10 October 2008

The Amazing Witmark Brothers


People look at 47-55 W. 28th Street—the group of addresses that made up part of Tin Pan Alley and are now in danger of being destroyed—and see a clutch of grimy tumble-down buildings. Since there are no historical plaques outside each structure, or nearby museum to educate the curious, it's hard to understand the wealth of cultural history that took place beyond each door.

So, let's amend that a bit. 49-51 was once the home of M. Witmark & Sons, a hugely powerful music publisher 100 years ago. M. Witmark has nothing to do with the company. It was all about the "Sons": Jay, Julius and Isidore. They used their father's name, Marcus, in the name of the company because the three ambitious sons were all minors (the youngest 11, by some accounts!) when they founded the business in 1883—with a toy printing press won by Jay in an arithmetic contest! Marcus was a character himself. Though a New Yorker, he was a captain in the Confederate Army.

Jay was the businessman. Julius gained fame as a singer. Isidore was a songwriter. (Isidore and Julius were both on Broadway in 1902.) The Witmarks published 30 operettas by Victor Herbert—the Broadway heavyweight of his day. Also, scores by Sigmund Romberg, another operetta king, and the George M. Cohan. They published songs everyone still knows, though few now remember their composers: "My Wild Irish Rose" (Chauncey Olcott); "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (Ernest R. Ball); and "Sweet Adeline" (Harry Armstrong). Irishman across New York City should thank God for the Witmarks every St. Patrick's Day.

By 1900, the firm had branches in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Melbourne. Warner Brothers bought Witmark (along with a bunch of other publishing houses) in 1929. Jay went along for the ride, but retired in 1931. But Jay probably made his most lasting mark in music history by co-founding the ASCAP.

Isidore died in 1941, Jay in 1950 and Julius in 1929.

1 comment:

ken mac said...

Fantastic if sad information. I was just up there taking pics; spoke to one senior citizen tenant sitting on the stoop of #47. She said NYC's loft law should protect them from eviction, but she assumes the powers that be will be bought off, as they were when Trump erected the 40 story glass evil on Varrick. She also said there is a plague in the sidewalk at 28th and Broadway, but I couldn't find it.