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Some pseudo-random thoughts about l’Affaire Rachel Dolezal, the just-resigned Spokane NAACP leader who’s claimed at various times to be black, part-black, and Native American, but whose parents claim her to be white (and who have the blonde, blue-eyed childhoood pix to support their claim):
If it weren’t for white people pretending to be black, we’d have no jazz or rock n’ roll or R&B or even hiphop as we know those genres today. American white pop music would still sound like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” British pop music would still sound like “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes.”
(We also wouldn’t have sorry minstrel-show acts, macho-baby-boomer blues bands, or fratboy rappers either; but you’ve got to take the bad with the good, right?)
There’s a long-running meme of college-educated white women identifying, or trying to identify, with black women of “lower” castes. It ranges from recent works such as The Help, back to the predominantly white-female audiences for Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Walker especially depicted Af-Am womanhood as an ultimate embodiment of a specifically feminine wisdom and righteousness.
Could Dolezal, who had Af-Am adopted siblings, have envied their specific “tribal” identity, collective-struggle heritage, etc.? Not for an outsider like me to say.
It can be said that she should have known “being black” involved more than just looks and “soul,” but (as shown gruesomely in recent news items) a continuing legacy on the receiving end of repression, injustice, and brutality. (As Tavis Smiley asks, “Who’d sign up to be black?”)
Dolezal is the second Spokanian to re-invent herself so thoroughly. The first, of course, is Billy Tipton.
Tipton, a small-time jazz pianist and a bio-female who lived as a (hetero) man until his death in 1989, was essentially (in my opinion) a trans who never had reassignment surgery, but who simply tried to create a being and a life for himself and succeeded completely.
Dolezal attempted a similar life-feat, trying to create a present by rewriting her past. Our age of instant information made that ultimately impossible.
There’s nothing wrong, as Smiley’s above-linked essay notes, with being a white person devoted to helping her less race-privileged fellow humans; people who…
…have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face—and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.
…have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face—and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.
The NAACP has (openly) white local and national officers, past and present. More famously, the late Westinghouse and CBS exec Michael H. Jordan (absolutely no relation to the basketball star) was chairman of the United Negro College Fund for a decade.
In the statement announcing her NAACP resignation, Dolezal stated she won’t stop fighting for justice.
Dolezal has been a student, and occasionally a teacher, of Af-Am culture and history. She assuredly knows, both from book-learning and from those in her life, about what black life is really like.
She could have used this knowledge to work at bridging our racial divides.
If she can transcend the unfortunate image of her own “race drag act,” she still can.
Everybody seems to have an opinion or an angle on the tale:
…Especially if it’s this cartoon map of Washington from the 1930s.
It’s part of an every-state series made by Berta and Elmer Hader. It depicts the histories, industries, topographies, and agricultural products of each part of this Land-O-Contrasts place.
(Found via Vox.com.)
One of the site’s first logos, from some time in the mid 1990s.
Twenty years ago this week, it was an age of dial-up modems, Windows 95, Internet cafés, and the media hype over an alleged “Seattle Sound.”
I hate to use the old cliché “it was a simpler time.”
But in some respects it was.
The ol’ World Wide Web was a child just learning to walk. It seemed so full of possibilities. It hadn’t yet been tamed, corporatized, or commodified.
The “free”/”sharing” ideology of Grateful Dead bootleggers hadn’t yet taken completely over. There was still hope that journalists, musicians, and other “content” people might one day make a buck from this medium. (I know, crazy, right?)
I was in what turned out to be the middle of a seven-year writing stint with the Stranger. The paper itself had little interest in going online at the time, but allowed me to put my own material up on my own site.
I’d already been a regular at the Speakeasy Café in Belltown, essentially Seattle’s first Internet café. I’d been customer #23 on its then-novel home broadband service (which outlived the café, eventually becoming a business-to-business operation owned by something called MegaPath).
The Speakeasy people helped me learn rudimentary HTML and get a site up. I created some simple .JPG graphics, and reformatted (and, in some cases, retyped) columns and zine pieces I’d written over the previous nine years.
I didn’t call it a “web log” or “blog” at the time, but rather an online version of a classic “three-dot” newspaper column format. It originally wasn’t dependent on links to other websites, and it was only updated once or twice a week.
But it was one of the first sites anywhere to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, curated and compiled from assorted info sources local and worldwide, based on an individual sensibility.
It allowed me to keep writing MISC after the Stranger fired me the first time.
For a while, it got me enough freelance work to live off of, at least until the first dot-com crash in ’01.
And I’ve kept at it ever since, more or less.
There have been times (such as most of last year) when I haven’t really felt like adding to it.
Times when I didn’t even want anyone to think of me as “a writer,” especially if that meant I was expected to gladly work for for-profit companies for free.
(I am not, nor have I ever been, independently wealthy, despite occasional rumors to the contrary.)
Even more than in the past, I’ve been obsessed with finding something, anything, that I could do specifically for money. Not for coolness, and certainly not for that dreaded term “exposure.”
And having the public image of “a writer” meant many people thought I couldn’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, anything else.
But the Seattle corporate world isn’t a fully welcoming place these days for someone who’s neither young nor a programmer.
And reinventing myself at my age (yes, it’s my own birthday today) would be possible, but perhaps more trouble than it would be worth. Especially if that reinvention involved student loan debt.
So I looked into what I could do that would exploit what I’m already known for doing.
Blog ads don’t earn a lot any more, unless you’ve got a really high readership in a national “market niche.”
And asking people to contribute money to a personal, occasional blog wasn’t much of a proposition.
But, perhaps, an information service that would contribute to people’s lives might be something people would want to support.
In 2007-8, I was involved with a group trying to start a local news site.
The project fell through for several reasons.
But the initial notion, of a single handy source for the day’s Seattle-area headlines, stayed with me.
There have been several attempts, but nothing that came close to the type of service I’d like to see.
So I’ve made my own.
It’s MISCmedia MAIL, and it starts today.
Each weekday morning, your email box will be filled with a brief, breezy summary of what’s going on around here.
It’s everything you’ve learned to love about this site, only in a much more useful form.
You can sign up for it at the handy box in the upper-left corner of this page.
Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be looking into ways to monetize it.
But for now, I’m working on building its audience.
Won’t you join us?
pike place market foundation
When KIRO-TV posted architectural drawings for a “new entrance” to the Pike Place Market in early March, a lot of social-media commenters were outraged. Why, they asked, would anyone rip out such an historic Seattle landmark?
“Why the hell are Seattle (and Tacoma) so hell bent on destroying their history and character?” one commenter wrote. “It is the most short sighted move imaginable.”
“I wish they’d just leave it alone” wrote another commenter. “Tourists can go see modern shopping malls in any town, but our Market is unique. Leave it alone!”
These commenters were at least partly mistaken.
The drawings KIRO showed on TV and posted on its social-media feeds didn’t depict a replacement to the current Market complex but an addition to it.
The Market everyone knows and loves, to the tune of 10 million visits a year, is staying put.
The new buildings will go to the west of the current Market buildings, between Western Avenue and the doomed Alaskan Way Viaduct. A surface parking lot is there now. (The last structure on that site, the Municipal Market Building, was demolished in 1974 following a fire.)
Besides new retail and commercial spaces, the project will also include a community center, 40 low-income-senior apartments, a 300-car parking garage (replacing parking spaces that will be lost when the viaduct’s removed), and a new pedestrian promenade, leading down to the new waterfront project that will eventually replace the viaduct.
Indeed, state money from the waterfront project is contributing $6 million of the estimated $74 million tab for the “MarketFront” expansion. City bonds will supply the biggest chunk of the project’s budget, $34 million.
The Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, the Market’s management agency, also hopes to raise $6 million through “philanthropy.”
The affiliated Pike Place Market Foundation is selling little doodads with donors’ names on them, to be permanently built into the MarketFront structures. There are black metal discs called “Market Charms” for $180, to be installed along a chain-link fence. And there are bronze pig hoofprints (referencing Rachel, the Market’s beloved bronze piggy bank) for $5,000, to be placed along the Western Avenue sidewalk. Both are considerably higher-priced than the $35 donors paid for inscribed floor tiles during the Market renovations in 1985.
The foundation and the PDA believe Seattle now has enough people who have, and are willing to donate, that kind of money.
And the PDA and its architects also apparently believe the new addition should also look like something that fits in with this new-money Seattle.
The PDA held the usual public meetings and “input” sessions about the MarketFront buildings’ design and uses. The PDA says the public comments at these sessions helped to influence the MarketFront design, which now incorporates hard woods and other special cladding materials to add a little more “old Northwest” flavor, but in a slick retro-modern way.
And, unlike some of the first renderings for the waterfront project, the MarketFront drawings depict a few nonwhite people among the imagined sunny-day strollers.
But the overall look of the architects’ drawings still reflects a modern, “tasteful” look, with clean straight lines, light neutral colors, and open uncluttered spaces.
The original Market, of course, doesn’t look a thing like that.
It’s beautifully, lovably cluttered.
It contrasts World War I-era structures with buildings of 1970s-1980s vintage, which all somehow fit together.
It’s got weird angles, varying ceiling heights, and ramps and stairs and concourses of different widths.
It’s got garish signage, loud noises, boisterous crowds, and great smells.
It’s both utilitarian and archaic, businesslike and freewheeling. It’s a total sensual experience.
MarketFront might eventually become like that after it’s been “lived in” for a few years.
But that, if MarketFront is built according to the current design drawings, could take quite some time.
The PDA and the City want to start MarketFront construction this year, so it (and its parking garage) can be completed before the viaduct is removed. An official groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for late June.
But with the well-publicized delays in building the tunnel that would replace the viaduct, there’s a little more time before the elevated highway comes down.
There’s time to redo the MarketFront plans. Time to make the buildings and concourses messier, less McMansion-like, more cacophonous.
Time to give it something at least vaguely approaching that Pike Place funk.
(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)
letterman with seattle comix legend lynda barry, 1988
Either the first or the second most famous ex-Mariners co-owner (before or after Danny Kaye) ends late night TV’s longest run (almost 33 and a half years, between two networks) tonight.
Besides having been an investor in the Ms during the baseball team’s disastrous George Argyros era, he often had locally-connected guests over the years, including Foo Fighters as the official last guests on the last show, and Eddie Vedder on Monday’s third-to-last show. (Also: Lynda Barry (above), Soundgarden, Bill Nye, Joel McHale, Kyle MacLachlan, Artis the Spoonman, Sean Nelson’s band Harvey Danger, and especially the late Seattle-born comedian George Miller.)
Some commentators have pointed out that his NBC Late Night series (and especially his short-lived NBC morning show, which never aired in Seattle) were landmarks in conceptual humor (as masterminded by original head writer Merrill Markoe).
Some of these same critics complain that his act on CBS has morphed into a real version of his onetime grumpy-old-guy character, the one with the catch phrase “Get off my lawn.'”
It had been clear for some time that Letterman had accomplished all on TV that he ever would; but that he was determined to stick around until his onetime pal Jay Leno left (for good) first. Once that finally happened, Letterman announced his own retirement. That was followed in short order by the ends of Chelsea Lately, The Colbert Report (a post-“idiot”-character version of Colbert takes over from Letterman on CBS this fall), The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, and soon The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
(All this has happened while, in the eyes of some industry watchers, online streaming is allegedly “killing traditional TV.”)
It was also clear that Letterman had ceased even pretending to care about the showbiz-hype rituals that are the state religion of late-night talk; leaving a sincere (if borderline-pandering) appreciation for a certain few celebrity pals and longtime frequent guests. These people have populated the Late Show guest roster during this almost year-long “farewell tour,” an exercise in mawkishness that just kept getting mawkish-er as the finale approached.
And the whole hip-irony shtick he’d popularized back then has become one of the native tongues of marketing and advertising, in all its air-quotes smarm.
As of Thursday, the longest-serving hosts still in late night will be (1) Conan O’Brien (who’d originally replaced Letterman at NBC) and (2) Jimmy Kimmel.
Letterman’s leaving the public stage means I’ll now probably never get to ask him what, if anything, he remembered about Frances Farmer. He and the ill-fated Seattle-born film actress were each on Indianapolis local TV, albeit at different times.
I do know a guy who’d studied drama with Letterman (and future Three’s Company star Joyce DeWitt) at Indy’s Ball State U. This guy had remembered Farmer’s TV show, but alas not much about it; only that she’d been a low-rent Loretta Young introducing creaky old movies in the afternoons.
jack smith/ap via komo
This week marks 35 years since Mount St. Helens gave Wash. state the world’s biggest vomit launch.
It blasted some 1,500 feet of itself into the skies.
It killed 57 people, but that could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t happened on a Sunday morning (when loggers weren’t working nearby timber stands).
I remember it as an exciting time—and as a great news story.
I was on the UW Daily staff at the time. We had a photographer who had a pilot’s license. On his own initiative, he rented a single-engine plane and flew it as close to the eruption-in-progress as authorities would let him.
The UW also had seismology and geophysics experts. The main seismograph readings of the eruption were recorded in a room on the campus hastily dubbed the “Volcano Crisis Center.”
You can read about the spectacle, and view stunning pix of the mountain before, during, and after, at KING, KOMO, the Tacoma News Tribune, USA Today, UW Libraries, and the outside-blogger portion of Forbes.com.
76th and aurora, 1953; seattle municipal archive
Seems every week, something important from this once fair little seaport city is taken away from us in the name of density, development, or “disruption.”
Cool old bars and restaurants and shops, yes. But also a men’s pro basketball team, a daily newspaper, a radio host, a live theater space.
And the new things that replace the old things tend to be costlier, louder, hoity-toity-er. Dive bars get turned into upscale bistros; cheap apartments become luxury condos.
For someone who came of age loving the old Seattle, for all its faults and limitations, today’s city seems more and more like an alien land.
The Soul of Seattle is a hard thing to define, and different people have defined it differently. But this is how I define it.
Seattle’s soul is not loud or pushy. It doesn’t scream at you to order you to love it.
It’s quiet and confident; yes, to the point of dangerously smug self-satisfaction.
Yet it’s also funny in a self-deprecating way. Seattle’s sense of quirky humor can be seen in Ivar Haglund, J.P. Patches, John Keister, the Young Fresh Fellows’ songs, the comic art of Jim Woodring and The Oatmeal.
It believes in beauty, in many forms. The delicate curves and perfect proportions of the Space Needle; the slippery warmth of a bag of Dick’s fries; the modest elegance of a Craftsman bungalow.
It believes in old fashioned showmanship. The fringe theaters of the ’70s and ’80s; the burlesque troupes of the ’90s; the alternative circus acts of the 2000s.
It believes in old fashioned fun. Boat races; cream cheese on hot dogs; tiki parties; comics conventions.
Yet it also believes in schmoozing and in deal making. Boeing got on such good terms ith the airlines of the world that Lockheed never sustained. Microsoft made deals to put MS-DOS and Office on almost every desktop computer.
And it believes in civic progress, however it’s defined. It created monuments to its own “arrival” (the Smith Tower, the Olympic Hotel, the Century 21 Exposition). It built public spaces more beautiful than they had to be (the UW campus, the Volunteer Park Conservatory). It leveled hills, filled in tide flats, raised streets, lowered Lake Washington, and put up parks everywhere from freeway airspace to an old naval base.
There are several places around town where this Soul of Seattle still lives and even thrives.
Here are just a few of them:
(Cross posted with City Living Seattle.)
The publication that first coined the phrase “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” (initially referring to women’s spending power, as a lure to advertisers) is calling it quits.
The Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, as it was known back in 1886, was founded by Philadelphia newspaper publisher Cyrus Curtis, and originally edited by his wife Louisa Knapp Curtis. It was run for three decades by the Curtises’ son-in-law Edward Bok, one of the inventors of the modern magazine industry. (Some old timers might have heard of the Curtis/Bok family’s other big magazine, The Saturday Evening Post.)
The Journal was a pioneer in the business model of cheap subscriptions subsidized by advertising, and thrived on it for many years. At the end it still had more than 3.2 million buyers (down from 6.8 million in 1968); but ad revenue had collapsed, as it has for so many print ventures. The name will now appear on occasional “newsstand special” editions, essentially to keep the trademark alive.
(The above image links to a review of a 1900 article in which the Journal predicted American life in the far-off year 2000. The article was a lot closer to what really happened than you might think.)
As Sears’ Seattle store dies (see this blog’s previous entry), another company here in town has led a revival of shopping from home, with a “catalog” running to millions of auto-customized web pages.
But Amazon’s original business, and its most controversial presence, remains in books.
As George Packer recently noted in the New Yorker, Amazon has disrupted, and often infuriated, the champions of traditional publishing, also known as “Book Culture.”
Some of these folks gathered in Seattle in late February/early March for the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
AWP’s main public event was a giant book fair on the convention’s final day, featuring hundreds of publishers big and small, for- and non-profit. It’s the one time a year, in a different city each year, when poetry is a business!
And Amazon was there, as a convention co-sponsor and as a vendor, with a book fair table advertising its self-publishing services.
One of the small literary publishers at the fair had a raffle for one of Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader devices. They promoted the raffle with a punching-bag toy, festooned with a photo of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ face.
More recently, Mayor Murray sent a formal proposal to UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” program, to become an officially, internationally recognized “City of Literature.”
The city’s formal application included a long original essay by Blueprints of the Afterlife novelist Ryan Boudinot.
The essay lists programs (to be supported partly by local public and private funding) Seattle would implement should it get the UNESCO nod. One of these programs would involve the city buying Hugo House’s building on Capitol Hill as a permanent “literary arts center” (that would also continue to house Hugo House’s programs).
Boudinot’s essay also gushes, in adoring detail, about Seattle and the Northwest’s cultural heritage(s) and its contributions in literature and publishing (especially Fantagraphics’ graphic novels) as well as in music and the visual arts.
And nowhere in the essay’s 7,000-plus words are the words “Amazon” or “Bezos” ever mentioned.
Here is a story about the world’s largest “shop from home” company, and the time it started an experimental business operation in Seattle that grew and grew.
The company was Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth”, “Our Trade Reaches Around the World”).
The time was 1925.
The experiment was to expand from its famous “Big Book” mail order catalogs into what are now called “brick and mortar” retail stores. Urbanization and automobiles (two trends that now seem contradictory) had come to threaten Sears’ biggest market—rural families who wanted prices and selections they couldn’t get in small-town stores.
Because this was a new direction for a company that had grown huge on its existing business model, Sears management chose to save money by placing its first two retail stores in buildings it already owned—its catalog warehouses in Chicago (the company’s headquarters) and Seattle. (The Chicago flagship store closed a few decades back, leaving the Seattle store as the company’s oldest.)
The Sears Seattle warehouse building had been built a little over a decade before, in 1912. The Industrial District (later christened “Sodo” by local boosters) had just been created a few years before, from tide flats filled in with dirt from the city’s massive regrading projects. It was built for the company by the Union Pacific Railroad, whose freight tracks hugged its back side. It was built from solid old growth local timber, with handsome brick cladding and a clock tower (still the neighborhood’s tallest structure, other than container-dock cranes) on top.
It also happened to be two miles south of the city’s traditional retail core. This meant the store would rely less on foot traffic and more on folks driving expressly to go there. That meant it was a forbearer of suburban malls and big-box stores, trends Sears would ride on nationally in the post-WWII decades.
The store housed a subset of the catalog’s almost-everything selection (but not cars, or entire houses in kit form, or non-perishable groceries, three of the catalog’s once-popular sections). It had “soft goods” (clothes and linens). It had “hard goods” (appliances, hardware, auto parts, furniture). For a while, there was even a farm supply department.
In 1951, the new Alaskan Way Viaduct meant Sears was just off of the main highway through the city. A little over a decade later, I-5 would pass nearby.
Generations grew up with our own local version of the store advertised as “Where America Shops,” a chunk of middle class materialistic heaven surrounded by warehouse and small factories.
Perhaps the escalators were narrow and rickety, and the ceilings shorter, compared to newer stores in the malls; but Seattle’s Sears had its own charms. The popcorn machine and the candy counter. The cool pastel colored walls in the women’s department. The Saturday morning cartoons or Sunday afternoon sports games on the wall of TVs.
Meanwhile, the warehouse part of the building grew over the years to 2.2 million square feet, making it Seattle’s largest building by volume.
But the Sears catalogs were phased out in the mid 1980s. The building was put up for sale in 1990. It was first retitled SoDo Center, then Starbucks Center when the coffee giant moved its head offices into it.
The Sears retail store remained but shrank. Part of its space was taken up by by an Office Max. Home Depot opened a huge store across South Lander Street, competing with many of Sears’ “hard goods” departments.
The company wasn’t doing too well nationally by this time either. Walmart had overtaken both Sears and Kmart to become the nation’s top retailer. The 2004 merger of Sears and Kmart failed to revive either chain’s fortunes.
Thus, the end of the Sodo Sears store became inevitable.
Only 79 employees remained with the store when its closure was announced in February, 13 of them in the “Auto Center” department.
The store had become forgotten before it was gone.
In the six weeks or so since I posted any news briefs, the news has just kept on a-comin’.
Among the highlights: The hedge-fund guys who bought and sold Chrysler, then bought (and re-merged) the two previously spun-apart regional halves of Albertsons, are now going to buy Safeway.
Both chains have been bought and sold in leveraged buyout schemes previously; both have barely recovered from those debacles. Both chains have also acquired other regional chains over the decades, and lost and re-gained some of the stores operating under their original “store banners.” Even the “core” Safeway-branded operation was originally a merger of several chains, arranged by Merrill Lynch in the 1920s.
It happens that Safeway and Albertsons both have roots in Idaho (the original Albertsons is still open in Boise!). Both circuits grew and thrived in the inland and coastal West, areas A&P (the grocery biz’s former 300-lb. gorilla) mostly never got around to entering. These are also territories that Walmart only got around to entering in the last decade or two. That makes them relatively stable fiscally, compared to southern and eastern grocery circuits operating in Walmart’s core regions.
Both chains, of course, control lots of real estate, which may be the real reason they’re attractive to the hedge-fund folks. Safeway in particular has actively co-developed multi-story, “mixed use” projects on many of its store sites, including several projects in Seattle and Bellevue.
The soon-to-be-combined chains’ management claims no stores will close as a result of the merger. But many could be sold off, especially in metro areas where both chains are strong. And some warehouses and front-office jobs could also go away.
One thing I predict won’t go away: the persistent, and false, urban legend that either or both chains are really “owned by the Mormons.” They never were.
NY10014 at flickr
Since most of my most loyal readers will have other things to do on Sunday afternoon, here’s some relatively timeless randomosity for whenever you log back in:
If you know the answers to some or all of these questions, then you stand a fighting chance at MOHAI Trivia.
This monthly “pub trivia” competition began in April 2012, as a way to help promote the Museum of History and Industry’s pending reopening in south Lake Union. It began at the Wurst Place restaurant/tavern on Westlake, near the old Naval Reserve armory where MOHAI moved that December.
It’s now has also branched out to other bars around town, where volunteer quizmasters offer “MOHAI rounds” as part of those locations’ weekly trivia contests.
But the monthly flagship event is still held at the Wurst Place (except during summer breaks).
And, since its inception, it has been dominated by one team of obscure-knowledge buffs.
Which happens to be the team I’m on.
The Decatur Cannonballs were organized by Jeff Long, a rare book dealer and a longtime Seattle history maven. The other members, all founts of obscure knowledge, are Long’s longtime friends Chris Middleton, Brian Doan, Bill Sandell, and Randall Fehr.
The team is named after a U.S. Navy “sloop of war” whose artillery fire helped end the Battle of Seattle, a one-day uprising by local native Americans against the new white settlement in 1856.
(On nights when some members were unable to attend, the remaining team members have used the alternate name Denny Hillbillies, after the hill that was leveled to create today’s Belltown.)
The Cannonballs won all of the first 11 MOHAI Trivia events. Sometimes they won handily; sometimes by a mere half point. Once, a tiebreaker question was needed to put them on top.
They aced “name the local building” photo questions, questions based on audio clips from movies filmed in Seattle, the origins of local place names, old political scandals, local celebrities, historic events, and sports teams. They beat as many as ten other teams on any given night.
Finally, in November of this year, a team arose to challenge the Cannonballs.
And two categories were found that stumped the Cannonballs. They were local hip hop and local Olympic athletes—both vital aspect of our recent cultural scene but both topics about which these 50ish Caucasian dudes were relatively ignorant.
That night the Cannonballs finally lost.
The previously undefeated champs took it all in stride.
After all, constant triumph without at least a few setbacks just isn’t the Seattle way.
Then the Cannonballs promptly won again in December.
MOHAI Trivia at the Wurst Place (510 Westlake Ave. N.) occurs the first Tuesday evening of every month, including Jan. 7. Neighborhood MOHAI Trivia events will resume in the new year following a holiday hiatus; check MOHAI.org for dates and locations.
(ANSWERS: Henry Yesler; zero; University Village; Ben Haggerty.)
I first knew Mike Vraney, the legendary Seattle rock promoter and home-video mogul, from the regulars at Time Travelers, a comic book store at Second and Pike that also stocked some of the first “punk rock” records. It was a nexus for the nascent “alternative” music scene in town.
He became one of the promoters (with Jim Lightfoot, Carlo Scandiuzzi, and Terry Morgan) who reopened the Showbox Theater for live rock shows in 1979. (The legendary big-band hall at First and Pike had, by then, become a Jewish bingo parlor.)
For two amazing years he helped to stage dozens of shows, all of them memorable, with both national (the Ramones, XTC, the Police, Devo) and local (the Blackouts, the Beakers, the Fags) acts. For that alone, he shaped my life and what would become known years later as “the Seattle scene.”
From there, he went on to manage such bands as the Dead Kennedys, TSOL, and Seattle’s own The Accused.
Then in 1990 he launched Something Weird Video.
At first, it was a simple operation. Vraney had unearthed a cache of nudie-cutie “loop” film reels at a swap meet. He sold VHS tapes of their contents.
Those tapes sold well enough that he put out tapes of other reels he and friends had collected over the years, and sought out similar “cult” films to release.
Early hardcore pornos; earlier softcore sex films (that had been driven out of the marketplace by hardcore pornos); indie horror and gore flicks; nudist-camp pseudo-documentaries; sci-fi “creature features;” gangster and spy capers; gruesome driver’s-ed classroom films; drive-in intermission promos; old beer commercials—almost no genre was too outré for Something Weird.
In these tapes’ packaging and promotion, Vraney effectively captured and updated the carney-barker showmanship of old sleaze cinema. His video boxes were printed in lurid colors that made them stand out on store shelves. Wherever available, he incorporated the films’ original advertising copy and poster art on his videocassette boxes, along with scads of text placing the films in the context of their original making and release.
Before long, Vraney was buying or leasing the rights to films by such schlockmeister auteurs as Harry Novak, David Friedman, Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno, Michael and Roberta Finley, and Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Vraney took his company’s name and logo from one of Lewis’s no-budget “classics.”)
He brought these films (which had originally only been screened in drive-ins and urban “grindhouse” cinemas) and their makers (who’d been mostly unknown, even to the films’ original viewers) to the attention of new generations of enthusiasts. The pop-rock band 10,000 Maniacs named itself after a film Vraney had reissued, Lewis’s 2,000 Maniacs.
When DVDs first came out, Vraney hit upon a two-pronged business strategy.
For “mainstream” markets (or at least as mainstream as Something Weird got), Vraney signed up with distributor Image Entertainment to place over 100 discs (mostly double features) in major retail chains. These “Special Edition” discs included trailers, shorts, and the films’ original posters and ad art.
He kept full control of the rest of his catalog (which by this time numbered in thousands of titles) for sale on DVD-R, through mail order and through specialty video stores.
As the DVD biz peaked and declined (he once told me he’d known DVD was done for when Tower Records, his biggest customer, folded), Vraney moved into downloads, streaming, and on-demand cable TV. He even set up a stock footage operation, licensing scenes from some of his videos (such as his compilations of old commercials and educational films) for documentaries.
In 2012 he co-produced That’s Sexploitation!, a documentary about the makers of old time nudie, softcore, and stag films. Even as he appeared at some of its festival screenings, he kept private what only family and close friends knew—that he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer.
The end apparently came quickly.
He leaves behind his wife and partner, artist Lisa Petrucci, and two now-adult children he’d had with his first wife Tammy Decroff (who had also died from cancer).
Back in 2003, after the first round of local dot-com crashes, former Seattle Weekly writer Fred Moody wrote a book called Seattle and the Demons of Ambition.
Moody wrote about instances when the city as a whole, or individual Seattleites, obsessively pursued grandiose schemes for power, money, or civic greatness, only to figuratively crash back down to Earth.
Moody didn’t include the Seattle Monorail Project (1996-2005) in his vignettes. But that failed dream of a better, cheaper, more futuristic urban transit system certainly qualifies as a sky-high dream that collapsed amid broken hearts and balance sheets.
And Dick Falkenbury, the sometime cab driver who helped to launch the project, is a major aspect of this tale. While he’d worked in minor roles on local political campaigns in the past, many saw him as the ultimate outsider.
To the local media, and to many of his supporters, Falkenbury was the civilian tinkerer with a great idea—an idea that would cure gridlock, make car-free living more feasible, and never get stuck in traffic, all without major government subsidies.
He was like Campbell Scott’s character in the Seattle-filmed movie Singles, whose drive for a city-crossing “supertrain” was promptly dismissed by the mayor. Except that Falkenbury’s idea, while snickered at by almost everyone in power, was loved by the people.
With the aid of local rich kid Grant Cogswell and a few plucky volunteers, plus some clever ideas for low-cost signature gathering and campaigning, the Monorail Initiative got onto the ballot—and passed.
Cogswell went on to a failed City Council run, as documented in Phil Campbell’s book Zioncheck for President and Stephen Gyllenhaal’s movie Grassroots. (Later, Cogswell declared Seattle to be unworthy of him and moved to Mexico City.)
Now, Falkenbury’s written, and self-published, his account of the Monorail dream’s life and death.
The book’s title, Rise Above It All, was one of the initiative’s slogans.
Just as the elevated trains were meant to run above snarled streets, the Monorail Project was meant to run above, and apart from, the city bureaucracy and the “infrastructure lobby” of contractors and construction unions.
That things didn’t turn out that way wasn’t just the fault of Falkenbury’s outsider status. But that was a factor. He made enemies. He nurtured grudges, even with allies. Without the skills or clout to manage the ongoing operation of planning and building a transit system, he was forced to watch it taken over by the “experts.”
What came out the other end of that process was, in many ways, just another bloated civic construction proposal, complete with an unworkable financing plan. After four consecutive “yes” votes, city voters finally killed the monorail on a fifth ballot.
But would the system Falkenbury originally envisioned, or something like it. have worked?
Would it have carried 20 million riders or more per year, in auto-piloted trains, on tracks supported just 20 feet above the ground on narrow pillars, with fewer than 100 employees, financed almost completely by fare-box proceeds and station concessions?
In his book, Falkenbury insists it could have, and still could.
But he doesn’t make a convincing case.
For one thing, he could have really used an editor.
He regularly misspells the names of even major players in his story, such as City Councilmember Nick Licata.
He makes the sort of wrong-real-word errors that Microsoft Word’s spell checker can’t find, such as when he mentions “rewarding a contract” instead of “awarding” it.
He rambles on about his personal distaste for several people, including ostensible allies such as Peter Sherwin (whose second monorail initiative kept the dream alive after the city council first tried to kill it).
And he defends the monorail plan as he’d originally envisioned it, without providing a lot of specific evidence that the engineers and planners and politicians were all wrong and he was right.
But he still could be.
If Falkenbury had been a more effective schmoozer and networker; if he’d gotten more politicians on his side; if he’d sold his plan as a supplement, not a competitor, to the tri-county Sound Transit organization; if he’d convinced ST to at least consider switching from light-rail to monorail technologies; if he’d been able to keep a tighter eye on the planning and money people, or had more allies who could; then, just maybe, we might have been riding in the sky from Crown Hill to the West Seattle Junction by now.