Warner Brothers began in the Valley
LIBERTY — The story of one of Hollywood’s most successful film studios runs through the Mahoning Valley, and it’s a tale whose characters include a village idiot, a loyal horse and President William McKinley.
Gerald Kern, president of the Warner Cascade Theatre Museum in New Castle, Pa., shared stories of the Warner Brothers on Saturday as part of the Memories of a Lifetime lecture series presented by the William Holmes McGuffey Historical Society.
The Warners started out as Wonskolasers in the 19th century in a part of western Russia that now is Poland. Restrictions on Jews at the time limited economic opportunities and access to education, Kern said. An acquaintance of patriarch Benjamin Wonskolaser told him he was going to go to America. The man, who was considered the village idiot, later sent Benjamin a letter bragging about his success in Baltimore and how the streets were paved with gold.
“If the village idiot can do it, why not him?” Kern said, so Wonskolaser told his wife he was going to America and would save enough money for her and their children to follow.
The streets of Baltimore weren’t paved with gold. It was overcrowded with immigrants doing hard work in deplorable conditions. But the father, a trained shoemaker, wasn’t mad; he saw opportunity and a lot of folks who would need shoes.
The Wonskolasers became the Warners, where they had some initial success in Baltimore and significant losses in Canada when the father became involved in the fur trading business.
It was oldest son Harry who led the family to Youngstown, traveling to the city, at age 14, in 1896, because he wanted to hear William McKinley give a speech during his presidential campaign.
“He was so impressed with the city,” Kern said. “It was booming. Factories were being built. Everyone had a job.”
The family moved to Ohio, which is where the Warners really thrived, Kern said. They had a butcher shop, a bicycle shop, a tobacco store and a grocery that made deliveries by a wagon drawn by Bob, the family’s horse.
The film business became a Warner business in the early 20th century after Sam Warner got a job as a projectionist at Cedar Point in Sandusky and Harry moved to Pittsburgh and saw the success of the nickelodeon theater there.
Kern said Harry was fascinated by the movies, but what caught his attention even more was, “Outside there is a line of people always waiting for the next movie to start, a line of people eager to part with their nickel.”
The family scraped together close to $150 (by, among other things, pawning the family’s horse) to buy a projector, some films and tickets and started showing movies in other towns. According to Kern, the Warners first stop with that portable projector was Niles.
Looking to create a permanent theater and not wanting to compete with ones in Youngstown, the Warners opened their first theater, the Cascade, Feb. 2, 1907, in New Castle.
The Warner Cascade Theatre Museum is open on the site of the original theater, and it focuses on the family’s cinematic legacy until 1915, when brothers Harry, Sam, Abe and Jacob (Jack) set up shop in southern California.
“Our place at the museum in New Castle is to tell the story of the Warner family, how they emigrated here, how they ended up in New Castle, why New Castle and why do they leave,” Kern said. “By the time they go to Hollywood, most of the Warners’ story is someone else’s other than ours.”
The lecture series on Saturday took place at Kravitz Deli.