Studio founder's granddaughter traces family roots



The story of Warner Bros. is a true Hollywood story — both literally and figuratively.

And Cass Sperling Warner has been tracing the fascinating saga of her grandfather, Harry Warner, and his three brothers who formed the landmark movie studio. Her goal is to share it with the world.

It’s a story that traces its roots to Youngstown and New Castle, Pa., at the turn of the last century, when the four brothers, poor but hard-working sons of Jewish immigrants from Russia, fell in love with the movies and decided to get into the business.

The rest is history.

Sperling Warner is in the Mahoning Valley this week for several speaking engagements, but also to retrace the steps her legendary grandfather took.

She spoke at Packard Music Hall on Wednesday morning in a Trumbull Town Hall lecture series program with Stephen Bogart, the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Sperling Warner will appear tonight at the Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown for another engagement sponsored by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

She also will visit New Castle, Pa., this morning for a press conference at the developing Warner Film Center. The Warner brothers’ first movie theater — the Cascade nickelodeon at 18 S. Mill St. — was in New Castle, and a museum is being created on the site.

The floor plan of the museum will be unveiled at today’s press conference, which also will herald a ramping up of activity by the Warner Film Center.

“For years, I have been helping to get the attention of the governor of Pennsylvania to fund the restoration of the theater,” said Sperling Warner in an interview before her Packard address. “Then came the economic crash of 2008.”

The project is back on track thanks largely to the efforts of Jerry Kern of New Castle, president of the WFC. The project received a $100,000 gift in April from Jack Oberleitner, a former New Castle businessman, and his business associate, Keith Staffan.

Sperling Warner also was able to obtain funding from Warner Bros. to help fund the project. She is on the board of advisors for the Warner Film Center and will meet with the group to get a status update during her visit. “I hope to see it come to fruition,” she said.

After Wednesday’s lecture at Packard hall, Sperling Warner was to tour sites in Youngstown of historical significance to her famous forebears.

“The last time I was in Youngstown, I visited Powers Auditorium [another original Warner theater], and someone told me that the house where my grandfather lived in Youngstown is still there, but I didn’t get a chance to see it,” said Sperling Warner.

William Lawson (director of the MVHS) researched the Warner sites.

The Warner family lived in abodes in the 300 block of West Federal Street, downtown; at 309 N. Walnut St. in Smoky Hollow; and at 1359 Elm St. on the North Side — the only site still standing.

Harry and his brother Albert also worked from 1902-04 at a bicycle shop at 327 W. Federal St., which is now a parking lot adjacent to the MVHS’s Tyler Center. “Our research just turned this up in the past few days,” said Lawson.

Sperling Warner’s presentation at Packard included lengthy excerpts from her 2008 documentary film, “The Brothers Warner,” which details the family’s rise from Youngstown to founding and operating the famed movie studio in Hollywood.

She recalled roaming the WB lot — a “factory of dreams,” as she put it — as a child. Her father, Milton Sperling, was a screenwriter and producer for the studio.

She described her grandfather as “the most loving grandpa anyone could wish for,” and recalled spending countless weekends at his ranch in what is now the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

Harry Warner, born Hirsz Wonskolaser in 1881 in what is now Poland, had no education but a lot of “chutzpah,” said Sperling Warner. He founded and ran Warner Bros. for 50 years before he died in 1958. Today, the studio is a subsidiary of Time Warner Corp.

In a surprising revelation, Sperling Warner told the audience Wednesday that her book, “The Brothers Warner,” has been optioned by the same film company that produced “La Vie en Rose,” the story of the late French singer Edith Piaf. A script has been written by Nick Pileggi (“Goodfellas”), and directors are being approached.

Sperling Warner is a producer for the movie.

She is also now an employee of Warner Bros., where she is creating a historical exhibit about her family that will be shown to tourists.

The first part of Wednesday’s Packard presentation was by Bogart, the son of Hollywood super couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Humphrey Bogart died in 1957. Bacall, 89, still lives in New York.

Bogart showed home movies and divulged stories that were peppered with the names of major stars that were an everyday part of his upbringing: Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Richard Burton, David Niven and Julie Andrews.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.