Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blast from the Past: Brooklyn Theatre's Mysterious Bombing, 1926


A 29 June 1926 photograph showing destruction caused to the Brooklyn Theater at 2524 E. Brooklyn Avenue, now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, Boyle Heights.  A confectioner and baker in the building, William Graham, was charged with dynamiting the structure, but all charges were later dismissed and the crime went unsolved.  Courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.

In the early morning hours of 17 June 1926, a series of powerful blasts rocked Boyle Heights.  At about five minutes to four, five explosions broke windows, toppled chimneys, and drove panicked residents into the streets.  Soon, it was determined that the scene of the blast was the single screen, 900-seat Brooklyn Theatre, located at 2524 E. Brooklyn Avenue, at the southeast corner of that main artery of the community at the interesection with Fickett Street.  When firefighters arrived on scene, they found that one of the fires inside had lit a fuse connected to forty-three sticks of dynamite and a quick-thinking fireman was able to cut the fuse before a terrible tragedy could ensue.  Nine additional "plants" of dynamite were said to have been found that had failed, totaling 163 sticks.  The destruction could have been far worse and spread to nearby structures.

Two witnesses, a milkman, evidently in the midst of his deliveries, and a local resident, stated that two men were observed running from the building and gave a detailed description of one whom they stopped and talked to as he left the scene.  Within hours, Los Angeles police arrested William Graham, also known as William Graczefsky, the 45-year old proprietor of a candy store and bakery located in the theater building at his Folsom Street house near the scene.  The second man was later identified as George Baker, a.k.a. H. W. Liebman, but Baker/Liebman was never located.

In the initial investigation, police officials announced that dozens of sticks of dynamite, fuses, caps, and  a barrel of gasoline were found in Graham's store and noted that the floor of the business was doused in the gasoline.  Several dozen more dynamite sticks were found in the theater building generally, including in the theater and upstairs.  On interrogation, Graham denied all knowledge of the explosion, though he did acknowledge that he was in the building until 1 a.m., or about three hours prior to the blasts, having served a late dinner as part of a function at the masonic lodge located on the second floor.  A hole was chiseled into the rear door, near the lock, of Graham's store at the back of the building.  Because chips of the wood from the door were found in shoes next to the adjoining wall, suspicion fell upon Graham, though it was not explained why this was so significant.

It was also stated by the police that Graham had been in some conflict with his neighboring business owners, including Fannie Laboritz, another confectioner, whose store was only a few doors down from Grahams.  Moreover, sewing machine store owner, Elias Eisenberg, whose business was a few blocks west on Brooklyn but who lived just one unit over from the theater, was questioned when it was learned that he had threatened Graham with bodily harm.  While Eisenberg openly admitted to the accusation, he said it was only bluster intended to scare his adversary.  There was, however, no established motive.

As to the building, the Brooklyn Theater was designed by well-noted movie theater architect, Lewis A. Smith, whose projects included South Pasadena's Rialto Theater, the Beverly Theatre in Beverly Hills, the Highland Theatre in Highland Park, the Wilshire Theatre on the westside, and many others.  It opened on Christmas Eve 1926, just months before the explosion.  The original owner was David Lazar of Folsom Street in Boyle Heights, who sold the structure to Lillian B. Young, a resident of the Westlake Park area.  Young's agent, noted that she had five insurance policies on the building, but was unsure whether the building, which sustained an estimated $50,000 in damage was covered in case of explostion and it was also not known if the complex would be condemned.

The grand jury quickly remanded the case to the Superior Court and, within weeks (as opposed to the years it would now take), a trial was held.  Graham had been held on $15,000 bail and continued to insist upon his innocence.  It was reported that new clues had been found in subsequent investigations by the police, including the fact that a meat cleaver, said to have belonged to Graham, and used to smash the hole in the rear door, the spigot from the gasoline barrel, and a strip of rag used to wrap the spigot, were found in the bottom of his laundry bag in the establishment.  Officials speculated that Graham engaged in "in a clumsy attempt to indicate" that the door and windows nearby were broken by others.

Still, the trial concluded with a hung jury, deadlocked at 9-3 for acquittal, based on insufficient evidence.  Finally, on 9 September, Superior Court Judge Needham dismissed all charges, comprising arson, placing dynamite in a building, and burning insured property, against Graham on motion of Deputy District Attorney Matherly.  Evidently, there was no way to know who exactly perpetrated the crime, though, if Graham was truly innocent, someone was obviously trying to implicate him.  Could it have been his foes like Eisenberg or Laboritz?  Would it have been the owner looking to cash in on insurance?  Was it a disgruntled patron who didn't enjoy a particular film?  The truth will never be known.

The photo above is a reference copy from the "N.E.A.," although it is not known if this was the National Education Association or some other group and is date-stamped 29 June 1926.  It shows blown-out windows, a damaged marquee, shattered roof tiles, and other signs of destruction.  Ironically, the marquee letters read "Brooklyn Hts. Improvement Ass'n Show."  The building, as captured in the photo, did not give much evidence of "improvement."

Within a year, however, the Brooklyn Theater and its building were remodeled and back in operation.  Another irony was that one of the first events held at the movie palace was a Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association presentation to Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph J. Scott, who served as chief for over 20 years, with a gold-plated ax "in appreciation of the showing he has made in the past few years in reducing fire losses."  The theater was a fixture in the Boyle Heights area for decades and well-remembered by its residents long after it was razed in 1989.  Today the site is a bare lot awaiting some future development and cleansed of any physical reminder of its important history.  UPDATE: a commenter corrected the information about the fate of the building, noting that, after the theater closed, retail use continued until the structure was purchased by the MTA and then razed in 1998.  More can be seen in the comment section to this post.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Assistant Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.