For Jason Shapiro, a life filled with stories kept coming back to one story.
He was walking one day with his brothers – Howard and Sam, with whom, as understatements go, he was very close – in downtown Pittsburgh. One of them saw a $1 bill on the sidewalk. They bent over to pick it up and, laughing, quipped, “We each just made 33 cents!”
The Chronicle quizzed several Shapiro family members about which brother picked up the dollar bill.
“That depends on whose funeral the story was being told at,” said Gerrie Shapiro, Jason’s daughter.
On Friday, June 19, it was Jason Shapiro’s turn to pick up the dollar bill.
Services were held graveside that afternoon for Shapiro – who helped run the National Record Mart chain, one of Pennsylvania’s most successful Jewish-owned businesses; who co-owned the Pittsburgh Pipers, a championship-winning ABA squad; and who davened and handed out lollipops regularly on Shabbat at the Lubavitch Center. He was a giant of a man who for decades played an integral role as a servant to his community.
He was 99.
Five generations of Shapiros now are buried in the Torath Chaim cemetery near North Park.
The family has an origin story that’s both odd and believable. Morris Caplan, Jason Shapiro’s grandfather, took the surname of a recently deceased man in his village to avoid being conscripted into the Russian Army in the 19th century, thereby becoming Morris Shapiro, according to Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish Archives.
One of Morris’s children, Hyman, emigrated to Canada in the 1890s, worked on the Lower East Side of New York City, then traveled west with family to Pittsburgh. Hyman Shapiro and his brother Nathan had auspicious beginnings, opening a leaf tobacco wholesale business in the Hill District. Sam, the firstborn child of Hyman Shapiro and Sarah Shapiro née Safier, was born in 1914, with Howard following in 1917 and Jason in 1920.
The Shapiro brothers opened Jitterbug Record Mart in downtown Pittsburgh in 1937, originally selling used 78 RPM records from jukeboxes.
“They were in the record business when it was considered a second-class business,” said Gerrie Shapiro, Jason’s daughter. “Then, it exploded. They got into it at the right time and they got out of it at the right time.”
The Shapiros rebranded as National Record Mart and grew the chain – doing everything from selling LPs to selling concert tickets – to more than 75 retail stores before selling the business in 1986. The number of stores ultimately peaked at about 130 locations, then closed in 2002.
The downtown headquarters of National Record Mart was a hub of activity – with a signature Shapiro flair.
“They were funny. They had one desk and one chair behind it and they’d take turns sitting in it,” Gerrie Shapiro laughed. “People that worked for them, to nobody was it Mr. Shapiro. If a kid was going to the prom, my dad would loan him the Lincoln. Everybody loved coming to work, everybody was family. That’s a testament to the three brothers.”
Jason Shapiro’s life in entertainment didn’t end, however, with the turntable.
In the 1960s, he partnered with Lenny Litman and Gabe Rubin to run the Penn Theater downtown, which stood where Heinz Hall is today. The trio used profits from a successful run of “Hello Dolly!” starring Carol Channing to finance much of the $30,000 entrance fee to run a team with the American Basketball Association. By Feb. 2, 1967, Litman, Rubin and Jason Shapiro were running the Pittsburgh Pipers.
“[Rubin] was always interested in basketball and I was doing some promotions with the Philadelphia 76ers in Pittsburgh at the time,” Jason Shapiro told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003, when Rubin died. “A guy called us about this new league, the ABA, and Gabe got interested. He said, ‘I could get involved in that by saving money not betting anymore on basketball games.'”
The pair was credited with bringing star Connie Hawkins to Pittsburgh for the ABA’s debut in 1967. In that year, they played in the original Civic Arena and took home the championship title, beating the New Orleans Buccaneers four games to three, with Hawkins, who later went on to star in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, winning Finals MVP honors.
“Gabe and Jason, they drafted Hawkins and brought him here – he was a huge sensation,” said Harlan Stone, a downtown attorney and Squirrel Hill resident who is Rubin’s grand-nephew. “I remember going to games, getting my ball autographed, the kind of things that get a 13-year-old kid excited.”
Stone remembered Jason Shapiro as a kind of star.
“They knew the entertainment and they mixed comfortably with them,” he said. “Fast-talking? Yes. Colorful? Absolutely. And I think Gabe and Jason were birds of a feather, to an extent.”
On Shabbat, the man behind National Record Mart and the Pittsburgh Pipers was just another individual davening among the Orthodox. But Shapiro was not really frum and often drove to shul in Squirrel Hill, making sure to park a couple blocks away so he could be respectful of those walking to services.
Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, executive director of Friendship Circle and the grandson of the late Doris Rudolph – who Shapiro knew when they both attended Penn State University – remembers Rabbi Sholom Posner seeing Shapiro walk into shul one Saturday.
“Jason, it’s so nice to see you here,” Rabbi Posner said to him. Feeling sheepish, Jason Shapiro admitted he drove to shul that day. “Jason,” the rabbi responded, “did I ask you how you got here?” All that mattered was that he was there.
Rudolph and others remembered Jason Shapiro handing out handfuls of lollipops to children congregating in the synagogue.
“He was a character – he was always so sweet and friendly,” Rudolph said. “He was this icon from the old days of Pittsburgh but he never came off that way. He came off as a sweet, humble fellow.”
“There are plenty of people, plenty of grown men in Pittsburgh who are probably grandfathers now, who have memories of my father giving them lollipops,” Gerrie Shapiro laughed.
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld came to serve Chabad in Pittsburgh in 1978. He learned about the Shapiro brothers – specifically Jason, who became a Yeshiva Schools board member – quickly from Rabbi Posner, who also was close with Jason’s father, Hyman.
“It’s the rare kind of thing you find, three brothers working together like that,” Rosenfeld told the Chronicle. “Jason was the closest thing you can think of to having an angel in this world, interested in helping in every way.”
Rosenfeld remembers a man in the community falling on hard times and turning to Jason Shapiro for counsel, who encouraged the man to apply for a loan through the Hebrew Free Loan Association. When the man didn’t qualify, Jason Shapiro was at the man’s home with a personal check for $5,000 within hours.
“That was his way of operating,” Rosenfeld said, “always thinking about everybody.”
“His greatest accomplishment was that he made people feel great about what they were doing,” Rosenfeld added. “At the end, he was retiring but he was always learning, always asking questions, always willing to learn more and more. He was probably somebody that loved everybody and everybody loved him.”
Today, the Shapiro family is memorialized with several rooms, including the Lubavitch Center sanctuary, named in its honor. One of their descendants’ hand-made quilts hangs proudly on the wall.
Jason Shapiro was with his brother Howard’s family the night Howard died. In the years that followed, Louise Silk, one of Howard’s two children, said he became a new dad to her.
“My father was Howard, for sure, but they were kind of one person, in a way,” said Silk, an artist who lives in South Side. “They seemed like three people to everybody else. But, to us, they were one person.”
“I was fortunate,” said Robert Shapiro, Howard’s son. “It was really like having three fathers.”
Silk remembers driving in a station wagon with the Shapiro brothers to National Record Mart downtown, where she went on to manage ticketing sales.
“They’d talk in a language I didn’t understand,” Silk laughed. “I’d sit in the car and I didn’t understand a word they said.”
“The three of them were full, loving, overflowing with chesed – that’s just what the family was,” she added. “There was a whole generation of those kind of families and the brothers fit right in there. It doesn’t exist like that today.”
Today, Robert Shapiro is the elder statesman. An attorney living near Miami Beach, Florida, he has 25 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Jason Shapiro “was a terrific guy,” Robert Shapiro said, simply.
“I don’t know what else I can say,” he added. “He was a huge role model for me. Every day there’s part of me that’s simply channeling him.”
Keshira haLev Fife, the granddaughter of Jason Shapiro’s cousin, helps document the family history, placing the Shapiros near the center of the Torath Chaim community in East Liberty as it grew in the mid-20th century.
“He was such a sweet man. I don’t remember seeing him not laughing, smiling, asking how everyone was,” said Fife, who lives in Regent Square. “He always had a smile on his face. And his smile … was playful. Even when I visited him last, his face lit up. It didn’t take much to make him smile and his smile was so genuine.”
She said Jason Shapiro was one of a kind, for many reasons.
“There’s something so existential about knowing histories. And Jason – as the last person of that generation – was a link to that living memory,” Fife said. “And he was a manifestation of their dreams. They were successful, they had loving families and they were generous to their community.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.