The Showbox (Seattle)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/09/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3684

Founded in 1939 as the Show Box, Seattle's historic Showbox Ballroom (1426 1st Avenue) is one of the town's very few extant entertainment venues that can lay claim to having provided local music fans such an astonishing breadth of music over the decades. From the Jazz Age to the hip-hop and grunge eras the storied ballroom has featured shows by touring icons like Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, and the Ramones, and up-and-comers like Coldplay, Katy Perry, Moby, Lady Gaga, and Lorde, as well as concerts by homegrown talents ranging from the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee to Merrilee Rush, the Sonics, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Macklemore. Originally opened by local tavern and theater veteran Michael Lyons (1891-1965), the room has over time been billed variously as a "theater," a "cabaret," and a "ballroom." And although the Showbox experienced its own ups and downs -- at times serving as the home of a furniture shop, a bingo hall, and a couple comedy clubs -- it remains active in 2014, under the ownership of AEG Live, as a significant contributor to Seattle's robust music scene.

"Palace of the Pacific"

Nicely situated at 1st Avenue and Pike Street, just across from the main entrance to Seattle's Pike Place Market, the hall debuted as the Show Box on July 24, 1939. It was developed by Michael Lyons, a veteran showbiz pro who began his career as a circus performer, ran his first Pioneer Square-area tavern in 1911, went on to operate a string of area movie houses (including the Bison, the Circle, the Crown, the Playhouse, the Union, and the Victory), and then in 1934 opened his namesake Lyons Music Hall at 1409 1st Avenue. While planning a new and larger venue, Lyons took a trip east to New York and New Jersey to gain inspiration by visiting numerous top nightclubs, theaters, and ballrooms there. It was the Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey, that really caught his eye, and upon returning home Lyons hired esteemed theater designer Bjarne H. Moe (1904-1980) to create what they would bill as the "Palace of the Pacific." They bought and transformed a large building (just across the street from the Lyons Music Hall) that had previously been home to the Angeles Saloon and Cafe (opened there in 1909 by the Angeles Brewing Co. of Port Angeles, but shuttered in 1916 at the dawn of Prohibition), and more recently to the Central Market store. The new Show Box was a beautiful art-deco nightclub and motion-picture theater with a blazing marquee, a new organ, a 16mm-film projection room and sixteen-foot screen, a stage, and a beverage bar in each corner. With one of the finest spring-action dance floors in the entire Pacific Northwest region, dancers flocked to countless shows at the venue over the years.  

The 1939 grand-opening events drew standing-room-only crowds to several separate shows, each of which featured Seattle's Eddie Zollman on the organ and vaudeville comedy or dance routines by acts like Warner & Margie ("Two Nuts Looking For a Squirrel"), Lucille "The Blonde Magician" Hughes, Mona "The Singing Dog," while energetic jitterbugs could dance to jazzy swing tunes performed by Jimmy Murphy and His Musical Men. Newspapers raved the following day, and Seattle suddenly had a very hot new nightspot, a dependably regular attraction except for a few periods when it closed down for enforced citywide electrical blackouts during World War II. Once those scares were over the place provided cheap entertainment as a dime-a-dance joint for off-duty soldiers and war-weary citizens throughout the war.

The Kerns Music Shop Factor

In addition to the Show Box's main ballroom, the building's street-level ground floor featured a commercial space that played a long-standing role in the city's music community. In 1946 that a local trombone player named "Jumpin' Johnny" Kerns (1907-2006) opened Kerns Music Shop at the site and it soon became a gathering spot for musicians and music fans. In addition to his instrument-rental biz with school-kids, private lessons, and general instrument sales, for a period he even provided the Show Box with a shiny new Steinway grand piano.

Kerns also sold records, and this facet of his business created a keen awareness about which artists were popular with the younger set. As a result, Kerns managed to arrange for noontime in-store appearances -- broadcast on the city's top radio station, KJR -- by various stars in town to perform either upstairs at the Show Box or uptown at the magnificent Palomar (formerly Pantages) Theater. Thus it was that young music fans were able to witness unique live performances at Kerns Music by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole, who each performed a song or two in the shop.

Meanwhile Kerns Music Shop served musicians from the region's top ensembles, including members of the house bands at the area's two biggest dancehalls, the Spanish Castle Ballroom and Parker's Ballroom. One of Kerns's proudest memories involved the time a young music student named Quincy Jones (b. 1933) came in to get his "first" horn there. In the years after Kerns moved out, that space held a variety of businesses including a bar, a clothing shop, the Amusement Center (a penny arcade and bowling alley), and a notorious peep show.

Show Box Boogie

Over the years Lyons presented many top American musical talents at his Show Box, including Paul "The King of Jazz" Whiteman and his Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Ted Lewis, Gene Austin and his Café Society Band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Eddie "The King of the Banjo" Peabody, Belle "The Ragtime Singer" Baker, Jimmy "The Schnoz" Durante, and Sammy "The Greatest Living Entertainer in the World" Davis Jr.

Another realm of entertainment popular at the time showcased bawdy performers such as Mae West, Sally "The Queen of Burlesque" Rand and Sophie "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" Tucker. Indeed, Johnny Kerns once recalled how he cringed watching Sammy Davis Jr. hopping up onto the Steinway to show off a tap-dancing routine -- but then found himself laughing when the diminutive dancer sidled up to his towering and quite buxom fellow entertainer Sophie Tucker while parodying the 1930 Ruth Etting hit "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" using this crowd-pleasing lyrical twist: "I'm dancing with tits in my eyes" (Kerns interview). Seattle's own world-famous burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee played the hometown hall around 1946. Years later she told The Seattle Times that "the club wasn't in the best part of town, but it was a fine showcase -- sort of a forerunner of today's plusher theater-night clubs" (Skreen).

The 1940s also saw the Show Box occasionally hiring Seattle's African American players at a time when downtown rooms usually toed the line drawn between the two separate, racially segregated musicians unions, favoring the whites-only American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 76 over the largely black AFM Local 493. In 1948 -- a decade before the two locals merged -- the Show Box hired Seattle's popular African American organist Melody Jones as well as Al Pierre's hot jazz band. Plenty of other local entertainers also trod the boards of the hall's stage, and around 1952 the one-time house-band, Norm Hoagy and His Orchestra, even recorded a disc titled "Show Box Boogie."

The 1950s brought plenty more stars to the ballroom, including the Mills Brothers, Peggy Lee, Dick Contino, the Lancers, Guy Mitchell, and Joni James. That same decade also presented financial and other challenges for the Show Box -- indeed in 1949 it closed and even Kerns Music moved out. But in 1951 the venue reopened as an all-new restaurant under the team of attorney George Baum, financier William Lemereaux, and cafe operator Pat Patton. The rising cost of procuring entertainment proved to be increasingly prohibitive, and in 1955 the Show Box again closed.

The Happening

In 1958 the owner of an adjoining hardware store on the property to the north (a parking lot as of 2014) announced that he was going to demolish his building. When completed, the demolition left the Show Box missing a wall and exposed to the elements. Michael Lyons had finally had enough and opted to sell the building to his son Nathan Lyons, who had a new northern wall constructed and then later sold the business to his son, also named Michael Lyons.

The lowest point for the ballroom was probably when it was converted into a furniture showroom during Seattle's 1962 World's Fair -- but it managed to survive by going with the flow and evolving with the changing times. After sitting empty for a period, the ballroom blossomed once again during the Flower Power spring of 1967 -- it was transformed into a hippie haven called the Happening Teenage Nite Club.

The Happening opened with a dance on March 3 by Seattle's Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts, who would score their Top-10 national hit, "Angel of the Morning," the following year. Other local bands got their shot too -- including the Sonics, Daily Flash, Brave New World, the Bandits, International Brick, Magic Fern, West Coast Natural Gas, and Peece. The room also attracted young crowds by importing up-and-coming California notables such as the Buffalo Springfield (with Steven Stills and Neil Young), the Music Machine, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and Country Joe & the Fish. But, management confused things by also booking acts that made no sense to their target audience, like the ancient Harry James Orchestra or Junior Wells's gritty Chicago Blues Band, and in 1968 the Happening folded.

The Modern Productions Revolution

By the late 1970s, Seattle's nightclub scene was bogged down with shuffling country-rock combos and funky Motown-tribute bands, and little elbowroom was being made for the newest trends in music -- the dawning of the Punk Rock/New Wave Era. But then, just at the turn of the decade, a new promotion firm, Modern Productions (run by Mike Vraney, Jim Lightfoot, Carlo Scandiuzzi, and Terry Morgan) discovered that the Show Box -- then being used sporadically as the Talmud Torah Hebrew Academy Bingo Hall -- was available to rent from its newest owner, Roger Forbes.

A new era in Seattle's rock 'n' roll history began on September 8, 1979, when the moribund old venue was reawakened by Modern as a hall that would proceed to introduce local rock fans to the fresh "New Wave" of sounds emanating from England -- beginning with a concert by Magazine, the very first British band of that era to come through town. That was just the start of a musical tsunami that soon hit these shores. Subsequently, many of the UK's finest talents performed on the fabled stage of what was now marketed as the Showbox, among them the Police, XTC, Fingerprintz, the Specials, Ultravox, 999, the Jam, Squeeze, the Psychedelic Furs, PIL, Nina Hagen, and Dire Straits. And Modern Productions followed up with legendary shows by new Anerican acts including Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Devo, X, Pere Ubu, the Dead Kennedys -- not to mention stalwart entertainers like Muddy Waters, James Brown, and Toots and the Maytals.

And as a result of being exposed to the new sounds and ideas presented by these seminal Punk Era acts the sleepy local scene was tremendously inspired and reenergized. Scores of new Northwest bands -- including the Blackouts, the Enemy, the Look, the Macs Band, the Dishrags, Red Dress, the Debbies, Solger, the Wipers, the Fastbacks, the Cowboys, the Pudz, the Fartz, the Refuzers, and the Accident -- got the wonderful opportunity to play for big crowds at the Showbox. Three of these lucky bands (the Blackouts, the Debbies, and Solger) even discovered free rehearsal space at the Showbox for a spell.

Laughs, Legends, and Legacies

But in 1985 the Showbox closed once more, with only the odd occasional event or show in the space, until resurfacing in 1990 as Budd Friedman's Seattle Improv comedy club, whose talent roster on its October 25 opening night included Ellen Degeneres. Subsequent dates featured comics Garry Shandling, Dennis Miller, Paula Poundstone, and many others. In 1994 Barry Block took over, recasting the venue as the Showbox Comedy and Supper Club -- which tried to mix comedy with jazz shows, gothic/industrial music, hip-hop, electro-industrial theater, DJs, and the occasional local rock band like Super Deluxe or Salon Betty.

In 1996 a team led by successful restaurateur Jeff Steichen took over and launched the Showbox Music Club and a dozen years of great success. In 2001 Johnny Kerns's old spot was revamped as the Club's new Green Room restaurant/lounge. Among the stellar shows on the ballroom's stage were the first American show by Brit pop band Coldplay and early appearances by the likes of Katy Perry, Moby, Lady Gaga, and Lorde. Business was good and management was able to expand by founding a second venue, the Showbox SoDo (1700 1st Avenue S), a larger club near Seattle's stadium district. That led to the original becoming the "Showbox at the Market" in 2007. The following year saw a national firm, AEG Live, acquire the leases of both venues. In 2014, to celebrate the ballroom's 75th anniversary, some names were again updated: The original hall was given its simple Showbox name once more and the Green Room nightspot was renamed Kerns Music Shop.

In hindsight, and thanks in significant measure to the Showbox, the seeds were planted for the eventual rise of the creative and successful rock and hip-hop communities that the pop-culture world came to associate with associate with Seattle. More fabled nights at the hall would include shows by homegrown grunge gods such as Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, TAD, Soundgarden, and the Screaming Trees, along with those by Sir Mix-A-Lot and, more recently, Macklemore. And all this is but part of the story: The Showbox has also been the site of many benefit shows, movie debuts, and countless record-release parties. The remarkable saga of this ballroom is still unfolding -- indeed, history is still being made at the Showbox most every night.


Sources:

"Show Box to Open at 1st and Pike Monday," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 23, 1939, p. 24; "They'll Add Comedy to Floor Bill," Ibid., "Big Floor Bill Slated," Ibid., "Motion Pictures Facilities, Too!," Ibid ; "Nine-Piece Orchestra," Ibid.; "Gala Opening of Ornate 'Show Box' Here Tonight," Seattle Star, July 24, 1939, p. 8; Gilbert Brown, "The Show Shops," Ibid., July 25, 1939, p. 7; "New 1,500-Seat Seattle Spot Is Riviera Replica," Variety, August 2, 1939 p. 1; C. J. Skreen, "A Lament for the Good Old Days," The Seattle Times, October 2, 1964, p. 13; Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993), 50; Polk Seattle Business Directories; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Argus, and The Seattle Times microfiche archives; The Rocket and The Helix (various issues); author's archives; Peter Blecha interviews with Mike Lyons (grandson of founder), 2001 and 2013; Peter Blecha interview with Johnny Kerns, November 29, 2001; Peter Blecha conversations with Jeff Steichen (then owner), 2001.
Note: This expanded, revised, and updated essay replaces an earlier version written on February 6, 2002.


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