Blast from the Past: Photos of the Dynamiting of the Brooklyn Theatre, Boyle Heights, June 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1875, banker Isaias W. Hellman, merchant John Lazzarovich and William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, subdivided a new tract east of the Los Angeles River called Boyle Heights in honor of Workman’s late father-in-law, Andrew Boyle. The Angel City was undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth in a boom that began in the late 1860s and it seemed an opportune time for the property’s development.

The economic collapse that hit California and Los Angeles in the late summer of that year, however, and which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, had an enormous adverse affect on Boyle Heights and other communities established at that time, including Artesia, Pomona and San Fernando. Just after a decade later, however, when Workman happened to be mayor of the city, a much larger boom came, generally known as the Boom of the Eighties that not only transformed the region but revitalized communities like Boyle Heights.

Los Angeles Times, 23 December 1925.

Initially, the neighborhood was predominantly comprised of middle and upper class Anglos with a wealthy cadre of residents building fine houses along Boyle Avenue and near Hollenbeck Park, but during the first decades of 20th century, a notable demographic shift occurred. Much of this was due to the growing industrialization taking place in downtown on the west side of the Los Angeles River and included a good deal of manufacturing along with a major expansion of rail facilities for the rapidly growing city.

This meant that working-class families increasingly became the predominant population of Boyle Heights and, moreover, it became one of the few enclaves in which people of color, including Asians, Blacks and Latinos, could live because of the rise of “restrictive covenants” elsewhere in Los Angeles that limited ownership of property to those “of the Caucasian race.” Also becoming major blocs of Boyle Heights resident were Jews and Russians, so that the diversity of the neighborhood definitely set it apart from other sections of the Angel City.

Times, 16 June 1926.

Today’s post is an attempt at trying to recreate something of a post that was written for the Boyle Heights History Blog, launched in 2009 for the Boyle Heights Historical Society but now no longer available to view. It concerns a stunning dynamiting in June 1926 of the Brooklyn Theatre, a venue opened just about a half-year earlier, and the aftermath is also one of those instructive examples of where police work and media coverage often made it seem as if the case was cut-and-dried in terms of the responsible party, but where the result proved to be another story entirely.

As noted on the excellent Los Angeles Theatres blog, the Brooklyn, built by Boyle Heights resident David Lazar who sold it to Lillian Young, opened at 2524 Brooklyn Avenue (now César E. Chávez Avenue) near Soto in late December 1925, though, while it states it was on Christmas Eve, the earliest located ad was found in the Los Angeles Times for the 23rd and a showing was on the offing for that day, the feature being Keep Smiling starring Monty Banks (real name: Mario Bianchi, an Italian who migrated to America as a teen and who was a comedian known for his risky stunts).

Los Angeles Record, 17 June 1926. The photo at the lower right is the same as below.

The theater was one of the many venues operated by the West Coast Theatres chain and it was designed by Lewis A. Smith, who specialized in theaters, including for the Bard’s and Fox chains, with his best-known surviving projects being the Tower on Broadway and 8th and the remarkable Rialto in South Pasadena.

As the theaters blog noted, the two-story structure with a partial basement also contained two ground-floor stores and a pair of second floor offices along with apartments, while contemporary newspapers mentioned lodge meeting held upstairs. The auditorium sat 900 and the construction cost of the brick building was pegged at $50,000 prior to the commencement of work, so it may well have cost more.

This News Enterprise Association press photo, with a date stamp of 29 June 1926, has little information written on its reverse, merely sating “Theater in Los Angeles calif blasted by a bomb.”

The Brooklyn showed on 16 June John Barrymore’s adventure epic The Sea Beast, released early in the year, and a Mutt and Jeff short as an opener and then, the next day, was to present the two-year old picture, Welcome Stranger, featuring Florence Vidor and Noah Beery as part of a show for the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association that was to include live acts and prizes. We know this latter part because of the marquee in one of the trio of featured photos from the Museum’s holdings for this post; these photos exist because of the early morning bombing on the 17th.

The Los Angeles Record, which was more of a tabloid newspaper than its contemporaries, blared that

Hundreds of lives were endangered, three business establishments including the Brooklyn theater, 2426 [2524] Brooklyn avenue, were virtually blown to pieces, scores of windows were shattered and chimneys knocked down when at 4 o’clock this morning, five terrific blasts rocked the entire vicinity about the playhouse.

When Los Angeles Fire Department personnel arrived to combat the structure fire, it was discovered that, even though the blasts sent material scattered hundreds of yards away, there were “230 sticks of dynamite, planted within the destroyed building, [which] failed to explode, as did hundreds of gallons of gasoline and coal oil, planted by the arsonists.” The report was that seats and drapes in the auditorium were soaked with the flammable material.

Times, 18 June 1926. Note the photo on the right is the same as below.

Moreover, it was stated that sticks of dynamite were placed throughout the structure with 50 sticks of dynamite each found under the stage and in the projection booth with gas and oil found near each group of explosives. In addition to a candy store, there was the lodge of the Menorah Masonic fraternity, an organization comprised of Jews who were among the largest demographic of the area’s population and who had a regular meeting the prior evening. The lodge rooms were also said to have been planted with the incendiaries.

Within four hours, Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested 45-year old William Graham (almost certainly a Jew, whose real name was said to be Graczekfsky (that name, though, turned up no hits in searches) with the suspect a native of Romania and a British citizen who’d come to America in 1924), owner of a candy store and bakery which was demolished in the blasts. It was reported by the paper that Graham left a few hours prior to the dynamiting but was also said to resemble a short, stocky man fleeing after the explosion and resulting fire. An unsent letter was also found in which Graham reportedly told a recipient he would soon be in New York and this was held to be circumstantial evidence.

Los Angeles Police Department officer O.D. Washburn was not identified on this press photo from Underwood and Underwood, which is date-stamped 23 June 1926, but was when the image was used in the Times article above.

As for motive, it was mentioned that the suspect had an $8,000 insurance policy on his business, but it was added that “he has had considerable trouble with other merchants adjacent to him” involving his calls to the police when the others put out merchandise from their establishments on the sidewalk in front of the structure. Feeling free to opine on the arrested man’s complicity and on a possible reason for the bombing, the Record quoted officers as indicating that, “Graham, obviously, went out of his way . . . to agitate ill-feeling against him . . . for the believed purpose of establishing an alibi.”

Continuing with its dramatic coverage, the Record recorded that as the explosions ensued:

Great chunks of the roof flew in all directions.

Walls burst outward. Bricks were hurled on all sides.

The front wall of the theater was wrenched loose by the series of blasts, a clear-cut cleavage in the bricks showing where the side walls were exposed to view.

It was averred that the bomber “was perhaps unaware of the havoc which would be wrought” and it was noted that, if all the dynamite had gone off, the entire block would have been destroyed. Apparently, the initial explosions, which caused up to about $50,000 in damage, caused concussions that doused flames and ended any chance of further blasts. At one point, it was speculated that the building might have been declared a complete loss and demolished, while it was noted that owner Young carried several insurance policies on it.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 18 June 1926.

It was said, however, that Graham’s business “was practically untouched,” though there were five caches of dynamite and a barrel of gasoline, while furniture was apparently stacked against a wall and shavings were cut from a door casing and a key was found inside the front door, indicative, police felt, of an “inside job.” Meanwhile, the suspect was described as “a stolid, unimaginative man” who, though, “maintained his composure and seemed to be little affected or surprised by his arrest.”

As for neighbors, hundreds ran in terror from their houses and many, it was reported, refused to go back in their houses and remained outdoors in their nightclothes until daybreak. With the rapid response by firefighters and the sheer luck of the concussive effects of the five blasts preventing further detonation of dynamite, Chief of Detectives Herman Cline told the press, “it was just a miracle that the entire neighborhood was not destroyed” and praised the fire department including Battalion Chief Manuel A. Moreno, who had to be one of the very few people of color in leadership in the fire department, for their bravery and heroism.

Illustrated Daily News, 19 June 1926.

Soon the police began searching for a second and then a third suspect, said by witnesses to have spotted fleeing the scene and to have been stopped and asked about why the explosions took place, and the Los Angeles Times of the 18th reported that, when interrogated, Graham steadfastly denied any involvement in the incident, saying he’d served a late meal to the lodge members, left at 1 a.m. and went home. His wife, who was pregnant, was also taken to the station for questioning but “became so hysterical . . . it was impossible to proceed.”

The paper went into more detail about the conflicts Graham had with neighboring business people, specifically Fannie Laboritz, owner of a confectionery a few doors away, while Elias Eisenberg (note both were also Jews) was questioned by the police because Graham told them he’d been threatened by the owner of a sewing machine shop. Eisenberg admitted he’d done so, but told authorities it was only to frighten Graham, while an attorney who lived with him vouched for his whereabouts at the time of the bombing.

Officer Washburn, right, and a colleague displaying unexploded dynamite and other materials from the theater building in this Underwood and Underwood press photo with a stamp date of 23 June 1926.

As for Graham’s complicity, police officials narrowed on the fact that there was a hole in the panel of a door to his business and because it was near the lock of the opened door, “investigators became suspicious when they found chips of wood in a pair of shoes” against a wall of the establishment and the way the hole was cut so that a hand could be reached through to turn the key and the presence of the shavings drew the attention of the detectives, who believed they wouldn’t have been in the shoes had the door been closed.

On the 19th, the Los Angeles Illustrated News excitedly displayed the headline, “Clues to Theater Bomber Found!” as it was reported that a meat cleaver, said to have been used as a ploy to show how the bomber tried to effect entrance to the building, while the open door was said to be evidence of the inside job; moreover, 100 more sticks of dynamite were found in Graham’s store kitchen. Moreover, a burlap sack in his laundry bag , was found that had a piece cut out and was purportedly used to plug a gas barrel during the planting of the dynamite and fuel.

Illustrated Daily News, 4 August 1926.

Three days later, the Times reported that George Baker, also known as H.W. Liebman, and an employee of Graham was charged along with his boss, although Baker/Liebman could not be located and never was found. At the end of June, the county grand jury handed down an indictment against Graham for arson and insurance fraud and, the following month, he was tried on these charges. Reporting was scanty, but, after about a week, the jury could not agree on a verdict after deliberating for more than 24 hours over a period of a few days.

Prosecutors then motioned for a new trial which was set for mid-September, while Graham’s bond was cut from $15,000 to $3,000, though it is not known whether he was freed pending his second turn before the Superior Court. More than a week later, though, and before that second proceeding was to begin, prosecutors petitioned the court that they were dropping the charges against Graham, though no reason was given. It was noted that previously, “the jury disagreed after a bitterly fought trial” and that the last poll was 9-3 for acquittal. More than likely, the jury found that the prosecutors presented a case based on entirely circumstantial evidence and it was believed that a conviction was just not possible in a second trial.

Record, 9 September 1926.

With the case going unsolved after the reported certainty of Graham’s guilt and the police department and media essentially trying him outside due process, Young quickly turned to a near-complete rebuild of the theater, which retained its architectural features and which looks to have reopened before the end of the year. For over six decades, the Brooklyn was operated under at least three chains and then closed as a theater in 1989, after which it was a swap meet for several years. In 1998, the building was razed for a subway station that ended up being shelved when the ground-level Gold Line train system was built instead. The property, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, remains undeveloped to this day.

For more on the history of the Brooklyn Theatre, check out the Los Angeles Theatres blog post about it, as well as the one on it from Cinema Treasures.

2 thoughts

  1. Good morning. The paragraph that begins, “Within four hours, Los Angeles Police Department officers…”
    Third line: “with the suspect a native Romania…” A native Romanian? A native of Romania?
    The paragraph that begins: “”Prosecutors then motioned for a new trial…” Third line “More than week, though…” A word is missing. One week? A week? Love your articles!

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for catching those typos, which have been corrected, and thanks, as well, for your interest and support of the blog!

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