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Sunday, July 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ERIK LACITIS

Beloved Seattle

Seattle Times columnist

Two months ago, I asked you a simple question: Tell me about a few Seattle places you wish others knew. You see, we've arrived at a crossroads. We need to keep this town, this region, from going generic. If we don't know much about the place we live, if we don't know that there is a real story associated with that building or condo development, then it all becomes part of the bland American landscape. So today we are going to tell that nice couple next door, the ones who came by way of Atlanta-Fresno-Chicago and a few other places, some things about the Seattle they don't know.

I stopped counting after response No. 300-something.

"You mean somebody cares about the Seattle that used to exist? Thank you. I used to love Seattle and now I can barely stand to go there," wrote Blaine Hammond of Ocean Park, Pacific County. But I think maybe even the new Seattle still has a hold on him because he sent a three-page letter listing his favorite hangouts.

Charles Kennedy of Edmonds wrote, "Although I am often tempted to respond to certain articles, I have, until now, successfully resisted the temptation. Your piece struck a nerve. Your concept of a generic world is amply validated. Nothing is sacred. A sense of local history and community is irrelevant. We simply capitulate to the Vandals."

Then he went on to list more than 250 places - that's right, more than 250 of them in one, long letter - that connected him to this region. The battle is not yet lost, not with the kind of emotional tug you readers showed in all your letters.

As much as space allows, here is a small sampling of your responses. If you want to see more printed, you know what to do.

Trianon Ballroom

You twenty-thirtysomethings, pay attention. That 90-year-old woman who sent me a letter from Port Townsend, she wants to tell you about when she was young. It is a summer night, a Monday, in Seattle in 1929. Dorothy Plut is studying to be a nurse. Her boyfriend, Harry, who's doing his residency at a local hospital, comes calling. On Mondays, it only costs 25 cents to get into the Trianon, that great, wonderful ballroom in downtown Seattle at Third and Wall.

You dress up when going to the Trianon. A nice skirt, although one in which you can dance all night. Harry puts on his suit. They walk in, and there is a huge mirrored glass ball of light in the middle of the ceiling. Vic Meyers is leading the house band - the same boisterous Vic who'd later be elected lieutenant governor, when our state politicians actually had real personalities.

"I felt so special. I had my boyfriend's arms around me," Dorothy is remembering.

With its tile and stucco, the Trianon was built in a kind of fake Spanish architecture. The Trianon was built to look a little like a Spanish castle. Romantic, you know? It covered half a block, and had a springy maple dance floor that accommodated 5,000 dancers. There were 16 balconies where lovers could have privacy. It was said that more people met their spouses at the Trianon than anywhere else in Seattle.

Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Les Brown, Harry James and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were among the big-name bands that played the Trianon. To boost attendance, there were dance contests, with used cars offered as prizes.

During World War II, there were special "swing shift" dances held for factory workers, and at 1 in the morning there would be 2,000 people standing in the street waiting to get in.

The Trianon closed in 1956. Big bands cost too much; people were staying home to watch television. The old ballroom was used as a warehouse, as a sporting goods store. Now it is the Trianon Building and has been turned into offices for a law firm, an architect, marketing firm. The only reminder of its heyday are photos in the lobby.

Dorothy Plut wants to tell that what she still vividly remembers is that the Trianon is where Harry courted her. They were married for nearly six decades.

Harry has passed away, but Dorothy, well, on a summer afternoon in the year 2000, when a newspaper guy asks, she remembers. "Harry was such a wonderful dancer," she says, and you almost hear the music drifting out into the downtown streets.

Shelly's Leg

Fast forward a few decades beyond the Trianon. What's that you are hearing, blasting against your eardrums? It is KC & the Sunshine Band, telling you to get down tonight. It is Donna Summer promising that she'd love to love you, baby. It is 1975 and you're in Pioneer Square in Seattle's first disco, which opened a couple of years earlier.

You've just stood in line for, what, two hours? The line of some 100 or more people snaked up the block from Shelly's Leg where South Main Street runs into Alaskan Way South, where now you find the Our Home Hotel condominiums.

What a scene it used to be! This was supposed to be a gay club, but by 1975 it was overrun by straights wanting to be where it was happening. It got to the point that Shelly's Leg kept a card file by the back entrance with the names of regulars, and they put up a sign reminding all the straights that this was a gay club, OK?

Sometimes at the club you'd see Shelly Bauman in her wheelchair. Her money started it. There had been a Bastille Day celebration in Pioneer Square, and somebody rented a firetruck with some kind of cannon to shoot off confetti. In all the festivities, maybe beer - some kind of liquid - got poured into the cannon. The confetti hardened, and then somebody accidentally shot the cannon right into Shelly! She ended up losing a leg, but she did get something like $330,000 in an insurance settlement.

Shelly decided to invest $20,000 in that disco. Back then, you could start a club with twenty grand. Shelly's Leg took over a tavern that used to be a rock-'n'-roll joint called the Grapevine, and before that a jazz club called the Poop Deck. Her partners in the venture were Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, who died nine years ago of lung cancer. Shelly's whereabouts are unknown, although she had been living in Hawaii. It being 25 years later, Joe now works in accounts payable.

The Shelly's Leg club had two floors. The weekend cover charge was around $2. A schooner of beer was $1. The disc jockey spun those vinyl hits. Love to love you, baby! The dance floor was packed, the booze flowed. "We tried to keep the place free of drugs, and sometimes succeeded," Joe remembers. Around 12:30 in the morning, when the liquor control guys had gone home, everybody could get inside the club.

But, says Joe, he and Pat didn't exactly get along with Shelly. For one thing, they thought she was taking too much of the gross. The club fell behind on its taxes. One weekend in 1978, Joe and Pat told Shelly she could run the place. The next week the IRS padlocked it and Shelly's Leg was history.

"I know a lot of people have a lot of love for the place," Joe said. "Personally, I couldn't stand it. Night after night, repetitious, loud music. If I don't hear Donna Summer again it won't be too soon."

Playland

Home Depot, Eagle Hardware, Kmart, motels, used-car lots, transmission rebuild shops. Hey, you know where you are. You're on Aurora Avenue North.

But imagine you're a kid in . . . 1935. It is the big day. You're taking the Interurban trolley - the same one for which that famous "Waiting for the Interurban" sculpture in Fremont is named - and you're nearing what now is 130th.

"PLAYLAND!" the conductor calls out.

And suddenly you're in this wonderful amusement park that in the summers closes at midnight, and you could spend all day there. There is this great Big Dipper roller coaster, and bumper cars, and the famous Shoot-the-Chute water slide that takes you up, up, up and then down into a huge tank of water. There is the scary "Phantom Ride," in which you get into a little two-person car, ride the track into a dark building, the doors slam shut and all kinds of dangerous-looking-and-sounding things jump out.

This is no Disneyland. There is a board fence around the dirt parking area, sawdust around the grounds. The guys running the rides probably smoked cigars, and, if you bugged them too much, muttered, "Go away, kid."

If you're really lucky, you are a kid living right by Bitter Lake, which is where Playland is located. You can just walk there. You probably also know some of the kids, if you aren't among them yourself, who periodically steal Playland's alleged mummified Viking exhibit, putting Olaf out to float in the lake in his coffin. Eventually the amusement park nails his coffin to the ground.

Randy Carl, 44, is one of the kids who grew up at Bitter Lake. He loved the amusement park. "More than once, my mom had to come and drag me home," he says.

He has taken his two young sons to Bitter Lake, and they stood where the old Playland used to be. There are no traces of it. Now there is a park there with playfields, and nearby a retirement center. Playland closed in 1960, one story being that civic leaders didn't want it competing with the upcoming Century 21 World's Fair.

Carl remembers the wonderful rides and tries to explain it all to his sons.

"To be honest, while I was describing it all to my sons, it was hard for me to believe, too," Carl says. "Seattle has lost its soul and I am not sure who I feel sorrier for. Those of us who knew her or those newcomers who haven't a clue."

Hong Kong Restaurant

It is a Saturday night, in . . . let's say 1970. Dad put in his long week at Boeing, feeling a little shaky because with the economy so bad there are layoffs. But it is your mom's birthday, and you're going out to dinner in Chinatown, to her favorite restaurant, the Hong Kong.

You love the Hong Kong. It is so big. Driving up, the hugest neon sign in the district greets you. Walking in, a mammoth aquarium awaits. Looking around at the two-level dining area, it seems the tables and vinyl booths stretch everywhere. There is the darkened cocktail lounge in which regulars sip their cocktails with exotic names.

For many Seattleites, it is the Hong Kong, or the Tai Tung Restaurant, that gave them their first experience at a Chinese restaurant.

This is a time when going out to dinner is a big deal. It's something you mark on the calendar, not something you do because nobody has the time to shop or cook.

Your dad asks for "Gregory," the waiter. For all the years he's gone to the Hong Kong, it always has been Gregory he requests. That is a big reason he likes the place. Gregory remembers your dad, probably remembers his favorite dish. Your dad likes that.

Gregory's full name was Sou Hong "Gregory" Chew, and he had started working at the Hong Kong in 1952. He worked there seven days a week, 12 hours a day, no benefits, no vacation, no sick leave. Born in China, then coming to America to join his dad who was already here, Gregory had little education.

"My memories are bittersweet," Ron Chew says about the Hong Kong. He is Gregory's son, and worked at the restaurant as a busboy to save money for college. Bitter because he remembers the grueling work. Sweet because he remembers that tight-knit community of waiters who were all like uncles to him.

These days, Ron Chew, 47, is executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. But he still has indelibly memorized the coding for all the tables at the Hong Kong. Nos. 1 through 12 were the booths; 13 through 30 were a series of rectangular and square tables; the letters a, b, c, and so on were for the round tables.

"I was running at 100 miles an hour, cleaning tables, setting them up. You memorized the tables so you knew who to give the tip to," he remembers.

The Hong Kong was a place where families of various backgrounds mixed - Chinese, Japanese, "lots of Jewish families," Chew says. The Seattle SuperSonics would take over the restaurant. Besides that sense of family, the food was pretty good. It helped, of course, if you were Chinese. You talked directly to the cooks and told them what you wanted, plus there was a Chinese side of the menu.

In the early 1980s, the building was sold to an investment group. Business at the restaurant just seemed to slow after that. Sik-Yuen Ng of San Francisco is one of two individuals now listed as owners of the property. When interest rates go down, he says, he has plans to remodel and reopen the restaurant, with perhaps offices in the upper part.

"A lot of people, they remember coming there to eat with their grandfather," Ng says. "They say they come back if it reopen."

These days, when Ron Chew walks by 507 Maynard Ave. S., a particular memory returns. He is a busboy again and he's done for the night with running in and out of the kitchen. He's enveloped in all those Chinese food smells.

"I take off my busboy uniform and I step out into the sidewalk," he says. "And then I get that first breath of fresh, cool air. It's just incredible."

The Aqua Theater

"It really does look sad. It's about a third of what it looked like. It's kind of like old Greek ruins," Dick Montgomery says. He is talking about that half-shell structure on the south shore of Green Lake, a bunch of forlorn concrete bleachers.

He's 66 and these days an event manager at Seattle Center.

I ask him to return to four decades earlier, when he was in his 20s, a stagehand for the Aqua Follies, a Las Vegas kind of show that featured your comic routines, your orchestra, your "Aqua-Dears" precision swimmers and your crazed "Diving Maniacs." The follies came to Seattle for 15 years, always performing at the Aqua Theater.

Through the 1950s and into the early '60s, that was big-time entertainment in Seattle, an outdoor theater accommodating 5,582, with the stage right on the water.

Because he was a stagehand who could swim, Montgomery got the job of going into the water with an electric cord - with the stage area blacked out for dramatic effect - and plugging the cord into a set piece of floating lights and fountains. That's show biz!

Montgomery worked other types of shows, too. He was there when Bob Hope did his stand-up comic routine while . . . sitting in a boat that was being rowed by a former Seafair Queen. Was that wild, or what?

Montgomery also put together scenery for musicals, remembering the pieces had to be sturdy and not too tall. If the wind whipped up, as it did, you didn't want the stuff flying off. Sometimes a few dance routines had to be canceled when it rained and the stage got too slippery.

Which maybe was a reason for the Aqua Theater's demise. Sure, other venues were built. But there was also that Seattle weather. "People knew to bring umbrellas and raincoats," Montgomery says.

After 1965, a scattering of events took place at the theater. In May 1979, the wrecking ball arrived, leaving behind the ruins that now are a rest stop for joggers.

"I have to be honest, the dance routines were fairly simple. It wasn't the greatest performers out there," Montgomery says about the Aqua Follies. "I was impressed, though, by the emcee who played two trumpets, one out of either side of his mouth."

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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