L. Lawrence Weber: From Minstrelsy to MGM

L. Lawrence Weber (1869-1940) was a major entrepreneur of the stage, screen and sports worlds, with a hand in everything going at the time: minstrelsy**, burlesque, vaudeville, legit theatre, boxing, and as a film pioneer he co-founded one of the companies that later formed part of MGM.

Born in New York City, Weber got his start as a teenager in the 1880’s organizing amateur minstrel shows** that toured the towns of Long Island. From here he was able to professionalize by joining the Excelsior Minstrels. By 1897, he owned two nationally touring theatrical companies, Weber’s Olympia Company and the Marion Extravaganza Company. The same year, the Traveling Variety Managers of America was founded, constituting the beginnings of the formal burlesque circuits. Within five years the Columbia Amusement Company, a.k.a. the Columbia, or Eastern “Wheel”, had splintered off, with Sam Scribner, Gus Hill, and Weber at the controls. The circuit operated in various incarnations and guises through 1931, and was where many of America’s top entertainers got their start. In 1910, Weber also organized the Lawrence Weber Cooperative Booking Circuit, for producing melodramas, farces, and musicals in a chain of 40 theatres, along the same model.

In 1914, Weber and others formed Popular Plays and Players, which produced films featuring stars like Olga Petrova, Florence Reed and others, from properties by the likes of Jules Verne and Clyde Fitch. Within a couple of years it was absorbed by Metro Pictures, which Weber also confounded. In 1919, Metro would be purchased by Marcus Loew, and in 1925 it became one the companies that were merged to form MGM. He also founded his own film production company, the L. Lawrence Weber Photodrama Corporation, which produced the original version of Raffles starring John Barrymore in 1917, among other films.

In 1915, Weber mixed two of his loves, boxing promotion and cinema by shooting a Jack JohnsonJess Willard match in Havana, Cuba. The law at the time didn’t permit him to exhibit in the U.S. He tried various legal gambits and subterfuges to show the film, but ultimately lost.

In 1917 Weber, whose live theatre ventures had previously consisted of burlesque and touring productions, mounted His Little Widows (a co-production with Broncho Billy Anderson), the first of over two dozen Broadway productions that would ultimately bear his name. In 1919 he became one of the founding members of the Producing Managers Association. In the 1920s, he bought into and managed a couple of Broadway houses: the Longacre Theatre (1921), and the Little Theatre (1923). In 1922 he fought a bitter court battle with his ex-wife Edith Hallor, ultimately winning custody of their son, Lawrence Weber, Jr. And in 1925, he underwrote and co-produced Harry Houdini’s last major tour. He was to be a pall bearer at the escape artist’s funeral the following year.

In 1934, Weber was among the prominent backers of an Anti-Nazi concert event at Carnegie Hall, designed to promote a boycott effort. Timewise this is way out in front of most such efforts in the United States. Weber was naturally, Jewish. (I’ve come across no evidence, by the way, that he was related to comedian Joe Weber, who was around the same age, although Weber and Fields did play the Columbia Wheel in their early years). In 1935, Weber produced his last show, Strip Girl.

Interestingly, on a lark I guess, during the last weeks of his life, Weber trod the stage for the first time as an actor! He had a small role in a drama called The Man Who Killed Lincoln, which ran January 17-20, 1940. A month later (February 22), he was dead.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.