THE SON OF STRUGGLING IMMIGRANT PARENTS, Mortimer Levitt grew up in Brooklyn. His father worked as a street vendor at the elite Luna Park of Coney Island. Lured by the dazzling attractions, Mortimer often joined his father at the park. Unable to afford admission to rides or shows, Mortimer would stand outside the gates of ticketed concerts. Listening to these performances surrounded by the beauty of Luna Park was magical to him and sparked his lifelong love affair with outdoor music.
At the age of 16, Mortimer dropped out of high school in order to support his mother and younger brothers. Eventually, he took a job at Erlanger-Blumgart, a fabric and textile firm, and was quickly promoted to salesman. In the midst of the Great Depression, Mortimer embarked on starting his own business, a clothing company that would sell made-to-order shirts known as The Custom Shop. By 1942, he had made his first million dollars and had nine Custom Shop locations throughout the Northeast.
Annemarie Gratzinger, affectionately known as “Mimi,” was raised in Vienna, Austria, where her childhood was filled with opera and other musical experiences. She met Mortimer in New York City in the mid 1940s while working in Museum Collections at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). They married in 1948 and together, Mortimer and Mimi became philanthropists supporting youth music programs, performing arts organizations and educational institutions.
In the early 1970s, residents of Westport, Connecticut, wanted to build an outdoor stage to create a gathering space for their community. The town donated its problematic landfill site, located in the middle of Westport along the Saugatuck River, and a fund drive ensued. As summer residents of Westport, Mortimer and Mimi were approached to support the project. They ultimately became the campaign’s largest private contributors, prompting the town to name its new pavilion after them. In 1974, the first Levitt Pavilion was born. Carrying memories of his childhood, Mortimer was passionately committed that performances at the pavilion be presented at no charge. He was extremely proud that admission was always free. Everyone was welcome to walk under the Coney Island inspired arch, sit on the lawn and enjoy concerts at the Levitt Pavilion.
In 1999, the continuing success of the Levitt Pavilion in Westport inspired Mortimer to lay the groundwork for a national network of Levitt venues, so communities across the country could come together through the shared experience of free concerts under the stars. When Mortimer was 90, he sold his company (which included 70 Custom Shop retail branches nationwide) and transferred the proceeds to the Mortimer Levitt Foundation for the purpose of helping communities across America establish their own Levitt venues. He soon passed on the reigns of the Foundation to his daughter, Liz Levitt Hirsch, to oversee its venture philanthropy program. Mortimer passed in 2005 at the age of 98. In 2012, the Foundation was renamed the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation in honor of Mimi’s contributions to philanthropy and advancing the Levitt mission.
As the Levitt program evolves, the fundamentals remain based on Westport’s organic beginnings. Both permanent Levitt venues and the Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Awards are community-driven and focus on transforming neglected public spaces into thriving community destinations where all feel welcome. Since 2003, grants from the Levitt Foundation have brought permanent Levitt venues to six cities, with three more in development. In its first year in 2015, the Levitt AMP [Your City] Music Series took place in 10 towns and cities, coast to coast. In 2016 Levitt AMP grants have been awarded to 15 towns and cities, due to demonstrated need and a robust applicant pool.