Danz, Fredric A. (1918-2009)

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 5/18/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7306
Some may have been born into show business, but for Fredric Danz, it’s more accurate to say that he was born into the business of shows. The son of pioneer Seattle film exhibitor John Danz (d. 1961), Fredric inherited his father’s chain of motion picture houses in the early 1960s, growing the family business into Sterling Recreation Organization (SRO), which at its height owned more than 100 theaters up and down the West Coast. But Fredric Danz wasn’t simply concerned with his business interests, as evidenced by his lengthy involvement in civic activities. For his many contributions to the larger community, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Fredric Danz First Citizen of 1985.

Destined for Success

Danz’s father, John, emigrated from Russia at age 4, his family fleeing Cossack persecution of the Jews.  Although they originally settled on the East Coast, the Danz family gradually made its way across the United States, finally ending up in Oregon City.  As a young man John Danz continued the trek northward, turning up in Seattle around 1900.

Danz plied his trade as a haberdasher until an overzealous expansion plan eventually drove him out of business.  Undaunted by the failure, he turned to the exhibition of motion pictures, purchasing a small storefront theater in Seattle’s Pioneer Square area.  It was a fortuitous move -- not only was the movie business taking off all across the U.S., but many of Seattle’s early exhibitors were just beginning to establish themselves.  (Danz would soon be joined in the local exhibition business by brothers Joseph and Cy.)

By 1918 John Danz ran a number of Seattle’s second-run picture houses. That year he moved into the uptown theater district when he took over the Colonial Theater on 4th Avenue near Pike Street.   S. J. Anderson, Seattle correspondent for The Moving Picture World, announced the following in the April 6th edition: “John Danz, owner of the Colonial and High class theaters, announces that he has [a] new general manager for his entire interests. This new official is just three weeks old, but his father already feels assured of his success” (Anderson, p. 127).  As time would tell, Fredric Danz would more than live up to his birth announcement.

Learning the Ropes

As Fredric grew older during the 1920s, his father John Danz continued to be a major player on the Seattle exhibition scene.  At age 15 Fredric took his first job as an usher at the Florence Theater, located on 2nd Avenue near the Smith Tower.  He eventually parlayed this modest position into better opportunities, eventually becoming a relief manager for several of his father’s downtown houses.

After graduating from Garfield High School, in 1936 Fredric Danz enrolled at the University of Washington, but it wasn’t long before he was working in the family business.  Following his university tenure, Danz began booking films for his father’s theaters and spent time learning to advertising the shows -- experience that helped give him a broader view of the exhibition business.  World War II briefly interrupted this “education.”  Fredric Danz returned from active duty to become general manager of his father’s theater operations, a position he held until John Danz’s death in 1961.

Growing the Business

When Fredric took the reins in 1961, the Danz holdings totaled 25 theaters in the Seattle area, plus a single location in Los Angeles.  Because the rise of television in the 1950s had a negative effect on theater chains, one of Fredric’s first moves was to diversify. He expanded into other forms of entertainment such as bowling alleys, radio stations, and restaurants.  Danz’s unwritten rule was never to have more than one-third of the company’s gross value in any one division, although this was difficult to adhere to, given that the theater side of the business always grew the fastest.

This diversification strategy helped Sterling Recreation Organization (SRO), as the company was then known, to survive business cycles in each of its holding areas, and allowed SRO as a whole to thrive.  By 1985, the firm had increased its theater holdings to roughly 110 screens, adding 10 radio stations and six bowling centers to the portfolio. At that time, SRO employed more than 1,500 people in five different states. 

A Commitment to the Community

Fredric Danz’s accomplishments weren’t limited to business. He also became a prominent civic leader and philanthropist in the Northwest.  One of Danz’s most public efforts occurred in 1969 and 1970, when he helped lead the ill-fated effort to keep the Pilots baseball club in Seattle.  (After the inaugural 1969 season, Seattle lost its first Major League baseball franchise.  The club relocated to Milwaukee and became known as the Brewers.)   However, the failed campaign spurred Seattle into a planning and building process that led to the construction of the Kingdome stadium in 1976.  Seattle’s second chance at a Major League baseball club, the Mariners, took flight the following year.

Fredric Danz was a founding member (and one-time president) of Variety Club of the Northwest, a founding member of the Bellevue Downtown Development Board, a director of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a president of the Overlake Foundation, and active in the Boy Scouts.  He served as trustee for the Pacific Science Center, Overlake Memorial Hospital, and Evergreen Community Health Center.

It was for his dedication to the larger community that the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors honored Fredric Danz with its “First Citizen” award in 1985.  In announcing the honor, board president Lennox Scott remarked, “Fred Danz has made unmatched contributions of volunteer service to the well-being of underprivileged, handicapped children in the Northwest and indeed throughout the world via Variety Club International ... . He is a local leader in health care, economic development, educational and cultural fields, and in his own entertainment organization” (“Theater Magnate”).

The ceremony, held at Seattle’s Westin Hotel on October 24, 1985, was typical of such events, with friends and colleagues heaping praise upon Danz, his accomplishments, and his dedication to others.  When he finally took the stage for a congratulatory speech, Danz was overwhelmed, remarking to the crowd “I thought for a minute I was reading my own obituary.”  All kidding aside, he said to those present, “[T]here are so many needs among the less fortunate in our world, those of us who can help should.  It’s something that makes you feel very good” (“The ‘First Citizen’”).

A New Business Direction

During the early 1980s Fredric Danz was busy bringing Dolby sound to SRO’s theaters, in addition to opening multiplexes such as Factoria in Bellevue, Totem Lake in Kirkland, and Grand Cinemas Alderwood in Lynnwood.  About that time, Danz’s son Tad took over as president of SRO – with Fredric Danz becoming chairman -- until Tad left to run theaters in California.  (Tad is one of seven Danz children – four from Fredric Danz’s first wife, Selma, plus three stepchildren from Danz’s second marriage to Bess in 1976.) 

At the time of Tad’s departure, the Bellevue-based SRO operated theaters, radio stations, bowling alleys, and restaurants in all along the West Coast, as well as in Colorado.  Danz himself was splitting his time between his home in Kirkland, the SRO corporate offices (located atop the John Danz Theater in downtown Bellevue), and a condominium in Los Angeles.

In 1986, shortly after Danz received the First Citizen Award, SRO began to divest its longtime holdings, part of a transformation that would turn the company into a commercial real-estate firm (retaining the rights to the underlying properties, while selling the actual buildings).  The first to go were the company’s profitable chain of theaters, which were sold to Toronto’s Cineplex Odeon in 1986.  This was followed by the sale of its radio holdings in 1989 and bowling centers in 1992.

Sterling Realty Organization, as the firm is now (2005) known, is devoted to commercial (primarily retail) developments and property management throughout the Northwest.

Frederic Danz died at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue on August 28, 2009.

Sources: Rabbi Raphael Levine (with Anne Barlow), Rabbi Levine’s Profiles in Service: Stories of People Who Help People (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing Co., 1985), 52-53; S. A. Anderson, “Seattle News Letter,” The Moving Picture World, April 18, 1918, pp. 126-127; John Hartl, “SRO Throws Surprise Party for its Boss,” The Seattle Times, February 7, 1985, pp. E-1, E-11; “Theater Magnate Fred Danz is ‘Seattle’s First Citizen,’ ” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 14, 1985, p. A-5; “Local Realtors Honor Danz,” The Seattle Times, June 16, 1985, p. E-4; Sally Gene Mahoney, “Fredric Danz: His Business is Public’s Pleasure,” Ibid.,, October 22, 1985, p. C-2; “The ‘First Citizen’ Gets Praise with his Dinner,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 25, 1985, p. A-16; “Company History,” Sterling Realty Organization website accessed January 21, 2005 (http://www.sterlingrealty.com/companyHistory.asp).
Note: This essay was corrected on August 5, 2005, and updated on August 30, 2009.

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