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Belltown’s Rendezvous building is full of tales

And ghosts, maybe, if you believe in those

To fully explain how the building that is now the Rendezvous came to be, we need to first look at how Belltown came to be: When the Denny Party first showed up in Elliott Bay, a couple of guys set up shop near where they’d landed in Alki. Then party leader Arthur Denny and his brother-in-law Carson Boren crossed the water and nabbed sections of land in Pioneer Square and the central part of downtown. Denny’s brother David snagged the area around the Seattle Center, bordered on the south by Denny Way. After that, Arthur campaigned to convince William Nathaniel Bell, a farmer they’d found in Portland, that it was getting crowded and that he and his wife, Sarah Ann, needed to head elsewhere to stake their claim.

So Bell went north to build his own empire. The first claim he took out was nestled up against the western edge of eventually-to-be-dumped-into-the-bay Denny Hill, more than a mile away from where the party was hoppin’ in Pioneer Square.

Bell’s Town didn’t see the economic growth that the areas to the south did, though, thanks to its comparable isolation. After the Battle of Seattle broke out between the white settlers and the Nisqually and Yakama tribes in 1856, Bell and Sarah Ann took off for California, where she died a few months later. Bell took 14 years to return to Seattle, where he found that his namesake district had grown—and although some of his real estate had become valuable, the area had acquired a reputation as a sketchy, economically depressed area where thieves, sailors, and unchaperoned children hung out. It wasn’t until land-zoning laws changed in 1923, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the advent of film with soundtracks led to movies ousting live vaudeville in popularity, that this started to change.

Seattle was stoked to join in on the film craze with its own cinemas, but it was risky to store the highly flammable nitrocellulose film that was used in the projectors, because of its tendency to explode. In other cities, the film reels were stored in special film vaults, which didn’t exist in Seattle yet. Because Belltown was dodgy and underpopulated, it was chosen to be the site of “Film Row,” beginning at Third and Virginia Street (named for Virginia Bell, William’s daughter). Per the new laws, this was considered safer than storing the unstable film in an area with a high population density. Soon after the vaults, it didn’t take long before “film exchanges” began to pop up along Third Avenue: screening rooms owned by major Hollywood studios where theater owners could preview and select movies to show at their own cinemas. In the late ’20s, the action migrated one block over to Second Avenue, and the few hotels in Belltown began catering to studio execs—particularly the Lorraine, at the southwestern corner of Second and Battery (now Buckley’s Pub).

This is when B. F. Shearer saw an opportunity. The B. F. Shearer Company had been supplying local theaters with seats, lights, curtains, and other furnishings from its headquarters on the east side of Second Avenue between and Bell since 1926. The building, finished in 1925, was equipped with its own full-service factory—including an electrical shop, wood shop, a research library, and a tower used to construct, dye, and subsequently dry the extra-long curtains made for stages with multi-story ceilings, such as the Paramount’s. Accordingly, the company’s motto was: “From the basement to the roof, everything but the audience.” In 1928, after only two years in biz, the B. F. Shearer Company was boasting itself as “the only complete theater furnishing and equipping plant in America.”

With all of these facilities on hand, it was a no-brainer for Shearer, who also promoted films and owned and operated cinemas in Alaska and Everett, to add a “film exchange” screening room on site, taking advantage of the building’s location on Film Row. He opened the luxe, exclusive, Art Deco–styled Jewel Box Theater in 1932 inside his factory at 2320 Second Avenue, with seats for 70 filmgoers. Bjorn Moe, a Seattle theater designer, led the remodel, the permit for which specified: “Use of moving picture booth and display limited to demonstration and sales of theatre equipment only; general public not admitted.” Shearer likely had another motive for building the Jewel Box Theater, too: It was a perfect way to showcase his company’s wares, via its lavish interior.

Meanwhile, restaurateur George Blair had opened his Rendezvous Café in the Shearer Building a few years earlier in 1927, in a leased storefront slot. Since movie stars, directors, reporters, and other flavors of film-industry luminaries were already hanging out Shearer’s building, the conveniently located café became a hit among them. Once the Jewel Box opened to lure even more of them in, the café quickly became a place where people went to be seen—and to see others.

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The Rendezvous was so chic and in demand that in 1943, when a winter storm knocked out the power in Belltown, Blair opened the café anyway, running it solo on gas, fire, and, according to a Seattle Times article from that year, the honor system:

[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.’”

During World War II, the Rendezvous & Jewel Box’s ritzy reputation was harnessed for war bond drives, among other things. A screening of For Whom the Bell Tolls was held there by Seattle Savings and Loan Bank in December of 1944, with the aim of selling war bonds; seats went for $2,500 apiece. In 1947, once the war was over, Blair sold the Rendezvous Café, then opened his own theater-brokerage office the same year, just one door north.

Perhaps Blair had smelled trouble: A year later, Seattle’s first TV station, KRSC, was on the air, and Seattle’s film and theater industries began to decline sharply. Public focus on the Jewel Box was almost nil by 1956, when the Rendezvous Café was sold again to a Los Angeles–based theater company and became the Rendezvous Restaurant (not Café). The rumored underground speakeasy was converted into a card room in the late ’60s, reportedly frequented by singer and comedian Jimmy Durante. B. F. Shearer’s theater supply company still operated out of the portion of the building not occupied by the Jewel Box or the Rendezvous; it saw a boom in business with the Century 21 Exposition in 1962, when it was commissioned to manufacture all of the seating for the new Seattle Opera House on the fairgrounds (known today, of course, as the Seattle Center).

Shearer had greatly expanded his businesses by the ‘60s, owning 11 movie theaters along the West Coast—including the Varsity on University Way Northeast, which still stands today. He died in 1972, and the B. F. Shearer Building changed hands several times thereafter.

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Film Row had mostly shuttered by then, and Belltown became increasingly populated by elderly people, homeless folks, drug dealers, and sex workers. A boho artist crowd also filtered in slowly, lured by the cheap rents and haunting venues like the Virginia Inn, Cyclops, and the Two Bells Tavern.

Along with the neighborhood, the Rendezvous (formerly Shearer) Building saw a period of stagnancy around this time, from the mid-’70s through the ’90s, with the factory part of the building split into several spaces that had myriad short-term tenants. The Rendezvous, once a fine-dining destination, became a grotty and somewhat dangerous dive, while the vestigial, mostly unused Jewel Box even showed adult films for a short while.

The place continued to molder away, more or less, until 2001, when Jerry Everard, Jane Kaplan, Tia Matthies, and Steve Freeborn joined together and bought the Rendezvous Building. Everard owned the Crocodile Café and previously Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Café (1993–1997, RIP) on Capitol Hill, while Kaplan was a theater director who was brought in to handle booking. Matthies and Freeborn had run the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square before the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake damaged the building and put them out of business a year earlier.

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Along with a fresh vision for the dilapidated, historical space—they dreamed of a music, film, cabaret, and performance venue with a kitchen serving comfort food and a cleaned-up version of the vintage bar—the four brought with them a major renovation on both the exterior and interior that left it almost unrecognizable. The group aimed to restore the Rendezvous’ opulence of yesterday, adding crystal chandeliers, plush seating in the upstairs loft above the kitchen, ornate Art Deco–inspired wallpaper, and a complete overhaul on the guts of the Jewel Box, including the projection equipment and sound system. A recessed entry was added in the center of the restaurant as well, providing access to the upstairs offices, and the building got new windows and metal awnings. Gray slate cladding now conceals the original Spanish-style stucco-and-tile exterior.

Fortunately, the recaptured spirit of the swanky sixties-era Rendezvous still endures today, thanks to those same owners, who still run the show. And speaking of spirits, the building is allegedly lousy with them. According to a Rendezvous employee, there are at least three ghosts in the Rendezvous space: an ex-projectionist who is said to show up in the booth from time to time and take over the works, a lady whose perfume alerts people to her presence, and a dark-haired Mediterranean guy who appears randomly. Additionally, the word on the street is that Jimmy Durante himself has been haunting the underground Grotto, FKA his favorite secret Seattle gambling room, since, one would imagine, sometime after he died in 1980.

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That same employee tells of even more secret tunnels within the known-about secret tunnels that you can sort of see through the hobbit door in the back of the Grotto—which lead to a super-creepy basement room with a dirt floor and a bunch of mechanical fans built into the walls. However, requests to see them in person went unanswered by the time this piece was published, so they may be as legendary as the ghosts are.

Although Belltown once hosted about 18 film exchange screening rooms at the peak of Film Row, the Jewel Box is the sole remaining example today, making it a precious relic of a cool, bygone chapter in Seattle’s history. The beautiful Jewel Box Theater has evolved hugely from its intended use back in the ’20s and now hosts all types of events, ranging from live theater, burlesque, and karaoke nights to comedy showcases and, hey, even occasional film screenings.

For a period of time, the Rendezvous scored a fancy Swiss chef in Simon Pantet, who you may know from season 9 of Top Chef. The interior received an additional update in 2015 as well, with a lovely makeover.

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As Everard told the Seattle Weekly back when he bought the building: “This place was once way nicer than we have it now... We’ve tried to remain cognizant of all the different eras that it’s been through. Hopefully, we’ve done a good job of staying connected with that.” Seventeen years later, it’s safe to say that yes, they did a good job, indeed.

This article has been updated to correct the byline and to reflect that Simon Pantet no longer works at the Rendezvous.