One of Youngstown’s claims to fame is as an early home of the Warner brothers, who established one of the most famous film and entertainment companies in Hollywood. It all began in the Youngstown area.
The Warner family emigrated from Krasnosieic, Poland to escape Cossack persecution of Jews. They changed their name from Wonsal or Wonskolaser upon arrival in the U.S. in 1888, living first in Baltimore. Only the oldest of the four brothers, Harry, was born in Poland, in 1881. Albert and Sam were born in Baltimore, after which the family moved to London, Ontario in the early 1890’s, where Jack was born in 1896. The family moved to Youngstown in 1896, living in Smoky Hollow. Harry opened a shoe repair shop in downtown Youngstown
It was a rough neighborhood, perhaps shaping the driving and competitive nature of Jack Warner, who said of his growing up years, “There was a murder or two almost every Saturday night in our neighborhood, and knives and brass knuckles were standard equipment for the young hotheads on the prowl” (Source: Wikipedia). Jack was briefly in a street gang based at Westlake Crossing.
Sam was the first of the brothers to get into film, working as a projectionist at Idora Park. He then purchased a film projector for $1000, Jack contributing $150. Sam and Albert bought a copy of The Great Train Robbery and showed it at various locations around the area. By 1905, Harry joined them, setting up in nearby New Castle,PA, where they eventually opened two movie houses, the Bijou and the Cascade. Meanwhile, Jack was pursuing a career in vaudeville in the Youngstown area. The other three brothers set up a film distribution company in Pittsburgh, The Duquesne Amusement Company. In 1909, Jack joined the enterprise to set up a second distribution exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. Threatened by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Trust (eventually ended in 1915), they sold the business in 1910 for $52,000 and decided to launch their own film production company. Harry and Albert set up offices in New York while Sam went to Los Angeles and Jack to San Francisco.
Their first major film followed their purchase of the rights to My Four Years in Germany on war-time atrocities in Germany. Profits from the film allowed them to set up a studio in Hollywood and they formally incorporated as Warner Brothers Pictures in 1923. During this period of silent film their biggest star was a dog, Rin Tin Tin, hero of a series of movies. In 1925, Sam urged the licensing of Western Electric’s Vitaphone technology, to provide synchronized sound. Sadly, just before the release in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the first major “talkie,” Sam died of pneumonia.
The profits fueled the success and growth of the Warner Brothers over the next three decades releasing scores of blockbuster films with actors and actresses like James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell. Ronald Reagan got his start as an actor with Warner Brothers. As World War 2 approached they released films critical of the rising Nazi threat.
The company also continued to acquire and build theatres and perhaps made their most significant mark on Youngstown with the construction of the Warner Theatre in 1931. The theatre was built in memory of the deceased brother Sam, in a lavish art deco style. After it closed in 1968, it was renovated and re-opened as Powers Auditorium, the home of the Youngstown Symphony. It is now part of the DeYor Performing Arts Center.
Sadly, in later life, the three brothers had a falling out over control of the studios. They agreed to sell the company in 1956, only for Jack to put together a syndicate that secured a controlling interest, appointing himself president. Harry and Jack were estranged and Jack did not attend Harry’s funeral when he died in 1958. Albert, likewise, never spoke to his brother again, dying in 1967. Jack outlived them all, passing in 1978. By this time, the company had expanded into television and the recording industry. In more recent years, they’ve continued to expand into various entertainment media while maintaining a strong position in the film industry, including producing the Harry Potter films.
The Warner name and empire traces back to these four brothers who got their start in entertainment and film in Youngstown and gave our city a fabulous performance space that enriches Youngstown cultural life to this day.