The Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation is a private family foundation founded in 1963 by Mortimer and Mimi Levitt to support arts, culture and education. Today, the main philanthropy of the foundation is to develop and support Levitt Pavilions across America.
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 the 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 and sparked his lifelong love affair with outdoor music.
Undeterred by hardship and adversity, Mortimer persevered to become a successful businessman and respected philanthropist in New York City. He founded The Custom Shop Inc., a men’s custom shirt company. As sole owner for more than 60 years, Mortimer grew the company to more than 80 retail stores nationwide. Mortimer’s wife, Mimi, shared his passion for arts and culture. Together they became active philanthropists, supporting numerous arts organizations, cultural institutions and private universities.
In the early 1970s, residents of Westport, Conn., wanted to build an outdoor stage to create a gathering place for their community. The town donated its problematic landfill site located in the middle of Westport along the Saugatuck River, and a fund drive was created. As a summer resident of Westport, Mortimer was approached to support the project. He ultimately became the campaign’s largest private contributor, prompting the town to name its new pavilion after him. In 1973, the first Levitt Pavilion was born. Carrying memories of his childhood, Mortimer was passionately adamant that performances at the pavilion be presented at no charge. He was extremely proud that admission was free. Everyone was welcome to walk under the Coney Island-inspired arch, sit on the lawn, and enjoy concerts at the Levitt Pavilion.
Towards the end of his life, Mortimer decided that his legacy would be to create Levitt pavilions coast to coast, each presenting its own free concerts. On his 90th birthday, Mortimer sold his company and transferred the proceeds to the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to help communities across America establish their own Levitt pavilions. Mortimer’s daughter, Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, oversees the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation’s philanthropy program dedicated to developing Levitt pavilions across the country.
As the program matures, the fundamentals remain based on Westport’s organic beginnings: Each Levitt Pavilion is community driven, the site is a public space in need of invigoration, and the pavilion becomes a community gathering place where everyone is welcome. Since 2003, grants from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation have assisted the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena in California, Memphis, Tenn.; Bethlehem, Pa.; and Arlington to develop Levitt pavilions.
Mortimer passed away in 2005 at the age of 98. Through the foundation he established, his wife, Mimi, and daughter, Liz, continue to build his legacy and honor his dream of free concerts for everyone.