Revisiting the Park: Navigating Seattle's old nightlife could be a full time job

Sixty years ago, we hardly even used the word “technology” let alone remark about how anything was high tech.

After work, it was common to go into a favorite bar to relax and maybe meet someone new. At some point, it was time to excuse yourself to use the restroom.  In that restroom was a vending machine with various accoutrements.  Deposit $.25, put your hands under a spout and a smidgen of Old Spice or Mennen squirted out.  Now that’s mood changing!

Another choice:  a pocket comb— deposit a quarter --it was yours and you even got a nickel back.  In the ladies’ room were dispensaries with several essentials like perfume blasts as well as aspirin or medicinal sprays.

We used to have gas stations where attendants filled the tank, checked the oil and washed the windows while you waited.  In Madison Park if you were late for work, discovered a flat tire or a dead battery, all you had to do was call Norm, otherwise known as “Oly”, the neighborhood mechanic at the Richfield gas station at the corner of McGilvra and Madison.  He’d be at your home in minutes to save the day.  AAA kind of fits that bill today and has saved many a person late for work.

Early morning traffic back then was nonexistent, taking only eight to 10 minutes from Madison Park to 3rd and Vine.  Could traffic get any worse?   Apps on phones nowadays shave off some time but by only a matter of a few minutes by using other routes avoiding heavy traffic, accidents or closures.

Don’t get me started on parking prices;  Downtown meters charged a whopping $.50 a day!  On a date, it was common to find a spot not more than two car lengths from the theater box office.  Garages are up to $25 for an evening now and are not all that convenient.

A Saturday night quite often meant dancing, so a group of us from Madison Park would caravan to Parker’s Ballroom on 170th and Aurora for some live music.  There was a small cover charge which included a “setup” of a quart of Tom Collins, 7-Up or Coke for $1.75 to be mixed with the bag of booze you brought.  (Liquor laws at that time all over the nation required a brown bag or out of sight requirement).  Whoever said dancing was cheap?  There was always a chance of seeing other people from the neighborhood which really made it a fun night.

Around 11p.m. a few went home but the rest of us hit Chinatown.  First stop:  Tai Tungs where a favorite waiter, Mr. Lee, greeted us at the door, winking,   That great meal energized us to look for more night life.

A few steps down the alley was a well-hidden door with a small window.  Hank the owner answered our knock and seated us at a table near a dance floor.  It was so crowded in there that two drinks had to be ordered (or you’d never see the waitress again) for the exorbitant price of $1.50.

A couple of hours later we climbed a couple of flights up to Bob Kivo’s 605 to be met by Bob himself.  Here we brought our own booze in a paper bag or bought a pint of 4 Roses from the kitchen for $10.  A highlight at this club was a dice game called craps which no one ever won, but at least it was entertaining.  Madison Parkers were there too with the same evening routine.

Time to move on, lay back and enjoy some blues at the Black and Tan on 12th and Jackson where there was always parking.  Bill Summerise, a KZAM disc jockey, greeted us and sat us next to none other than Dave Lewis, Quincy Jones and many more.  They were all there to play some sets.  Dave Lewis had a popular song called “Little Green Thing” which I believe was played if not recorded at the Downbeat Dance club on Yesler and 2nd.

At the Downbeat, bands played on a carousel and we danced around it where Seattle’s best did “The Western Swing.”  Some of the moves were show stoppers but most of us just watched and applauded.  Quincy was right there playing the Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

The night was not over yet.  One last spot to hit was a kind of Speakeasy near Madison on 1st.  They served nothing but bloody marys, screwdrivers and live music.  A pleasant end to the evening, or morning rather—you had to have your sunglasses on — was driving up Madison into the sunrise.  Just over the hill, Snoqualmie was a beautiful sight.  It made one proud to live in a city with such great nightlife as well as daytime beauty.

It was common for a group to rent a large room in popular hotels for social gatherings offering music, dancing, and a full bar.  A cover charge generated a profit for the principals.  A game unfolded at one of these parties: to race elevators from the third floor to the basement.  Occupants of each would stand, then run, then hit the basement button.  Whoever touched the wall when the elevator stopped won the cash. Patrons standing by even bet on who would win.

Everyone was having a joyful evening--except the management.  The police were called and the patrons ran from the party room.  Down the stairs the cops and the manager herded the unruly crowd into the arms of the law.

I was standing by an open window and saw my escape:  step out onto the ledge three stories up (having been an iron worker this was a no brainer—couldn’t do it today).  From that vantage point I saw some partygoers slip across the street to mix in with onlookers.  It was like watching an old Buster Keaton movie.

I could see the cops had left and as I looked around the corner a face looked back.  It was Dick Wolke, a good friend--we still had our drinks so we clinked glasses and had a hell of a laugh.  I asked, “What are you doing out here?”  He answered, “Same as you!”   “Let’s go back in and I’ll buy you a drink!” Sipping away we watched the blinking lights of the city and laughed some more.  What could be better?

Sundays were everyone’s laid back day.  Bars and taverns were closed, there was no alcohol sold in stores.  There was, however, a little Mom and Pop store on south Capitol Hill that sold a case of beer for $10.   There was even home delivery by “Bowling Ball Harry.”  Harry used Yellow Cab to sell a bowling ball full of booze as well as pockets of bottles for a hefty fee.

If you had a group over on a Sunday and decided to barbeque there was always a problem finding meat as it was not sold after 6 p.m. on weekdays and never on Sundays.  Not to worry, just a short jaunt to Juanita a butcher sold prime steaks but the issue was he expounded about socialism. You might say he was the Facebook of that generation. We went there so often, he started making sense.

There were many poker houses not far from our neighborhood where you could play with serious players and know the rules or be shown out to the alley.  The alley left bruises.  There was always a plethora of ladies to dance and share conversation and to buy drinks for as the house was in it to make dollars.

The only bars opened on Sundays were a few private clubs but the one nearest Madison Park was in the Seattle Tennis Club.  Of course, you had to be or know a member or join and wait months to even be considered. Wow, months!  Unheard of.

That was the perfect life in the Fifties.  In today’s world, an older person cannot quite keep up with whatever shenanigans there is to be had past 10 p.m.  I am sure there are plenty more memories being made as we speak.