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The eight-decade history of the Showbox

A look back at the long history of the music venue that’s fueling a campaign to save it

The Showbox, pictured in January 2016.
| FilmMagic/Getty Images

When the Show Box opened on First Avenue near Pike Street, it was billed a ballroom. Constructed in 1917, the Streamline Modern-styled building had been the Central Market grocery when it was purchased by local showbiz gadabout Michael Lyons—although was originally the Angeles Saloon and Cafe, owned by Port Angeles Brewing Company and folded at the advent of Prohibition in 1920.

Lyons, who owned several local taverns and movie theaters as well as Lyons’ Music Hall directly across the street, immediately began touting his lavish new theater as “the Palace of the Pacific,” had big dreams for the venue after being dazzled by opulent Jazz Age dance halls and ballrooms during a tour of the East Coast, particularly the Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Although the world had been mired in economic strife for a decade by 1939—the Depression would end at the end of the year, when the outbreak of war in Europe created thousands of jobs for Americans—Lyons was undeterred and sank $100,000 in the endeavor with confidence. To design the Show Box’s interior and marquee, he hired iconic Seattle architect Bjarne H. Moe, whose previous projects included the Green Lake Theater and the University District’s Varsity Theater. (Later-to-be-renowned Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck, who led a citizen effort to preserve the Pike Place Market in the late 1960s and early 1970s, worked for Moe at the time, too.)

The result was a glorious Art Deco club with a 16-foot film screen, a pair of beverage bars, a full-size organ (an unknown brand that was to be replaced by a fancy new Wurlitzer four years later), a state-of-the-art spring-action dance floor, and a capacity of 1,000 dancers.

Newspapers far and wide raved about the city’s hottest new nightclub, and from the start, shows were standing-room only. The Show Box’s debut events were a series of vaudeville acts, accompanied by Seattle’s Eddie Zollman in the organ (who became a frequent organist there in the decades to follow), as well as jitterbug nights featuring bands such as Jimmy Murphy and His Musical Men. Soon, the A-list performers began to pour in: The Show Box would host Louis Armstrong, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Jimmy Durante, and Sammy Davis, Jr., among many others. A band called Norm Hoagy and His Orchestra even recorded a single called “Show Box Boogie” after serving as the house band one evening.

Music and dancing started at noon at the Show Box and stretched on late into the night. The cabaret also showcased burlesque nights, and Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee were among the dozens of bawdy performers to dance there—the latter being a Seattle girl herself.

Gypsy Rose Lee performs in New York, 1942.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another important part of the Show Box’s history was not inside but right next to it. Beginning in 1946, “Jumpin’” Johnny Kerns, a local jazz trombonist, ran Kerns Music Shop just to the south of the main venue entrance. Until it closed in 1949, the store was a popular gathering spot for Seattle’s musicians and music lovers alike, selling both instruments and records. (Quincy Jones famously bought his first horn there.) The shop was also graced by occasional mini-concerts—the city’s leading radio station, KJR, arranged and broadcasted regular noontime sets. Among many others, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Sarah Vaughn all stopped by Kerns to perform short sets. Johnny Kerns was also responsible for providing the Show Box with its gleaming Steinway grand piano.

After the shop closed, the space was used variously as a bar, a peep show, and a video game arcade. Today, it’s a bar again, with a very familiar name—in 2014, to celebrate the Showbox’s 75th anniversary, the bar formerly known as the Green Room changed its name to Kerns Music Shop.

In 1949, things started to get a little spotty. The Show Box closed temporarily, reopening again in 1951 before another brief closure 1955. In the late 1950s, the hardware store just to the north of the venue was demolished, taking the northern wall of the theater with it. The Show Box’s interior was exposed to the elements, and owner Michael Lyons was not up to the stress and challenge of building a new one.

He sold the business to his son, Nathan Lyons, who eventually sold it to his own son, also named Michael Lyons. The theater saw a severe downturn under the younger Lyons’s management, with much fewer shows booked. At one point, it even became a furniture showroom during the Century 21 Exposition in 1962, and afterwards sat empty for a few years.

By 1967, times had indeed a-changed since the Jazz Age, and the space was used as an all-ages venue called the Happening Teenage Nite Club. This incarnation of the space opened with a show by Seattle group Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts, best known for their top 10 hit “Angel of the Morning” a year later. Other local acts, such as the Sonics and the Bandits, helped kicked off the Happening, and bigger bands followed, like Buffalo Springfield. But the venue floundered and was gone by 1968.

In the 1970s, the Show Box became the Showbox—without the space—and was used occasionally by the Talmud Torah Hebrew Academy as a bingo hall. But when it was sold to Roger Forbes, a new life was breathed into the theater, and it helped usher in the New Wave era of music that was still trickling into America from the UK. The venue was the first in Seattle to feature New Wave bands with a show by English band Magazine. More European bands were to follow: the Police, Dire Straits, the Jam, and Nina Hagen were just a few. Punk bands, like the Fastbacks and the Debbies, showed up by the ‘80s, as did rock bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. As the Showbox was available for rental by the night, bands would sometimes rent the space just for rehearsal—as then-local rock band Heart did on the regular.

In 1985, the Showbox again shuttered, partially as a result of the Pike Place Market area having become a little too sketchy for many parents to allow their kids to hang out in. At the time, First Avenue was rife with XXX movie houses, drugs, and general petty crime. In 1990, the venue reopened as Budd Friedman’s Seattle Improv comedy club; opening night acts included a fledgling Ellen Degeneres. In 1994, it morphed into the Showbox Comedy and Supper Club, which aimed, somewhat bizarrely, to fuse comedy and dinner theater with live jazz, hip-hop, and industrial music.

A photo shows the interior of the Showbox, including a column on the left and the venue’s logo painted in white on a black wall. Courtesy of Historic Seattle

Two years later, it was bought again by restaurateur Jeff Steichen and restyled as the Showbox Music Club, and that’s when it became more or less the same kind of venue we know the Showbox as today. The interior was overhauled to restore and, in some cases, embellish its Art Deco details designed by Moe, including the maple dance floor and the huge signature tulip-inspired lighting fixtures. The luminaries to appear on its stage during this era are easily in the hundreds, if not thousands; a selected few are Katy Perry, PJ Harvey, Pearl Jam, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Lady Gaga, Soundgarden, Macklemore, and Lorde. The aforementioned Green Room appeared in the former Kerns space starting in 2001.

In 2006, the sister venue, Showbox Sodo, opened less than two miles south (also on First Avenue), and the next year, national firm AEG Live took over operations of both Showboxes.

On July 25, 2018, front-page news across Seattle blared a horrifying headline: The Showbox had been purchased by Vancouver, B.C.-based Onni Group, which intended to scrap the whole building and replace it with a 44-floor residential tower. Seattleites acted fast. By July 30, preservation groups Historic Seattle, Friends of Historic Belltown, and Vanishing Seattle had met to discuss securing a landmark nomination for the building in an effort to save the Showbox.

City Councilor Kshama Sawant also offered her support. She argued to the Landmarks Preservation Board that the building should be rescued, and added: “However, the Board often preserves only the outside of buildings, and in this case, we need the Board to also preserve the music venue inside.”

After a tidal wave of civilian feedback, including a letter from a group led by rapper Macklemore, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan, and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam and cosigned by 150 other local musicians, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to temporarily extend the Pike Place Historic District to include the original Showbox building. This temporarily protected the building from demolition, once it was signed into law by Mayor Jenny Durkan, while the city and advocacy groups figure out next steps.

Eddie Vedder sports a “Save Our Showbox” shirt during one of Pearl Jam’s Home Shows on August 10.
Jim Bennett/Getty Images

Historic Seattle, a Washington State public development authority devoted to the preservation and rescue of the region’s architectural history, is still hammering out an effort to buy the property from Onni Group. In the meantime Historic Seattle has prepared a lengthy application for landmark status, calling for the building to be preserved inside and out. In addition to the longer history of the building, the nomination calls out a secret backstage room that contains graffiti by Neil Young and proto-grunge band Malfunkshun.

A portrait of Malfunkshun doodled in the Showbox’s Graffiti Room.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

While the Showbox is still alive for the time being, Historic Seattle still needs the support of the community and the Landmarks Preservation Board before this jewel of Seattle’s rich musical culture is totally out of the woods. Stay tuned to Historic Seattle’s Save the Showbox page for more.

This article has been updated to correct a list of European bands.