by Will Sweger
The general manager of Columbia City Theater, Lara Lavi, paced back and forth in the empty cabaret talking on her phone. On the other end of the line was a contractor, haggling about the price of one of the numerous repairs the theater needs. “It’s impossible to get funding for a closed venue. The doors have to stay open,” she said, more than once.
While I waited there was time to take in extra details of the theater’s entry—wood paneling, exposed brick, an upright piano on small stage and tiny chandeliers above the bar. We were there for the business meeting of Behind the Lights: The Next Step, the newly-launched youth production making its home at the theater.
For nearly a century, the Columbia City Theater has stood as a Rainier Valley fixture. A walk through its doors will put one in touch with local music artists, comedy, dance shows, an all-female music series, burlesque and karaoke. Its use has varied over time as the theater changed hands and management. Historical records concerning the theater are scant, but rumors of various past uses abound.
Two years ago, the Seattle Times reported the theater was built in 1917 as the first vaudeville in Washington State. According to the theater’s own website, performers like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and Fats Waller played at the theater in the 40s.
Beneath the tiny clear-bulb lights of the hall, Lara explained the latest fundraising efforts to purchase and renovate the site. The campaign was supposed to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the theater, but Seattle building records put the construction in 1920, not 1917. Originally dispatched to write about the theater’s centennial celebration, I informed Lara of my discovery, prompting edits in the theater’s Indiegogo page.
The association of famous artists with the theater is more perplexing. Performance venues that have changed hands as many times as the Columbia City Theater usually have trouble with records, especially of past performances. There is nothing in Rainier Valley Historical Society archives to suggest the theater was used as a jazz venue in the 30s or 40s.
What we do know from building records is the theater was built in 1920 as a movie theater (not a vaudeville theater) in the era of silent film complete with a piano pit below the stage to accompany pictures. A candy shop opened in 1923 where the Bourbon Bar now resides. In 1957, it was still operating as a movie theater before becoming a live performance space.
In October 2006, Seattle Weekly reported the theater reopened to the public after having served as “a nightclub, a dojo, and a disco.” Rumors of famous performers appeared, with the list consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones and Bruce Lee. A Seattle Times article published in 2010 reported another reopening and explained at one point the theater served as a rave venue under the name “The Lish House.” The article included Ella Fitzgerald in its list of performers.
Five years later, Lavi took over as general manager and to this day her enthusiasm is undaunted. Recalling a performance at the theater, Lavi said, “I stood on stage, I’m getting goosebumps now thinking about it, my husband and I looked at each other we’re like ‘We’re breaking Andra Day with STG here at the Columbia City Theater and she’s so awesome!’…If I had any doubts about why I’m doing this, that night, with everything going on with the roof leaking and the bills piling up…that was like, ‘Man, this is why we’re here.’”
As the business committee for Behind the Lights began to arrive, we moved back into the theater’s office. Lavi led me through what was originally the theater’s projection room, now a green room for performers over the recording studio below. Gathered in the office, seven young people came together to talk about music on a Monday night.
Their production group, Town Ent, organize, market and stage their own live music shows at the theater. The team, made up of talented performers of color between the ages of 16 and 22, each bring their own talents not just in music, but in graphic design, social media and other skills. Work is organized into “collabs” where members work together to accomplish tasks. They also manage their own merchandising and promotion with Lara in an advisory role.
With posters of past concerts on the walls, a set of doors opening to the green room and a whiteboard calendar announcing upcoming shows, it was hard not to feel a sense of excitement. They opened with a discussion of potential local artists for their next show on August 18th. Performers are comped not with money, but with access to the theater’s recording studio. Their efforts also included new posters, crowd planning and their own fundraising centering on t-shirts raffles, art auctions and the possibility of selling Town Ent fidget spinners.
The survival of the youth production program and the rest of Columbia City Theater’s lineup depends on the theater raising the funds needed to perform upkeep on the building. Renovation plans call for roof repairs, a larger kitchen for the Bourbon Bar to serve food and a restored marquee from the establishment’s days as a movie theater.
The renovations play into the big plans Lavi has for the theater. She wants to continue to provide a venue for shows in comedy, burlesque, music, live theater, spoken word and other forms of expression while using the recording studio built into the theater to allow artists to produce albums on the road. The theater also hosts the television show Emerald City Live, a variety show featuring music and comedy.
According to Lavi, these roles and the renovation of the theater hinge on raising enough funds to buy the facility from the current owner. Whether or not Lavi and her husband can raise those funds, the community will decide how the next chapter of Columbia City Theater’s history is written.
Will Sweger is a freelance journalist living in South Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood