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Thursday, October 14, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last Party At Parker's Marks End Of A Music Era -- Famed Roadhouse To Become Sports Bar

When Parker's Ballroom first started going up in 1928, it wasn't the biggest joint on the block - it was the block. It was built almost single-handedly on a five-acre field alongside the then-new Seattle-Everett Highway by meat packer Dick Parker. He thought - rightly - that a brand new road required a brand new roadhouse.

More than 60 years later, surrounded by Aurora Avenue's odd amalgam of car lots, strip joints and fast-food fronts, Parker's still stands out. Even in morning's wee hours, when the highway is deserted and the club is dark, it still sounds of the thousands of dancers and musicians who played, partied and paired up there over the last six decades.

Sunday night is officially the Last Dance Party at Parker's. Paul Revere and the Raiders, who regularly played the club in the '60s, perform tomorrow through Sunday. After Sunday night's show, Parker's will close for remodeling and reopen as a sports bar.

Rick Davis, who bought the club from longtime owners Skip Horn and Vern and Darrell Amundson, has gone into partnership with Roger McCracken, owner of the SeaTac sports bar Charlie Mac's. Parker's will become Charlie Mac's North.

"People ask me if I'm sad about the change," says Horn, "and I tell them, `No, not really.'

"The music thing has changed considerably from when I was doing it; maybe it's time for something else. Although it's ironic, what with Seattle being such a hot place for music right now, that it

didn't work out at Parker's. It's not a grunge place. And the kind of acts that draw, like Robin Trower, are hard to get week after week. There are more losers than winners out there, and you can lose a lot of money."

A SWINGING START

When Dick Parker got his handmade club going in 1930, he featured big band swing music with Putt Anderson (the first band to play the ballroom), Frankie Roth, Jackie Sounders, Guy Lombardo and Max Pillar.

At 20,000 square feet under a huge domed ceiling, it was a classic ballroom, one of several that existed on Seattle's fringe and ultimately the only one to survive.

It was a "bottle club:" You brought your own liquor, and the club sold you glasses, ice and mixers. But the chief recreation was dancing, and the massive wooden dance floor was always filled.

Dick Parker died 10 years after opening his nightspot. His wife, Dodie, died shortly after that and left the club to her sisters, Kelma Shoemaker and Opal Horn. It eventually was passed down to Vern and Darrell Amundson, Kelma's sons, and Skip Horn, Opal's son, who grew up in and around Parker's.

In the '50s and '60s, music began to change, and Parker's changed with it.

Although Saturday nights still belonged to Max Pillar and his dance orchestra, Friday nights belonged to the teenagers and emerging Northwest bands like the Wailers, the Sonics, the Frantics, the Dynamics, Tiny Tony, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, the Viceroys and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

"The thing I remember," says Buck Ormsby, bass player for the Wailers, "was the size of the crowds. We were playing before 2,000 kids! The place was always jammed. But we never had to play that loud. Hell, we couldn't. You should have seen our sound system. We were lucky to have a microphone."

Merrilee Rush, who started with Tiny Tony and eventually fronted her own band, says she mostly remembers the dancing. "And the fighting," she adds with a laugh. "There were a few scuffles. It could get pretty wild. But it was a ballroom; it gave you a completely different setting to work in. It wasn't like a little bar."

ROCK COMES IN

It also wasn't that easy to get a gig. Dave Smith, a Mountlake Terrace High School student and musician in the '60s and a regular at Parker's, wanted to get his band in and couldn't.

"We were always there. We used to see Paul Revere and the Raiders do `The Crisco Song,' the one about Crisco parties. They'd drag out this huge Crisco can and Mark Lindsay would pop out of it. But you had to be like on `American Bandstand' to get your band hired.

"We were a long-haired, weirdo hippie band, not an `American Bandstand' band. So we rented the place ourselves! Did our own radio spots, hired the cops, everything. I think the cops made more money than we did."

Smith later went on to play Parker's with other groups after the club changed to the Aquarius Tavern in 1970.

Music was evolving, and the teen bands were being replaced by more hard rock and psychedelic groups like Bighorn, Shyanne, Thin Red Line, Burgundy Express and the then-fledgling Heart.

"Actually," say Roger Fisher, former lead guitarist for Heart, "White Heart, the band I originally had, was the last band to play the old Parker's. That's kind of a historic note. By the time Heart got there, things were becoming more sophisticated. We had a quadrophonic sound system."

Ned Neltner, leader of Jr. Cadillac, dismisses all of the club's changes.

"It was always Parker's, even when it was the Aquarius. It was just a great big old fun tavern. I played the first time with the Coasters in '63, from there it was with everyone else that came through. It could be the best or the worst gig because the electricity in that place is so screwy. The physical juice is weird. Sometimes you'd get this buzz in your amp, other times it would sound great.

"But the best ever gig was the night it was my birthday and the Seattle Sonics won the NBA championship. Yeah, it was June 1, whatever year that was. What a night."

FROM SOFT ROCK TO COUNTRY

Parker's howled and rumbled as the Aquarius for 10 years. Then, in 1980, badly in need of repair, it became the new and improved Parker's, a supper club and lounge.

Skip Horn experimented with different forms of entertainment, from soft rock (not successful) to more classic stars like B.B. King and Tina Turner, to new wave artists including Simply Red and Level 42.

In the last year or so, he emphasized country music, which didn't make the club a lot of money.

"Country guys used to drink," observes Neltner. "Now they just dance. I don't know when that happened."

Disc jockey Danny Holiday, who will host the final festivities this weekend, plans on bringing in as many of the Parker's "family" as possible Sunday night.

"I don't know who'll be playing what, that's up to Paul (Revere)," he says. "But we've got a lot of folks coming in."

Holiday remembers the first time he came to Parker's. He was 17, Merrilee Rush was playing and he had a huge crush on her.

"But I wasn't taking any notes. I wasn't a historian then, just a fan. I wish I'd paid closer attention. It seems like everyone but Elvis and the Beatles played Parker's.

"I don't really think we'll truly regret its passing until it's gone."

Fisher, of Heart, has a prediction of his own.

"I think it's just a matter of time before it turns into a rock hall again. And my band will play there."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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