Revisiting the Park: Finding life anew in dive bars

Richard Carl Lehman

Like so many years ago, there has been concern about the Seattle downtown area. There were many lively if not rowdy bars and taverns with music or even live bands on Pike, Pine, and Union streets. 

These days there is a hesitation in visiting this area for fear of gunfire or other assaults. In the days of old the only sounds were within the establishments and maybe some traffic noise. Parking was painless in those days but now it is costly. Even Capital Hill has parking issues — as in, there is none.

The Caballero tavern on Pike was swinging with a Western motif including beer, dancing, and a fist fight for only $4. The dance floor was always crowded, and it seemed when everyone got into the music elbows flailed and it was time to lead with the right. The alternative was to say, “Excuse me.” The beer and rhythm ruled the scene. When the bouncer said, “Gentlemen, either leave or shake hands,” it was wise not to mouth off to a man of his size.

A few new flight attendants and our Madison Park group decided to hit the Caballero! We didn’t think anything of it but now begs contemplation: we parked right on the street near the entrance and got a table on the dance floor! We ordered pizza, pitchers of beer and danced to fantastic cowboy tunes. The waitress moved fast setting us up with nourishment in no time—so far so good.

There was a ruckus near us heard over the loud level of the band. A patron swung a mighty blow to his opponent’s face sending drops of blood into our pitcher. We hesitated but made it known to our waitress that our pitcher was now unsightly or even infected. While looking at the red dots streaming to the bottom, she bellowed two loud words that surpassed the band’s level. She did replace our beverages and even wiped off the red trail on the table. Now let’s enjoy ourselves. The street cops, Gordy Secket and partner made an appearance to see if some would spend the night in the gray bar inn.  It was typical that Seattle was busy in the evenings and not that unusual for there to be an incident or two.

Not too far away was the Westerner where Gil Conte sang Frank Sinatra tunes to a T in a standing room only lounge. An evening like this we would also hit the Magic Inn a block away on Union. There was a long stairway down to a live stage show with attractive chorus line gals. After fun and relaxation our appetites were building so we entered the El Gaucho on 7th and Olive (at the time).

Liquor laws in the past were odd but have become more reasonable. One evening at the Space Needle a group of us were enjoying continental dining with some great wines from Washington and California. We were about to order after-dinner drinks when the server announced they would be pulling all drinks and wine from the table at midnight. No problem during the week when it remained open until 2 a.m. The reason being no liquor could be sold on Sunday. People were just starting to get revved up, too. Well, we’ll just stop by the liquor store and pick something up for continuing the party at home. Darn, left the liquor card at home. No card, no cocktails, but there was the crowd lined up outside the store who would surely take your $60 to go fetch the order, hopefully not having running shoes on.

The required liquor cards have gone by the wayside, women could not sit at the bar, men had to have both knees bent while sitting and only servers could carry drinks to the patrons—no self service. If there were violations the liquor control board could shut an establishment down for 7 to 14 days. To the rescue — private clubs! Of course, there was scrutinizing done at the door: if you looked familiar or OK, you were admitted but you had to bring your own booze and it had to be in a brown paper bag. After being seated setups of 7-Up, tonic or coke for $1.25 were offered with glasses of ice. Next was to simply pour the booze into the glasses under the table and voila’— a party. Some clubs served drinks two to three at a time due to overcrowding.

Our favorite bars were dry on Sundays so many of us partied at home and if booze was short, a friendly neighborhood Superman, Bowling Ball Harry, would come to the rescue. A simple phone call and in minutes our hero arrived. He came in wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and carried a bowling ball bag. Inside were pints of Four Roses whiskey at $10 each. We were happy patrons and with Harry’s bowling ball bag was lighter he had a cocktail with us. Harry saved many a dry Sunday and I am sure he offered other items and services. Harry was The Man!

Parkers, a very geographically undesirable establishment on Aurora, offered live music and a large dance floor popular with musical groups from out of town. Booze was poured under the table here as was the case at the 605. Another great dance place on the east side was the Rainbow Ballroom on Main Street in Bellevue. Charlie Puzzo of the Playboy Tavern opened a dinner place with class, of course, around 7th and Pine. A doorman would open the car door with a personal greeting, welcoming the party with champagne. A bottle of red wine would be already at the table.

El Gaucho’s was a favorite for winding up a date and was popular with radio disc jockeys on KVI, Jack Martin and Bob Hardwick.  Martin lived in Madison Park and went to J. J. McGilvra school. Together they created a show called “Stella Dallas,” an old-time show with drama, romance, and comedy barely legal with the FCC due to subject material. The drink of choice was a coffee drink with barely any coffee but plenty of booze and served with a flaming orange peel with cognac dripping into the coffee. All the patrons would cheer and at $5 a pop, it was worthy entertainment.

We are so lucky to live in Madison Park with everything in walking distance. There are great restaurants in the Leschi and Beacon Hill areas too just minutes away with few parking problems. We can rely on feeling safe and gratified.