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Seattle's Showbox Theater
Seattle's Showbox Theater
601 Union St
Seattle,WA 98101
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Founded in 1939, Seattle's Showbox Theater is one of the towns 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 Grunge Era, the storied ballroom has featured shows by touring icons like Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, and the Ramones - as well as those by homegrown talents ranging from burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee, to Pearl Jam. Although the Showbox has had its ups and downs in times past, today it remains active as a significant contributor to Seattle's music scene. A new era in Seattle's rock "n " roll history began on September 8th 1979. It was on that date that the moribund old Show Box Theater [1426 First Avenue] was reawakened as a venue that would introduce local rock fans to the fresh " New Wave "of sounds emanating from England - in particular, a concert by Magazine, the very first British band of that era to come through town. That event was, however, just but the start of a musical tsunami that would soon hit these shores. Subsequent to it, many of the UK's finest talents would also perform on the (newly renamed) Showbox™ fabled stage including the Police, XTC, Fingerprintz, the Specials, Ultravox, 999, the Jam, the Squeeze, the Psychedelic Furs, PIL, Nina Hagen, and Dire Straits. The Showbox Theaters contributions to music culture, however, trace back much further than just that dawning of the Punk Rock/New Wave Era. Indeed, the Showbox is an entertainment venue that can proudly lay claim to an astonishing breadth of musical history. Not only has the ballroom been the site of legendary performances by touring jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and seminal bluesmen like Muddy Waters and the Junior Wells Band, the Showbox has also played a role in the rise of successive local/regional music scenes during most every era since the halls founding three quarters of a century ago. Whether considering first-generation rock "n" roll bands from the Pacific Northwest's "Louie Louie" Era (such as Merrilee & the Turnabouts, the Kingsmen, or the Wailers), our homegrown Grunge Era gods (such as Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, TAD, or the Screaming Trees) the Showbox has hosted great shows year after year. This historic ballroom - nicely situated at First Avenue & Pike Street just across from the main entry to Seattle's famous Farmers Market - originally debuted in 1939 as The Show Box Cabaret. Founded by a local businessman, Michael Lyons [1891-1965], the beautiful art-deco hall was allegedly modeled upon the design of New York City's elegant Music Hall. What is certain is that it featured one of the finest spring-action dance-floors in the entire Pacific Northwest region and dancers flocked to countless shows there over the years. In addition to the main ballroom (which originally featured liquor bars in all four corners), the buildings ground-floor street-level has a commercial space that has long played a role in the music community. It was in 1946 that a local trombone player named Johnny Kerns 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, Kerns also sold records. And, this facet of this business created a keen awareness about which artists were popular with the younger-set. As a result, Kerns managed to arrange for noon-time in-store appearances - broadcast by the city's top radio station, KJR - by various stars who were in town to perform either upstairs at the Show Box or uptown at the magnificent Pantages Theater. Thus it was that young music fans were able to witness unique live performances at Kerns Music by such up-&-coming stars as Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole who each performed a song or two in the shop. Throughout those years Lyons presented top talents at the Show Box -including Al Jolson, Gene Austin & his Cafe Society Band, Mae West, Eddie Peabody, Jimmy Durante, Sally Rand, Peggy Lee, the Mills Brothers, Tony Curtis, and Seattle's own world-famous bawdy burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee - to an entertainment-starved public. Plenty of other local entertainers also trod the boards of the hall's stage, and the one-time house-band, Norm Hoagy and his Orchestra even recorded a 78rpm disc around 1952 titled, the "Show Box Boogie" 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 Kern's proudest memories involves the time that a young music student named Quincy Jones came in to get his "first" horn there. In the years after Kerns moved out, that space held a wide variety of subsequent businesses including a bar, a clothing shop, the Amusement Center (a penny arcade and bowling alley), a notorious peep show and, as of recent, the fabulous Green Room nightspot. Over the decades the Show Box has had its ups and downs- the lowest point probably being when it was converted into a furniture showroom during the "62 World's Fair" but it managed to survive by going with the flow and evolving with the changing times. Thus while it provided entertainment as a dime-a-dance joint for off-duty soldiers and war weary citizens throughout WWII, it also played a role during the late-60s when it was transformed into a psychedelic haven called The Happening Teenage Nite Club - which featured such local hippie bands as the Magic Fern, the Daily Flash, Peece, and West Coast Natural Gas. By the late-70s though, Seattle's club scene had gotten all bogged down with shuffling Country Rock combos and funky Motown-tribute bands and little elbow-room was being made for the newest trends in music. But then, just at the turn of the decade a new promotion firm, Modern Productions, discovered that the Show Box - then being used sporadically as the Talmud Torah Hebrew Academy Bingo Hall - was available to rent and they began bringing to town virtually every new rock act out on tour. And thus, as a result of being exposed to all the new sounds and ideas presented by additional seminal Punk Era acts - including Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Devo, X, and the Dead Kennedys - our sleepy local scene was tremendously inspired and reenergized. One definite effect was that scores of new local bands -including the Blackouts, the Enemy, 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. Most importantly though, thanks in significant measure to the Showbox, the seeds were planted for the eventual rise of Seattle's creative and successful (grunge) rock and hiphop communities that the pop culture world associates Seattle with to this day. And all that is but half the story: The Showbox has also been the site of many benefit shows, movie debuts, Hiphop concerts, and countless record release parties. The remarkable saga of this ballroom is still unfolding - indeed, history is still being made at the Showbox Music Club most every night.
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