From Burdick Street to Broadway
The Mittenthal name itself has been linked to successful enterprise in the United States since the middle of the nineteenth century. Joseph M. Mittenthal was a prolific New York based songwriter and lyricist during the early years of the twentieth century. Composer Aaron Copland’s mother was a Mittenthal, as were the maternal grandparents of Minnie Marcus, board member and wife of Herbert Marcus, who co-founded fashion giant Nieman Marcus.
But one branch of the Mittenthal family placed Kalamazoo closer to the popular entertainment limelight than ever before (or perhaps since). Born in or near Germany in March 1835, Henry M. Mittenthal arrived in New York with his parents when he was ten years old. During the 1860s, Henry and his wife, Rosa, moved to Detroit with their family, then later to Kalamazoo, where they successfully cultivated several family businesses for more than two decades.
There were eleven children in the Mittenthal family—five sons and six daughters—and according to a Kalamazoo Gazette-News article in 1902, “so closely did birthdays follow that it was no uncommon thing for five of the brothers and sisters to be in the same school room.” Interestingly, the same article then went on to highlight early family ties to entertainment. “In school days they were the organizers of all juvenile ‘shows’ and often staged, managed and acted a complete play within the somewhat extensive family limits. It is recalled that some of those efforts were very creditable amateur performances.”
While several members of the Mittenthal family went on to become notable Michigan business entrepreneurs, four of the Mittenthal sons were to gain worldwide prominence as professional stage and screen actors and producers during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.
Michigan Fruit Production
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Michigan’s fruit industry was growing (quite literally) at an unprecedented rate. During the peak years between 1884 and 1906, tens-of-thousands of bushels of apples, cherries, grapes, blueberries, and especially peaches were shipped each day from southwest Michigan to eagerly waiting markets, processing plants and distilleries in and around the Chicago area. High market prices and low competition created a lucrative industry for both the growers and the wholesale brokers.
Isaac M. Mittenthal
According to the 1880 US Federal Census, Isaac M. Mittenthal (probably born about 1860) was a peddler, living at home in Detroit with his parents and nine of his ten siblings. The Detroit city directory from the same year tells us he had already become a fruit dealer by that time. Regardless, by 1884, Isaac had apparently sensed opportunity in southwest Michigan and moved to Kalamazoo to become a wholesale fruit broker, opening I. M. Mittenthal’s New York Fruit House at 106 North Burdick Street, “the first door north” of Geo. McDonald’s drug store.
Isaac opened his business with a ‘bang’ in July 1884 by offering a selection of fireworks for the Independence Day holiday, but fresh fruit was his main concern. During August, fresh peaches were in abundance at 40¢ per basket. By fall, Mittenthal was offering the season’s first shipments of fresh oranges at 35¢ per dozen. Within a few short years, Mittenthal’s New York Fruit House was bringing in oranges, grapes and plums by the carload. A five pound basket of California grapes retailed in Mittenthal’s store for a quarter.
“I. M. Mittenthal is nothing if he is not a swift mover, and his well regulated fruit house on north Burdick shows the footprints of his far seeing business qualities. At all times can be found there a general line of foreign fruits, all of which are purchased in the Chicago market. Mr. Mittenthal is a regular weekly visitor to that city where he has an envious standing with the large importers. He makes himself felt at the auction sales, and it has been said on several occasions by California shippers that ‘That fellow from Kalamazoo is as keen a manidulator [sic] as any we meet in this arena.’”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 August 1890
Harry E. Mittenthal
Harry E. Mittenthal (born 1862) was a young cigar maker by trade. By 1885, he had joined his brother Isaac in Kalamazoo where he began working for D. Lilienfeld & Brothers, more commonly known as Lilie’s Cigar Company.
In December, Harry announced that he would be opening a dancing academy at Turnverein Hall on North Burdick Street. Social dancing had gained great popularity by this time and good instructors with knowledge of the latest dances were in high demand. Adults who wished to be instructed in the latest terpsichorean techniques were to meet on Monday evenings; children’s classes would be held on Saturday afternoons.
Professor H. E. Mittenthal
Professor Mittenthal’s dance classes proved to be enormously successful. Harry gave an invitation-only “Tube Rose” dancing party at Turnverein hall on New Year’s night in January 1886, which was “largely attended and a flattering success in every particular” (Gazette). George Pfeiffer’s orchestra (George Pfeiffer, violin; Mrs. Torrey, piano; Fred Davis, cornet; James Zanders, flute) won praise from the crowd for the “delightful music they furnished” (Gazette). Favorable response to his classes and the success of this first public event prompted Mittenthal to continue offering dancing parties and instruction throughout year, including specialized instruction during the summer months for “experienced dancers.”
“Prof. Mittenthal, high private Co. C, Second Regiment, says he can’t possibly attend drills this coming season as he has engagements for every night.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 October 1886
Following a brief trip to New York in September to secure new music and instructional material for his classes, Harry reopened his dancing academy on 21 October 1886 with sessions on Monday and Thursday evenings; spectators were admitted to certain events for 50 cents. As demand grew, he opened additional dancing academies during the fall in Three Rivers and Battle Creek.
State League Umpire
Harry Mittenthal lacked little in the way of ambition. In addition to his work in the cigar, fruit and entertainment trades, it seems he was quite a fan of baseball. He served for several seasons as an umpire in the Michigan State League (ca. 1886) and the Ohio State League (ca. 1887) until 1889, when he returned to Detroit and picked up work as a cigar maker for the Monitor Cigar Company. By 1895, Harry was back in Kalamazoo and had taken over ownership and management of the Battle Creek (Michigan State League) baseball franchise.
Henry M. Mittenthal
Henry M. Mittenthal, a huckster by trade, had joined his sons in Kalamazoo by 1887 and was operating “The Chicago Beehive,” a dry goods and home furnishing store on the corner of Water Street and North Burdick. His sons, Samuel S. Mittenthal (born 2 Oct 1866) and Herman H. Mittenthal (born November 1870), had also joined the family in Kalamazoo by this time, along with daughter Lottie Mittenthal (born about 1873) who worked as a clerk. Henry only stayed in Kalamazoo for a few years; by 1890 he had returned to Detroit where he worked as a milliner. Henry Mittenthal eventually became a leading clothing merchant in that city.
By 1895, most of the Mittenthal children were living and working in Kalamazoo, including a fifth son, Aubrey (born 23 December 1870); daughters Esther (born about 1866), Eva (born about 1875), Rachel (Rae) (born April 1880), and (probably) Bertha (Bettie) (born about 1878). (Anna, the oldest Mittenthal child (born about 1860) evidently remained in Detroit and did not accompany the rest of the family to Kalamazoo.)
“Sam Mittenthal always has an eye for the beautiful and at all times at his well regulated store can be found fruit in abundance both foreign and domestic. His weekly pilgrimage to Chicago never fails to bring about good results and his long experience in handling these goods gives him an enviable position in the fruit market.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette 27 July 1890
Samuel S. Mittenthal
By the spring of 1889, Sam Mittenthal had settled in Kalamazoo and within a few months had opened his own branch of the family fruit dynasty; a retail fruit and confectionary stand at 204 East Main Street (now East Michigan Avenue) called the Chicago Fruit Store. Sam was often complimented for his impressive display of foreign and domestic fruits—oranges, lemons, bananas, pineapples, apricots, and the like. “His weekly pilgrimage to Chicago never fail(s) to bring about good results,” observed one Gazette writer on a warm July day in 1890, “and his long experience in handling these foods gives him an enviable position in the fruit market.”
In addition to his entrepreneurial skills as a fruit dealer, Sam, like his brother Harry, was a capable dance instructor and during the evening hours, he joined his brother in offering social dancing lessons in Kalamazoo and the surrounding communities of Vicksburg, Schoolcraft, and Mendon. When Harry returned to Detroit in 1889, Sam continued to offer dance instruction in Kalamazoo under the Mittenthal Brothers’ name.
When Herman Mittenthal arrived in Kalamazoo in July 1889, his plan was to assist with the Mittenthal brothers’ fruit operation. Herman remained with the family firm in Kalamazoo until February 1891, before returning to his home in Detroit for a few years.
Obviously inspired by his brothers’ success as dance instructors, Herman establishing several dancing schools in Detroit and Canada, then returned to Kalamazoo in September 1894 to once again assist his brothers’ growing fruit business and to establish “Prof. H. H. Mittenthal’s School for Dancing and Deportment.” Herman Mittenthal eventually became quite an entertainer himself, with a popular series of exhibition cakewalk dances in conjunction with Fischer’s Orchestra. Herman Mittenthal would continue to offer dance instruction in Kalamazoo well into the 1920s.
Mittenthal Brothers, Inc.
In September 1891, Sam sold his Main Street fruit stand to Howard Brush, and concentrated his efforts on the brothers’ wholesale trade. Soon thereafter, Sam and Isaac officially combined their operations and formed the Mittenthal Brothers, Inc., based solely out of Isaac’s location on North Burdick Street.
By the summer of 1893, it seemed that all roads led to Chicago, especially for anyone associated with the wholesale produce industry. With the Chicago World’s Fair in full swing, Sam and Isaac made their “weekly pilgrimage” to Chicago and brought back to Kalamazoo the finest fruit and produce the markets had to offer—peaches, plums, oranges, grapes, and more—often by the railroad carload.
The following spring, Isaac opened a Mittenthal Brothers office at 114 South Water Street in the heart of Chicago’s world famous South Water Street produce market. In the meantime, Sam continued to manage the family businesses back in Kalamazoo. With a direct connection between the growers in West Michigan and the thriving Chicago marketplace, the brothers stood poised to capitalize on the industry as few others could.
At this point it’s worth noting that while running the day-to-day business of their wholesale fruit operation in the Chicago marketplace (and earlier, perhaps at the World’s Fair), Isaac and Sam would have both gained a great deal of valuable business experience and made numerous personal contacts that would prove useful to the brothers in their future endeavors.
Kalamazoo and Battle Creek
As Isaac worked the Chicago markets during the summer of 1893, he and Sam purchased a building in Kalamazoo for $6,000 at 214 East Main Street (now 228 East Michigan Avenue) and consolidated the local portion of the Mittenthal Brothers fruit and commission operations into the new location with Sam at the helm. Two years later, the Mittenthal brothers expanded their operation again with a branch store in Battle Creek, and placed their brother Herman in charge there.
While Sam, Isaac and Harry continued to work the fruit brokerage business between Chicago, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, their brother Aubrey developed a keen interest in theatrical production and acting. From about 1887, Aubrey worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Detroit by day, and began playing prominent roles in theatrical productions by night; at first in Detroit and eventually New York.
By 1893, Aubrey was working as a theatrical manager. The following year, he assumed ownership and management of Alice E. Ives’ “The Great Brooklyn Handicap,” a full-scale dramatic stage production in five acts, which he promoted as “the grandest of all race dramas.” Performances included spirited musical numbers set against an elaborate stage set, which included authentic cable cars, bicycle riders, and some fourteen thoroughbred race horses.
“The Great Brooklyn Handicap”
After recruiting his brother Harry as an advance agent and his brother Isaac as company treasurer, Aubrey opened “The Great Brooklyn Handicap” in Philadelphia on 10 September 1894 to a warm reception. According to a telegram sent to their brother Sam in Kalamazoo, the show was a “big success” with “five curtain calls after the third act [and] seven after the race” (Kalamazoo Gazette). One week later, the show opened in New York City’s Grand Opera House with equally encouraging results.
By December, the company had worked its way to Michigan. After a successful week in Detroit at the Lyceum, “The Great Brooklyn Handicap” made its first appearance in Kalamazoo on Friday, 14 December 1894 at the Academy of Music on Rose Street. Aubrey played the lead role of a New York clubman and Harry performed “buck and wing dancing” as a comic interlude. Though the lavish production was rather cramped on the small Academy of Music stage, the hometown crowd cheered wildly and demanded multiple curtain calls. The Mittenthal brothers continued to tour the country with “The Great Brooklyn Handicap” for two seemingly successful seasons.
From “Fruit Belt” to Footlights
Interestingly, the lines between the Mittenthals’ fruit brokerage business (Isaac, Sam, Herman) and theatrical management business (Aubrey and Harry) soon became blurred, as the various brothers took on seemingly interchangeable roles within the two companies. In August 1894, Sam took over the Mittenthal Brothers’ office in Chicago for Isaac while he went on tour with Aubrey’s theatrical company as treasurer. (Harry of course was already performing a dual role as an advance agent and actor.) In turn, their brother Herman left Detroit and moved back to Kalamazoo to look after the local fruit operation in Sam’s absence. A year later, they switched things around again with Sam acting as as treasurer for “The Great Brooklyn Handicap” while Isaac held down the family fruit business in Chicago. Herman again took care of the fruit business in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek while still developing his own popular dancing academies.
By the spring of 1896, the elaborate “Great Brooklyn Handicap” show had proven too expensive for extended touring and was disbanded. Instead, Aubrey and Harry went on to manage Agnes Herndon, one of America’s leading actresses of the late nineteenth century. Outfitted with a rail car full of scenery, The Mittenthal Brothers took her company on a national tour, and played to full and gracious houses throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
Aubrey Dramatic Stock Company
Aubrey and his brothers soon achieved enormous success by organizing and underwriting small touring companies such as these. After a year or so with Ms. Herndon, Aubrey reorganized his operation in December 1898 as the Aubrey Dramatic Stock Company, and began booking theatres and touring with his own entertainment troupe. Aubrey’s company included several cast members from the Herndon tours, including the comedy team of Victor Morley and Lillian Bayer, who would soon become favorites of audiences everywhere.
Back in Kalamazoo, Lake View Park (located near Woods Lake) had become the summer entertainment center of the community. To increase patronage during evenings and weekends, a small stage on the eastern shore of the lake was converted into an outdoor theater for the 1896 season, complete with professional stage scenery and permanent seating for one thousand on the hill directly behind. Named the Lake View Casino, the facility (somewhat akin to today’s Barn Theatre in Augusta) was designed to host theatrical and musical productions, plays, and light opera throughout the summer months and (hopefully) attract large crowds.
Unfortunately, the first two seasons didn’t go so well for the Lake View Casino. Several shows were staged, and the crowds did indeed come, but the park managers were plagued by erratic scheduling and were deeply embarrassed when entertainers failed to show.
“The casino was a most popular resort and every night vast throngs visited the cozy little summer theatre. All classes were catered to and be it said to the credit of Mr. Mittenthal there was not one objectionable feature introduced during the entire summer.”
Kalamazoo Evening News,
12 September 1899
Aubrey Mittenthal recognized the potential of the Lake View Casino and quickly seized the opportunity. During the spring of 1898, Aubrey leased the Casino and surrounding grounds with the hope that he and his brothers could bring a fresh offering of new talent and experience to the fledgling summer theatre.
And who better than Aubrey Mittenthal to properly promote the Casino and finally bring the excitement of “big city” outdoor theatre to Kalamazoo? After several years of managing theatrical productions in New York and Detroit, Aubrey’s company was able to secure nationally recognized acts, and provide the local audiences with high quality entertainment they could depend on. One week of comedy and variety followed by a week of theatrical drama, then a week of light opera followed by a week of musical comedy, with non-stop feature performances seven days a week.
Summer Park Circuit (1898-1903)
Aubrey included the Lake View Casino with other similar outdoor summer theaters in Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin to form a Mittenthal Brothers circuit. With suitable venues and a solid roster of capable entertainers, the brothers rotated acts between cities in a cycle of one-week engagements.
By 1900, the Mittenthal circuit had expanded to include summer theatres in ten cities across five states: Kalamazoo, MI; Cleveland, OH; Rockford, IL; Peoria, IL; Bloomington, IN; Springfield, IL; Kankakee, IL; Champaign, IL; Oshkosh, WI; and Green Bay, WI.
“Brother Sam’s Little Playhouse in the Woods”
“...I am not exaggerating or boasting when I tell you that we are looked upon as the coming theatrical management firm in the country. And just mark my word, after we are through with next season they’ll all take off their hats to the ‘Mittenthal Boys.’ We are going to win out big and everybody likes to be with the winners, you know.”
— Harry Mittenthal,
28 June 1902
With the Lake View Casino now operating more smoothly, Aubrey Mittenthal returned to New York in August 1898 to make pre-season arrangements for the coming winter theatrical season. Although Aubrey’s company was still handling the talent arrangements for Lake View, he left the Casino’s day-to-day operations in the capable hands of his brother Sam.
Sam Mittenthal would manage the Lake View Casino and its entertainment activities for four more highly successful seasons (1899-1903), and leave his own indelible stamp on Kalamazoo’s local entertainment scene. The park patrons loved “Brother Sam,” as he was often referred to by the press, and his shows were extremely well attended. Sam finished out the 1898 season at Lake View Park with a well-received two-week run by the Deshon Opera Company, a performance by the Barlow Brothers Minstrels, and a wildly popular celebrity cakewalk contest.
American Theatre: A New Century
By century’s end, Michigan’s fruit industry had begun to mature. With the advent of refrigerated rail cars, local growers now faced formidable competition from producers outside of Michigan’s “Fruit Belt” region. But just as the fruit brokerage business appeared to have reached its peak for the brothers Mittenthal, the popularity of theatre and vaudeville was beginning to explode. With well-established connections in New York, Chicago, and throughout the Midwest, the Mittenthal brothers found themselves in the midst of a theatrical entertainment boom.
“My brother, Isaac, is picking out the talent in Chicago. He is visiting the different play houses and we are sure to get something good...
...we are going to give the people of Kalamazoo some ‘bang-up’ attractions this year.”
— Sam Mittenthal,
11 June 1902
With Aubrey, Harry, and now Sam all active in the entertainment industry, Isaac soon found his own interests shifting toward theatrical talent, as well. While wholesale fruit operations carried on in Chicago at the South Water Street office of the Mittenthal Brothers, the city’s bustling theatre district beckoned just a few short blocks away.
While Aubrey was busy canvassing the famous theatre districts of New York City, Isaac began to scour Chicago’s many theatres and playhouses on and near Randolph, Clark, Wabash, Halsted, and Monroe streets in search of undiscovered (and inexpensive) talent. His diligence soon paid off with quality performances priced for popular audiences. Acts on the Mittenthal circuits at this time were said to have been some of the best in the business.
The Aubrey Dramatic Stock Company was experiencing tremendous success during this time, as well. For the 1899-1900 season, Aubrey’s company acquired the rights to at least eight plays and plans were in the works for a fifteen-state tour from New York to Florida and throughout the Midwest. For the following summer, the company had already booked a circuit of nearly a dozen cities in four states, and was becoming well known for its quality stage productions.
Good Times, Bad Times
But all that glittered wasn’t gold for the Mittenthal brothers. Agnes Herndon had to be discharged from her second tour with the Mittenthals for being “disagreeable,” and in the spring of 1899, Sam found himself in the midst of a lawsuit in Kalamazoo over his violation of a local ordinance banning theatrical entertainment on Sundays. To make matters worse, the Aubrey Dramatic Company was staging a show in Fort Worth, Texas, on 12 September 1900 when a wooden prop cannon exploded and accidentally killed a member of the audience. Isaac Mittenthal was sued for $10,000 in damages as a result. As the saying goes, “The show must go on,” and indeed it did.
But just when it seemed like things could not get any worse, perhaps the biggest debacle in the Mittenthal stage and screen legacy began to unfold. In 1902, Aubrey and Harry traveled to Europe to engage Italian opera conductor Pietro Mascagni for a fifteen-week US tour in an attempt to break into the full-scale legitimate Italian opera business and introduce the form to American audiences (heretofore a rarity). The Mittenthal brothers’ association with Mascagni proved disastrous, however. The tour was an enormous failure for a variety of reasons, with both sides claiming exorbitant financial losses amid a tangled mess of law suits and bad press. After the experience, Aubrey told The New York Times, “Forget it - We’re going to stick to melodrama hereafter!” And for the next decade, that’s basically what they did.
The Mittenthal Brothers Amusement Company
Despite their problems with legitimate opera, the Mittenthals’ road troupes were doing landmark business with popular “light opera.” For the 1901 season, the brothers had some $75,000 (nearly $2.15 million in today’s currency) invested in eighteen touring stage productions and three summer stock houses in New York and New Jersey. The Mittenthal Brothers Amusement Company was incorporated in Albany, New York, in November 1902, with B.E. Forrester and Leon Laski as directors and capital stock of $20,000 (nearly $500,000 today). But by the summer of 1903, it had become evident that Aubrey and Harry needed more help still.
In July 1903, Harry Mittenthal left New York and returned to Kalamazoo to visit friends and family. But this was much more than a social call—the real reason for his trip was to persuade brothers Sam and Isaac to sell their fruit emporium on East Main and join the Mittenthal Brothers Amusement Company in New York. The brothers in Kalamazoo evidently liked the idea, and arrangements were made for Isaac and Sam to join the theatrical production and promotion business in September.
The Mittenthal brothers turned their wholesale fruit and commission business in Kalamazoo over to their brother-in-law, Herbert Levey, who continued to operate the business at 214 East Main Street under the “Mittenthal Brothers” name until June 1906, when the business was expanded and moved to Ransom Street. (The Mittenthal trade name was dropped a year later.) Levey and his wife Lottie (Mittenthal) remained in the wholesale fruit business locally at various locations until about 1915, at one point even (re)forming a brief partnership in the 300 block of North Rose with Herman Mittenthal, who had himself remained active in the local wholesale fruit industry.
Kalamazoo to New York (1903)
After five successful seasons managing the Lake View Casino, Sam was to finish the 1903 season, then join Aubrey and Harry at the Mittenthal Brothers office in New York, located in the famed Knickerbocker Theatre building on Broadway at West 38th St., adjacent to New York City’s famous theatre district.
The years that followed were very productive indeed for the Mittenthal brothers. With four brothers—Sam, Aubrey, “Ike,” and Harry—now collectively devoted to theatrical management, the Mittenthals’ business skyrocketed.
Forrester & Mittenthal
With Aubrey focusing on his road companies, Harry Mittenthal and company director B. E. Forrester began producing shows under the Forrester & Mittenthal banner in New York City. From an office (probably Forrester’s) in the New Amsterdam Theatre Building, 214 West 42nd Street, the Forrester & Mittenthal team managed such productions as “A Desperate Chance,” “A Russian Tyrant,” “A Midnight Marriage,” “The Vacant Chair,” and “Custer’s Last Fight.” Forrester & Mittenthal also managed the popular singer and long-time actress, Florence Bindley, who produced a moderate hit for them with Hal Reid’s “The Street Singer.”
“Gentleman Jim” Corbett
Aside from their involvement with traditional theatrical entertainment, the Mittenthal brothers reportedly became great fans of boxing. Naturally, when one of the sport’s leading contenders, the famous James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, expressed an interest in acting, the Mittenthal brothers jumped at the chance to incorporate him into the lead role in their own 1906 production of “The Burglar and the Lady.” The resulting “Burglar” tour with Corbett was wildly successful, making some 473 appearances in 120 locations from New York to California over a period of three years.
James Corbett worked with the Mittenthal Brothers for several years, including his feature-film debut in The Man from the Golden West (1913, the first film by the Mittenthal Film Company) and a remake of “The Burglar and the Lady” in 1914. Corbett went on to star in more than a dozen films before 1930. A 1942 film, Gentleman Jim, was based on Corbett’s boxing career.
“The Mittenthal Bros. Amusement Company, noted for the lavish manner in which it presents its attractions, claims that the illusions and electrical effects introduced are far ahead of those usually seen.”
Utica (NY) Daily Press,
10 March 1906
As the Mittenthal company grew, so did its audiences. By 1907, the Mittenthal Brothers had nine different productions on the road, including seven melodramas and two musical comedies, encompassing 250 employees and an annual payroll of $400,000 (nearly $9.6 million today).
By 1908, B. E. Forrester had gone on to become an independent booking agent, and the Mittenthals were (re)incorporated as two separate organizations. The Mittenthal Brothers Amusement Company, Inc., was now directed by Harry, Isaac and Sam, with Harry its president and Sam the treasurer. Aubrey Mittenthal’s Attractions (apparently a shell for Aubrey Stock productions), was directed by Aubrey Mittenthal (president), William D. Fitzgerald (secretary), and Charles McClintock. Both companies were by then located in the same office at 116 W. 39th Street in Manhattan, just around the corner from their original office in the Knickerbocker Theatre.
“How Hearts Are Broken,” music by Aubrey Mittenthal, 1906 | music pdf
Midi sequence by James Pitt-Payne, London, UK, 2009
The Aubrey Stock Company was eventually split into three separate circuits: Aubrey Stock Eastern, Aubrey Stock Southern, and Aubrey Stock Western. The brothers continued to manage and underwrite theatrical productions in theaters and on the road all across the country throughout the first decade of the twentieth century and into the nineteen-teens. With such productions as “The Parisian Model,” “Wanted by the Police,” “Custer’s Last Fight,” “The Millionaire’s Revenge,” “The Convict and the Girl,” “How Hearts are Broken,” “House of Mystery,” “The Prosecutor,” and many others, the Mittenthal brothers’ shows drew large crowds from coast-to-coast.
Though drama and light opera were the mainstays of theatrical entertainment at the time, vaudeville was quickly becoming the popular favorite. While its roots were in the saloons and variety theatres of eastern cities (often laden with bawdy humor and risqué subject matter), savvy promoters were finding great success with a less offensive, more refined “cleaner” version of vaudeville. Stripped of its harsh language and directed toward simple humor, so called “polite” vaudeville was designed to entertain the masses. Successfully combining music, comedy, dance and drama into a neat (and somewhat respectable) package, vaudeville quickly found massive new audiences of all ages, both in metropolitan areas and especially on the road in smaller communities and rural regions.
Southern Circuit Company (1912)
In 1912, the Mittenthal brothers took their theatrical management and promotion to a new level when Aubrey and Harry formed the Southern Circuit Company Incorporated with southern vaudeville giant Jake Wells and partner Clarence Weiss. With capital stock of $300,000 (nearly $6.5 million today), the new company took control of theatres in some fifty major markets across the country, including Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, and many points in between, “giving 45 weeks routing to each act it plays” (Gazette).
“This is the biggest venture that the Mittenthals have yet attempted in the amusement line and is a distinct departure from the straight theatrical game they have been successfully playing for several years.” —Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 January 1912
High Quality Vaudeville
Managing stage productions had long been the Mittenthal brothers’ mainstay, but the theatres booked by the Southern Circuit Company focused on high quality vaudeville rather than theatrical stage productions. The art of assembling a quality vaudeville show was a craft in itself, which involved taking a seemingly random collection of unique, often bizarre and sometimes ridiculous acts and combining them into into a single, seamless performance of merit. With established circuits throughout the eastern states and the Midwest, the Mittenthals had much to offer promoters of other new and exciting forms of entertainment in terms of access. This was a deliberate return to their variety entertainment roots in an attempt to capitalize on the popular trend, but it was also a part of the industry that the Mittenthals’ knew well from their earlier days on their own Midwest circuits.
Interestingly, Harry Mittenthal told one newspaper reporter that there would be no “picture shows” on this new circuit, only “the best vaudeville acts.” But in May 1913, the Mittenthal brothers made a bold about-face and announced that they were going into the motion picture business.
The brothers formed the Mittenthal Film Company in a small film studio located at Herriot and South Waverly Streets in Yonkers, New York. The company produced two motion pictures its first year, The Man from the Golden West, which starred “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in his feature-film debut, and The Auto Bandits of New York, starring Frank Day and Marion Tanner. The films were successful and the brothers soon signed a distribution deal with film giant Pathé for a series called “Starlight Comedies.” Through their association with Pathé, the Mittenthal Film Company went on to produce some seventy films before the beginning of 1917.
As up-and-coming filmmakers in a brand new industry, Aubrey and Harry were on hand to represent the Mittenthal Film Company at the star-studded first annual Motion Picture Board of Trade banquet, held at New York’s Biltmore Hotel on 27 January 1916, where President Woodrow Wilson famously encouraged film makers and studio owners to get involved in the war effort. By June, however, the Mittenthal firm had already announced that it was no longer soliciting scenarios for film production, perhaps due to the war itself.
While the Mittenthal brothers were indeed a very small company by film industry standards (even then), they did see a significant amount of success, and even played a part in launching the careers of some of the best known actors of the time. In addition to the films featuring “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, a Mittenthal produced comedy short called Fatty’s Fatal Fun from 1915 featured a 23 year old actor billed as Babe Hardy, who would later become better known as Oliver Hardy, of “Laurel and Hardy” fame.
“The Dancing Widow” (1918)
By 1917, Sam had returned to Chicago, leaving Isaac, Harry and Aubrey in charge of the Mittenthal Brothers Amusement Company. In 1918, Aubrey returned to stage production with “Cheating Cheaters,” a play in four acts penned by A. H. Woods. He also ventured out with a musical comedy called “The Dancing Widow,” but despite favorable attendance, increased railroad rates made the production far too costly for extended road travel. After stops in Texas and Oklahoma, the show returned to New York, where it was reorganized and returned to the road on a more manageable eastern circuit.
The Mittenthal brothers continued to produce plays and underwrite theatrical productions as a company into the 1920s. Sam remained in Chicago where he lived and worked until his death in January 1929. Aubrey Mittenthal lived in Manhattan during the twenties, where he owned and managed “Come Along, Mandy,” a musical comedy written by Salem Tutt Whitney and J. Homer Tutt (Whitney & Tutt), with music by Donald Heywood. “Mandy,” which featured a large African American cast, including the Bronze Beauty Chorus—“twenty girls, all under twenty, [who] are lively steppers,” closed in June 1924 and was called by the Pittsburgh Courier “the greatest attraction to have appeared this season.”
Florida Theaters and Amusements Corporation
By March 1926, Aubrey and Harry had begun plotting yet another grand theatrical scheme. The duo formed the Florida Theaters and Amusements Corporation in St. Petersburg, Florida, and soon announced plans to begin building an ambitious series of lavish new theater complexes in several of Florida’s major cities. “For some time,” stated an unnamed company representative (presumably Aubrey), “we have been looking over available sites for the first of our chain of theaters and amusement houses in Florida” (St. Petersburg Times). After revealing that St. Petersburg would be the site of the first complex, Aubrey stated confidently, “We believe that the citizens of the city will welcome and applaud the efforts of the organization to supply the demand of the theater-going public” (Evening Independent).
The Florigold Theater
Slated to be called “The Florigold Theater,” the Spanish Mission style theater complex was to cover 28,000 square feet at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue South and Ninth Street in St. Petersburg, and include a 1,600 seat live performance theater, twenty or more stores, a rooftop amusement area, a garden, tea room, offices, lounge rooms, and other features. With an estimated cost of $225,000 (roughly $2.9 million today), the new theater was scheduled to open in October, however, evidence suggests the project never got off the ground. The real estate boom in St. Petersburg crashed between 1926 and 1927, which brought new construction in that city to a grinding halt. There is little to suggest that this or any other projects by the Florida Theaters and Amusement Corporation ever materialized.
Curtain Call: 1930 and After
Still in Manhattan, copyright entries were made in Aubrey’s name (and address) during March 1930 for two four-act plays, “Custer’s Last Fight” and “What a Man,” and a third in April 1930 for a revised version of “What a Man,” this time in three acts. Subsequent entries for “Custer’s Last Fight” (a dramatic composition in 4 acts) and “The Mississippi Flood” (a drama in 3 acts) were made (still in Aubrey’s name, though with Isaac’s address) in February and March of 1931.
Aubrey Mittenthal passed away on 25 July 1937 in New York City and is buried at Beth Olam Cemetery in Detroit. Herman Mittenthal remained in the wholesale fruit business in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Jackson, while at the same time maintaining dancing schools in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Adrian, Lansing, Muskegon and Kalamazoo. Herman died in Detroit, 17 July 1956. Harry Mittenthal remained in New York City until at least 1930, as did Isaac, although Isaac returned to Kalamazoo briefly in 1922 to oversee the construction of a business block on the family property at the corner of North Burdick and Ransom streets. “We have owned this site for many years,” admitted Isaac, “deriving very little revenue from it.” Harry E. Mittenthal died in Detroit on 11 May 1940; Isaac passed away in New York City two years later, 6 November 1942. The remaining affairs of the Mittenthal estate were still being settled in Kalamazoo in the late 1960s.
“...I shall never forget Kalamazoo”
In Sam Mittenthal’s own words, “No matter where I may go, or with what success my future may be crowned, I shall never forget Kalamazoo. Some of my happiest days have been spent here and the public have been good to me in more ways than one. I don’t know of a place I would rather spend the summer in than dear old Kalamazoo.”
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is very much a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.