Today in Theatre History: SAM S. SHUBERT KILLED IN RAIL ACCIDENT, 1905

Sam S. Shubert (1878-1905)

The death of Sam S. Shubert on this date in 1905 was a major turning point for the growing Shubert organization, perhaps setting back its rapidly expanding empire by as much as a decade.

Established only eight years earlier, the Shubert brothers’ organization began in upstate New York, managing a small circuit of playhouses under the watchful gaze of the Theatrical Syndicate monopoly.  Employing the latest business techniques, the Shuberts quickly expanded their holdings, and by 1900 moved into New York City, challenging the Theatrical Syndicate head to head.

At the front was middle brother, Sam, who initially started his other two brothers (Lee and J.J.) down the path to the entertainment business when he worked his way up from ticket seller and box office manager to theatre owner.  In the late 1890s, the brothers quietly, but quickly, added more theatres to their Hudson Valley holdings, taking advantage of facilities that had gone under in the aftermath of the 1893 panic and depression.  They were on the verge of making a major play for New York City, and thus breaking the monopoly that the Theatrical Syndicate had held for nearly ten years, when Sam boarded a train bound for Pittsburgh on May 11, 1905.  The business trip was cut short when his passenger train collided with a line of stationary freight cars outside of Harrisburg.  Sam lingered for two days before succumbing to his injuries.  It was a severe blow to the nascent Shubert Organization and would take the remaining two brothers over ten years to fully recover.

Shubert Theatre, showing Spamalot 225 West 44t...

Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York City

But by 1916, the Shuberts had supplanted the Theatrical Syndicate, establishing their own entertainment empire and monopoly–a monopoly that would not be broken until 1955.  As a tribute, the Shuberts built and named a number of their top theatres across the country in memory of their deceased brother. Many still stand today, including the famed Sam S. Shubert Theatre on Broadway, as well as Shubert Theatres in Chicago and Minneapolis.

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