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Thursday, May 23, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reinventing Itself Again -- The Showbox Has Housed Acts From Duke Ellington To Punkers, From Taxi-Dancing To Hip-Hop, Even Bingo. Now It Returns To Its Classier Roots.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When the new Showbox Lounge opens tomorrow, it won't be just another case of clubland cocktail-hype. It's a very special kind of restoration - and a sign that Seattle music is turning another corner.

Most folk know it as a First Avenue landmark. But the venue's history is a singular Seattle story.

According to historians Paul DeBarros ("Jackson Street After Hours," Sasquatch Press, 1993) and Clark Humphrey ("Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story," Feral House, 1995), the original Show Box Cabaret opened sometime in 1939. It presented "a little bit of everything," says Eric Edwards, who is the venue's new, enthusiastic publicist. Among the "everything" were stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (born here), big-band star Duke Ellington and singer Al Jolson.

But the Show Box was to suffer many ups and downs. During World War II, its spring-loaded floor made it a "taxi dance" ballroom, where women were "paid to partner" (and some naughtier goings-on took place in the basement). Its ground-floor Amusement Center became a peep show, with off-color offshoots like The Temple of Venus.

Then, in 1948, it closed - re-opening in 1953 as a theater, dance hall and, by 1962, as Show Box Furniture. Life as a furniture store didn't help the venue flourish; it closed once again until '67. Then, it opened as a teenage dance club, with a now-nostalgic hippie name, The Gathering.

By the late '70s, it was a Jewish bingo parlor, with a new title: Talmud Torah. But the owners began to rent it out for rock shows. By the second show (a benefit for The Rocket's first issue), the name Showbox was back (albeit as one word). And the site entered a time of semi-prosperity.

From 1979 through 1983, a Rolodex of different promoters managed it: an enterprising team known as Modern Productions; a Metro bus driver and his brother-in-law; an Italian ex-janitor, Alphonse Adinolfi - and, finally, Concerts West and Big Z Productions.

During this era, the acts were equally varied. They included "New Wave", then "punk", from around the globe. There were gigs by Iggy Pop and The Ramones, British bands Magazine and Gang of Four, The Plasmatics and The Dead Kennedys. "Generations came of age there, from big-band to punk," says promoter-writer Larry Reid, who booked two performances. "Punk kids loved to pogo-dance on all those springs."

His shows were held in '88 and '90, by which time the venue was basically gutted. Reid: "I had to bring in power through the alley. And, because there were no more alarms, I watched both shows next to the fire marshal."

In 1992, while Seattle music exploded, the Showbox opened as a comedy club. Rapper Sir-Mix-A-Lot's pal Ricardo Frazier and promoter Robert Brewer briefly brought back live music - they booked evenings of happening soul and hip-hop. But, by '94, it had changed again: into The Showbox Comedy and Supper Club.

Now, its standing is being re-asserted by new leaseholders: Casa U-Betcha's Jeff Steichen, 2218's Ann and Daniel Stoner, Art Cervantes and Martin Tobias. They took on the premises after Christmas. Now, they're carving out a Showbox Lounge - in the image of the venue's initial history. This means the installation of a grand piano (soon to be encircled by a wraparound bar), another "horeshoe bar" from California, chandeliers and a "well-trained" cocktail staff. Says Eric Edwards, "It's a '30s, '40s and '50s mixture. But we're not riding the `Cocktail Nation' wave. We're restoring something which was very real."

It was indeed. Recalls Alphonse Adinolfi, "During World War II, as a dime-a-dance place, lots of people seem to have found romance there. When I ran the Showbox, several wandered in - real sweet couples, in their 70s and 80s."

The main showroom, now booked by Tastyshows, has already started to become successful; it was packed for both Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello. Adinolfi says he is not surprised at all. "It's just such a beautiful, beautiful room for music. Acoustically, it really is the city's best venue."

The site's history seems uncannily linked to musical shifts in Seattle. Now, as the national media pump yet more life into their views of "grunge," many local breakout bands are those making pop. They carry on, of course, a long Seattle legacy, stretching back through the punks to the Young Fresh Fellows and Posies.

The next national example could be Muzzle, signed to Reprise Records by that label's president. Buzz on its forthcoming CD is fierce all around (called "Betty Pickup", it premieres June 18). Says Jim Baltutis, Reprise's national director of media relations, "This is a Seattle band who write great pop. They just write fantastic, melodic songs."

Seattle DJ Marco Collins agrees. Collins, the music director at KNDD-FM, has already recorded Muzzle - himself. The group's 7-inchsingle, "Free Trampoline", was the third record he chose for his label, Stampede.

Collins, who has helped many careers blossom, also notes a change in Seattle music. "Not that I denounce any band who's done things. But there is a shift. Just look at the spinoff from a band like Britain's Oasis, and at bands from here like The Presidents."

"Or take total grunge veterans like the Screaming Trees. Their new album, `Dust', has a real fresh sound. The guitar work's different, there are even strings on the record. And I think it's really, really gonna be a hit."

Few people take the Cocktail Nation "movement" seriously. Its slogans are a pose, a merchandising strategy. But a lot of music here has style and pop structure: bands from Super Deluxe and The Lemons to Huge Space Bird and Model Rockets. No band has achieved the total package yet (for one, style is a crutch; another needs stronger songs; yet another should lose its lead guitarist).

But even brand-new bands like the Action Suits are now targeting pop's sweet center.

Once, the Suits were a group called Wormland: roomates Eric Reynolds, 25, Al Columbia, 24, and Andy Schmidt, 22. When Columbia toddled off to live in Portland, celeb cartoonist Peter Bagge joined as the drummer. At the grand old age of 38, Bagge says he can sometimes feel at sea. "I love pure pop, from the Beatles to Sweet. But our songs are just so bubble gummy. Doing my vocals feels like I'm wearing a dress."

The group played its first gig on Halloween: in that downtown Tiki Hut, the Lava Lounge. They wore suits and won four record contracts - all produced by grunge veteran Steve Fisk. The first record of the quartet debuts Monday, pressed by England's prestigious Wiiija Records. Says the company's president Gary Walker, "It's amazing, but it really is pop from Seattle. I see our release as a summer hit." After that come discs from San Francisco (on Man's Ruin), LA (on Cherry Smash) and, last but not least, from Seattle (on Fluffer).

Stylish local labels are also changing, labels like Capitol Hill's Conception Recordings.

At another re-furbished club, the ReBar, Conception runs a club night, called "Groove Grease". Now, the august Blue Note record label chose it for a national launch of its own. On May 27, Blue Note sponsors "Groove Grease" in a theme night. There will be both music giveaways (copies of the label's album "The New Groove", on which classics are re-mixed, hip-hop style), acid jazz grooves and hot chicken wings.

In the words of Eric Edwards from the Showbox, none of this is merely grunge on the rocks. "It's a new environment growing up around fresh music." And the Showbox Lounge will book a mixture: live acts from the jazzy Living Daylights to the Latin-flavored Carmona Flamenco.

Edwards: "And we want to book large local bands, groups like Goodness or maybe Super Deluxe. We want to disprove the national recent press. Yeah, the Off Ramp and RKCNDY closed. Yeah, there are still well-known talented grunge groups. But our shows just prove that new stuff's thriving."

And the venue proves how history lives: in rebirth as well as memory.

Remembering the Showbox

The Showbox Theater is 1496 First Ave., and its new operators would like to know more about the building's history. If you have memories to add to their knowledge, write or call 628-0221. The Blue Note Groove Grease evening starts at 10 p.m. May 27 at the ReBar, 1114 Howell St.; admission $3. ----------------------------------------------------------------- The Showbox Lounge Fog cutter

1 1/4 ounces rum . 1 1/2 ounces brandy. 1/4 ounce gin. 2 ounces sour 1 ounce orange juice. 1/2 ounces orgeat syrup (almond-flavored liqueur)

Top with Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry, then build with ice, shake, and pour into a tall "bamboo" glass. Top with orange slice and cherry, then drop in small chunk of dry ice, for "fog."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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