Susan Edgerly remembers her father, Seattle motion picture exhibitor John G. von Herberg, and her Seattle childhood

  • By Eric Flom
  • Posted 1/16/2002
  • Essay 3661

Susan Edgerly is the youngest daughter of John G. von Herberg (1880-1947) and his third wife, M. E. Darling. Based in Seattle, von Herberg was a prominent motion picture exhibitor throughout the Pacific Northwest from 1911 until his death in 1947, in addition to a side career as a local restaurateur. (Von's Restaurant, currently located in the Roosevelt Hotel at Seventh Avenue and Pine Street, takes its name from John G. von Herberg.) In this personal recollection, Ms. Edgerly, who currently lives in Arroyo Grande, California, recalls her father and her remarkable childhood in early Seattle.

Susan Edgerly's Reminiscence

I am the youngest child of John von Herberg's third wife, M.E. Darling. My other siblings include sisters Philomene, Charlotte, Josephine, Miriam (or Mimi), and my brother John Jr. Although my mother was really John von Herberg's third wife, he didn't tell her that when they married. (My father first studied to be a priest until he found out about girls, I guess.) His first marriage was annulled. I understand he had two children by a second marriage, a boy who ended up an Admiral in the Navy, and a girl. I don't know what happened to her. I was born Rita von Herberg, but changed my name to Susan because I later found out I was named after one of my dad's girlfriends. Wouldn't you do the same?

The Son of Immigrants

John von Herberg was actually born Peter Coyle in 1880; we discovered this after my sister Charlotte was able to obtain a copy of his birth certificate through the New York Public Library. I don't know why he later changed his name to "von Herberg," although I know the name "John" was taken from a younger brother who had died.

My father's father was a saloonkeeper in Ireland and came over here, I guess, because of the potato famine. He met my grandmother, Marie Philomene Fournier, who was French, on the boat coming to America. They eventually settled in Peru, Indiana, and had six children -- four boys and two girls.

After he settled in Seattle as a young man, my father arranged a date with my mother's half-sister, who was a very beautiful brunette. She broke the date with Dad and told him my mother was playing piano in a local dance studio and he could ask her instead. My mother was a very pretty blonde of 15 or 16 at the time. After obtaining her mother's approval, my mother and father starting seeing each other regularly, and eventually married in 1911.

Entering the Motion Picture Business

Shortly after he met my mother, while my father was working as a salesman in a local hardware store, he met Claude Jensen, who was operating a small motion picture house in a space that had formerly been a grocery store. My maternal grandfather had recently passed away, and my mother's mother gave Dad some of the insurance money so he could get started in the theater business. Jensen had a partner at the time, an Indian gentleman, whom my father bought out for about $500. Their first theater together was called the National Theatre, located near Fourth and Pike in downtown Seattle.

They had a hard time in the motion picture business at first, but were determined and really wanted to expand. In order to help, my mother put her musical talents to work by going to Canada to play the pipe organ in a theater up there. The owner, a Mr. DeWeese (I'm not sure about the actual spelling of his name), eventually gave my mother the job of directing the orchestra, as the regular orchestra leader was frequently drunk and couldn't be depended upon. When my mother returned from Canada she and my father had an apartment above the National Theatre; she used to tell me she cooked both their meals on $5.00 a week.

Over time, Claude Jensen and my father were able to expand their theater interests, eventually operating the Liberty Theatre on 1st Avenue, the Coliseum at Fifth and Pike, along with several other theaters in and around Seattle. Later in his career, my dad (together with Fred Mercy) also owned some theaters in Yakima and Butte, Montana. I know one of the theaters in Yakima (the Tower, I believe) was a drive-in, one of the first in Washington state.

Theater and Theater People

I remember that my brothers and sisters would often attend previews of the new picture shows on "Film Row," which was where the theater owners would often go. Once, in the early 1930s, we met vaudevillian George Jessel, who came to the Liberty Theatre to perform live onstage with silent screen actress Norma Talmadge, who was his girlfriend at the time. We also met bandleader Paul Whiteman. That must have been around 1929, as we were very young at the time. His music was wonderful.

I also remember when Texas Guinan came to Seattle with a marvelous show of singers, dancers, and comedians. She was famous for the line "only the suckers drink." She never drank and had a marvelous sense of humor.

Texas and her whole troupe of performers came to our house for dinner -- we children were introduced to everyone briefly, but then had to go to bed. My dad and members of her company drank, even though Texas did not. My mother played the piano and everybody sang. I remember my mother asked two of the performers to sing "Indian Love Call," which they did in their stage show, as we listened from upstairs. It was so beautiful. As they were leaving, the troupe's two comedians filled their pockets with silverware as a joke, but Texas stopped them before they walked out the door.

Another time I remember that Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's brother, came to our house for dinner. He said he loved my mother's cooking. One of my dad's close friends in Hollywood was Adolphe Menjou -- he would loan Dad his car (plus chauffeur) when he visited Hollywood on business. My dad had another friend, a football star in California, who was once invited to the Hearst Castle, but said he wouldn't go unless his friend "Von" was allowed to go with him. That is how my dad met William Randolph Hearst, Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin; it was also there that my dad agreed to run all of Marion's pictures in his theaters, even though she couldn't act.

All the guests at Hearst's home would wait to eat until around 9 o'clock, when Hearst and Marion Davies entered the room. She was always very pretty and beautifully dressed. My dad also told us that for all that fancy dining, there were catsup bottles all lined up all along the table.

Speaking of food, Dad was a good friend with the owner of Rippe's Cafe. He later bought the restaurant and turned it into Von's Cafe. I had dinner there last year (2000) when I visited Seattle. The food was not very good and certainly wasn't the same as when my dad owned it. He always had plenty of homemade rolls and deserts and the food was hot when it was served.

Later Years

My parents divorced in 1934; about a year later, my father married Gene Dennis, a psychic who formerly played in vaudeville. They stayed together until his death in 1947, and started their own family together. Gene Dennis gave up her stage career to marry my father, but started a new one by authoring a psychic advice column (somewhat like Ann Landers) for the Seattle Star.

Shortly after my mother and father divorced, my siblings and I were sent to summer camp for a while, as mother cried a lot and wouldn't eat. When we came back, she got interested in my sister Mimi and I having a try at singing, as we would often harmonize at home. She had read a book called How To Sing For Money and wrote the author, Charles Henderson, asking him to put together a musical arrangement for Mimi and I. We practiced our songs, including "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time," arranged by Mr. Henderson, which was later a popular hit for the Andrews Sisters.

Eventually we went down to California, where we got an agent and got booked briefly in several western theaters. Then we went to New York and got booked by MCA. While we were in New York one day I remember my mother said, "Something has happened to your father." Later that day, my brother called and said that Dad, who had been sick recently, had had a heart attack while shaving at the hospital. It was his third heart attack and he passed away.


Letters and e-mails from Susan Edgerly to Eric L. Flom dated December 19, 2001; September 19, 2001; August 27, 2001; August 14, 2001; and August 12, 2001.

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