Considine, John William (1863-1943)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/22/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21063

John Considine (1863-1943) led a remarkable life. In less than 10 years, he went from being an owner of sleazy theaters and gambling halls to a defendant in one of Seattle's most sensational murder trials to a respected co-owner of one of the biggest vaudeville circuits in the United States. He opened a number of theaters in Washington state and several particularly grand ones in Seattle. He later moved to Los Angeles, where his son, John Jr., became a successful movie producer; Considine's two grandchildren, John and Tim, both became successful movie and television actors.

Beginnings

John William Considine was born in Chicago on September 29, 1863, to John Cornelius Considine (1824-1909) and Mary Cusick Considine (1825-1897), both Irish immigrants. He had one brother, Thomas Joseph Considine, (1856-1933), and they were close for much of his life. He briefly attended college at a Catholic institution, St. Mary's College (now the University of St. Mary) in Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as the University of Kansas, but grew bored and took a job as a traveling junior actor. He arrived in Seattle in 1889 and worked odd jobs in various saloons as a faro dealer, but the aggressive and ambitious Considine didn't stay in one place for long.

He soon made an impression. He was a big man, standing 5 feet 11, and with a portly build. He was a good dresser and a good talker; smooth and affable, he could mix comfortably with people from all walks of life. He didn't gamble or drink alcohol, and he later developed a reputation as a devoted family man -- at least, to his second family. An 1892 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer discussed a divorce proceeding filed by his first wife, Julia Considine. The complaint alleged that they were married in Chicago in 1884, had a 5-year-old daughter, Agnes, and that for "the last three or four years" Considine had been living with another woman "on University Street as man and wife" ("Done In The Courts"). Presumably this other woman was Elizabeth Ann Donnelan (1871-1962), who was Considine's wife for more than 50 years. They had three children: Florence (1890-1980), Ruth (ca. 1893-?), and John William Jr. (1898-1961).

The People's Theater

By early 1891 Considine was operating a box house at the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Washington Street that was generally known as the People's Theater, sometimes called the Standard Gambling House, or just the Standard. A box house was a theater featuring live acts, liquor, and gambling, and some of its waitresses offered personal services on the side in small rooms that lined the interior of the theater. There were similar establishments south of Yesler, but Considine wanted his to stand out. Reasoning that better-quality shows would bring in more customers, Considine hired actresses who stuck to acting, freeing the waitresses to more fully serve customers. It worked, and business remained good even after a nationwide depression struck in 1893.

It was a tough business, but Considine could be vicious when provoked. He was arrested several times for assault, but one way or another he usually got any charges dropped. One particularly colorful story in the Seattle P-I gleefully described Considine's assault on the editor of the Sunday Mercury, who made the mistake of writing a story that angered Considine. Considine and his assistant manager at the theater, William King, strode into the newspaper's office, and Considine began to violently beat the editor. When the assistant editor drew a gun and shot King in the shoulder, Considine drew his own gun. He cowed the assistant editor into dropping his weapon, then smacked him in the head for good measure.

Considine, sometimes referred to in the press as "The Boss Sport" or "The Statesman," survived confrontations, a bad economy, and the scorn of Seattle's polite society for more than three years, but times changed in 1894. During boom times the city had tolerated the box houses, reasoning they were good for business. But Seattle now was filled with righteous indignation about the goings-on south of Yesler. A wave of reform swept the air. Considine saw what was coming and, along with a friendly deputy sheriff, William Meredith (1869-1901), allegedly conspired to have all the Republican delegates from the Pioneer Square precinct arrested shortly before the state convention to try to influence the election of more friendly representatives in Considine's neighborhood. This didn't go far, and when the new city council passed a law banning the sale of liquor in box houses, Considine and his friend Meredith both moved to Spokane.

Considine was there for about three years, from 1894 until 1897. He established the People's Theater at the Frankfurt Block on the corner of Howard and Main streets, offering entertainment similar to what the People's had offered in Seattle, but he ran into the same issues that he'd had to deal with in Seattle. In 1895 the state legislature passed an ordinance prohibiting women from working in any theater or saloon where alcohol was served, and Considine was charged with violating the ordinance. His appeals dragged on for two years, which let him keep operating in the meantime, until Spokane simply closed its variety theaters.

By this time it was the autumn of 1897, and the scene in Seattle had changed. The announcement of the discovery of gold in the Yukon Klondike the previous summer had turned Seattle into a boomtown once again, and it became the jumping-off point for destinations north. The red-light district south of Yesler revived with little objection from the city, and Considine came back to Seattle. In February 1898 he resumed his operations at the People's Theater. 

His stature grew. By 1899, Considine was said to be clearing $2,000 a month (nearly $62,000 in 2020 dollars); an article from the same year in the Seattle Star said Considine "holds a 20 percent interest in the games" ("Bribery of Officials ..."). By this time his brother Tom was working with him, but mostly behind the scenes as a manager. John was the face of the theater. He was generally respected south of Yesler by less-polite society, generally reviled north of Yesler by the more-polite. It was this dichotomy that nearly proved to be his undoing.

By 1900, Considine and Meredith had become bitter enemies. Meredith had returned to Seattle with Considine in 1897 and became a detective with the Seattle Police Department. He rose from within and in November 1900 became police chief. This was bad news for Considine. It remained the law in Seattle that women in box houses could not serve liquor, though this law was seldom enforced and when it was, was usually handled by the discreet payment of a "fine." Suddenly Meredith's officers began strictly enforcing the law -- but only on Considine's block.

However, Meredith had his own problems. Allegations of vice and corruption against Seattle's public officials, including Meredith, led to the establishment of a "Law and Order League," which investigated the allegations and presented its findings to the Seattle City Council. The council was concerned enough to conduct its own investigation. Considine told the council that one of Meredith's associates had approached him and demanded $500 to keep the law at bay, and said he paid the bribe and saw it delivered to Meredith. The council found that Meredith had accepted bribes and allowed illegal gambling in the city, and reported its findings to Mayor Thomas Humes (1847-1904). On June 21, 1901, Humes asked for Meredith's resignation. He got it a day later.

Meredith retaliated. He falsely accused Considine of impregnating one of his performers and claimed that Considine had paid for the resulting abortion. The allegation was not difficult for Considine to disprove, and two days after Meredith's resignation, Considine sent word to Meredith to publicly retract the claim and issue an apology, or he would sue Meredith for defamation. Meredith loudly and publicly threatened revenge, and he carried out his threat the next day -- June 25, 1901.

A Sensational Shootout

The date still stands out in Seattle's history. That afternoon Meredith armed himself with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, a .32 Colt revolver, a .38 bulldog revolver (a gun with a very short barrel), and a short knife. He had some familiarity with Considine's schedule and went downtown to look for him. He found him walking with his brother toward the G. O. Guy drugstore on the southwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way. Just as they were about to enter the drugstore, the two Considines stopped to talk to Patrolman A. H. Mefford.

Meredith had wrapped the shotgun in brown butcher paper to make it less obvious. He strode up to the men from behind, who never saw him coming. When he got to within 2 feet of John Considine, Meredith aimed at his head and fired. Almost miraculously, he missed. The shotgun pellets passed through the top of Considine's hat, and Considine ran into the store with Meredith behind him. Meredith fired again but only nicked Considine in the neck with a pellet, though a bystander was wounded in his arm.

Meredith dropped the shotgun and reached for his .32. Considine ran toward the back of the store, but realized he was trapped. He turned and lunged at Meredith. He was several inches taller and much heavier than the small, wiry Meredith, and within an instant of Meredith getting the pistol in his hand, Considine grabbed his arm and forced it into the air. A terrific struggle followed. Tom Considine and Mefford raced in, and Tom grabbed the pistol from Meredith and slammed it into his head at least five times. About this time, several police officers ran into the drugstore and forced the men apart.

Meredith swayed against a showcase, dazed but still on his feet. Though other witnesses disagreed, some witnesses said he appeared to be dropping his hand toward his right coat pocket, which contained the bulldog revolver. John Considine believed the same thing. He stepped up to Meredith, drew a .38 revolver, and fired three times. Meredith fell to the floor and died within seconds. 

There was considerable hysteria in the city given who was involved and the sensational facts of the shooting. The Seattle Star published a borderline-hysterical editorial demanding, in capital letters, that "JOHN CONSIDINE AND TOM CONSIDINE BE DRIVEN OUT OF SEATTLE, ONCE AND FOR ALL TIME" ("Drive Considine Brothers Out ..."). Yet it was something of a surprise when both Considine brothers were charged with first-degree murder two days after the shooting. The State elected to try John Considine first, and his trial was set for November. 

The shooting and murder charges were the talk of Seattle as the trial approached, but passions cooled in the meantime. Maybe some of the anti-Considine faction didn't like what he represented, but the evidence was clear that Meredith had stalked Considine, had attacked him with two guns, and had two more weapons on him when he was finally stopped. After a two-and-a-half week trial a jury agreed, and Considine was acquitted on all charges. The State subsequently dropped charges against his brother.

Vaudeville

John Considine was a free man, but he wasn't the same man he'd been five months earlier. He went straight from there. He gradually cut his ties with his businesses south of Yesler, though Tom continued to manage them for a time. Tom later joined John in his new ventures, but again in more of a supporting role; he had no ownership interest in his brother's businesses. John began focusing on theater for the masses, following his philosophy that better acts brought better profits. In 1902 he obtained a half-interest in one of Seattle's earliest theaters, Edison's Unique Theatre. The venue was big enough to not only show a movie, but it also had a stage large enough to simultaneously host a variety show. It was a first for Seattle. Business was good, and Considine soon opened an additional seven theaters in Oregon, Washington (in Bellingham, Everett, Spokane, and Yakima), and British Columbia.

Business got better. Several men, including the Considine brothers, had founded the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1898 in Seattle, and in 1906 the Considines traveled to the Eagles' national convention in New York City. There, John met Tim Sullivan (1862-1913), a powerful New York City politician with his own interest in the theater business. The two men formed the Sullivan & Considine Circuit, a group of theaters in which Sullivan provided the financing and Considine provided the labor, and they expanded the circuit to 37 locations stretching from the Midwest to the Pacific coast. By 1911 the circuit had teamed up with several smaller, independent theater owners, as well as Marcus Loew, who owned 20 theaters in the New York City area. This allowed the circuit to offer its better acts 70 weeks of nonstop work in dozens of locations around the country.

Profits from these expanded operations enabled Considine to open bigger and more impressive venues. In 1909 he opened the Majestic Theatre, a 1,500-seat venue located on the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Spring Street. Its auditorium was highlighted in ivory and gold, and Seattle historian Jean Sherrard writes, "By some accounts it was Seattle's 'greatest house of vaudeville'" ("Seattle Now and Then ..."), featuring six or seven onstage acts twice a day. There were animal acts, plenty of music and song, dance routines, and comedy -- lots of comedy. Considine favored big-name acts, and perhaps his biggest name at the Majestic (renamed the Empress in 1911) was Charlie Chaplin, who first appeared in 1911 and was there three more times in the next two years before moving on to Hollywood and stardom. The Empress changed its name again in 1916 to the Palace Hippodrome, more commonly known as the Palace Hip, and remained a popular venue into the 1920s.

Another of Considine's theaters was the Coliseum, located on the southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and James Street. He leased the former skating rink and remodeled it into the largest theater west of Chicago, capable of seating 2,600. He renamed it the Orpheum for its 1908 opening, but the name at this location only lasted for three years, until Considine opened his new and improved Orpheum at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street in 1911. The lavishly decorated new Orpheum was modeled after classical Greek and Italian architecture, and featured glass, marble, and onyx in the lobby, while the auditorium had murals depicting classical and mythological themes. An impressive list of Seattle society, as well as county and state representatives, attended the theater's opening gala on May 15, 1911. They urged Considine to speak, but he modestly declined. He had come a long way in 10 years.

It was the pinnacle in more ways than one. Vaudeville's popularity was peaking, though it wasn't yet apparent. A more apparent problem for Considine was a rival who he had battled almost since he had bought into the Edison's Unique in 1902 -- Alexander Pantages. Pantages (1867-1936) opened his first theater in Seattle that same year, and opened a better one (immodestly named the Pantages) in 1904. By 1907, he had three theaters in Seattle and one in Tacoma. He began to expand his operations southward, opening theaters in cities where Considine already had locations. 

Neither man was above any trick he could think of to deal with the other. If Considine heard that a good act was coming to the Pantages, he might meet the act when it arrived at the train station with a bigger offer. If Pantages heard that Considine was booking a big act, he might get a similar one in a nearby theater a few days sooner. But there was one difference between the two men that eventually proved to be the key: While Considine favored well-known acts, Pantages was more interested in acts that he thought would sell, regardless of whether the act was well known. He seems to have had a slightly keener instinct than Considine, and it served him well.

Considine soon had bigger problems. Tim Sullivan was suffering from tertiary syphilis, and by 1912 his mental capacity was deteriorating. He was found to be mentally incompetent the next year, and died that summer. Many of the theaters on the Sullivan & Considine Circuit had been bought by mortgaging an earlier purchase -- mortgages that Considine was personally responsible for, but which he was not able to meet. With Sullivan's financing gone, Considine and Sullivan's heirs made a deal with Marcus Loew and others in March 1914 to buy some, but not all, of the theaters on the circuit. Loew backed out of the deal after the First World War erupted that summer and the resulting financial uncertainty made investors skittish. (Considine and Sullivan's heirs were able to keep Loew's down payment, but the oft-repeated line that Considine sold out to Loew for $6 million is not true.)

This uncertainty, as well as slowly increasing competition from a new upstart -- motion pictures -- marked the end for Considine's circuit. Foreclosures began against his theaters in 1915. His first response was to fight the inevitable, but even a week-long appearance that autumn by the famed magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) at Seattle's Orpheum failed to save that theater, which was foreclosed on in April 1916 and put up for sale at auction the following month. The remaining theaters were quickly sold, and Considine faded from public view in Seattle.

A Family Affair

By 1921 he had moved to Los Angeles, where he lived quietly until his death from pneumonia on February 11, 1943. His son, John Jr., became an accomplished movie producer, and produced dozens of movies between 1925 and 1943. In 1932 John Jr. married Carmen Pantages (1909-1998), the daughter of Alexander Pantages. Though more than one writer has written that John Considine Sr. and Pantages were cordial despite their intense rivalry, Considine's grandson John tells a different story: "My grandfathers never spoke. They both attended my parents wedding but stayed at opposite sides of the room. It was like the Montagues and the Capulets" ("Noted TV and Movie ...").

Considine's grandsons, John (b. 1935) and Tim (b. 1940), were similarly successful both in movies and television. John appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows between the 1940s and the 2000s, while Tim appeared in more than 40 movies and TV shows between the 1950s and the 2000s. He's especially remembered for playing the role of Mike Douglas, the eldest son, in the popular TV series My Three Sons during the first half of the 1960s.


Sources:

Frank Cullen with Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly, Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1 (Abingdon, UK:  Routledge, 2006), 263-265, 863-864, 1074;  Murray Morgan, Skid Road (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 124-128, 137-138, 150, 154-155; "John Considine Sr., Veteran Showman," The New York Times, February 13, 1943, p. 11; Charlie Bermant, "Noted TV and Movie Actor John Considine to End His Career on Port Townsend Stage This Week," Peninsula Daily News (Port Angeles), June 23, 2014, website accessed May 10, 2020 (https://www.peninsuladailynews.com/news/noted-tv-and-movie-actor-john-considine-to-end-his-career-on-port-townsend-stage-this-week-2/); "Done in the Courts," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 6, 1892, p. 5; "The Editors Licked," Ibid., February 12, 1893, p. 8; "Scared Off by His Defeat," Ibid., September 4, 1894, p. 8; "Ex-Chief of Police W.L. Meredith Shot and Killed by John W. Considine," Ibid., June 26, 1901, p. 1; "Bribery of Officials Is Openly Charged," The Seattle Star, October 30, 1899, p. 4; "Drive Considine Brothers Out of Seattle," Ibid., June 26, 1901, p. 1; "Orpheum Theatre Site to be Sold at Auction," The Seattle Times, May 10, 1916, p. 2; "John Gives Up," Spokane Chronicle, December 17, 1897, p. 1; "Another Variety Theater," The Weekly Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), November 19, 1894, p. 3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle newspaper reports on November 25, 1899, that Wyatt Earp will open a gambling house in the city" (by John Caldbick), "Seattle's newly resigned police chief William Meredith is killed in a sensational shootout in Seattle on June 25, 1901" and "John Considine is found not guilty of murder for the death of William Meredith on November 21, 1901" (by Phil Dougherty), "Seattle's Orpheum Theatre opens at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street on May 15, 1911" and "Charles Chaplin appears at Seattle's Empress Theatre beginning on April 1, 1912" (by Eric Flom); https://www.historylink.org (accessed May 10, 2020); "John William Considine," FindAGrave website accessed May 11, 2020 (http://www.findagrave.com/memorial/136507441/john-william-considine); "John 'Boss Sport' Considine," Frontier Seattle website accessed May 11, 2020 (http://frontierseattle.com/john-considine); Jean Sherrard, "Seattle Now & Then: The Palace Hip Theatre," September 8, 2012, Seattle Now & Then website accessed May 10, 2020 (https://www.pauldorpat.com/2012/09/08/seattle-now-then-the-palace-hip-theatre/); "John W. Considine," Seattle Theatre History website accessed May 10, 2020 (http://seattletheatrehistory.org/collections/people/john-w-considine); "Value of $2000 from 1899 to 2020," CPI Inflation Calculator website accessed May 17, 2020 (https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1899?amount=2000).


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