Drink on Film

Seattle’s "Good Bootlegger" Featured in Prohibition.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick became fascinated with a local outlaw.

August 3, 2011

The baby lieutenant

Roy Olmstead was a Seattle policeman turned hooch smuggler who was known locally as "the good bootlegger." Lynn Novick—Ken Burns’s collaborator on the upcoming PBS doc Prohibition—has a thing for Olmstead.

"I found his story fascinating, partly because it goes so much against the grain of what we think of when we think of bootleggers," said Novick on Tuesday afternoon. "He went about this unsavory business with a great deal of honor."

Novick and Burns were in town with their third collaborator on the project, Daniel Okrent, author of 2010’s already-definitive history of the era, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. They had just come from an indepth talk at MOHAI; later that evening they would screen clips of the film at Intiman Theatre.

Olmstead was a precocious cop, promoted to lieutenant at an early age. ("The baby lieutenant" was his other nickname.) When Washington started enforcing the dry laws in 1916, the police were charged with cracking down on illicit sales. The bootleggers tended to be disorganized and sloppy, and this did not escape Olmstead’s attention. When the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, he went into the bootlegging business for himself, smuggling booze from Canada into King County. Much of the police force and local government was on the take, and Olmstead made a fortune.

Olmstead was arrested several times during his bootlegging career, but he was a well-loved figure in Seattle. Historylink has a great essay detailing his story, but it really comes alive when you watch Prohibition, which includes fascinating interviews with a local man whose father worked for Olmstead.

Burns and Novick spent time in Seattle during production, shooting water scenes and poring through the local archives. Both said they developed a crush not just on the Olmstead story, but on Seattle itself. When they visit, said Burns, "We think: why don’t we live here?" Part of their affection comes from the fact that Seattleites treat documentary filmmakers the way other cities do pop stars—last night’s event at Intiman, which included a reception with a jazz band and vintage cocktails, was sold out, and a not-small portion of the crowd came dressed in 1920s garb—flapper dresses, feather boas, suspenders—in homage to the film.

Prohibition airs October 2,3, and 4 on PBS.

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