but the story is a good reminder of the risky nature of early movie screenings.
By 1907, the term “nickel madness” described both the widespread popularity and widespread disapproval of these five-cent movie theaters. Some concerned citizens feared these small theaters were ripe locations for pickpockets, while others worried about moving images corrupting the youth. Some thought that sitting in a dark theater was a “cloak for evil,” and in some theaters patrons even sat in the light and watched the movie through holes in a curtain. New York Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham “denounced nickel frenzy as pernicious, demoralizing and a direct threat to youth.” Trying to grow a business amid such rhetoric would prepare the Warner brothers to take on industrial censors and moral crusaders.
The years after 1907 were memorable for the Warner family, both personally and professionally. Harry met his future wife, Rea Levinson, at a local dance. Harry was quite the dancer, entering a series of dance competitions with his sister Rose. Like Harry, Rea came from a Jewish immigrant family, but her lineage was more intellectual, educated, and cultured. Unlike many Hollywood moguls, Harry only married once and stayed with Rea until his death. In 1908, Abe met a Jewish girl named Bessie Krieger, and they married soon after.
As nickelodeons popped up in nearly every city, demand for movies skyrocketed and audiences craved new content. Harry soon realized that the real money was in film distribution. The brothers went to Pittsburgh and opened the Duquesne Amusement Supply Company, named after a local university in hopes of adding a touch of class to the business. Sam and Abe went to New York City and bought movies from theater mogul Marcus Loew.
Future MGM studio executive Loew sold the brothers a stash of used films for $500. While the three older brothers busied themselves with their film ventures, poor Jack was still relegated to little brother status, but he would soon get his breakthrough in the family business.
For the next fifteen years, the brothers would rise and fall in the movie world, always persevering and never giving up. Even when Thomas Edison sent his thugs to intimidate the brothers into filing patents, they never gave up.
The brothers began producing their own films and moved the company to Los Angeles in 1917. From there, they operated in multiple locations, one near the Selig Zoo and finally at the famed Sunset Bronson Studios (not owned by Netflix). The brothers, who have known the Warner Bros. name since at least 1920. used, take the next step.
In late 1922, the Warners applied for a new trademark: “Warner Brothers’ Classics of the Screen”. Harry said the trademark was to distinguish the brothers from other film production companies, which were too numerous to count. Harry assured audiences that Warner films were “distinctly individual in production and story value, and in screen player excellence.”
The studio was founded on April 4, 1923. The Roaring Twenties would define the Warners as fearless innovators, social crusaders, and solidify the brothers as titans of this iconic American industry.
This column is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Warner Brothers (University Press of Kentucky, Sept. 5, 2023).