History: Edmonds Opera House’s dance controversy

1930 swing dancers. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

In part 2 of “Helping preserve the historic Edmonds Opera House,” which you can read here, it was mentioned that Bob Wheeler’s Saturday night dances were the focus of serious protests beginning in 1931. The protests continued, resulting in contentious disagreements between friends and neighbors, leading to a heated Edmonds City Council meeting on Tuesday evening Nov. 11, 1933.

The Edmonds Tribune-Review’s coverage of the council meeting read:

Citizens Aroused Over Dance Hall: Threaten Action To Compel City to Enforce Closing Hour and Curb Rowdyism.

People living near the Edmonds Opera House, aroused at what they believe to be negligence on the part of the city officials in failure to curb the disturbances occasioned by the Saturday night dances there, aired their grievances before the City Council Tuesday evening.

Among those registering protests were L.C. Engel, Reverend O. L. Anthony, Ray Doty, Roy Rynearson, F.A. Fourtner and Thomas Hunt.

Cleve Little and Marshall Chas. Larsen were asked why no arrests had been made for disorderly conduct during any of the recent dances, at which they were paid by the dance’s management to patrol nearby streets. The officers declared that they had discovered no disturbances or any cause sufficient to justify arrest and the filing of charges. 

The situation became tense when Reverend Anthony accused Mayor George Q. Durbin of being afraid to enforce the laws and intimated that a court order might be invoked to enforce the city and state laws for closing dances at midnight Saturday night.

A motion was put forth by Councilman Caspers, seconded by Councilman Kingdon providing that dances be required to close by midnight, but failed to pass.

Mayor Durbin explained that control of the dances had been left in his hands and that he will invoke stricter regulation if abuses of law and order continue.

At the end of the council meeting, Mayor Durbin stated that he would put restrictions on the dancers after midnight, until he and the council could review the matter further.

Edmonds Tribune -Review article Nov 21, 1933. (Courtesy Sno-Isle Genealogical Society)

The above article from the Edmonds Tribune-Review stated that dancers would not be allowed to leave and return to the dance hall after midnight, which reportedly calmed the noise and annoyance to the neighborhood.  A correction was also made, stating that the previous report on the Nov. 11 council meeting was in error, and in fact former mayor Fred Fourtner was in favor of maintaining the dances.

 

The Edmonds Opera House stage, circa 1930. Bob Wheeler’s band members would have sat on the stage, while the dance floor below was open to dancers. Tables and chairs were positioned on the sides and up in the balcony for those not dancing.

Background and Precedence

Edmonds’ city ordinance in 1933 stated that public dances were to close at midnight, but the ordinance had generally been ignored for years. Earlier in 1933, the provisions of the dance ordinance had also been suspended by Mayor Durbin. He stated he was allowing the dance to continue until 2 a.m. until he could review the situation further.

As later testimony would show, dances had for years been held at the Edmonds Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ Hall, with a closing time of 1 a.m. That time had been further extended to 2 a.m. by the previous mayor, Fred Fourtner, when the dances were moved over to the Opera House in 1931.

Special Session Called

Mayor Durbin called a special session of the City Council on Nov. 29 to review the city’s dance ordinance and to hear from the citizens on both sides of the issue. Durbin opened the meeting by stating that if the members of the city council did not take action to change the ordinance, he would order the dance to be closed at midnight.

The Protest Leaders

L.C. Engel, a well-known businessman who had lived in Edmonds since 1889 — and whose residence was directly west of the Opera House — stated that the noise from the dance did not allow his family to get their necessary rest. He respectfully requested that the dance be closed down at midnight or be closed down in its entirety in the interest of the city and the neighborhood’s welfare.

L.C. Engel circa 1900. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Author’s note: L.C. Engel started off as a logger and became a major land owner and successful merchant in Edmonds. He was the first butcher in Edmonds and later ran a general goods store in a building that he built. That building today is the home of the Edmonds Bookshop. He was also in the process of erecting a building for Engel’s Lunch (90 years later the home of Engel’s Pub) when the dance hall controversy came to a head. Additionally the original home he built, and was residing in at the time, still sits just west of the Edmonds Opera House.

Reverend O.L. Anthony, who was a new pastor at the Hughes Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church — located less than a block west of the Edmonds Opera House (northwest corner of 5th and Dayton) stated dances had been proven to lead to potential acts of moral depravity. He also said that the remnants of intoxication could be found along the streets and in the neighborhood on the mornings after the dance, which set a bad example for the city’s youth.

Hughes Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church circa 1930s. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

O.C. Kelly and Roy Rynearson also testified that unwholesome activity was observed on the lawns and streets in the vicinity of the Opera House.

Finally, Mayor Durbin read a letter into the record from Phil G. Warmock, an Everett attorney who had been hired by a group of Edmonds residents. The letter read:

I am now employed by Edmonds residents who have been protesting against the noise and disturbances in connection with the dance hall, in which it was stated that Robert Wheeler’s dances were reported to be a nuisance and that it was the purpose of his clients to take the matter to the superior court if relief were not afforded by the city council.”

Durbin expressed resentment at the tone of the letter, stating that he did not feel that the inferences were true and that reasonable order had been maintained at the dances. The mayor then asked Mr. Warmock, who was in attendance, to present his case further.

Warmock stated that it was the constitutional right of his clients to have their nocturnal rest and eloquently quoted Shakespeare: “sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” He further stated that he had no plea to make before the council, but that if relief were not forthcoming, his clients were prepared to ask the court to abate the dances as a nuisance.

After hearing the protests, Councilman Doty recalled that the dances in the I.O.O.F. hall had been open until 1 a.m. for years. He further stated that the time was later extended by former Mayor Fourtner until 2 a.m.

Fourtner, who was in attendance, said that he had extended the hours to be in conformity with other dance venues in the area.

Prime Defenders

George W. Yost. The Yost family owned and operated the Yost Auto Company, a half block away on the southeast corner of 5th and Dayton. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum.)

George W. Yost, who represented the Yost family — owners of the Opera House — declared that he had received no reports of disorderly conduct, and said that if any earlier closing hour than 2 a.m. should be fixed, it would force the closing of the hall to the city and its other enterprises. He further stated that the lessening of hours would drive away business from restaurants and garages as well as force many Edmonds citizens to seek diversions at highway resorts or elsewhere rather than at home.

Photo and advertisement of the Olympic Tavern (aka Rosewood Manor). The tavern was one of several alternative dance venues located in easy driving distance of Edmonds. (Photo courtesy Brad Holden collection)

W.H. Wilson, the owner of the Wilson Café in the Beeson Building and the Eagle Café and Hotel, spoke on the behalf of the orderliness of the dances, stating that about 35 people from the dance went to his restaurant last Saturday night and all were orderly and quiet.

The Eagle Café between 1st and 2nd Avenue on Main Street, circa 1930. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

The councilmembers then asked the special officers who had been hired due to their experience in managing crowds, what their impressions were of the dances. Cleve Little, who had also been the City of Edmonds Parks Department chairman for 20 years, said that in all his experience, these dances were the most orderly he had known.

He stated:

The reason there have been no arrests is due to the fact that we do not allow intoxicated people to stop. We send them out of town. I was raised in a Methodist church, but I draw the line when a church meddles in affairs in which it has no business. There are more disturbances in connection with high school parties than at the opera house dances.”

City Marshall Charles Larsen reiterated the fact that there had only been minor disturbances around the dances, and none of them had resulted in arrests.

The mayor then asked for further comments, but when various audience members began to talk about other people’s personalities, he put a quick end to the discussion.

After a quick recess, the Edmonds City Council put forth a motion to amend the ordinance to provide for a 2 a.m. closing time. The amendment passed by a 6-1 vote.  The councilmembers explained their reasoning, saying:

We believe that the dances are noisy occasionally, but we contend they are no worse than other similar occasions. We believe that some of the complaints are exaggerated, and we believe it is in the best interest of the city to amend the ordinance accordingly.”

The new ordinance went into affect on Dec. 22, 1933.

The Aftermath 

Bob Wheeler continued with his Saturday night dance the following weekend without fear of immediate reprisal. But things weren’t always without issues for him. As the following Jan. 7, 1934 Edmonds Tribune-Review article documents, the dance proprietor was arrested on the charge of interfering with an officer in the performance of his duty.

Edmonds Tribune -Review Article Jan. 7, 1934.  (Courtesy Sno-Isle Genealogical Society)

Wheeler’s Saturday night dances did continue until 1936. According to historian Brad Holden, Wheeler then moved his Saturday night dances to his own venue near 143rd and Aurora, in north Seattle. Initially, the facility was called the Northview Pavillon, but was later changed to Bob Wheeler’s Dance Hall. The club was a “bring your own bottle” operation, which needless to say, was quite different from during Prohibition days.

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A matchbook from Bob Wheeler’s Dance Club. (Photo courtesy of the Brad Holden collection)

L.C. Engel and George W. Yost, who had been friends for years, had their friendship tested over Bob Wheeler’s dances. Both had strong differing opinions, but their friendship survived and strengthened after the controversy.

Mayor Durbin didn’t suffer any political consequences. He was reelected and served as mayor from 1933 to 1937.

Members of the Hughes Memorial Church were divided on the issue, and several made their feelings known to Reverend Anthony in the days that followed the council meetings.

W. H. Wilson, who had spoken strongly in support of the dances, must have felt some sort of redemption. In 1925, he had been forced to close his own private dance club by then-Mayor Alice U. Kerr. Mayor Kerr, who served from 1925-1927, was a strong advocate for Prohibition, and was determined to close down all the dance clubs, saloons, card rooms and pool halls in the city during her tenure.

Author’s final note: The threat from the Edmonds’ residents to take the matter to the superior court never materialized. The decision not to proceed was in part due to the fact that Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933 and that the Edmonds City Council approved the licensing of three new beer parlors within the city limits by the end of 1933.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Thanks go to the Edmonds Historical Library, Sno-Isle Genealogical Society and Brad Holden for their research assistance.

  1. Thank you Mr. Wilkes for another detailed and fascinating article about the Opera House. We lived right across the street for 11 years and wish we had known about its history. I can sure sympathize with the neighbors who had to put up with the noise that comes with a dance party but also love to swing dance myself and would have probably just opted to join them!

    1. Thanks Maggie for your thoughts. It definitely was an issue that caused the community as a whole some chagrin. But those days were difficult times, with the Great Depression, illegal alcohol and the need to unwind from the pressures of the day.

  2. I always enjoy reading this column. It brings Edmond’s past to life. Hard to picture it as a town prone to “rowdyism.”

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