April 1, 1978: Rosco Louie Gallery

Larry Reid and Tracey Rowland circa November 1982
Clark Fletcher / The Rocket

Seattle in the late 1970s was a place and time of great countercultural promise. When the Bird punk club opened here on March 4, 1978, the city’s nascent punk music scene gained a crucial regular venue for that year. The following month, appropriately on April Fools’ Day, the city’s underground visual arts community similarly gained a crucial exhibition space for its transgressive aesthetic works with the debut of Rosco Louie Gallery.

Founded by local husband-and-wife artists Larry Reid and Tracey Rowland, Rosco Louie’s raison d’être was the fomenting of discursive discord within Seattle’s granola-infused contemporary gallery scene. A tiny space that would have a huge impact on Seattle’s counterculture during its brief tenure, Rosco Louie quickly became a vital early venue for many formerly obscure visual and performance artists and underground music acts. Located in Pioneer Square at 87 South Washington Street, the new gallery’s presence directly beneath the offices of the recently-launched Seattle Weekly would guarantee local notoriety for Reid, Rowland, and the myriad Seattle gadflies whose work they would brazenly display.

Rosco Louie’s intriguing name came from longtime Pacific Northwest car-culture slang for the driving directions “right” and “left” (“hang a Louie” means “turn left”), thus bringing a local pop-cultural character to the new gallery’s brashly lowbrow collective aesthetic persona.

Seattle’s punk scene would play a crucial role in forming Rosco Louie’s base of patronage. While the Bird provided a popular gathering place for local punk rockers, it was constantly under attack from the city’s mavens of morality, and thus lasted a mere seven months until its final show on September 29, 1978. Meanwhile, Rosco Louie, despite its fundamentally transgressive character, was apparently considered a more legitimate business enterprise by the city’s establishment. Reid and Rowland’s gallery would thus become the de facto headquarters of the Seattle punk scene after the Bird’s demise.

The city’s punks would first make their mark at Rosco Louie during the gallery’s debut exhibition, which featured a collection of authentic Victorian pornography. Apparently, Reid invited a local punk band, the Girls, to perform during the opening, and a plethora of punks thus gleefully descended upon the show, causing the exhibitor great grief, and so he swiftly gathered his randy collection and lividly left. The punks, nonplussed, then created their own Polaroid porn on the spot to replace the absent vintage artwork on the gallery’s walls.

Armory Show program
December 1979

Among the other early exhibitions at Rosco Louie were the Pawn Shop Show and the Armory Show. The Pawn Shop Show was the first solo show by local artist Ries Niemi, who in 1979 turned the gallery into a mock pawn shop featuring several non-functional guitars crafted from color photocopies laminated onto wood and cardboard, along with similarly crafted everyday household objects. The pawn shop simulation was convincing enough that random Pioneer Square wanderers would inquire about the prices of the mock merchandise.

The Armory Show was an homage to the legendary Armory Show held in 1913 in New York City, the first large exhibition of modern art in the United States. The Seattle event, held from December 16, 1979, to January 7, 1980, was more irreverent in character, comprising actual weaponry as objets d’art. The show would also count among the earliest local appearances of countercultural Seattle icon Steven Jesse Bernstein (1950-1991), who would perform his confrontational poetry numerous times at Rosco Louie during its tenure.

When Rosco Louie finally closed in December 1982 after a successful run of nearly five years, Reid and Rowland were interviewed by The Rocket, then Seattle’s reigning monthly countercultural newspaper.

“We wanted to associate art, music, film, and people in different disciplines together,” Reid then told The Rocket. “I think we succeeded. It was one of the few places in Seattle where you could get artists, punk kids, museum curators, and critics in one room and get them all smashed.”

Rowland emphasized the gallery’s rejection of highbrow values, declaring, “We don’t like high art; we’ve always associated ourselves with low art. We think that instead of selling pictures to go over sofas it should be about bringing ideas together.”

Summarizing Rosco Louie’s unique role within Seattle’s arts community, Reid reminisced, “We’re probably the only gallery in town that ever chased out collectors by cranking up the Sex Pistols.”

The following year, Reid would launch a similar Pioneer Square gallery/performance venue named Graven Image, best known today as the practice space of the U-Men, the legendary proto-grunge band that would save Seattle from destruction in a maelstrom of macramé during the mid-1980s.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: John Keister, “Low Art’s Last Laugh: The Only Gallery That Mattered,” The Rocket, December 1982, p. 21; Cynthia Rose, “Pop Goes the Gallery,” The Seattle Times, September 15, 1995, p. G1; Greg Prato, “Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music” (ECW Press, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011); Kelton Sears, “Panels from the Past: Looking Back on 40 Years of Seattle Weekly Comix,” March 29, 2016; Larry Reid, interview with author, February 16, 2018.

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April 1, 1967: Seattle’s First Be-In

Seattle has long followed San Francisco in its various attempts to stand out as an American West Coast city, and the countercultural event held on the date in focus here was no exception to that historical rule. Seattle’s first be-in was held in Cowen Park, just north of the University District, where a crowd of roughly 300 people gathered to mirthfully mourn the recent closure of the Bookworm and the Eigerwand, two popular U District hippie hangouts. Both local businesses had been evicted from their respective storefronts on The Ave just the day before on March 31. The Bookworm was a bookstore and the Eigerwand a coffeehouse, both catering brazenly to Seattle’s countercultural cognoscenti.

The Saturday afternoon gathering in Cowen Park was clearly modeled after San Francisco’s Human Be-In, held in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967. That historic event, attended by some 20,000 people and featuring music, poetry, psychedelics, art, and politics, was announced on the cover of that city’s countercultural newspaper Oracle as “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.”

The Seattle be-in was unfortunately monitored by police cars filled with cops in riot gear surrounding the park, but nevertheless, the event was peaceful and festive. The cops apparently suspected otherwise because the Bookworm, besides being a bookstore, was also a de facto daycare center for dispossessed hippies and homeless youth run by Jack and Sally Delay, two key figures within Seattle’s counterculture circa 1967. The Delays had then formed a community organization called The Brothers, modeled after The Diggers, who fed and counseled street people in San Francisco. The cops were suspicious of The Brothers, mistakenly believing them to be a front for LSD distribution, hence their absurd presence nearby.

After the be-in disbanded, some of the revelers ascended to the Attica Gallery on Capitol Hill for the opening of an art exhibition by the Shazam Society, titled “The First Official Exhibition of UFOs (Unidentified Funky Objects), Awesome Images Show, Better Living Through Sausages Display and Brain Damage Festival.” Shazam Society founder (and future famous novelist) Tom Robbins dedicated the art show to “the tender and loving overthrow of established culture and to committing public and private acts of beauty, love, and mystery.”

The 33-second archival newsreel accompanying this post gave a somewhat condescending account of the event, describing it as “sort of a happy happening for hippies.” Despite the announcer’s apparent disdain, one can see clearly from the footage the actual nature of the festivities. Later that month, on April 30, a much larger be-in was held in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, sponsored by Helix, the city’s leading countercultural newspaper of that era.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Charles Russell, “First Human Be-in Sways Few Hippies,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1967, p. 26; Patrick MacDonald, “Now People Glimpse The UFOs At Attica,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1967, p. 26; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Alan J. Stein, “Seattle’s first Be-In is held in Cowen Park on April 1, 1967,” HistoryLink.org, June 20, 2007.

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April 21, 1974: and/or

Capitol Hill's Odd Fellows Temple building circa 1977 Norie Sato

Capitol Hill’s Odd Fellows Temple building circa 1977
Norie Sato

Among the extraordinary people in Seattle history who have come here from elsewhere and made our city a better place than it was before, Anne Focke surely deserves high ranking. A California native and visual artist, Focke (b. 1945) traveled northward along the West Coast in pursuit of a formal arts education and arrived in Seattle during the mid-1960s. After earning an art history degree from the University of Washington in 1967, she founded a local arts organization and gallery space that would become vastly influential during its ten years of existence from 1974 to 1984. The organization’s unique name was and/or, and its inaugural exhibition occurred on the date in focus here.

Located at 1525 10th Avenue in the historic Odd Fellows Temple building on Capitol Hill, and/or was established to provide an alternative space for avant-garde visual art exhibitions, musical and spoken word performances, and other experimental art forms that could not be experienced elsewhere within the Pacific Northwest. Along with Focke, several other local artists helped establish and/or as an arts collective using money from their own pockets, which gave the new organization crucial creative independence during its first year of operation. It would soon attract attention and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed it to eventually expand its influence while maintaining its independence.

The inaugural exhibition was strategically scheduled on the twelfth anniversary of the Space Needle’s 1962 debut. Titled The Space Needle Collection of the Seattle Souvenir Service, the exhibition displayed several hundred Space Needle-inspired artworks and souvenirs, including a six-foot-tall Space Needle replica made of fruits and vegetables.

During its brief lifetime, and/or would attract an astounding roster of avant-garde visual artists, musicians, writers, and other such countercultural cognoscenti. Noteworthy Seattle-based artists who either exhibited or performed at and/or included Walt Crowley (1947-2007), Paul Dorpat (b. 1938), future Rosco Louie Gallery co-founder Larry Reid (b. 1953), Elizabeth Sandvig (b. 1937), Norie Sato (b. 1949), Michael Spafford (b. 1935), and Ze Whiz Kidz. National touring artists featured there included Kathy Acker (1947-1997), Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), Philip Glass (b. 1937), future Seattle Public Library architect Rem Koolhaus (b. 1944), Meredith Monk (b. 1942), Nam June Paik (1932-2006), and Terry Riley (b. 1935).

Anne Focke (center) with arts writer Roger Downey, and/or co-founder Rolon Bert Garner, and public arts commissioner Patricia Ford University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Anne Focke (center) with arts writer Roger Downey, and/or co-founder Rolon Bert Garner,
and public arts commissioner Patricia Ford
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

The founders of and/or never wanted it to become an institution, and so they gradually let it evolve during its decade of existence. In 1981, and/or closed its gallery space and became an umbrella organization comprising four parts: NX Library, a center for contemporary arts materials with an emphasis on periodicals; Soundwork, a composer-oriented new music organization; the Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial Video Editing Facility for artists and independent producers working within the emerging new medium of video; and Spar, a contemporary arts magazine.

After a profoundly productive and influential decade, and/or officially ceased to exist in October 1984, when its board of directors, following Anne Focke’s request, discontinued the organization, leaving the various programs it had sponsored to continue under independent legal status.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Jen Graves, “The 25 Greatest Works of Art Ever Made in Seattle (In No Particular Order),” The Stranger, March 5, 2009, p. 18; Jen Graves, “and/or (Seattle arts organization),” HistoryLink.org, June 26, 2013; Amanda Manitach, “Standing on Slivers of History,” City Arts magazine, June 24, 2014.

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October 31, 1970: Ze Whiz Kidz

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974
L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson
Far West Entertainment

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974
L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson
Far West Entertainment

If Ze Whiz Kidz had truly ruled Seattle, every day here would likely now be Halloween.

Instead, they merely haunted Seattle fabulously during the early 1970s, bringing a grandly countercultural ruckus to our infamously stoic Northern city. Along the way, they flamboyantly forged the evolutionary glam-rock link between Seattle’s circa-1968 hippies and our circa-1978 punks.

Ze Whiz Kidz were a drag cabaret and performance art troupe founded in Seattle circa 1969 by the legendary West Coast punk provocateur Tomata du Plenty (birth name: David Xavier Harrigan, 1948-2000). While the troupe’s name remains absurdly obscure today, much of the past five decades of Seattle’s counterculture can be traced back influentially to Ze Whiz Kidz — especially within our city’s music scene. Among other brazen trails they blazed during their brief time here, they paved the way for punk rock in Seattle, and thus ultimately set the stage for grunge and other more recent countercultural developments within our city.

Advertisement from the radical Seattle newspaper Sabot, Volume 1, Number 7, October 30, 1970

Advertisement from the radical Seattle
newspaper Sabot, Volume 1, Number 7,
October 30, 1970

Providing a precise date for the birth of Ze Whiz Kidz is an apparently elusive goal, given the infamous wildness of their time. One possibility would be the third and final Sky River Rock Festival, held near Washougal, Washington, during Labor Day weekend 1970, where and when they first performed for a large audience. Yet it seems most appropriate, given their fundamentally flamboyant nature, to nominate the date in focus here, when the troupe performed the second of two Halloween weekend shows at the Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle.

At the time of the Kidz’ concerts there, the Eagles Auditorium was the premier rock concert venue in Seattle, our city’s contemporary countercultural counterpart to San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium — and the 1970 Halloween weekend shows were the Kidz’ first on a large indoor stage. Prior to Sky River, they had performed clandestinely around Seattle: on the street, at bus stops, at an A&P grocery store, and several shows in the basement of Smith Tower in the Submarine Room, a lesbian dive bar run by the local mob where it was rumored that one could buy authentic Tommy Guns from the bartender.

Kidz in the supermarket, circa 1975 Steve Meltzer

Kidz in the supermarket, circa 1975
Steve Meltzer

Gay subculture was obviously the milieu within which Ze Whiz Kidz were created — and they were thus yet another historical example of Seattle following where San Francisco once boldly led. Prior to co-founding Ze Whiz Kidz, du Plenty (a New York state native) was a veteran of the Cockettes, a San Francisco hippie-glitter drag musical theater troupe founded in 1968. The Cockettes created flamboyant stage shows that predated both David Bowie’s glam rock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ze Whiz Kidz similarly staged nearly 100 mini-musical revues in Seattle with an amorphous cast whose many wild stage names included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret), Melba Toast, Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, and real, actual women Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).

Among other highlights of their local countercultural career, Ze Whiz Kidz opened for shock-rock icon Alice Cooper on July 9 and 10, 1971, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, where they performed an original 1950s-themed show titled “Puttin’ Out Is Dreamsville.” Apparently, their collective flamboyance then intimidated even the infamous Cooper. According to J. Satz Beret, “Who else would you put on the bill with Alice Cooper, except the Whiz Kidz? Alice said at the end of the show — being as outrageous as he is — he said to us, ‘You scare me!'”

Tomata du Plenty’s birth state of New York played a reciprocal role in the Whiz Kidz tale when he and kindred ex-Cockette Fayette Hauser left Seattle to move to New York City in 1973. After arriving there, they witnessed the nascent punk rock scene at the now-legendary club CBGB, where they would eventually open for Blondie, the Ramones, and other such then-obscure acts as “guerrilla comedy” performers along with Gorilla Rose and other former Whiz Kidz. Catalyzed by the CBGB scene, du Plenty and Rose returned to Seattle in 1975. During their NYC sojourn, Ze Whiz Kidz had become a relatively conventional rock band, similar to the New York Dolls, for whom they opened at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on March 14, 1974, before finally drifting apart during the following year.

Several early West Coast punk rock bands emerged from the demise of Ze Whiz Kidz. Tomata du Plenty, Melba Toast, and Rio de Janeiro went on to form the Tupperwares, who famously played at the May 1, 1976, TMT Show, generally considered Seattle’s first true punk rock concert. Their transgressive sound and style could best be described as “post-glam/proto-punk.” Later that same year, frustrated with the stagnancy of Seattle’s punk scene at the time, the Tupperwares moved to Los Angeles, where they changed their name to the Screamers (reportedly after legal threats from the Tupperware trademark owners), then quickly became notorious and therefore very influential within that city’s early punk scene. Meanwhile, circa 1977, J. Satz Beret formed the Lewd, who would soon move from Seattle to San Francisco, where they would eventually record and release the now-classic 1982 punk rock album American Wino.

Ze Whiz Kidz’ ultimate legacy continues to thrive locally today, since certain former members of the troupe would eventually go on to join One Reel (for decades the organizer of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival), Teatro ZinZanni, and other crucial Seattle-area arts organizations.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Brendan Mullen, “Goodbye, Tomata du Plenty,” L.A. Weekly, August 23, 2000; David Weissman and Bill Weber, “The Cockettes” (documentary film, 2002); Roger Downey, “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz,” Seattle Weekly, June 27, 2002, p. 30; Gary L. Atkins, “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging” (University of Washington Press, 2003); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit'” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Jacob McMurray, “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Brian Miller, “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants,” Seattle Weekly, September 1, 2015.

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November 13, 1973: Shelly’s Leg

The Shelly's Leg sign, as seen at MOHAI Museum of History & Industry

The Shelly’s Leg sign, as seen at MOHAI
Museum of History & Industry

What best defines the word “counterculture”? Originally coined by historian Theodore Roszak in his influential 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, the word is most often associated with the hippie movement, which crested that same year. After that movement devolved in the 1970s, the word would eventually become associated with the punk movement, which crested circa 1979. Between those two countercultures, what was the historical bridge? For Seattle circa 1973, the gay nightlife scene best qualified for that distinction — and that scene acquired a crucial haven on the date in focus here with the debut of the legendary Shelly’s Leg, Seattle’s first discotheque and first openly gay nightclub.

Shelly’s Leg was crucially located in Pioneer Square, which was Seattle’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife before the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood acquired that distinction in the early 1980s. Where previous gay bars in Seattle had all been clandestine establishments, Shelly’s Leg was brazen in its ambition to be a genuine safe space for the city’s gay community. It would quickly become a popular spot in town as one positive local consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged nationally in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. At the height of the venue’s local popularity, when it attracted as many straight patrons as gay clientele, a huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared to all who entered, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”

The bar’s intriguing name revealed a life story as tragic as it was briefly triumphant — namely, the life story of its co-founder, Shelly Bauman, a straight woman. Her bar was indeed named after her leg — which she lost in a bizarre accident in Pioneer Square three years before the venue’s debut. And that accident would lead directly to the venue’s creation.

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010)

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010)

Shelly Bauman’s life was poignant even before that fateful accident. Born in Illinois on July 23, 1947, she grew up in Chicago, where she studied classical dance as a young girl. After her family moved to Florida, her innocence was shattered at the age of 16 when her father committed suicide. Her mother then told her that that man was in fact not her true father — and then kicked her out of the house forever. Bauman then spent several years living as a homeless drifter, traveling around the country and supporting herself by working as an exotic dancer. She arrived in Seattle in 1968, where and when she initially lived in Rainier Valley in the home of a black family.

The accident that transformed Bauman’s life occurred on July 14, 1970. On that truly fateful date, she and a group of friends gathered in Pioneer Square during Seattle’s first Bastille Day parade. What began as a festive night out for Bauman abruptly became a life-changing tragedy.

“There was a cannon in the parade loaded with gunpowder, held in place by a wad of wet papier-mâché,” Bauman would later recall. “Someone lit the fuse and the cannon fired into the crowd, hitting [me] in the pelvis. It was the son of the owner of the cannon showing off to a friend.”

The cannon blast knocked Bauman unconscious and critically injured part of her pelvis, along with a kidney, some of her intestines, and her left leg. Gushing blood, she could easily have died at the scene. Luckily, a doctor was nearby who intervened and saved her life by pinching an artery to stanch the bleeding. She was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where her left leg was amputated upon arrival. She then underwent nine months of operations and recovery before finally leaving the hospital. She would then spend the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair.

Rather than passively accept her fate, Bauman decided to sue the people whom she considered responsible for the accident: the parade sponsors, the man who brought the cannon, and the city for ignoring the loaded weapon at a public event. Three long years of legal battles eventually led to a $330,000 out-of-court settlement, awarded in April 1973.

What she did with the money was directly determined by her closest friends. Sometime before the accident, Bauman had met Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, two gay men who lived in a large house in the Central Area with several other gay men. The house, known as Villa Mae, was a magnet for the local gay party crowd, and Bauman moved in soon after meeting McGonagle and Nesser. Crucially, McGonagle was then co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe, a Pioneer Square gay bar that had thrived during the 1960s, and where Nesser once worked as a bartender. After the accident, the three housemates talked about opening a new gay bar with part of Bauman’s settlement money — and very quickly, that dream became a reality.

Strategically located at the intersection of South Main Street and Alaskan Way, Shelly’s Leg featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, with two turntables spinning vinyl records non-stop, when that now-standard set-up remained an innovative nightlife novelty. Also featuring 1940s-inspired lounge décor, including fake palm trees and neon lighting, the venue quickly became hugely popular, with lines that stretched around the block seven nights a week. Ken Decker, Shelly’s Leg acting manager, explained the disco’s popularity in an August 1975 Seattle Times column by Erik Lacitis:

“Straight discos don’t have the capability or sensibility to put together something like this. We’ve been crowded the past nine months. Every night about 9:30 p.m. it’s like three Greyhound buses full of people descending upon us. The word is just out this is the place to come and dance.”

Shelly’s Leg DJ Mike Higgins added, “It’s gotten to the point that you can’t tell who is straight and who is gay.”

Shelly’s Leg brought a glamor to Seattle that was rare for our infamously repressed city. John Otto, a Shelly’s Leg regular, recalled the venue’s unique character in a September 2014 City Arts magazine interview, where he discussed the associated glamor, comparing it to other cities’ nightlife scenes:

“It was a different sort of glamor . . . because Seattle had this earthiness, this grittiness, this subliminal nature that places like [Los Angeles] have never had. [Los Angeles] has a dark underbelly but it’s a bright, shiny, superficial place. Seattle gets deep. So even though glamor is what we strived for, there was depth to it as well.”

Shelly’s Leg’s massive popularity would unfortunately be destroyed in much the same manner as its creation: by an accidental explosion. On December 4, 1975, at approximately 1 a.m., an oil tanker was driving on the Alaskan Way Viaduct — directly above the club — when the tanker collided into a guardrail, unhitching the 4,800-gallon trailer, which then exploded, pouring fiery gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg, shattering the front window and torching the front of the club.

Miraculously, no one inside was injured, and Bauman, McGonagle, and Nesser were able to renovate the club using insurance money. Nevertheless, the club’s popularity was permanently damaged by the incident. Ultimately, the club’s final demise was caused by a financial dispute among the three co-proprietors that led to the club being padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly’s Leg thus abruptly closed sometime circa 1979 — just when disco music and culture had finally achieved national mainstream popularity.

After the demise of Shelly’s Leg, Shelly Bauman’s life would continue to be as difficult as it was before her namesake bar’s brief heyday. Although confined to a wheelchair, she would insist on maintaining the life of a bon vivant, insatiably moving and partying here and there until she finally settled down in Bremerton, Washington, where she spent the final eight years of her life. She died at home in Bremerton on November 18, 2010. The sign declaring Shelly’s Leg a gay bar is now on permanent display at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Woman, 23, Hurt By Blast From Cannon,” The Seattle Times, July 15, 1970, p. A5; Emmett Watson, “Friday Kind of Thing,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 25, 1974, p. A9; Mike Mowrer, “Shelly’s Leg: dancing in a sexual twilight zone,” University of Washington Daily, July 25, 1974, p. 12; Erik Lacitis, “Shelly’s Leg: Souljive draws all kinds to dance,” The Seattle Times, August 31, 1975, p. E4; “Fiery Blast Rips Truck On Viaduct,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 1975, p. A1; Charles Brown, “Viaduct fire leaves damage ‘in millions’,” The Seattle Times, December 4, 1975, p. 1; Steve Mettner, “Where Have The Crowds Gone,” Seattle Gay News, March 1977, p. 11; Erik Lacitis, “Beloved Seattle: Readers share stories of places we should remember,” The Seattle Times, July 9, 2000, p. L1; Gary L. Atkins, “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging” (University of Washington Press, 2003); James Whitely, “Shelly Bauman, founder of legendary Shelly’s Leg, dies,” Seattle Gay News, December 3, 2010; Lynsi Burton, “Shelly’s left leg — Founder of Seattle’s first openly gay bar spent the last eight years of her wild, tragic life in Bremerton,” Bremerton Patriot, December 21, 2010; Jonathan Zwickel, “Get Down Tonight,” City Arts magazine, September 26, 2014.

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May 13, 1983: The Metropolis

Spluii Numa play at the Metropolis, circa 1983
Mike Leach

What Seattle then needed most was a place for the wild kids.

In the spring of 1983, the civic environment here was hostile towards teenagers. Seattle had then acquired a reputation as a progressive city welcoming to adults and small children, but teenagers — especially those with countercultural tendencies — had a rather rough time here. Our local underground music scene then catered overwhelmingly to 21-and-over patrons — leaving teenagers shut out of the scene.

Enter Hughes Piottin, also known as “Hugo.” Piottin is best known in Seattle today as the founder and guiding spirit of the Metropolis, the legendary all-ages music venue that helped foment Seattle’s underground music scene from May 1983 to March 1984. The Metropolis was crucially much more than a mere music club: it was conceived not as a business, but rather as a community hub where Seattle’s creative youth could not only congregate as an audience, but also learn how to harness their own nascent creativity.

Born in Lyon, France, Piottin came to Seattle in 1982 with the intention of creating just such a place. That dream would reach fruition on the date in focus here, when the Metropolis held its first official concert. Located in Pioneer Square at 207 Second Avenue South, the Metropolis — despite its brief existence — had a major impact on Seattle’s music scene, mainly because it was all-ages and collectively run, in contrast to the city’s typical music clubs of the time. It was also a magnet for many of the young local musicians and scenesters who would later go on to become major scene players during the grunge era — including Mark Arm, Steve Turner, and Jeff Ament, who would later form Green River, which would later splinter into Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.

Using money he’d earned from fishing in Alaska, Piottin opened the Metropolis with the partnership of Gordon Doucette, a local musician who was then the singer and guitarist for the band Red Masque. Doucette was largely responsible for booking acts, while Piottin oversaw the operation of the venue. Other bookers there included Maire Masco and Susan Silver, two women who would later play major roles behind-the-scenes in Seattle during the grunge era. Piottin would later explain his vision to Clark Humphrey, author of the definitive local music history book Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story:

“The Metropolis was my first creative venture. I was 23 at the time. I came from the background of a frustrated artist without knowing it. I was studying math and physics in Europe; I quit, and became a commercial fisherman in Alaska. In the winter I was teaching skiing in the Alps. I moved to Seattle and really decided to create something to bring people together. I had ideas but they were really fuzzy ones. The space came together out of my control in a way. It had a life of its own, very strong. I loved the shows, getting together in a club. I wanted a non-oppressive environment, a non-alcoholic environment. The kids needed a place to go and be safe and not be exploited. I never had a show that cost more than $4 (except for touring acts). I had a strong desire to give, in a creative place where people could meet friends, and maybe get exposed to ideas in art and music that inspired them. I think it worked.”

Hugo at the Metropolis, circa February 1984
The Rocket, March 1984 issue

Touring acts who played at the Metropolis included Hüsker Dü, Violent Femmes, the Replacements, Gun Club, D.O.A., John Cale, Shockabilly, and Bad Brains. Local talent featured there included Red Dress, Student Nurse (in their final incarnation as the Nurse), the U-Men, the Accüsed, Spluii Numa, 10 Minute Warning, Life in General, Beat Pagodas, Room Nine, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, Colour Twigs, Red Masque, and Cinema 90. Among the regulars was future Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt, who DJ’d at the Metropolis when Sub Pop was still a column in Seattle’s monthly music newspaper The Rocket, and not yet a record label. Pavitt would later reminisce for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about what made the Metropolis such a special place:

“[The Metropolis] was an amazing opportunity for young people to perform in front of their peers. And I DJ’d there, which was a lot of fun, spinning Minor Threat and Run-D.M.C. records. I remember Mark Arm came down, Steve Turner — Mudhoney guys, Green River crew, they came down. Mr. Epp I believe was performing at that time, that was Mark’s band at the time, so anyhow a lot of younger people, 17, 18, who later went on to really help blow up the Seattle scene, got their start at the Metropolis. Having all-ages venues is crucial, I think, for cultivating any scene. Getting young people involved with art and creativity, and giving them a chance, is really important.”

Most crucial to the uniqueness of the Metropolis was the collective nature of its day-to-day operations. Many of its young patrons helped organize and run concerts there — typically receiving free admission in exchange for their work. By helping with cash-handling, serving non-alcoholic refreshments, and loading bands’ gear, teenage music fans learned at the Metropolis how to be not only spectators, but also participants in creative entertainment — which was Hugo’s intention from the beginning. In late 1983, at the peak of the venue’s local popularity and influence, Piottin told The Rocket about his long-term goals for the Metropolis, which he then hoped would thrive for several more years.

“What I want,” Piottin said, “is a fusion of ideas, and [an] inspiration ground, people being exposed to [other] people’s ideas. We want to stimulate this crowd toward a smarter world.”

Despite Piottin’s plans for expansion of the venue (which would have included its daytime use as a coffeehouse and meeting place for political groups), the Metropolis closed abruptly when the developers of a condominium next door pressured its landlord to evict it. The final show (featuring English goth-rock act Alien Sex Fiend) took place on March 6, 1984. After that show, Hugo and Silver would stage several more concerts at several different venues in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, B.C., under the name Metropolis Productions through mid-1985. Piottin would eventually abandon music promotion for other creative pursuits. He currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he participates in community urban farming.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Ann Powers, “All Ages,” The Rocket, December 1983, p. 18; Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Leah Greenblatt and James Bush, “In Memoriam: 20 Clubs That Came and Went,” Seattle Weekly, May 3, 2001, p. 44; Jacob McMurray, “The Metropolis: Birthplace of Grunge?” seattlepi.com, November 19, 2009; Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011); Mark Yarm, “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge” (Crown Archetype, 2011); Keith Cameron, “Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury from Seattle” (Omnibus Press, 2013).

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April 4, 1980: WREX

WREX poster from 1980 Helena Rogers

WREX poster from 1980
Helena Rogers

For Seattle’s underground music scene, the 1980s began with great promise. The Rocket began publishing in October 1979, giving the scene a much-needed venue for media promotion as the new decade began. Early in 1980, two crucial concert venues for underground music opened downtown: the Gorilla Room, which opened in March, and WREX, which opened on the date in focus here.

WREX was established in Belltown by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan. The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system.

Bands played at WREX three nights a week, originally booked by Wes Bradley. Both WREX and the Gorilla Room filled their tiny spaces for most of their three-nights-a-week shows. Along with almost every local band then playing original music (starting with the Enemy), touring acts who played at WREX included Grace Jones, Joan Jett, X, the Fleshtones, Delta 5, and Romeo Void. The frequency of shows at both venues — and their apparent local popularity — inspired other bars around Seattle to start booking original-music bands, thus giving a crucial boost to Seattle’s punk scene at a crucial time in its development. Additionally, certain bars near WREX in Belltown — such as the Frontier Room and the Rendezvous — soon became local punk hangouts.

On nights when live acts weren’t featured, WREX would host DJ nights. Among the regular DJs there were Charles “Upchuck” Gerra, then a prominent figure within Seattle’s punk scene, and British immigrant (and Rocket staff member) Dennis White.

Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management and regular crowd. Since both gays and punks were then equally shunned by mainstream Seattleites, there was usually no true clash between the two subcultures.

WREX calendar from 1980 Joel E. Grice

WREX calendar from 1980
Joel E. Grice

Along with the fertile subcultural ferment that thrived at WREX, there was also an inevitable element of sleaze. At the end of many nights there, spilled beer lingered an inch or two thick on the concrete floor, and young couples often had sex openly on the back staircase during shows. Such was the standard punk nightlife during that time, in Seattle and elsewhere.

The sleazy nature of its clientele wasn’t WREX’s only problem: it also had constant problems with cash flow. Dennis White once lamented, “WREX was always out of cash. Toward the end I was buying the keg off the truck in the afternoon out of my own pocket, hoping they’d sell enough that night to pay me back.”

WREX officially closed on March 18, 1982. One year later, the same venue would reopen as the Vogue, which, while focusing on recorded dance music played by DJs, also hosted live music acts on off nights — including Nirvana’s first Seattle gig before a full audience on April 24, 1988.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Clark Humphrey, “Seattle’s Belltown” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit'” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011).

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December 7, 1984: Gorilla Gardens

Skin Yard play at Gorilla Gardens, July 1985
From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan, and Daniel House
Photo by Cam Garrett

Skin Yard play at Gorilla Gardens, July 1985
From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan, and Daniel House
Photo by Cam Garrett

Seattle is known worldwide as the birthplace of grunge. Which specific venue in Seattle can rightfully claim that same title? Consider Gorilla Gardens, the erstwhile all-ages underground music club that held its first official concert on the date in focus here.

Located at the western edge of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District at 410 Fifth Avenue South, Gorilla Gardens uniquely featured two different rooms for bands to play in: Gorilla Gardens and the Omni Room. The venue’s official name was Rock Theater, but it quickly became known as Gorilla Gardens by its regular clientele.

What now qualifies Gorilla Gardens as the ultimate birthplace of grunge is the character of that clientele: a mixture of hardcore punk rockers and suburban heavy metal fans — still a potentially volatile combination at the time of the venue’s debut. It’s easy these days for underground rock music fans to forget that, prior to the mid-1980s, the American hardcore punk and heavy metal scenes were often hostile towards each other — especially in Seattle, where punk and metal youth often engaged in fights on school grounds and at parties to express that mutual hostility.

The opening of Gorilla Gardens changed that situation positively by offering two separate shows in the same venue at the same time. As a result, punk and metal acts often played there on the same nights, thus leading to the softening of relations between the two subcultures. Each night’s cover charge paid for admission to both shows — a crucial factor in the creation of the musical miscegenation that would commence in Seattle at the height of the venue’s local popularity. Art Chantry, the Seattle-born graphic designer best known as the former art director of The Rocket, Seattle’s reigning music magazine circa 1984, has explained the situation like so:

“Now, in those days, the guys in these two musical camps hated each other, and many expected lobby riots [at Gorilla Gardens] as a matter of course. Instead, these disparate subcultures heard each others’ sounds and liked them. In fact, aside from the haircuts, they liked each other in general, the punks and the metalheads.”

Occupying a building that was originally an old Chinese two-screen movie theater, Gorilla Gardens was founded and operated by Tony Chu, the son of an affluent Taiwanese family and the former proprietor of the Gorilla Room, a Pioneer Square punk/new wave club that operated from 1980 to 1982. Chu gained a bad reputation among Seattle underground bands based on his management style: many bands from that era have complained about not getting paid for playing at Gorilla Gardens — despite a full house, in some cases.

sonic gorilla 1985

During its brief year of existence, Gorilla Gardens hosted several now-legendary underground bands, both local and national. The opening night’s headliner was the infamous Butthole Surfers, from San Antonio, Texas, with Seattle’s Green River — now considered by many the first true grunge band — opening. Soon after, Sonic Youth played their premier Seattle show there, on January 19, 1985. The opening acts at that show were Green River and the U-Men — the latter another now-legendary Seattle band from the mid-1980s. Other noteworthy acts who played at Gorilla Gardens included Guns N’ Roses (who made their Seattle debut there on June 8, 1985), Hüsker Dü, Violent Femmes, and Seattle’s own Soundgarden.

The Violent Femmes show on January 25, 1985, was the scene of an amusing anecdote that reveals the fly-by-night character of Gorilla Gardens. It involved a chainsaw: the show was oversold, leading to an overflow crowd spilling out onto the street. The Seattle police and fire departments came to investigate, and they soon discovered that the building lacked a sufficient number of fire exits and threatened to close the venue. Out of desperation, a Gorilla Gardens employee grabbed a chainsaw and cut a hole in the side of the building.

“I mean, how can you argue with that shit? It was like, perfect,” Art Chantry would later recall. “‘You want a fire exit? We’ll give you a fuckin’ fire exit!'”

After less than one year in the original Chinatown location, Gorilla Gardens would move to Seattle’s North Queen Anne neighborhood at 307 Nickerson Street, where it would soon gain local notoriety from an incident there on November 26, 1985, when the popular Los Angeles hardcore punk band Circle Jerks headlined there during an historically heavy snowstorm.

Shortly after the Circle Jerks’ set began, the Seattle fire marshal and several Seattle police officers entered the venue and shut down the show, citing fire code violations. For obvious reasons, the crowd was not pleased. Bottles began flying and cops began beating people with clubs. As people ran outside the club to escape the cops, further chaos ensued: cops chased punks, punks threw snowballs at cops, more kids were beaten, dumpsters were lit on fire, cars were tipped over. Enhancing the mayhem, a pickup truck filled with bricks was parked serendipitously nearby, and when the punks discovered the truck, the bricks were added to the anti-cop snowball arsenal. Soon some 20 Seattle police cars and dozens of police officers were on the scene, along with a local news crew from KING-TV to document the aftermath for the following evening’s broadcast.

Tony Chu was arrested that night along with six other persons, and the club was evicted the following morning. Thus, the Circle Jerks riot marked the official end of Gorilla Gardens. The Seattle grunge scene, meanwhile, was then only just beginning.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Joe Quintana, “Teen-club owner criticizes police acts in riot,” The Seattle Times, November 27, 1985, p. C1; Michael A. Barber, “Rock nightclub evicted after patrons clash with police,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1985, p. D2; Marc Ramirez, “Bliss Out: The Scene’s a Moving Target,” The Seattle Times, April 26, 1992, Pacific magazine, p. 6; Jonathan Poneman, “Digging the Garden,” SPIN magazine, September 1992, p. 61; Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Leah Greenblatt and James Bush, “In Memoriam: 20 Clubs That Came and Went,” Seattle Weekly, May 3, 2001, p. 44; Tom Scanlon, “R.I.P.: The dead nightclubs tour,” The Seattle Times, January 31, 2008, p. C1; Greg Prato, “Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music” (ECW Press, 2009); Justin Henderson, “Grunge Seattle” (Roaring Forties Press, 2010); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011); Mark Yarm, “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge” (Crown Archetype, 2011).

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August 31, 1968: Sky River Rock Festival

Poster for the first Sky River Rock Festival Walt Crowley

Poster for the first Sky River Rock Festival
Walt Crowley

Woodstock might be the most celebrated of historic rock music festivals, but it wasn’t the first: it was preceded by the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, organized in Seattle and staged near the farmland town of Sultan, Washington. The multi-day, multi-act outdoor festival commenced on the date in focus here.

The Sky River Rock Festival was conceived sometime circa May 1968 by several cognoscenti of Seattle’s counterculture, most of whom were on the staff of Helix, at the time Seattle’s reigning countercultural newspaper. The festival’s main inspiration was the historic Duvall Piano Drop, held the previous month in nearby Duvall, Washington. At that event, a helicopter dropped an upright piano onto a rural pasture to demonstrate for a large audience what the resulting cacophony would sound like. While the piano merely made an anticlimactic thud, the event also crucially included a musical act as part of the day’s entertainment: namely, Country Joe and the Fish. The event was enough of an overall success to cause Paul Dorpat, publisher and co-editor of Helix, to speculate aloud, “If 3,000 people come to hear one band, how many would come to hear a dozen, or two dozen, or . . . ?”

Thus, the Pacific Northwest’s first outdoor rock festival was conceived. The planning began informally during private social gatherings in Seattle’s University District (then the home of the Helix headquarters) and culminated when several people gathered at a house in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood to brainstorm the proposed event and decide upon a name. According to Helix co-editor and illustrator Walt Crowley (1947-2007), that group included Dorpat, Crowley, Scott White, Gary Finholt, John Bixler, John Cunnick, Tim Harvey, and possibly the future famous novelist Tom Robbins.

Among the key organizers who would soon join the project was John Chambless, a University of Washington philosophy lecturer who had been a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley prior to moving to Seattle. While in school at Berkeley, Chambless was one of the principal organizers of the Berkeley Folk Festival, and this accounts for the multitude of San Francisco bands who would eventually appear at the Sky River festival, since Chambless already knew many of those bands and their managers.

The site chosen for the festival was a 40-acre pasture on the banks of the Skykomish River, just outside Sultan, owned by Betty Nelson, a rural bohemian who responded to an ad in Helix announcing plans for the festival and seeking a suitable location for the event. The site was a natural amphitheater enclosed by woods, and the festival’s name was derived from the name of the nearby river.

It remains unclear today who actually performed at the festival, due to the haphazard nature of the planning; thus, historical accounts vary. Tickets went on sale in mid-July before a single act had been booked; meanwhile, the organizers scrambled to sign up suitable acts. Country Joe and the Fish — reprising their role in the Duvall Piano Drop — were among the first acts to sign up, and as the event drew near, Walt Crowley’s official poster for the event listed 40 confirmed acts.

Among the bands and performers booked for the festival were Santana, Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton, Country Joe and the Fish, Richard Pryor, Dino Valenti, Byron Pope, It’s a Beautiful Day, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Alice Stuart Thomas, the Youngbloods, the New Lost City Ramblers, and local groups such as Juggernaut and Easy Chair. The “Lighter Than Air Fair” referred to the hot-air balloon rides that were offered as part of the festivities.

(Unfortunately, the single balloon originally acquired for the event floated away in apparent mutiny before a single rider could enjoy the experience; frantic phone calls located a last-minute replacement in Spokane.)

Overall, the event proved to be a stunning success, likely beyond what the organizers first imagined. Some 13,000 paying customers were joined by several thousand gate-crashers. Yes, it rained — yet no one there seemed to mind. On the final day of the festival, September 2, the Grateful Dead arrived unscheduled and unexpected. They reportedly heard about the festival by word of mouth earlier that weekend and flew up to Seattle just in time to perform. (Their performance was recorded on the festival’s soundboard and can be heard online at YouTube.)

Grateful Dead at the first Sky River Rock Festival, September 2, 1968 photographer unknown

Grateful Dead at the first Sky River Rock Festival, September 2, 1968
photographer unknown

The Sky River Rock Festival was successful enough that it was repeated the following summer, this time near the town of Tenino, Washington, south of Olympia. Although it did not continue after its third staging in 1970, its legend was a major inspiration for the creation of Bumbershoot, the popular Labor Day weekend music and arts festival that was launched in 1971 and continues to the present day.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Rock Festival and Fair Is Up, Up and Away,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 30, 1968, “Area 206” (arts supplement section), p. 3; Rolf Stromberg, “Rock Comes To Sultan,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 31, 1968, p. 4; Lowell Richards, “Blues Outclasses Rock At Sky River Festival,” Down Beat magazine, October 31, 1968, p. 11; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Julie Muhlstein, “On this weekend 40 years ago, Sultan really rocked,” HeraldNet.com, August 30, 2008; Paul de Barros, “Reviving the spirit of ’68,” The Seattle Times, August 12, 2011, p. A1.

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June 23, 1967: Last Exit on Brooklyn

Last Exit on Brooklyn circa 1990
Moss Willow

As the summer of 1967 commenced, Seattle’s counterculture was only beginning to emerge from the shadow of San Francisco’s. Our leading underground newspaper, Helix, had been established to great acclaim a few months before. All Seattle then needed was a suitable public gathering place for its quickly growing population of “fringies.” On the date in focus here, that special place arrived in earnest with the opening of the Last Exit on Brooklyn, the now-legendary University District coffeehouse.

Located at 3930 Brooklyn Avenue Northeast near the University of Washington campus, the Last Exit was established by Irv Cisski, an entrepreneur, chess enthusiast, and former co-owner of the Eigerwand, another fringie-friendly Seattle coffeehouse that had closed several months before. Cisski wanted to recreate the Eigerwand’s bohemian atmosphere in a new, larger venue. The building Cisski chose was a small light-industrial building owned by the UW. Prior to the Last Exit’s debut, the building housed a high-speed envelope-printing shop.

What Cisski then founded would quickly become much more than a mere local business. The Last Exit on Brooklyn was a true anchor of local community, one that would soon prove to be both a magnet and a nurturing ground for genuinely countercultural thinkers, within both Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle-born writer and historian Knute Berger once described the Last Exit as “one of Seattle’s great ’60s landmarks, a gathering place for UW students, radicals, poets, nut jobs, chess masters, teens, intellectuals, workers, musicians, artists, beatniks, and hippies.” Berger also fondly recalled, “I remember the din, the open-mike music, cigarette smoke, impromptu poetry readings, the arguments of lefties, libertarians, crackpots, and cultists. You could hear the rhythm and roar of the counterculture as it lived and breathed.”

By all accounts, it was very much Cisski’s intention to create a place where conversation and collaboration would be valued over commerce, and substance over style. In a Seattle Times profile on the occasion of the Last Exit’s twentieth anniversary in June 1987, Cisski recalled his aims and motivations for establishing the new venue:

“I asked myself, ‘How do I want people to feel when they come in here?’ I didn’t want it to be psychedelic. I wanted a place where the optic nerve could relax. So, dark walls, dark floor and ceiling. I wanted the stove, because it’s a focal point. The piano made it feel more like a living room. I wanted a place where everyone felt equal, where there were no sacred cows.”

That egalitarian vision was reflected in the décor, much of which was salvaged from other landmarks of Old Seattle: the large, round tables in the center of the room were first used as card-game tables in certain circa-1900 Pioneer Square establishments, and the distinctive marble tables near the windows were fashioned out of stall dividers from the restrooms of the original King County Courthouse building.

In addition to lively conversation, the Exit hosted open-mic poetry readings on Wednesdays during its early years. While these readings were initially popular — being a remnant of Beat Generation culture that still thrived circa 1967 — the quality of the poetry gradually declined, and Cisski eventually emphasized live music over poetry for the Exit’s entertainment.

The Exit would also become famous as a gathering place for those who shared Cisski’s passion for chess, eventually attracting many highly skilled players, including professionals such as chess grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who once wrote of his early career, “Those first chess lessons soon led me to the legendary Last Exit on Brooklyn coffee house, a chess haven where an unlikely bunch of unusual people congregates to do battle.”

The Exit was also famous for its fringie-friendly food — in particular, the huge peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches that were a major attraction for starving UW students both bohemian and square. The Exit’s famous PB&J was Cisski’s way of providing the down-and-out with a cheap, nutritious meal. He offered it as a “loss leader” as a community service of sorts.

Among the ironies that thrived under the Exit’s roof was the political identity of its founder. Despite the Exit’s reputation as a bastion of left-wing bohemianism, Irv Cisski’s politics was neither. He voted for Ronald Reagan for president and was known to defend the United States’ covert military intervention in Central America in heated discussions inside the Exit’s walls. Nevertheless, he remained a sophisticated and benevolent enough person to want to create and sustain the kind of place where diverse cultures and politics were encouraged.

“This is my gift to society,” he told The Seattle Times in 1987.

The beginning of the end of the Last Exit on Brooklyn commenced on August 25, 1992, the day Cisski passed away. Cisski’s death left the venue in the hands of new owners who, despite their strong countercultural sympathies, lacked the social clout Cisski had long wielded within the UW community. In 1993, the University repossessed the building occupied by the coffeehouse, and finally issued an official eviction notice. On November 6, 1993, the Last Exit’s new owners moved the venue from its longtime location to 5211 University Way Northeast. The new, smaller location proved much less popular with the Last Exit’s core clientele, and after several years of dwindling business, the Last Exit closed for good in September 1999. The original space the Last Exit once famously occupied now houses staff members from the UW’s Human Resources Department.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Paul de Barros, “Last Exit, many returns: 20 years and many fads later, laid-back U District coffeehouse shows no signs of slowing down,” The Seattle Times, June 24, 1987, p. E1; Jean Godden, “Not an exit for the Exit; just a move,” The Seattle Times, October 1, 1993, p. B1; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Yasser Seirawan, “Play Winning Chess” (Everyman Chess, 2003); Clark Humphrey, “Vanishing Seattle” (Arcadia Publishing, 2006); Knute Berger, “It’s the end for the Last Exit,” Crosscut.com, September 27, 2007.

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