Seattle's Belltown neighborhood just north of downtown was home to the Northwest's Film Row even before the dawn of "talkies" in the late 1920s. Hollywood's major movie studios based regional distribution outposts there and several historic sites survive. Among them are the Rendezvous Cafe and the adjacent Jewel Box -- the former the place where movie-biz bigwigs met to eat, drink, and strike deals; the latter one of the row's private screening rooms where theater owners previewed new Hollywood films. Both are located in a building that also housed the factory of the B. F. Shearer Company, a provider of theater seating, curtains, and lights, which it supplied to theaters including the 5th Avenue, the Embassy, the Orpheum, and the Paramount. The film industry eventually vacated Belltown and by the 1970s the Jewel Box was being used for more diverse programming, including foreign films and indie-theater groups. In the 1980s rock bands began performing there, and the building provided rehearsal spots. By the 1990s the Rendezvous was a dive treasured by the grunge-rock crowd, and today the cafe is a popular touchstone of bygone days, while the theater presents films, music, comedy and burlesque shows.
On November 13, 1851, the Denny Party of pioneers arrived from Portland, Oregon, by ship at Alki in what is now West Seattle. Among that group of settlers was William Nathaniel Bell (1817-1887). Toward the end of the following winter, a few of the men decided to scout out other spots across Elliot Bay to make their land claims. Carson D. Boren (1824-1912) and Arthur Denny (1822-1899) grabbed sections bordering what would develop into Seattle's old-town Pioneer Square neighborhood -- Bell went northward. Bell's claim was on a narrow bayside shelf that backed up to one of Seattle's steepest hills, Denny Hill, which would be flattened beginning in 1897 in the Denny regrade project initiated by city engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949).
Relatively isolated because of this terrain, Bell's property didn't enjoy the rapid and profitable development that saw a central business district arise on Boren and Denny's land to the south, and Bell left for California in 1855, returning in 1870 to a much-grown Seattle. Indeed, the low demand for real estate in "Bell's Town" caused it to remain a modest semi-industrial area for the following century. In between, it garnered a reputation as a rather sketchy area. Indeed, in a 1902 article about curfew laws sub-headlined "Young Girls and Boys Roam About Streets," The Seattle Times noted that "North Seattle, particularly the district known as Belltown, seems to be the rendezvous of all the young thieves in the city" ("Curfew Law ..."). In later decades the low-rent area was favored by seamen and dockworkers, the struggling elderly, and artists and musicians, but it also eventually became the scene of open-air drug markets for a time. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, the Belltown neighborhood, by then the most densely populated in Seattle, was crowded with upscale condos. But a lot occurred in the years between
Film Row (1)
It was Seattle's new land-use zoning rules in 1923 that caused Belltown to become the Pacific Northwest's center of the film industry. Due to the extreme flammability of the nitrocellulose film then in use, its storage was restricted to the under-populated Belltown area and Seattle's first "Film Row" began to be established along 3rd Avenue at Virginia Street (named for Bell's daughter). At the time the silent-film industry used distribution centers -- called film exchanges -- where the region's theater owners could visit and preview new movies to select those they wanted to screen back in their towns. Prints of the chosen films would then be shipped by rail from Hollywood and delivered to local theaters.
It seems that this all began with the arrival of the French firm Pathé, then the largest film-equipment and movie-production company in the world, which opened the Pathe Theatre at 717 1st Avenue around 1910, and established the Pathe Exchange, Inc. at 2113 3rd Avenue. Then in August 1916 the Mutual Exchange opened in a building with an auditorium at 3rd and Virginia. In 1922, Pathé moved into the handsome new Pathe Building at 2025 3rd Avenue (which was razed in 2016-2017). "The Pathe Building included office, clerical, inspection and shipping spaces as well as two fireproof and well-ventilated storage vaults, a viewing booth, a rotation room and a large poster storage space" ("Summary for 2025 3rd Ave"). The following year's Polk Seattle City Directory listed 26 firms under the "Motion Picture Machines and Supplies" category -- all clustered near Mutual and Pathé.
Film Row (2)
The late 1920s saw the emergence of movies with soundtracks and the arrival of additional film exchanges in Seattle, where the locus of the biz drifted over to 2nd Avenue between Battery and Wall Street. Among the film studios that saw the benefit of having a shop in Seattle to service the 50-plus theaters in town and the more than 420 commercial movie theaters across Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana were Columbia Pictures, De Luxe Feature Film Company, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Universal, Vitagraph, and Warner Brothers.
In 1928, Columbia opened an exchange at 1st Avenue and Battery (as of 2017 the location of the Belltown Court Condominiums). Also in 1928, the block-long art-deco Film Exchange Building (aka the Canterbury Building), designed by Seattle architect Earl W. Morrison, was built on the west side of 2nd Avenue. Its "offices, storage vaults, editing suites, and screening rooms" were used by "major studios, along with independent distributors and publicity firms" (Humphrey, 40). MGM/Loews was based in the ca. 1930 McGraw-Kittenger-Case building at 2331 2nd Avenue, in the space occupied in 2017 by Buckley's Restaurant.
Next door to MGM was the Lorraine Hotel at 2327 2nd Avenue, built in 1925 by noted modernist architect J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986). The hotel's location made it the film industry's favorite. "Managers, studio representatives and movie stars on publicity tours all reportedly stayed at the Lorraine" (Pryne), Jimmy Stewart reputedly among them. (Later renamed the William Tell Hotel, the building became low-income housing for a time; in 2017 it was being operated as the City Hostel.)
Directly across the street from the Lorraine was Film Row's most popular restaurant, the Rendezvous Cafe at 2320 2nd Avenue. Just south of the cafe was the 1928 RKO Distributing Company building at 2312 2nd Avenue, described in a 2010 report on potential historic-landmark designation:
"[Its] film storage vaults and the film examination room (for quality control) were at the rear of the first story, with the film exhibition room (to screen films for theater representatives) was above the second floor. The middle section of the first floor was the poster room, where the film advertising posters were stored and packed for distribution. The basement, under the rear third of the building, had storage areas and two darkrooms next to the alley" (Gordon, 2-3).
The final exchange to be built, Paramount's 1937 building at 2332 1st Avenue, became the Catholic Seaman's Club in 1955 and as of 2017 the ground floor was the Sarajevo Restaurant. Surrounding all these firms on Film Row were a galaxy of additional film- or theater-related companies, including poster companies, theater-equipment dealers, and theater-furnishing suppliers. Most notable was the firm founded in 1926 by Benjamin F. Shearer (ca. 1890-1972).
B. F. Shearer Company
B. F. Shearer was born in Decatur, Illinois, around 1890. In his teens he moved to a Billings, Montana, wheat ranch and began working at the Luna and Regent motion-picture theaters in Billings. In 1919 he met a redhead from Idaho named Florence "Reddy" Shannon (ca. 1898-1990). They married and he worked as a salesman for a theater-equipment company in Minneapolis, and then selling theater chairs in Montana. While serving in World War I he was stationed at Camp Lewis in Pierce County, where he attended Officers Training School and was in the 75th Infantry there at war's end. He returned to Montana and began his own business, but in 1924 the couple moved to Seattle. Shearer initially took a job as a factory rep for Seattle's Heywood-Wakefield Company at 210 Virginia Street, and in 1926 he cut a deal for the company to supply 1,000 opera chairs to Seattle's newest grand movie theater, the Embassy at 216 Union Street (in the twenty-first century that space would become home to The Triple Door dinner theater).
Simultaneously Shearer and his brother Tom founded B. F. Shearer Company, Inc., which scored the contract to install the Embassy's projection-room equipment. The "firm also provided the carpets, drapes, the motion picture booth and stage equipment, stage curtains and drops. This firm specializes in complete theatre equipment and is in a position to install virtually everything in the house" ("Shearer Co. Provides ..."). Shearer also supplied the swanky 5th Avenue Theater that opened in August 1926.
Shearer opened an impressive factory in the 2300 block of 2nd Avenue, with his main office at 2318 2nd. The building had been designed by local architect Earl W. Morrison (d. 1955) in 1925 for Edmond N. Canedy (1867-1950), a former shingle-mill owner and then a general contractor and real-estate investor. Morrison and Canedy also built the adjacent RKO building. Shearer quickly found success by supplying theaters with everything from seats to carpets, curtains, and lighting fixtures. His factory boasted a complete woodshop, electrical shop, research library, and a multistory tower for manufacturing stage curtains. The plant's motto highlighted the ability provide it all: "From the basement to the roof, everything but the audience" ("How Seattle Is Becoming ...").
By 1928 Shearer's firm was touted as "the only complete theater furnishing and equipping plant in America" -- one that "started from nothing, but is now recognized as one of the most important in the theatrical business in the West" ("How Seattle Is Becoming ..."). In 1928 the company handled an upgrade at the Orpheum at 506 Stewart Street and furnished the new Music Box Theater at 1414 5th Avenue. In time it would also outfit the Paramount at 911 Pine Street.
Shearer hired an entire "corps of artists, designers, cabinetmakers, scenery painters, upholsterers, architectural decorators, precision mechanics, seamstresses, drapers -- skilled workers in silks, paints, wood and iron" ("How Seattle Is Becoming ..."). With a workforce that large, and a payroll to match, Film Row was thrumming with activity. "It is an industry which is annually drawing hundreds of thousands dollars into Seattle, a large portion of which flows back through payroll channels into the stores and markets of the city" ("How Seattle Is Becoming ..."). Interestingly, at some point the Heywood-Wakefield firm's "Public Seating Division" was also based out of Shearer's factory at 2318 2nd Avenue.
Rendezvous Cafe and Jewel Box Theater
Happily, also occupying a storefront in the factory building was George Blair's Rendezvous Cafe at 2320 2nd. Blair ran his place with flair, and Hollywood studio magnates, movie stars, local entertainment luminaries, newspaper reporters -- and Shearer's employees -- all took to hanging out there. This was right at the midpoint of the Prohibition Era (1916-1933), so tales that an illicit speakeasy nightclub operated in the basement have some credibility. Regardless, dining at, and more importantly being seen at, the Rendezvous, became a thing and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer took to regularly reporting on such sightings.
Beginning in 1932, the Rendezvous had yet another attraction for film-industry folks, because that year B. F. Shearer opened the Jewel Box Theater next door in his building at 2318 2nd Avenue. The Jewel Box was a private preview studio, a place where distributors could screen their films for theater managers and owners. Now they could enjoy a dinner, cigars -- and perhaps some cocktails in the basement -- and then step into the Art Deco-styled Jewel Box to preview the new-movie options. The cozy den's interior was designed for Shearer by local architect Bjorn Moe with seating for seventy, a projection booth, and a quality sound system. Moe subsequently made some modifications to the venue and the Northwest Film Club was based in the Jewel Box by 1936.
Interestingly, during this period the film industry was consolidating and Film Row could now only boast about 18 film exchanges. Conversely, Shearer's company was excelling and eventually expanded, opening branches in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Storms and War
In August 1940 George Blair stepped aside and leased the Rendezvous to Harry Bender, but by 1943 Blair was back. When a storm hit Seattle that January and much of the town lost electrical power, Blair opened his cafe sans wait staff:
"[People] living in downtown apartments, dressed in the dark in cold rooms, and made their way to The Row for breakfast. The Row was dark too, but inside the cafe that serves the majority of the workers in the film exchanges, was a glow of light cast by rows of candles on the counter, and coffee, brewed on a gas stove, was being served by George Blair ... Patrons waited on themselves and when they had eaten, carried their dishes to the kitchen. ... Instead of a breakfast check, they were told by Blair: 'You know what you had, you can pay for it as you go out'" (Hays, "Amusements Along Film Row").
With World War II underway, the Jewel Box played a role as the site for some of the Seattle Savings and Loan Bank's war-bond drives. On December 8, 1944, a public screening of For Whom the Bell Tolls was held at $2,500 per seat with a goal of selling $250,000 in bonds. Then on December 13, Hollywood Canteen was shown at $2,000 per seat toward a goal of $150,000.
Rendezvous Revival (1)
On October 16, 1947, The Seattle Times reported that "George Blair yesterday sold his Rendezvous Cafe on Film Row to Bill Scavotto. It has been the meeting place of film folk and the center of activities on Film Row for the past 22 years" (Hays, "Along Film Row," 1947). By mid-December Blair resurfaced with his own theater-brokerage office at 2312 3rd Avenue.
Then, on June 9, 1949, the Times noted:
"Completely remodeled and beautifully decorated, Seattle's famous Film Row cafe, The Rendezvous, is being reopened tomorrow by William Scavatto. B. Marcus Priteca designed and supervised the remodeling and the decoration was done by Hal Mushkin, formerly with the B. F. Shearer Company. Scavatto has engaged Vic Schodak, as head chef. Schodak, who was trained in Vienna, is a former chef of the Palmer House and Little Jack's, in Chicago" (Hays, "Along Film Row," 1949).
With the emergence of Seattle's first TV station, KRSC, in late 1948, the television era had arrived. And, as elsewhere, the theater industry took a hit, so the B. F. Shearer Company had to adapt its services. One way Shearer coped was to refocus his team's efforts on furnishing auditoriums for schools and other locations. By 1951 the Paramount Film Distribution Company was based in the RKO building (that structure, just south of Shearer's factory, had also at times housed 20th Century Fox, the Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America, and Eagle Lion Films, Inc.) and Paramount upgraded the manager's office and built a new film vault. But many of the other exchanges were moving out and Film Row as a whole had lost much of its exciting vibrancy. The Jewel Box saw much less action, and in 1956 the Rendezvous was sold to the Los Angeles-based Lake Theater Company and recast as the Rendezvous Restaurant. By the late 1960s the old speakeasy basement spot was converted into a card room by co-owner Bill Rausch -- the famous comedian Jimmy Durante reputedly enjoyed playing cards there.
Then Seattle experienced a major economic and cultural uplift as a result of the Century 21 World's Fair in 1962. Just building the fair's infrastructure at what subsequently became the Seattle Center campus created a lot of good business, and the B. F. Shearer Company's factory manufactured all the seating for the new Seattle Opera House. After the fair's end in October things quieted back down a bit. The Rendezvous was now being managed by Nick Demco, a businessman who was also involved in the dry-cleaning and mobile-home businesses. For a few years Seattle's Variety Club held meetings at the restaurant.
Meanwhile Shearer had built a business empire that at its peak included ownership of a chain of 11 independent theaters, including two in Seattle -- the Varsity at 4329 University Way NE and the Green Lake Theater at 7107 Woodlawn Ave NE -- and others ranging from Alaska to California. In addition, the B. F. Shearer Company had expanded. With offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Shearer and his wife bought a winter home in Palm Springs, and he counted Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Arnold Palmer among his golfing buddies. His last hurrah in Seattle was getting a big job in 1963 revamping the Orpheum -- which, sadly, would be razed in 1967, one year prior to his retirement. Upon Shearer's death in 1972, all his businesses were sold.
Film Row's Final Days
In the 1970s the Seattle City Council chose to up-zone the then-sleepy Belltown neighborhood, kicking off a decades-long process of transforming it into a high-rise residential district. In addition, a string of cafes, art galleries, and dance clubs appeared, with artists and rock bands renting old industrial lofts as apartments, studios, and rehearsal spaces. The Rendezvous won a new younger clientele who appreciated its authentic rundown atmosphere of glamorous decadence. And the Jewel Box -- which had devolved into a porn theater at one point -- launched a new era of screening foreign films and providing space to upstart live-performance groups including the Brass Ring Theater. In addition, legal gambling was introduced and became a significant part of the overall business.
At the same time, Seattle's dwindling Film Row was in its final days:
"Changes in transportation, technology and marketing rendered film exchanges of this type obsolete by the 1960s. Modern film did not require special handling and transportation and distribution systems were much more efficient. Universal Studios was the last film business in the Film Exchange Building, leaving in 1980" (Gordon, 4).
The Jewelbox Rocks
Slightly renamed, the Jewelbox eventually began to be appreciated as the last remaining screening room from the old Film Row days, and the theater community began to hold champagne parties there. Other groups began holding meetings in the space, including the Northwest Scriptwriters' Alliance. Upstairs, B. F. Shearer's old offices also found renters, including Roger Husbands, the first manager to take on a local punk-rock band, The Enemy. Then across the hall, between 1981 and 1986, were the offices of Seattle music magazine The Rocket.
The Seattle Theater Project produced shows in the Jewelbox beginning in 1986. The room was also the site for the premiere of P. S. O'Neil's film Fertilichrome Cheerleader Massacre -- which included the acting debut of Mark Lanegan, singer with Ellensburg's Screaming Trees -- and screened edgy experimental films including William S. Burroughs's infamous Towers Open Fire.
Around 1987 the Rendezvous was purchased by Fritz Zabwa. He cleared out the basement, making room for three band-rehearsal spaces. The Blood of the Lamb was among the first bands to move in, and one member, Earl Brooks, also began booking bands to perform in the Jewelbox. In 1988 the band Wigglin' Taters began a regular run of Saturday night shows there.
As Seattle's grunge-rock scene arose, Belltown emerged as a locus, and the neighborhood positively hummed with creative energy. The Rendezvous became even more popular as a late-night watering hole and, along with the Jewelbox, participated in all sorts of new happenings, including First Friday Belltown Art Walks, the Belltown Film Festival, and various Northwest Film Club events. Old spaces were now filling with interesting new businesses, including the Galleria Potato Head and later the Roq la Rue art gallery, while a collective of blacksmiths operated Black Dog Forge, entered from the alley between 2nd 3rd avenues, where the basement also provided rehearsal space to a few notable hit-making bands from the grunge era, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and then the Presidents of the United States of America.
The Rendezvous basement and old upstairs offices also went on to serve as practice pads for numerous bands, including Hammerbox and the Walkabouts. Along the way countless bands rocked the Jewelbox, where some also recorded live shows and/or video shoots and others held album-release parties. One of the attractions was a beloved longtime bartender named Dodi who mixed strong drinks and took no guff -- she was so iconic that a local band even named itself in her honor.
But by the end of the twentieth century, both spaces were in decline.
Rendezvous Revival (2)
In 2002 new owners stepped in, buying the Shearer Building, and thus the Rendezvous and Jewelbox -- which "had slowly sunk into a seedy pit, dirty, dank, smelling like a New Year's Day hangover" -- and embarked on a new chapter in what The Seattle Times described as a "riches-to-rags-to-riches roller-coaster ride" (Scanlon). These owners had considerable backgrounds in the local entertainment biz. They included Jerry Everard, an original co-owner of the Crocodile Cafe (located a block away at 2200 2nd Avenue), and his theater-veteran wife Jane Kaplan, in partnership with Tia Matthies and Steve Freeborn, who had run another fabled grunge-era nightspot, the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square.
Treasuring the joint's history, they embarked on a major remodeling effort, with an eye to retaining as many vintage features as possible, including the theater's light fixtures and brocade-fabric wall treatment. Under Kaplan's leadership, programming in the Jewelbox became ever more diverse, with a stated goal of providing "a safe, inexpensive and supportive facility for artists of all disciplines to experiment" ("The Jewelbox Theater"). The beginnings of Seattle's modern burlesque revival took place there around 2002, with performances by the Rollvulvas and the Burning Hearts, and the theater also served as a site for Academy of Burlesque recitals.
In time Everard and Kaplan bought out their partners, and the revamped Rendezvous included the opening of the Grotto basement lounge in the old speakeasy spot. Meanwhile, the population of Seattle exploded, and the whole enterprise was rewoven back into the Belltown neighborhood's cultural fabric. By 2004 The Seattle Times wrote:
"Now, on most weekends, the Rendezvous is a crowded, busy, multitasking space, with three distinct areas (bar, lounge, theater). The Rendezvous is quite a hangout for the suave-on-a-budget crowd, with some of the most fascinating (if erratic) entertainment around" (Scanlon).
Indeed, the wide-ranging bookings would include rock bands and jazz combos, fringe-theater productions, film nights, "Cineoke" events (where patrons sang live in front of projected musical movies), regular karaoke nights, cabaret, burlesque shows, and comedy nights. In the 2010s new events were launched, including Naked Brunch (an all-improvised comedy open mic) and, down in the Grotto, Emmett Montgomery's Magic Hat nights and Danielle Gregoire's Comedy Womb (a female-focused comedy show and open mic).