Sullivan and Considine
In 1889, an itinerant actor named John W. Considine (born this day in 1868) blew into Seattle and became a card-dealer at the Theatre Comique, a so-called box house. (Concert saloons were sometimes called box houses because the theatre boxes could be closed off for greater privacy).
Within a few months he was managing the People’s Theatre, where he began to make improvements to the presentation of the show. Unlike his Bible-thumping contemporaries on the East coast, he also supplemented his income by pimping, an important part of early variety entrepreneurship. The sign out front read “Come in and pick one out—they’re beautiful.” In the height of the Alaskan gold rush, his “box house” flourished. A lot of marks blew through town, and Considine was sure to get them both going and coming.
In 1894 the Seattle city fathers passed a law against selling liquor in theatres. Considine did what any self-respecting bar manager would do under the circumstances: he moved to Spokane. There he flourished with another People’s Theatre until 1897, when the local city government passed a law outlawing box-houses. Fortunately, they were now making a comeback in Seattle. He returned there and brought with him the exotic dancer Little Egypt (who’d made a splash at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) to town, and made a big hit. With the profits, Sullivan began buying up saloons and other properties, including Edison’s Unique Theatre (a movie and vaudeville house), making him one of the very earliest exhibitors of silent films. On a trip to New York to book acts, he hooked up with Tammany Hall machine politician and sometime theatre producer Big Tim Sullivan. The two launched a new circuit, with theatres in Spokane, Portland, Bellingham, Everett in Washington, as well as Vancouver and Victoria, in Canada. These were now respectable theatres—Considine, like his predecessors, had left the saloons behind for the bigger profits available through legitimacy. The enterprise flourishsed untrammeled until 1902, when Alexander Pantages came to town and harried Considine with competetion for over a decade until bad luck hit, and the Sullivan and Considine chain was revealed to have been built upon a Ponzi scheme, each succeeding house bought by mortgaging an earlier one. All it took was one setback to start all the dominoes toppling. First, Big Tim Sullivan was declared legally insane in 1913. Then, the following year, the country experienced an economic downturn. Foreclosure proceedings were begun on Sullivan and Considine properties and the house of cards collapsed. Pantages and the Loew’s chain (which by that time was national) picked up Considine’s theatres for a song. Considine passed away in 1943.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.