Saturday, December 22, 2012

Parker's Ballroom Shoreline Washington Demolished

Just one month after I wrote about the impending destruction of legendary Northwest music venue Parker's Ballroom near Seattle, Washington, it happened.  The author of this sign I found on the back entrance of Parker's when I visited the site unfortunately could not have been more wrong.

On November 15, 2012 Parker's Ballroom was demolished and with it nearly eighty-five years of irreplaceable music history.  The site today is a vacant and will be developed into a used car parking lot for the auto dealership next door. I shot this video of the site being cleared after one of my Twitter followers from Shoreline told me Parker's was literally being torn down as he was writing to me.

I took these photographs of the site being cleared.  The contrast of what I saw just weeks ago with the wreckage and debris in front of me was hard to stomach.  The fact you can hear the timbers of the club snap on the video proves after more than eighty years they still were strong.

This is what Parker's Ballroom looked like to me just three weeks before the demolition.

It is hard to describe the long history of Parker's Ballroom with words.

It's best to use music because this is why Parker's existed and why it will be remembered for generations to come.  But first, a little bit about the town where Parker's came to be built in 1928.

Shoreline, Washington today is a small city of 54,000 people located nine miles due north of Seattle.  The local residents of SHORE-LINE describe their sleepy bedroom town filled with daily commuters "BORE-LINE" because, quite frankly, even today there is not much to do in Shoreline.  The city was hard hit by the recent recession and is a collection of abandoned fast food restaurants, strip malls, and not much else.  It is a beautiful city right on Puget Sound with a great waterfront but other than sleep and buy groceries there is not much to do after 8:00PM.  These are photographs of downtown Shoreline today.  NO JOKE.  The heart of Shoreline, Washington in 2012.

So you can imagine what the city of Shoreline, Washington (or what would become Shoreline) was like way back in 1928 when local meatpacker Dick Parker decided he wanted to build a massive dance hall on a five acre building site literally in the middle of nowhere.

Shoreline did not even become a real incorporated city independent of Seattle until 1995.

Parker had no experience in the music business but he knew a prime real estate location when he saw it. His corner lot at the intersection of 170th Street and today's Aurora Avenue was ideal for the 20,000 square foot ballroom with a huge domed ceiling for a full musical orchestra he envisioned.

Shoreline was also the perfect place for a Prohibition era roadhouse, outside the proper and recognized Seattle city limits where local police did enforce liquor laws and even regulations about how men and women could dance together.  This is a photograph of the Seattle Police Department's "Dry Squad" in 1921 or about one year after Prohibition officially began on January 17, 1920.

As a legacy from the early days of its founding, for nearly thirty years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 Parker's Ballroom did not serve alcohol.  Instead, it was known as a "bottle" bar.  Patrons would bring their own liquor and Parker's would sell them glasses, mixers, and ice.  Parker's did not begin selling alcohol until 1961 in anticipation of the Seattle World's Fair of 1962 when Seattle substantially relaxed its vigorous liquor and morals laws to please the hoards of incoming tourists.

Parker's Ballroom opened in 1930, just as Prohibition was ending.  In other words, the sole reason for the club's existence was obsolete its opening night.  Putt Anderson and His Dixieland Band played the first night and the dance floor at Parker's was full.  It was almost always packed, even to the club's last days.  Visitors to Parker's in the early years would remember the scene of local "cowboys" working on the nearby farms dressing up in their Sunday best and visiting the ballroom for dancing and, of course, lots of drinking.

Fights and scuffles were always part of the tradition at Parker's but the crowd was usually well behaved in the end.  After all, Parker's Ballroom was always little more than a rural roadhouse bar despite the elegant name. But the place had class, it was where you took your best girl to show her a good time.  A strongly enforced dress code even into the 1960s made it clear Parker's was to be part fantasy, not your ordinary drinking place but something special.

In the 1930s, Parker's welcomed the best of the Big Band era, national and local acts like Frankie Roth, Jan Garber, Jackie Sounders, and the most famous of all, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.  People of my generation remember Guy Lombardo for his New Year's Eve renditions of "Auld Lang Syne" but forget Lombardo and his brothers Carmen, Lebert, and Victor sold more than 300 million records from 1924 to 1977.

The photograph above is of Jan Garber, the "Idol of the Airlanes" taken in the early 1940s when he was a regular at Parker's.

These performances below of Lombardo and Garber were filmed in the 1950s and 1960s and not the 1930s but you get the idea of what Parker's played when the ballroom first opened.

The Great Depression did hit Parker's Ballroom.  Business got so bad by 1932 the dance floor was frequently converted into a roller skating rink.  It was Parker's Ballroom (or Pavilion) on the weekend but Dick Parker's Roller Rink during the week.

Sadly, meatpacker and founder Dick Parker died in 1940, just before the tenth anniversary of his ballroom.  His wife, Dodie, followed him soon thereafter.  From 1940 until the last days of Parker's Ballroom, the place was managed by family members starting with the sisters of Dodie Parker who treated the memory of Dick and Dodie with almost a religious devotion.  Parker's was not just a business but a family business with the reputation of the name Parker on the line each day.

But Parker's was a profit seeking enterprise and anything REASONABLE to fill the seats and sell admission tickets was par for the course.

Dance contests were a regular feature and promotion at Parker's Ballroom from the early days, the equivalent of today's American Idol.  Some contests were based around form and who had mastered the best dance techniques, others were marathons where the winner was the last person to collapse.  Here are two contestants from a dance marathon held at Parker's soon after the ballroom opened on June 14, 1931.

In the 1940s, the slow melodies of the big bands gave way to wild swing music.  Acts like Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey stopped in at Parker's along with many local regulars.  Ellington was a Seattle regular and even played the University of Washington's junior prom dance of 1941 at the Seattle Center armory.  Dorsey performed with Frank Sinatra at this time and taught "Old Blue Eyes" the breath control the singer's legendary vocal delivery required to succeed.

It's unclear if Sinatra ever played Parker's---but he could have because he played everywhere else with Dorsey until it took a Mafia gunman to break his contract.  (The incident Michael Corleone describes in the film, THE GODFATHER, about Vito Corleone and Luca Brasi making a bandleader "an offer he can't refuse" by putting a gun to his head is a true story.  Tommy Dorsey was the bandleader, Sinatra the singer wanting out of his contract, and notorious New Jersey hoodlum Willie Moretti was the gangster with the gun.)

Big band and swing music continued to fill Parker's Ballroom into the 1950s.  Local musicians like the Max Pillar Orchestra played on Friday nights to the greying crowd of cowboys who still brought their best girls for dancing and courting.  But a whole new wave of young musicians were filling the dance halls and night clubs around Seattle and the music business had changed.  Max Pillar and his days at Parker's ended just around the time this LP was released in 1962 and so did orchestra music there.

Eventually, big band orchestras at Parker's were replaced by rhythm and blues combos such as when Johnny Otis played the club in the middle 1950s.

Rock and roll had come to Seattle.  But many of the best known Seattle rockers just happened to be black and Seattle was still a segregated town.  In the early 1950s, there were two local chapters of the American Federation of Musicians ("AFM"), the major labor union which regulated music at the local night clubs and downtown hotels.  AFM No. 76 was for white musicians and "white"venues like the ritzy downtown hotels while AFM No. 493 serviced the black musicians and the clubs catering to the "colored" people of Seattle such as the African Americans of the Central District along famous Jackson Street.

One of the hottest local musicians was Dave Lewis, today still remembered as the Godfather of Northwest Rock and a legendary rhythm and blues performer.  Lewis was black but white kids all over Seattle loved his music and flocked to see him wherever he played with name acts like Ray Charles, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and The Platters.  It is hard to remember Lewis was just seventeen years old and still attending Seattle's Franklin High School at the time!  But his Dave Lewis Combo was in high demand the day Parker's Ballroom booked him and another black act, Billy Tolles and The Vibrators, to play the club.  And not just for a normal Saturday night gig but for a live television broadcast by KCPQ-TV (Channel 13) in Seattle!

But Parker's had a problem.  AFM No. 76, the white musician's union, handled the bookings for Parker's and they did not represent black artists.  AFM No. 76 union officials firmly told Parker's management if they did not cancel the Dave Lewis and Billy Tolles bookings the club would face picket lines the day of the concert and television broadcast.

Parker's brave and shocking reply ended musical racial segregation in Seattle forever.

Parker's management told the union boss from AFM No. 76 he would ignore the hiring of black musicians or Parker's would no longer hire any white union musicians and become a black themed club!  The union quickly caved and Dave Lewis took the stage at Parker's and the rest as they say is history.

AFM No. 76 and AFM No. 493 would soon merge into one labor union since race was no longer a barrier to bookings in Seattle.  African American musicians for a generation remembered the stand taken by Parker's management and even today the gutsy decision to take on a powerful labor union over racial discrimination is still celebrated as a pre-1960s victory over unfair segregation based on race.

Incidentally, AFM Local 76-293 still exists and today books musicians for local Seattle music venues but nothing is said about the union's notorious racial segregation history on its website or how the union local in Seattle still goes by two names to this day.

By the time rock and roll music reached Parker's, big band and swing orchestras were dying.  When Parker's Ballroom reached the age of 25 in 1955, rock music had become a staple.  All the big name acts of the 1950s began to trickle into Parker's.

One of the most famous nights in all of Parker's long history was February 21, 1959 when the Fleetwoods and the Frantics were hired to open for Bobby Darin who played a scorching set for 1,200 screaming teenage girls.

But soon thereafter a rock and roll madman named Jerry Lee Lewis played Parker's and he decided to dance on the club's brand new piano as part of his riotous set.  Kelma Shoemaker, Dodie Parker's sister and club manager that night, was so outraged by his stage antics she rushed out on stage with a broom and scolded him in front of the crowd for his disrespectful treatment of HER ballroom piano!

Rock and roll acts were banned from Parker's for nearly a year after the Jerry Lee Lewis fiasco with Parker's management vowing they would never return.

But when a local band, The Viceroys, begged the management for a gig and promised the crowd and the band would behave themselves, Parker's decided to give rock acts another try.  The audience this night, well aware of the fact they and their young music were on probation, were the models of decorum and caused no troubles so rock and roll returned forever to Parker's.  From then on, Parker's Ballroom would become one of the premier rock and roll venues of the Pacific Northwest. It was The Viceroys, now a forgotten local band from Tacoma overshadowed by a more famous band with the same name, which likely saved Parker's Ballroom from oblivion.

When the California Surf Sound became popular on the beaches of Los Angeles, Parker's brought the bands up the Pacific coast.  The Beach Boys and The Ventures played Parker's in the early 1960s.

When the British invasion touched the United States and The Beatles played Seattle, Parker's brought The Dave Clark Five and Them (featuring a young singer named Van Morrison) to Shoreline.  The Dave Clark Five will forever be known as the band that knocked The Beatles'  "I Want to Hold Your Hand" off the top of the UK singles charts with their hit "Glad All Over" and the second British invasion band featured by Ed Sullivan on his show.  (You can guess the first.)

Even Bobbie Vee, the Justin Bieber of his day, put in an appearance at Parker's which is still today remembered by the teenage girls who swooned over him that day. (Some trivia for you music buffs.  When Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson were killed in an air crash on February 3, 1959, the so-called "Day the Music Died", they were headed to a gig at the Moorhead Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota.  It was Bobbie Vee who had the grim task of playing as a replacement that night to the broken hearted and devastated crowd.)

But Parker's Ballroom is forever cemented in local rock and roll history not for bringing in foreign acts or national singers but by allowing local artists from Tacoma and Seattle to perform and prosper.  In the early 1960s a large number of local bands and musicians were coming to define what would later be known as the Northwest Sound and Parker's was a touring stop for all of them.  Their names now read like a Who's Who of 1960s Northwest rock.  The Wailers, The Frantics, The Dynamics, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, The Viceroys, and Tiny Tony.

You may never have heard the term "Northwest Rock" but I bet you know its most famous song.

Ever see the movie "Animal House"?

The song "Louie Louie" with the notoriously impossible to understand lyrics was a huge hit for Portland, Oregon's The Kingsmen, who ironically seem to have played every venue around Seattle but Parker's.  For generations, this silly song has come to define early 1960's Northwest rock.  But there were many other artists following behind them.

Jimmy Hanna and The Dynamics would later go on to record an album at Parker's Ballroom.  This is what the south entrance of the club looked like in 1961.

(Some trivia for you jazz buffs.  The guitar player of The Dynamics on this track below is none other than Seattle native, UW graduate, and international jazz legend Larry Coryell who played on-and-off with The Dynamics for a year when he was just nineteen years old.)

One of the most famous of the Northwest sound bands was Paul Revere and the Raiders, a Parker's regular for many years.  People know them for a variety of songs from the 1960s and 1970s but few recall they did their early gigs at Parker's surrounded by 2,000 rowdy teenagers with lead singer Mark Lindsay jumping out of a giant Crisco shortening can!  (Their big hit at the time was called "Crisco Party.")

Likely today the most famous of the 1960s Northwest music bands and Parker veterans were The Sonics, a raw act from Tacoma, Washington with a sound nothing like the sweet melodies and romantic lyrics of The Beach Boys or the folk music artists starting to gain popularity in the middle 1960s.

The Sonics sang songs about evil girlfriends who behaved like witches and had Satanic kisses which tasted like strychnine.  Their fierce guitar licks would serve as inspiration for generations of rock and rollers to the present day.

In the 1990s, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney would all credit The Sonics as "The Godfathers of Grunge."  In the 2000s, bands like The White Stripes, The Hives, The Cramps, and The Flaming Lips would all cover Sonics' songs and celebrate their early work as the "first punk band in history."

It is amazing those many gigs at Parker's would create a sound each generation of musicians seems to adopt, in part, as their own.  Listen to this first song and ask yourself if you hear Kurt Cobain and Nirvana somewhere in the beat.  Check out this early and experimental rock video for the song "The Witch" (featuring a very young Rachel Welch as a go-go dancer!) and understand why The Sonics were nothing like Seattle or the country ever heard before.

Other acts which played Parker's in the middle to late 1960s included The Buckinghams, The Righteous Brothers, The Byrds, The Young Rascals, Johnny Rivers, The Box Tops, Joe Cocker, and one of my favorites, Koko Taylor.

Here is a sample of what the kids at Shoreline High School got to see on Saturday night for about $5 a ticket.  To this day many remember how lucky they really were.

As much of the 1960s music scene grew psychedelic, so did Seattle's.  The Northwest Sound eventually became acid music and the influences of bands from San Francisco like The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane began to influence what Seattle listened to on Saturday nights.  Seattle had an extremely active acid music scene in the 1960s with acts like Pink Floyd, Iron Butterfly, The Doors, and Canned Heat all playing local venues like the Eagles Auditorium.

Local Seattle groups like the Steve Miller Band and It's a Beautiful Day began to make their national mark.  (Some trivia for you.  The ultra famous hippie song, "White Bird" by It's a Beautiful Day actually concerns a white bird sitting in a tree in Seattle's famous Volunteer Park.  Violinist David LaFlamme personally acknowledged this fact when I met him and asked him about the song in 2007.  He lived across the street from Volunteer Park at the time the song was written and yes, there really was a white bird on a winter's day in the rain---but no golden cage!  For the record, the bird was alone....)

In an effort to try to capitalize on hippie acid music, the management at Parker's changed the name of the club to the "Aquarius Tavern."  The reason?  The Fifth Dimension song, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", was a Number One hit at the time.

But no one really ever called the club by any other name than Parker's.  The Aquarius Tavern named was quietly dropped in the 1970s but not before Parker's Tavern hosted some of the greatest names in 1960s rock and roll and rhythm and blues.  Here is a photo of guitarist Neil Young taken at Parker's in 1967 when his band, Buffalo Springfield, played the venue.  (Notice he's wearing the same fringed leather outfit in the photo at Parker's and on the TV show!)

At the age of forty years, Parker's Ballroom in 1970 would see its glory years still ahead.

Things were just getting started.

All those singers and bands fans would pay hundreds of dollars to see at sports arenas and football stadiums from nosebleed seats in the 1990s would play Parker's for a few dollars on a Thursday night from ten feet away.  Parker's began to settle into a time when a Who's Who of Rock and Roll Royalty would stop in and play.

Everyone from A to Z.  America, Aerosmith, and AC/DC to Warren Zevon.

Stevie Wonder showed up one night and played a surprise gig and amazed the dumbstruck crowd.  If you visited Parker's Ballroom in the 1970s you saw all these acts and many others.  The music never seemed to stop at Parker's in what could be called the glory days of the venue.

Two sisters from the suburbs of Seattle would get their big break at Parker's Ballroom and later record part of an album there before achieving international rock and roll stardom. Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart played Parker's multiple times and the entire band still has fond memories of the place from the 1960s through the 1980s.

It seemed the music would just keep coming and coming to Parker's.  And into the 1980s it did.  The now fifty year old wood frame ballroom built in the middle of nowhere to host sedate big band dance orchestras for local cowboys was now regularly hosting the best name acts in music from all over the world.  Here is just a small sampling of the music Parker's Ballroom in isolated Shoreline, Washington offered its residents during the 1980s and early 1990s.

When the world discovered MTV in the 1980s, so did Parker's Ballroom which began to bring the video stars of the television network to sleepy suburban Shoreline, Washington and the lucky teenagers there.

Typical examples are Crowded House and Simply Red.

But the times were changing, especially in the music industry.  Musicians used to tour to sell records.  It was the sales of vinyl 45s and 33 LPs which made the studio and artists their money.  Tours were used to promote record sales.  But the dynamics of the industry were changing.  Artists began to use records  to promote their concerts.  In other words, the music money was being made in live performances not prerecorded ones.  When this dynamic shifted, the amounts venues like Parker's needed to pay artists to perform began to skyrocket.  The losses of one poorly attended concert could wipe out the profits of ten profitable gigs.  To make matters worse, crowds began to resent the rise in ticket prices further cutting into sales.

Live music was no longer profitable for small venues like Parker's.  A change sixty years in the making unfortunately had to come.

On October 17, 1993, Parker's Ballroom hosted its last live music concert ever.  Local favorites Paul Revere and the Raiders headlined the event.  Everyone at that last show thought it was just a matter of time before live music would return to Parker's.  No one believed it was the end of an era.

After all, Parker's Ballroom had hosted live music continuously without a break for 63 years.

But there would never be a return.  Parker's Ballroom, now renamed Parker's Restaurant, became a sports bar and card casino for the next nineteen years.  (It officially became Parker's Sports Bar and Casino in 1990.)  It was popular in the area but always regarded as somewhat seedy when compared to the more modern and glitzy small casinos found up on Aurora Avenue near Parker's. An example is the Club Hollywood Casino in Shoreline built just three blocks from Parker's today.

People still came to Parker's to have fun, but the numbers began to dwindle....

As these Yelp reviews on Parker's from 2010 show, people were going to the club for the $2.99 steak and egg breakfasts and not much else.

In 2011, Parker's was sold to a new owner who failed to notify the State of Washington there had been a change in ownership of the facility and especially the club's gambling license.  The license was suspended in April 2012 which effectively put Parker's out of business.  The state also began to collect past due taxes from the new owner, meaning any help of financial assistance for the club was being siphoned away.

This sign went up on the back entrance of Parker's sometime in the early summer of 2012.

It was still there when an auction was held stripping the contents of the ballroom for souvenirs and memorabilia in September 2012.

The sign was still there when I visited Parker's in October 2012, just weeks before Parker's was leveled to the ground.

Today, Parker's Ballroom is only a memory.  Whatever vision Dick Parker had in 1928 for a grand dance ballroom on the lonely and empty road between Seattle and Shoreline finally came to an end on a cloudy day in November 2012 when the still sturdy wooden building came crashing down into piles of rubble and debris.  His ballroom and the literally millions of people who walked through its doors and celebrated some of the greatest music of the 20th century are now part of history but his wild dream still lingers in the memories of many people who like me will never forget Parker's Ballroom.

What makes the death of Parker's so sad is it brings an official end to an era.

Parker's Ballroom was the last of the old rock and roll roadhouses that once ringed Seattle, places where local amateur musicians could practice and play and grow into greatness.  Parker's was the sole surviving roadhouse of the 1930s still standing, long past all the rest which had met their fate decades ago.

Incidentally, you probably already know the name of the most famous Seattle roadhouse of all time because of the legendary Seattle guitarist who made the venue the subject of one of his hit songs.

The Spanish Castle was an ornate roadhouse in the sleepy little village of Des Moines, Washington, about as far south of Seattle as Parker's Ballroom was north, about nine miles.  It was built in 1931 just outside of Seattle for the same reason Parker's went up on Shoreline.  (Two words:  Prohibition enforcement.)

A young guitar player from a low income housing project in central Seattle with a wild style of playing was a regular at The Spanish Castle in the early 1960s, perfecting his craft and making music unlike any ever heard before.

The guitarist was Jimi Hendrix.  His song was "Spanish Castle Magic."

The Spanish Castle was town down in 1968 to make room for a gas station and parking lot.  Here is the site today.  At least The Spanish Castle was made famous by a song before it met the wrecking ball.

No one yet has written a song to the memory of Parker's Ballroom.  I wish someone would.

The city of Shoreline needs to build a memorial for the one place in the entire city worth remembering.

Anyone wanting to build a tribute website to Parker's Ballroom can contact me for help and support at

I'm glad I got to see Parker's one last time before it was gone forever.  It is rare to literally touch history and it is heartbreaking when these irreplaceable icons are destroyed before your very eyes for, of all unjustifiable reasons, a used car parking lot.