Seattle's venerable Parker's Ballroom (which opened in 1930 on the "New Seattle-Everett Highway," now known as Aurora Avenue N) held a unique place in Northwest music history. Like a few other local dancehalls, it spanned all of the sequential musical era’s from the wild jazz days of the Prohibition Era right on up through the forties swing scene, from the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the fifties, to the psychedelic sixties, and onwards to the heavy metal, disco, and punk rock scenes of the seventies. Unlike most other historic dancehalls, Parker's survived into the twenty-first century before being demolished in 2012.
A Remarkable Architectural Marvel
The roadhouse was founded by its namesake, Dick Parker (d. 1940), a meatpacker by trade, who purposefully limited his search for a building site to those located just outside of Seattle’s northern city limits (then drawn at 85th Street). This was in an effort to escape various harsh city ordinances that restricted public dancing and other nightlife activities. In the end Parker acquired a 5-acre plot at 170th Street on the "New Seattle-Everett Highway" and in 1929 construction got underway.
Parker's self-built hall was some sort of a remarkable architectural marvel: the thing was basically a 20,000 square foot wide-open dance floor with absolutely no posts obstructing. When Dick Parker's Pavilion opened for business in 1930, they kicked off a long streak of booking popular local acts (including Putt Anderson & his Dixieland Band, and orchestras led by Frankie Roth, Burke Garrett, and Max Pillar) and a number of national stars as Tommy Dorsey’s, Guy Lombardo’s, and Jan Garber's orchestras.
With alcohol Prohibition still in effect and the Great Depression dragging the economy down, times were so tough that by 1932 Parker had resorted to advertising his dancehall as “Dick Parker’s Roller Rink” in order to attract a different clientele -- skaters. Sometime after Parker passed on in 1940 (and with his wife Dodie following soon thereafter) the hall was inherited by family and one sister, Kelma Shoemaker, took over as manager.
Seattle's Segregated Music Scene
The years went by and the big-band dances continued, but by the mid-fifties a younger crowd was developing an interest in the new rockin’ R&B sounds that were gaining momentum. Although Seattle had a couple pioneering R&B acts active at the time, they were not being booked at Parker’s nor at other major halls. The main reason being: This was still a day and age when the town was saddled with two different -- and racially segregated -- musicians unions, each of which had their turf well marked. The bigger, and white, union (AFM No. 76) claimed the lucrative downtown hotels and ballrooms and north-end rooms while the other, black, union (AFM No. 493) necessarily settled for the nightclubs in the central city and the strip of rooms south of downtown spread along Jackson Street.
Times were changing though -- and in fact the two unions finally merged in 1956 -- but not without a few skirmishes. It was that year that KCPQ-TV (Channel 13) decided to produce a new teen-dance show, Rock 'n' Roll Party. The problem was, they’d chosen a black band (Billy Tolles & the Vibrators) as the program’s host band and they wanted to broadcast it live from Parker's -- a room that was traditionally within AFM No. 76’s “zone.”
The late Dave Lewis, another local black bandleader, once recalled that Parker’s also wanted to hire his combo for some shows, but the white union balked and pointedly reminded the hall’s management that the north-end was still their area and that the booking of black acts there just couldn’t be allowed without risking the mounting of a boycott picket-line. Parker’s brave reply was nonnegotiable: Either the union would overlook their hiring of Billy Tolles’ group and the Dave Lewis Combo or the hall would never hire local white musicians to perform there again. To Lewis’ recollections, accommodations were suddenly made and a new era began with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.
One Legendary Night
Meanwhile the top white teen band in town, the Frantics, became the first combo to sign a recording contract with the new local label, Dolton Records. Dolton had just gotten off to a remarkable start by issuing a No. 1 national hit by the Olympia-based teen vocal trio, the Fleetwoods. Then the label signed the Frantics (who also cut a few 45s that became national hits) and began booking the two acts together at live shows – including one legendary night at Parker’s. It was on February 21, 1959, that the Fleetwoods and Frantics both performed there as opening acts for a visiting star, Bobby Darin. And, in fact, the Frantics were actually hired to play with Darin who came out west without a band. The Frantics’ bassist, Jim Manolides, once recalled that:
“We got this job at Parker's on a Sunday night. We knew for several weeks that we got this big gig coming so we already knew his [hit] songs -- “Splish Splash,” “Plain Jane,” “Queen Of The Hop” -- but in this case we learned both sides of all his records! So, he brings his own piano player with him, Dick Berke, and we play Parker’s. He loved it! He was just thrilled! The place was packed! There were 1200 people. And after he does his little show he came and joined the band! He sang Ray Charles' "I've Got A Woman" with us and then he started playin' the piano a little bit and he was singin' -- and playin' the drums! He just loved it and had a really good time” (Interview).
Jerry Lee's Dance Shoes
By that point Parker's Ballroom was the hottest dancehall around, but then something occurred that caused the hall to suddenly ban rock 'n' roll shows outright. The last straw for management was the night that that Jerry Lee Lewis performed there. Besides whipping the crowd into a riotous frenzy, the maniacal Lewis also had the poor judgment to leap upon the house's new piano (as per his usual live routine) to dance. Well, so the story goes, Mrs. Shoemaker rushed out on the stage mid-song driving the rockabilly wildman down with a broom and publicly scolding him for scratching her instrument with his shoes.
As a direct result of that incident the management swore that there would henceforth be no more rock 'n' roll dances at Parker’s. This turn of events was a sore loss to area teens, but after a year passed one ambitious young band, the Viceroys, somehow convinced the house that their crowd was well-behaved and around late 1960 they were given one shot. The Viceroys -- and an audience that apparently understood what all was at stake -- managed to successfully pull off a dance that went without any untoward altercations. Rock 'n' roll was back to stay at Parker’s.
For years (after Prohibition ended in 1934) Parker’s existed as “bottle club” whereby customers brought in their own booze (kept in a brown paper bag under their tables) and the house sold them “set-ups” -- a glass half-full of ice and perhaps some mixer. This arrangement was the legally prescribed way of running a club right up until 1961 when political leaders (in anticipation of the throngs of visitors expected to attend the upcoming 1962 World’s Fair) loosened a number of overly-restrictive old laws pertaining to nightlife, including strict noise ordinances and rules for liquor establishments. As a result, Parker’s was among the many local rooms that were finally free to sell beer and/or other alcoholic beverages.
Teen-Dances of the Sixties
Around that same time, Parker’s and Shoemaker’s nephews, Vern Amondson and Skip Horn, took over management and teen-dances became a weekend staple there for years. Many nights saw crowds in excess of 1,000 show up to dance to hit acts like the Beach Boys and Them (w/ Van Morrison).
But mainly, it was the Northwest stars like Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, and the Wailers who fueled so many dances there over the years. But it was another local combo, the Dynamics, who were the hottest draw at the hall and after recording a gig there, the resultant The Dynamics with Jimmy Hanna LP was issued in 1964 to great success. The album’s liner notes (as penned by label head, Tom Ogilvy) accurately noted the band’s significant influence on locals:
“If you were at Parkers’ Ballroom in Seattle recently, then you witnessed a new trend. The Dynamics were present and smokin’ with a big band sound. This has become a regular event for various kinds of fans whether they be listeners, members of other musical groups or just people who like to burn by knee-poppin’ across the dance floor.”
The Dynamics were a genuine phenomena, their LP became an essential in the record collection of every fan of the horn-driven “Northwest Sound,” and Parker’s Ballroom became solidified as the center of the north-end’s teen-dance action.
From the Sixties to Psychedelic
As the years went by Parker’s would successfully weather the changing times -- but only by going through radical updates. In 1970 the hall was recast as the psychedelic black-light drenched Aquarius Tavern. And although its first scheduled dance in this new incarnation was a flop -- the Buddy Miles Express was a no-show -- the place succeeded very well over the years bringing in such acts that ranged from A–Z, including (to name but a few): Aerosmith, America, BTO, Badfinger, the Byrds, Albert Collins, the Guess Who, Albert King, the Ohio Players, Johnnie Otis, the Righteous Brothers, Al Stewart, George Strait, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Toots & the Maytals, the Ventures, and Warren Zevon.
In addition, a whole new generation of local bands – including Burgundy Express, Bighorn, and a group called Heart -- developed sizeable fan-bases in part because of their Aquarius appearances. In fact, one of Heart’s shows there in 1975 was captured live on tape and a few years later (after they’d broken out as an international hit act) those recordings were issued on the Magazine LP. But there were many other legendary nights at the hall including the time several years later when Motown superstar Stevie Wonder made a surprise visit to sit in and sing a few songs with Bernadette Bascom and her funky dance band, Epicentre.
Reincarnations and Further Reincarnations
By 1980 the hall required some spiffing up and the owners committed themselves to a $1,000,000 remodel in an effort to revamp it as a full-blown "supper-club." With an all-new commercial kitchen, the renamed Parker’s Restaurant also continued to bring in major touring stars like Elvin Bishop, Blue Oyster Cult, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Crowded House, Joan Jett, B. B. King, Marshall Tucker, John Mayall, Simply Red, and Tina Turner.
In the 1990s, the building reincarnated yet again -- this time into a gambling joint called Parker’s Sports Bar & Casino. That business was closed in 2012, and the building was demolished that November.