Wonkskolaser: The Family Who Built Warner Bros


Two of my favorite things are a great book, and a great movie. It’s no surprise that movies begin as words written on a page. Through this post, I hope to share the story of Warner Bros from the standpoint of a family, Polish Jews, who’ve built the business which continues today. Warner Bros, one division of the world’s largest conglomerate.

So who were the Warners? Or better yet, who were the Wonskolasers? A family of fourteen, parents Benjamin (n. 1857) and Pearl (n. 1858) — denied proper education having been born Jewish under German occupies — migrated to the United States to achieve a portion of the “American Dream.”

With the sale of Benjamin’s watch — a family heirloom — and the family’s horse, they accumulated the initial funds to purchase a used projector for $150; Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, a device for viewing moving pictures without sound.

Warner Bros was officially incorporated April 4, 1923 by brothers Harry (n. 1881), Albert (n. 1884), Sam (n. 1888), and Jack (n. 1892) and endured the preliminary hard times experienced by underfinanced entrepreneurial ventures. Their first theater, The Cascade, was located in New Castle, Pennsylvania. After paying their nickel, theater goers were welcomed into the nickelodeon which was furnished with rented chairs from an undertaker.

In 1925, brothers Sam and Harry heard the first faint sounds of “talking pictures” in the New York offices of Bell Laboratories’ parent company, Western Electric. Sam, self-taught in mechanics, instantly recognized the groundbreaking potential of this new technology and immediately installed the new sound equipment in their just-acquired Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn.

Edison, seeing others profiting from his invention, banded a number of studio companies together to form the Motion Pictures Patent Company, with every intention of collecting license revenue from each operator. After lengthy legal battles, the brothers were left to now make and distribute their own films. Needless to say, their first efforts were unprofitable.

Experimenting with sound went back to the earliest days of cinema. Thomas Edison attempted to synchronize his kinetoscope to phonograph recordings… nineteen “talking pictures” were produced in 1913, but by 1915 he had abandoned sound motion pictures.

Lee de Forest, a pioneer in the development of sound-on-film recording used for motion pictures, demonstrated his sound-on-film to the press on March 12, 1923.

He had over 180 patents, but also a tumultuous career—he boasted that he made, then lost, four fortunes.

With the release of The Jazz Singer — the world’s first “talkie” which premiered October 6, 1927 — Warner Bros introduced sound to cinema. Their brother, Sam Warner, passed away October 5 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

All art is based on limits; paintings couldn’t move, music couldn’t create imagery, and so on.

What prompted me to write this post, was viewing Warner Bros. as a progressive socially conscious film company. They were the first studio in Hollywood history that stopped doing  business with Nazi Germany in 1934. Harry Warner is quoted to have said, “If 500 or 600,000 dogs were being executed in Germany, I’m positive the world would have risen.”

Yet there’s a disconnect with many of their stars still “blacking-up” as late as 1951 with Doris Day in “I’ll Be Seeing You In My Dreams.”

There’s even the Censored Eleven, a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons originally produced and released by Warner Bros. that were withheld from syndication by United Artists (UA) in 1968.

Of Harry Warner, Cass Warner Sperling says in The Brothers Warner, “The last time I saw him, he was bedridden in an antiseptic smelling room.”

In 1967, Jack Warner sold the Studio and it was renamed Warner Bros.-Seven Art.  Albert Warner passed away that same year at the age of 83. Jack, of a heart inflammation at Cedars-Sinai Hospital on September 9, 1978.

United they stood, divided they fell. Yet their ideals live on in all those who believe in using media to educate, entertain, and enlighten.

-Cass Warner Sperling


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