Vancouver History Blog

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Vancouver’s Royal Theatre bombing, 1933

[By Lani Russwurm] An early morning explosion on 20 March 1933 rocked the 100 block of East Hastings Street. A bomb had been placed beside the ticket booth of the Royal Theatre, and the blast shattered windows a half a block away. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt. The case was never solved, but was likely the work of the American mafia. Read on to find out more about this strange and violent episode in Vancouver’s past!

View of the damage to the Royal Theatre taken from the Maple Hotel across the street, March 1933. Photo courtesy Vancouver Public Library #9116.

View of the damage to the Royal Theatre taken from the Maple Hotel across the street, March 1933. Photo courtesy Vancouver Public Library #9116.

The theatre manager and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Walter P Nichols, were inside when the bomb went off. They were temporarily deafened and in shock, but otherwise uninjured in the blast. Nichols told police he knew of no one who might do such a thing. Some speculated that it might have something to do with the Workers Unity League, a Communist labour organization that held a celebration commemorating the Paris Commune in the theatre the night before. The police, however, found no evidence that the bombing was connected to the reds.

The bombed out Royal Theatre in March 1933. Photo by Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #9116B.

The bombed out Royal Theatre in March 1933. Photo by Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #9116B.

Beside frazzled nerves, the only injury from the blast was a bartender who had to get stitches after the plate glass window shattered in the Regent Hotel next door. Windows were also shattered in the nearby Balmoral Hotel, Hotel Maple, and the Dawson Building. Historian Tom Carter recalls hearing the story from his grandfather, who owned a café across the street. “Part of the ticket office flew across Hastings Street into my grandfather’s café,” he says. “He came to work that morning. It was really quiet – eerily quiet. All of Hastings Street was covered in glass.”

Damage to the Royal Theatre, March 1933. Photo by Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #9116A.

Damage to the Royal Theatre, March 1933. Photo by Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #9116A.

While the case was never solved, it was a violent time in the theatre business. The previous year, someone attempted to assassinate Wally Woolridge, a projectionist at the Colonial Theatre, with a car bomb that blew him 20 feet in the air. The mob was trying to take over the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). A colleague of Woolridge’s said at the time of the car bomb that  “there is no doubt that this is not just a local affair. It’s all a part of the bombings and intimidation campaign which has been waged against members of the union down south. Like that Los Angeles bombing a few weeks ago, for example.” The Royal Theatre suffered several stink bomb attacks in the weeks before the attempt on Woolridge’s life. After the Royal Theatre bombing, police similarily concluded”that the outrage was perpetrated by interests outside Vancouver, racketeering influences which have been employed before now in the United States, in labor disputes,” according to the Vancouver Sun.

Mobster Willie "the Pimp" Bioff.

Mobster Willie “the Pimp” Bioff.

Around the time of the Royal Theatre bombing, Willie “the Pimp” Bioff was engaging in a terror campaign to take over IATSE on behalf of the Chicago mob. Eventually they succeeded, and successfully extorted millions of dollars from Hollywood studios fearful of labour disruptions that could’ve cost them many more millions in losses. Bioff himself died in a car bomb in 1955, allegedly for being a rat.

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