SMALL TOWNS: Lasting tribute to four famous brothers from Two Rivers
TWO RIVERS, Wis. (WBAY) - Seventy-two years ago, four young men helped put Two Rivers on the map by being the best barbershop quartet in the world.
Perhaps what’s most amazing was their sudden rise to fame.
This week in Small Towns, we travel to the lakeshore to see how the Schmitt Brothers will now be remembered forever in their hometown.
In Central Park in Two Rivers was one of the largest family reunions you’ll ever see.
“To the members of the Schmitt family, and I know there are a lot of you gathered in Two Rivers today from near and far, welcome home,” said Two Rivers City Administrator Greg Buckley, addressing the crowd.
And the reason they’ve all come?
“You know we’re here today to celebrate four young men that shocked the world,” adds a Schmitt family member.
Those four young men -- Joe, Jim, Fran, and Paul -- grew up in a family of 17 children.
While in school, they sang in the all-men’s choir at St. Luke’s Catholic Church.
In the summer of 1949, they sang as a quartet at a local wedding.
Word of their talent quickly spread and more requests followed.
“And they got the opportunity to sing for a Christmas party for a women’s organization at the Hotel Manitowoc, and they didn’t know it but there was a man staying at the hotel at that point who was the president of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America -- which is now called the Barbershop Harmony Society -- but he heard them singing down the hall and ran down the hall because he could hear how good they were, and as soon as they were done he invited them to join the local chapter which is now called the Clipper City Chordsmen, and that’s how they learned to sing barbershop,” says P.T. Rivers, Schmitt Family historian.
The brothers also learned there were competitions, which they entered and breezed through at the local, district and regional levels.
“Eighteen months later they were on stage in Toledo. They were singing with 40 other quartets for the chance to become champion, and they brought home the trophy in 1951. First quartet to win on their first try, first all-brother quartet to win, and it was just magical,” explains Rivers.
And so was the welcome home, where thousands waited to hail their hometown heroes.
“Coming back by train, so then when the train stopped in Sheboygan and these people were there, the train stopped because the Sheboygan people wanted to hear the quartet sing a song. We thought, ‘My gosh, Sheboygan, what’s going to happen in Manitowoc?’ So we got to Manitowoc, and here were all these people wanting to hear them sing,” Jim Schmitt’s widow, Mary Ann, recalls.
A car parade to Two Rivers concluded the frenzy that night.
Within a month, the Schmitt Brothers were in high demand, singing on the Ed Sullivan show, followed by guest appearances on Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk.
They performed in top venues like Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hill.
“Joe was the high tenor and he was the spokesman for the group. Jim was the lead, and you had Fran the bass, and Paul the baritone,” says Rivers.
Over the next 35 years, the Schmitt Brothers recorded 10 albums, performed more than 3,000 shows, and logged more than two million miles.
Big-time celebrities for sure, but they always remained humble, placing their faith and families first.
“They bragged about their faith, they bragged about the fact they had a lot of kids, honored their wives all the time, and you take that plus this terrific music and that’s a pretty good combination. I remember watching them on TV and Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan, and I don’t think you make the connection that, wow, these guys are kind of famous, and he’d come home and we would do stuff that fathers and families do. I got to be honest with you, it’s been more lately that I’ve realized what a big deal these guys were,” says former Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, son of the late Jim Schmitt.
In 1985, the Schmitt Brothers sang their final song. That’s the year brother Joe passed away.
“They had made a pact early on, ‘We sing together or we don’t sing at all,’ so there was no replacing Joe,” says Rivers.
After Jim passed away in 2008, and all the brothers were gone, P.T. Rivers wrote a book about her famous great-uncles. Released in 2020, it inspired an idea within the extended family to have a memorial in Two Rivers to honor the Schmitt Brothers.
It just so happened the city was planning to renovate its Central Park to include a stage.
As a former mayor, Jim Schmitt took the lead.
“What better memorial could you possibly have for a singing group than a stage? And he told us the naming rights were going to be $100,000. Jim came back to me, and I thought, well it was a nice idea and he said, no, we can do this. So they went to the extended family and came up with $122,000,” says Rivers.
Which in mid-July led to the official dedication of the Schmitt Brothers Stage.
And appropriately, the first performers: the entire Schmitt family.
In case you’re wondering just what the day meant to the Schmitts, consider this: 335 descendants representing 17 states came to the stage dedication.
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