Thursday, October 23, 2008

From Ohio to Hollywood

COLUMBUS DISPATCH feature/interview with Cass

Warner Bros. studio rooted in plan hatched in Youngstown

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 3:18 AM By Jeffrey Sheban


The vindicator (youngstown)

The entrance to the opulent Warner Theatre in Youngstown, shortly after it opened in 1931
Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar
Inside the Edward W. Powers Auditorium in Youngstown

For the Warner brothers, the road to Hollywood was paved more than a century ago in Youngstown.

Around the family dinner table back in 1903, three of the boys tried to persuade their immigrant parents, Ben and Pearl Warner, to help them buy a used "moving picture" projector and a grainy print of The Great Train Robbery.

Harry, Sam and Albert (later joined by Jack) saw silent films as potentially more profitable than the market, bicycle store and shoe-repair shop that the Warners operated in the booming steel town.

Harry, the eldest son, and Sam, a mechanical wizard, had fallen in love with picture shows at a small nickelodeon theater (admission: 5 cents) in nearby Pittsburgh.

They hoped to get a secondhand Kinetoscope projector, invented by Thomas Edison, and show short films in tents and storefronts in Youngstown and neighboring communities.

Their father, a Polish Jew who had arrived in America in 1883, agreed to pawn a gold watch and the family horse to help his sons raise the $950 they needed.

"As long as you stand together, you will be strong," he told his ambitious offspring.

Soon, the Warner brothers were showing movies in Ohio (Youngstown, Niles and Warren) and western Pennsylvania (New Castle, Erie and Sharon).

Two new documentaries from the American Masters series on PBS tell the story of the brothers (who ultimately didn't heed their father's advice) and their influential movie studio -- which made household names of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Bette Davis, not to mention Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

One of the documentaries, The Brothers Warner, is based on a 1994 book by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry.

The writer-producer penned Hollywood Be Thy Name (reissued this year as The Brothers Warner) in part to preserve the legacy of her grandfather, who in later years lost a power struggle to Jack.

"I was very close to my grandfather for the first 10 years of my life," said Sperling, 60, of Santa Barbara, Calif. "For me, I felt something was passed to me to carry on."

Sperling hadn't seen Youngstown before she wrote the book, which is based on family stories and her research, but she made a short visit before filming the documentary.

She met the mayor and toured the Edward W. Powers Auditorium, which opened in 1931 as one of the more opulent Warner theaters built in cities nationwide.

Her great-grandfather Ben remained a grocer in town and died across the street from the theater while playing cards; he was buried in Los Angeles.

"Anywhere my family has been, I feel something," Sperling said. "Powers Auditorium really moved me."

Armed with their used projector, the Warner boys traveled the trolley lines connecting Youngstown and other communities to screen short films.

Then, in 1905 or so, they opened the Cascade Theatre in a former penny arcade just across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border in New Castle. A sheet was hung on the wall and chairs were borrowed from a funeral parlor nearby.

The book and documentary describe the transition from traveling nickelodeon shows to film distribution and production, then to movie- theater construction, starting with the first permanent Warner Theatre -- built in 1922 in Niles, about 10 miles northwest of Youngstown.

The famous Warner Bros. Studios, still in operation as a division of Time Warner, was established in 1918 in a little-developed part of Los Angeles called Hollywood.

Movies from the studio's early days focused on working-class struggles and mobsters with heart -- two themes that pretty much described their hometown, which was filling up fast with Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants plus Southern blacks in search of factory jobs.

"There was discrimination and tension, and absolutely they were influenced by the whole cultural milieu," said John Russo, co-author of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work & Memory in Youngstown. "Their films reflected that."

The decision to leave Youngstown for Hollywood resulted in part because of pressure from Edison, who wanted to enforce his patents on the Kinetoscope and limit the number of film exhibitors east of the Mississippi River.

Although the so-called Edison Trust almost succeeded in driving the Warner brothers out of business, it also opened doors.

Real success for the studio came in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson -- credited as the first feature film with synchronized dialogue. (The death of Sam the day before the premiere kept Harry, Albert and Jack from attending.)

The Warner Theatre in Youngstown, built as a memorial to Sam, was heralded as "the finest theater ever built."

The 114-room movie house with five levels cost $1.5 million; it opened May 14, 1931. Decorative touches included marble, Carpathian elm, Italian olive wood, Australian and African cherry, Madagascar ebony and burled English walnut.

It closed as a movie theater in 1968 with a final showing of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the wake of a yearlong refurbishing, it has since housed the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.

Faring less well is the old Warner neighborhood, north of downtown, where many of the houses have been torn down or abandoned.

No marker tells passers-by that Hollywood history was made inside 1351 1/2 Elm St.

Sperling hopes someday to visit the street where the brothers lived -- something for which she didn't have time during her first trip.

"I'd really like to come back," she said. "This whole journey has been about discovering my roots."

On television
The Brothers Warner -- premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday on WOSU-DT1, a digital cable channel -- provides a more personal look at the family and its Youngstown roots as told by writer-producer Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry Warner.>

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