During the 1927 Twin Cities strike, theaters stayed open, “being run after a manner,” according to the Minnesota Union Advocate, “by the manager, the janitor and a motly [sic] crew of strike breakers. The pictures shown are all comics now, and the bungling exhibits furnish a sort of amusement for those who have the hardihood to venture into a show house during the present struggle.”1 A letter writer (whose name was withheld by request) wrote the Labor Review saying that when he attended a film unaware of details of the strike,
figures were indistinguishable; most of the way through they had double outlines. Subtitles could not be read until the last flicker, when the operator finally got the projector focused. Remember, that this performance was necessary at almost every subtitle. …
The point I want to make is this: are we, who pay the price for this sort of thing, going to put up with it for long? Is this the kind of handling that the theater owners claim will adequately handle the situation? If it is, and is going to continue for any length of time, I am going to buy a radio set and get my entertainment that way.2
The Minneapolis Labor Review would publish several accounts of mishaps with inexperienced strikebreakers. One claimed an “imported orchestra” from Chicago—“scab melody-murderers,” as they more colorfully phrased it—was fired after playing a single song at the Hennepin-Orpheum, with one patron standing up to shout, “For God’s sake give the stage hands two days off in seven and get the old bunch back again!”3
On the evening of September 23rd, a projector burst into flames at the Hennepin-Orpheum in Minneapolis. The following Tuesday, a similar fire affected the Alhambra in St. Paul. Both fires were put out before serious damage occurred, but both labor newspapers used the opportunity to remind readers of the importance of having skilled projectionists. The Labor Review also accused the daily papers of suppressing facts; only a single line article under the headline “Fire Alarms” appeared on the subject in any Minneapolis papers.4
Stink bombs were set off in the State and Garrick, with many more to come as the strike ensued. The Labor Review blamed them on an “attempt to discredit the unionists and endeavor to swing public opinion against the strikers. Union representatives are emphatic in declaring that the stink bomb occurrences are not due to any union activities.”5
The Minneapolis Journal ran an editorial asking whether “members of the three theatrical crafts in the Twin Cities realize that, in their present strike, they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces …
For several years now, theatrical employees of all three crafts have been liberally paid, in comparison with compensation received outside the theater for work requiring the same degrees of talent and skill.
This fat pay was based on the traditional and well night universal custom of arranging weekly compensation on a seven-day basis, with the employee furnishing and paying his own substitute on his one or more days of rest each week. … That would really be a wage boost of over sixteen per cent. They also wanted to force two theaters needlessly to enlarge their stage crews, in order to make more jobs. And they wanted to tie owners’ hands so the union could veto all discharges.
The striking crafts could accomplish only one end even if they should win. Either through closing the theaters, or whittling down the patronage of the theatres by forcing higher admission schedules, they could get the Minneapolis public out of the habit of going to shows, which achievement would be the height of folly on the part of individuals whose livelihood depends on this very show-going habit of the public.6
On September 30, a bomb was set off outside the Famous Players-Lasky film exchange, shattering all of the windows within a several block radius and damaging a steel door, but doing little other damage. There was no interruption of service, and William A. Steffes was quoted in the Pioneer Press as saying he didn’t believe it was related to the strike.7 Six union men would be arrested outside of the strike headquarters, but released after questioning.8
Soon after, The Film Daily would report that “public opinion now strongly favors the theater owners,” based on moviegoers’ attendance, on the “campaign of enlightenment” the exhibitors ran via ads, posters, and slides in their theaters stating that “they deplore the walkout and are availing themselves of the only alternative—keeping their houses open with non-union labor.”9 While the unions would later claim that “loyal support was given the strikers by the local labor movement and the general public during the life of the controversy,” Steffes estimated that theater grosses during the strike were off by about 10 percent—roughly $150,000 weekly for the Minneapolis theaters.10
With no regional or nationwide spread of the strike, the American Federation of Musicians seemed to increase pressure on the owners by issuing a “road call” effective October 8th, meaning that “members of either the stage employes’ or the musicians’ unions traveling with shows or acts will not do any work in any theatre affected by the local strike. It practically bars all large acts and road shows from appearing in either Minneapolis or St. Paul until the theatrical strike and lockout is ended.”
Fred Keightly, commissioner of conciliation with the United States Department of Labor, sat down with representatives from the strikers and the managers for renewed talks between the unions and the theater owners.11 Hints of an agreement were floated in the Minneapolis Tribune on Sunday, after an all day conference at the Nicollet hotel on Saturday the 8th, and according to the Union Advocate, “all but three points had been settled and these promised an early and easy adjustment.”12
Two hours after customers had left the final Sunday night showing, a bomb partly “wrecked” the Logan Theater in Minneapolis, owned by W. A. Steffes. The bomb was found by Mike Feldon, a watchman who was, according to the Minneapolis Journal, “sweeping near the orchestra pit. He said that a moment before the explosion he heard an automobile go through the alley. … Police said the bomb had been placed on a ledge near the back door, and was filled with dynamite, like the bomb which damaged the rear of the Famous Players-Lasky.”13
Steffes immediately called off talks with anyone but the unions’ international officers “until the bombings and other efforts at terrorism have ceased.” He spoke with William T. Canavan, president of IATSE, by telephone, who informed Steffes that he would come to the Twin Cities in two weeks’ time.14 The Union Advocate would call Steffes comments, if not an outright accusation, at the very least an implication they had the power to prevent further violence.
Theater owners and union representatives met with city council at an emergency committee meeting, and Minneapolis Police Chief Frank Brunskill was ordered to have the civil service commission certify 240 men and women for temporary duty, to guard the city’s movie theaters in the wake of the Logan Theater bombing, including 100 temporary hires. Officers would be stationed at the front and rear of all Minneapolis theaters, day and night.15
The Union Advocate would cite an official with the Motion Picture Operators’ union declaring the “real reason for the breakup of the conference”:
The managers made a proposition to the strikers radically different from the basis upon which the joint conferences worked. A cut in the number of employees and a drastic reduction in the wages all along the line were demanded in the offer of the managers and which was rejected at the meeting Thursday evening.
The entire proceedings look extremely suspicious and the belief is advanced that some among the managers are working with outside forces to prolong the strike and prevent an amicable settlement. …
From the side of the strikers they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by violent tactics. Certainly the issue is not so desperate that strikers could be goaded to such a futile and dastardly extreme. …
This is an old trick of the anti-labor forces; they either explode bombs or have someone get inside the union and then have him do the trick from the inside.16
Similarly, the Minneapolis Labor Review would cite Alderman Albert Bastis—who was appointed chair to the committee to renew negotiations between the warring parties—blaming “private so-called detectives seeking employment ‘guarding’ Minneapolis theatres involved in the strike.” The paper gave no evidence for this belief, but historical precedence was on his side: in 1923, a man employed by the Citizens Alliance detective agency was arrested with a large quantity of explosives and confessed that he was as “part of a Citizens’ Alliance frameup (sic) to involve union men.”17
The next day a third blast would “shatter” the rear exit of the Forest Theater in St. Paul. As the audience rushed for the exits, one woman was crushed against a seat, bruising her.18
Two letters to the editor of the Minneapolis Journal would comment on the use of police as theater guards. Mrs. C. Orwin said, “Let the theaters supply and pay for their own guards against the bombers, and do not take police protection from small children,” while J. R. Ridpath complained about the reassignment of school crossing guards to theaters: “I believe it was a most injudicious act to take the police away from the school crossings in order to guard the theaters of Minneapolis. … Recently my own son, a boy of six, was 45 minutes late getting home from school. He finally came home with tears in his eyes, saying that he could not get across the street, and finally had picked up courage enough to go into a store and ask a storekeeper to take him across.”19
Two weeks after the special committee meeting, Police Chief Frank Brunskill would accuse 30 members of the detective bureau of “stalling,” threatening them with demotion for failing to “get results” in the bombing cases, telling them, “You are working for the people of Minneapolis, who pay you your salaries, and they have a right to expect something in return.”20 Even though there was no evidence that the theater unions were connected to the bombings, Citizens Alliance would use the bombings as a pretext to renew an old controversy: police unions. One telling Citizens Alliance Bulletin headline read, “How can a Policeman serve two masters?” In the ensuing weeks, public opinion forced the officers’ union to sever its affiliation with the labor movement. In the coming years, the unionless police force would prove to be a valuable weapon for the Citizens Alliance against other strikes.21
Canavan arrived in Minneapolis on October 24 to negotiate with Steffes and Theodore L. Hays of Northwest Theaters (Finkelstein & Ruben). Canavan brought with him the power to extend the strike to every theater of the Orpheum and Pantages circuits nationwide, although it is unclear whether he ever threatened to use it. By 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the 26th, he and the managers’ association had come to an agreement. The one day’s rest in seven demand—the central demand of the strike—had been dropped. In exchange for new three-year contracts, stagehands would be guaranteed no reduction in the size of their crews plus small increases for every year of the contract. The Labor Review would note that “the increase in pay will during the third year of the contract amount to a sum of almost equal to the cost of hiring a substitute to enable each man to lay off from work one day out of seven. St. Paul stagehands would get an additional bump, to make their wages equal to those of Minneapolis workers. Projectionists would get a 2½% raise per year, as well. With a settlement reached, each side credited the other for the breakthrough, but neither side could truly claim a victory.22
The longest strike in the history of the movie theater industry was over. The musicians, stagehands, and projectionists of the Twin Cities went back to work. In addition to the cost of repairs to the bombed buildings and the $15,000 appropriated to hire additional police in Minneapolis, the Theater Owners of the Northwest spent $35,000 to fend off the strikers’ demands. The Film Daily reported that, despite the wage increases, the agreement would save owners between $3,000 and $5,000 per year.23