Seattle's Roxy Theater becomes target of attempted bombing on April 17, 1933.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 9/07/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2652

On April 17, 1933, less than two days after reopening, Seattle’s newly renovated Roxy Theater was the target of an attempted bombing. Although the culprits were never apprehended, early speculation put organized labor behind the blast, which resulted in property damage to an adjacent building.

Failed Attempt

Originally opened in 1929 as the Fox Theatre, the Roxy, a motion picture house at the corner of 7th Avenue and Olive (later known as the Music Hall), had recently been acquired by First National Theaters, Inc. The local firm undertook substantial renovations to the venue, which was re-introduced to the public on April 15, 1933. As an opening attraction, the Roxy was screening the Paramount film A Kiss Before the Mirror, coupled with a live stage show headlining noted vaudeville comic George Jessel (1898-1981) and former silent screen actress Norma Talmadge (1895-1957).

Yet in the early morning hours of April 17, 1933, a small explosive was thrown at the Roxy from the rooftop of the Terminal Apartment Building located adjacent to the theater. Rather than finding its target, the bomb struck something along the way, and fell instead onto a lower section of the Terminal. Residents were jolted out of bed when a gaping hole was blown in the building’s rooftop.

Although no one was injured in the blast, the rooms of several tenants -- including a number of families with small children -- were strewn with debris, and a few were no longer habitable. It was the second incident involving the Roxy that evening. Earlier, it seems, a stink bomb had been hurled directly at the theater’s box office.

When police arrived, both the Terminal manager and a tenant provided descriptions of a man observed hurrying away from the commotion -- approximately 45 years old, five foot eight inches tall, blue sweater, gray hair, and sporting a mustache. Seattle police immediately detained three men and two women in connection with the incident. The women were quickly released.

The Result of a Labor Dispute?

Early speculation put union racketeering behind the bombing attempt. This was the contention of John von Herberg (1880-1947), co-owner of First National Theaters, Inc. He immediately obtained a Superior Court injunction restraining the Central Labor Council of Seattle, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Operators of the United States, Local No. 154, and the officers of said organizations "from bombing or attempting to bomb" the theater. A formal hearing on von Herberg’s charges was scheduled for later in the week.

According to papers filed by First National's lawyers, during renovations von Herberg had reached an agreement with said organizations to open the Roxy as a union house, and had hired several projector operators and stagehands at specified wage rates. However, labor officials later demanded that First National also unionize four other local theaters which they controlled. Von Herberg refused.

Branding First National and von Herberg as supporters of unfair labor practices, several union organizations formally picketed the opening of the Roxy on April 15, 1933. The gala affair was widely covered by local media, with the outside of the theater decked out in flags and bunting, an impressive fireworks display overhead, and music provided by the University of Washington Marching Band, but there was no mention of union picketing during the event. According to von Herberg, union members conspired to influence patronage and possibly close the venue altogether with the blast after their picketing was all but ignored.

Organized Labor Reacts

Union representatives called the charges ridiculous, and vigorously maintained that neither they nor their membership had anything to do with the incident. Still, an air of paranoia existed over what might happen next. The Roxy's manager requested a 24-hour police watch around his north Seattle home after his wife observed a number of suspicious-looking characters about the neighborhood.

John von Herberg's restraining order failed to deter protesters from gathering in front of the Roxy. One of them, Harry Kroeger, a member of the Motion Picture Operators, Local No. 154, brought a $50,000 lawsuit against von Herberg after he was detained (unjustly, he claimed) the evening following the bombing. Kroeger was questioned by police for more than five and one-half hours regarding his alleged connection to the blast.

From Street Corner to Courtroom

Five days after the explosion, First National Theaters obtained a rather generous decision from Judge Malcolm Douglas (1888-1968), who allowed no more than two union pickets near the theater at any given moment, and at a distance no closer than 100 feet from the box-office. At the same time, Judge Douglas also ruled that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that organized labor had any connection with the blast. The ruling seems to have effectively ended formal police attempts to locate the suspected bomber(s). First National had also asked the court to require a wording change to some of the picket signs, but this request was denied.

Throughout the ordeal, the Roxy seems to have played all its regularly scheduled shows, with no reports of lost patronage.


Sources:

Eric L. Flom, "From Footlights to Photoplays: Silent Stars on the Stages of Seattle," unpublished manuscript in possession of Eric L. Flom, Seattle, 2000; "Bomb Thrown at Roxy Theater!" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1933, p. 1; "Bomb Hurled at New Roxy," Seattle Star, April 17, 1933, p. 9; "Five Questioned in Bombing Near Film Theater," Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1933, p. 5; "Theater Takes Bomb Battle into Court," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 18, 1933, p. 11; "Picket Sues Von Hernberg [Herberg] for $50,000," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1933, p. 11; "Women Freed After Quiz in Bombing Case," Seattle Daily Times, April 19, 1933, p. 7; "Roxy Pickets Must Stay 100 Ft. From Doors," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 23, 1933, p. 3.


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