• Grand opening of Seattle's Show Box celebrated in 1939

    By: Peter Blecha, Historylink.org

    Updated:
    SEATTLE -

    79 years ago Tuesday the Show Box at 1426 1st Avenue, now known as The Showbox, opened for the first time.

    The following is a recap of the event in a historylink.org essay written by Peter Blecha.

    On the night of Monday, July 24, 1939, grand-opening celebrations kick off in the swanky new Show Box at 1426 1st Avenue (known in 2014 as the Showbox Ballroom). Proprietor Michael Lyons (1891-1965) -- a longtime local tavern and movie-house operator and owner of Lyons' Music Hall (located just across the street at 1409 1st Avenue) -- aims for this latest gem, a venue he will promote as the "Palace of the Pacific," to be the crown jewel of his showbiz empire.

    The tail end of the Great Depression was certainly a bold moment to launch a costly $100,000 project, but Lyons went all out. First he headed east, touring some of Manhattan's and New Jersey's finest restaurants, theaters, and ballrooms seeking inspiration, and came away particularly impressed by Ben Marden's ultra-swank Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Lyons purchased a sizable Seattle building that had formerly been home to the Angeles Saloon and Cafe, owned by the Angeles Brewing Co. of Port Angeles and shuttered at the dawn of the Prohibition era, and had most recently been occupied by the Central Market store.

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    Lyons then hired acclaimed Northwest theater designer Bjarne H. Moe (1904-1980) to create a combination nightclub and motion-picture theater -- the first of its type in Seattle. Designed in an Art Deco motif, the ballroom would boast a 15-foot-high fluorescent marquee sign, a spring-action wooden dance floor, a bar in each corner, a giant new Wurlitzer organ, a 16-foot screen behind the stage, and a projection room equipped to handle 16mm film. Happy to give local reporters a sneak preview of the venue to garner advance publicity, Lyons bragged, "We are giving Seattle something entirely new in the way of popular entertainment. We have made the Show Box one of the finest rooms of its kind in the country" ("Show Box to Open…").

    On the very day of its public debut, Lyons told the Seattle Star that, "I feel I can be justly proud of my new club. It will be equal or better than anything they have in Hollywood or New York. The field of entertainment as well as the newest fixtures and ideas have been put into this super, de luxe establishment which will give Seattle its first up-to-the-minute entertainment center" ("Gala Opening ... "). Duly impressed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer agreed, stating that the Showbox is "Easily the most magnificent place of its kind Seattle has ever known" ("Show Box to Open ... ").

    Still, such an ambitious undertaking did spark some consternation. Seattle Star columnist Gilbert Brown confessed that "When I first saw the Show Box in process of construction, several weeks ago, I was greatly intrigued by Mike Lyons' plan for a spot where people could dine, dance, drink lightly, and see shows -- regular floor shows, circus acts, 16mm. movies, and other entertainment -- in an atmosphere of merriment and gaiety. But I had serious misgivings as to the size of the place he was preparing. I wondered where he'd get the crowds to fill so spacious a spot. But Mike Lyons knew what he was doing" (Brown).

    The Big Night 

    In late July 1939 Seattle was packed with thousands of visitors who had arrived to take in the town's Golden Jubilee Potlatch celebrations and, on the Show Box's grand-opening night, long lines of anxious attendees stretched down the block, as standing-room-only crowds filled the evening's multiple shows. Onstage, Jack Russell served as Director of Festivities and emcee, Seattle's Eddie Zollman played the organ, and a series of notable vaudevillian acts brought down the house. Warner & Margie ("Two Nuts Looking for a Squirrel") performed, as did Mona "The Singing Dog." "Blonde Magician" Lucille Hughes offered her "A Study in Silk" routine; Ray and Bee Gorman provided laughs with their comedy/dance shtick; Earl, Fortune, & Pope did a dance revue; and "swing harpist" George Lyons plucked away. Meanwhile, periodically "a goodly number of jitterbugs danced enthusiastically to the hot swing tunes of house-band Jimmy Murphy and his Musical Men" (Brown).  

    The next day the Seattle Star heaped praise on Lyons, enthusing that "throngs of eager couples" filled the seats "at every show opening night, and others who waited in line for seats, proved [Lyons'] idea had begun to click right from the start, and justified the daring and lavish outlay of cash and energy which have gone into the creation of the Show Box. ... Last night, with the sensationally successful opening of the glittering new Show Box ... Mike Lyons' dream of many years came true" (Brown).

    Continuing Legacy

    Over the following months Lyons continued importing bands, singers, and myriad vaudeville stars to perform, including, the Great Lester & Co., Irene and her Poodles, the Olivera Trio, Slyter the Magician, and the shadow-dancing burlesque superstar Sally Rand. Word spread, and it seems the whole city turned out over subsequent weeks to check the new place out.

    Indeed, within months even Seattle's sometimes snooty Argus magazine gave the hall its nod of mild approval: "The First Avenue places we have seen ... have all the atmosphere of waterfront dives ... The new Show Box ... while not exactly catering to fashionable sophisticates, did seem to be an exception when we visited the place this week. The floor show was quality stuff, handsomely staged, with pretty chorines in fresh, attractive costumes" ("The Stroller"). And thus began many decades of entertainment at Seattle's beloved Showbox, whose st oried stage would go on to host performances ranging from Ellington to Eminem, Buffalo Springfield to Soundgarden, Iggy Pop to the Police to Prince, Muddy Waters to Moby to Macklemore.


    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; "The Stroller," Argus, October 28, 1939, p. 2;HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The Showbox (Seattle)" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 10, 2014).

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