October 3rd, 2000 by Clark Humphrey

LAST FRIDAY AND YESTERDAY, I began a recollection of Seattle during the fall of 1975.

Today we continue by examining the arts scene in those pre-Bicentennial months; a scene newly flush with public funding and a lively, participatory spirit.

A thriving theater/performance-art milieu was neatly divided into two casts, with only a few performers crossing over between the two. You had the Rep and ACT (and the new Intiman) mounting “real” dramas (usually stuffed with NYC actors) for well-dressed audiences and major donors.

Then you had the funkier, smaller troupes. Some of these outfits in the 1974-84-or-so period included the Bathhouse, the Skid Road Show, Ze Whiz Kidz, the Pioneer Square Theater, the Conservatory Theater Co., and the Group. One company from this scene, the Empty Space, survives today. Another, the One Reel Vaudeville Show, morphed into a thriving events-production company.

These troupes shared a broadly defined aesthetic, influenced by varying degrees of late-hippie boistrousness, gay-camp outrageousness, avant-theater experimentation, National Lampoon-esque irreverence, post-collegiate volunteer enthusiasm, and conceptual-art pretensions. They created energetic and spunky (if inconsistent) shows, to a core audience that was willing to sit out the lesser efforts in hopes of catching something unexpectedly smashing.

And it worked, as long as the core audience stayed loyal and as long as scraps of arts funding helped subsidize the affordable ticket prices. But as the Reagan era dragged on, the arts funding (at least to non-“major” producing organizations) dried up, the corporate donors stayed loyal to the big theaters, the expenses (especially rents) crept up, the old audiences started staying home nights, and many of the performers and directors drifted off to NYC or to real careers. The spirit of these old theaters lives on in today’s Theater Schmeater, Annex, and Union Garage.

Visual arts here were looking for a new way. The “Northwest School” painters had died, retired, or moved away. The Seattle Art Museum was still in its old Volunteer Park mini-palace and paid little attention to living local artists. The Center on Contemporary Art was still five years away.

For traditional-style painters and sculptors (and for those newfangled glass-art craftspeople), there were the Pioneer Square galleries, which were just getting started. For artists with bigger ambitions (or the right connections), a One Percent For Art program funnelled a piece of every local government construction project into big, vaguely modernistic, but preferably non-controversial works. (Though many of the biggest One Percent commissions went to California big names, or to cronies of the art bureaucrats awarding them.)

The music scene was in a creative slump. Everything on the club circuit was segregated into formulaic genres. There were all-white blues bands in Pioneer Square, top-40 cover bands (including White Heart, which became Heart) in the meatmarket clubs, soft-rock balladeers in the U District, and, in a couple of dance clubs, this new thing called disco. It was, then, a celebratory, participatory scene in which no costume was too outlandish, no dance move too flamboyant. It was gay lib meeting black power meeting repressed suburban kids’ dreams of glamour and thrills. And, on a good night, it was a lot more fun and freewheeling than its stuck-up grandson, techno, can even hope to be.

TOMORROW: Struggling with the post-Vietnam economy.


  • Those damned dot-commers–the long hours, the grating egos, the incessant hype over ventures that’ll never make it. Are they on drugs or something? Often, yes. (found by Media News)….
  • Now that the fall TV season is finally upon us, a fake preview piece funnier than most of the “comedy” shows are bound to be….
  • New uses for mac n’ cheese (and other classic North American convenience foods)! Just read the recipes on The Back of the Box….

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