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Friday, May 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Where vaudeville lives

Seattle Times staff reporter

Professor Hokum W. Jeebs started in New York with the dog-eared sheet music in his mother's piano bench. Louis Magor played a portable organ at Midwest beauty pageants.

As they matured, the musicians learned they could play anything, but both nurtured a nostalgia for ragtime and vaudeville, dying arts from the era of World War I and silent films.

When they met decades later in a San Francisco bar, they couldn't see Hokum Hall, the wee West Seattle theater with the bright red doors that's now drawing a steady parade of fun seekers and old-time music lovers.

They couldn't see their mighty 1929 Wurlitzer organ with its rows of keys, pushing air through its musical pipes, causing mechanical drums to bang out rhythms around the stage.

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Hokum Hall, 7904 35th Ave. S.W., can be reached at 206-937-3613 or www.hokumhall.org. Tickets for upcoming musical revues and movies generally range from $10 to $14 and can be reserved in advance.
They couldn't see Hokum's piano bike, the zany revues, silent films and free popcorn. And they couldn't see their fans — kids, musicians, organ aficionados, parents, neighbors — who would turn out regularly for knee-slappin' gags and general vaudeville craziness.

"You can't get this anywhere else," said Mary Jo DuGaw, 44, of Fall City. "This is Americana. This is the stuff we come from."

Jeebs kills her, she said. "I have laughed so hard I have cried at some of the things he's done."

No, when Jeebs and Magor met in that dark and smoky bar, Hokum Hall was years away. But the stage was set.

Act I: The entertainer

Now 52, Hokum W. Jeebs — who won't divulge his real name, saying he only uses it on his income taxes — grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. He learned innumerable instruments, performed piano and in 1969 formed the Hokum W. Jeebs Gypsy Medicine Show, a historical flim-flam act designed to push quack medicines.

At one point, he was a bar pianist by night, schoolteacher by day, church music director on Sundays and an all-around rebel in the time where peace, love and rock 'n' roll ruled.

"I wanted nothing to do with rock 'n' roll. I was digging up World War I stuff — I said, 'this is cool.' "

In 1976 — the time of disco — he went west to San Francisco, where he performed as a street and bar musician. In the mid-1980s, he got a piano gig with Walt Disney World in Orlando, but eventually moved to Seattle in 1991. The house he rented was two blocks from what would become Hokum Hall.

Act II: The whiz kid

Deep in the heartland — Auburn, Neb. — child musical prodigy Louis Magor forged his own, rather more conventional, way. A gifted pianist, he played as the lovely Miss Auburn contestants sashayed across the stage. They were high-school girls; he was 10. "I can still remember the thrill."

It was fame and fortune from there on out.

Magor, now 56, taught music to kids in Chicago before moving to San Francisco in 1974 to direct the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Ten years later, he ended up as the musical director for Broadway legend Mary Martin, then directed the San Francisco Boys Chorus.

In 1990, he succumbed to Seattle's siren call, becoming director of the Seattle Bach Choir.

Act III: Flashback to Frisco

The scene: San Francisco's Hotel Utah bar, circa 1977. Jeebs was at the piano.

Magor showed up and the two musicians met for the first time. "Another musician told me, 'you've got to see this,' " Magor said. " 'It's your sense of humor.' "

The friend was right. Jeebs' crazy act — his gags and carnival sensibility — clicked with Magor. "It made fun of music while still being very musical. Plus, it was funny."

They became friends and performed together. The street musician and conductor were an unlikely pair, Jeebs said.

But when Jeebs moved to Seattle, it was Magor he called when he stumbled upon a hall in West Seattle. The little theater down the street had a tiny stage, an upright piano and a bunch of folding chairs. Best of all, it was for rent.

"We had the classic vision," Jeebs said. "We put our heads together and we came up with Hokum Hall."

Flash to: Miracle on

35th Avenue Southwest

Nine years later, the theater (b. 1993) is marchin' along to a thumping ragtime beat. Piece by piece, it's come together — the lights, sound system, green walls, red front doors and many, many instruments.

Their biggest, most expensive addition arrived from Illinois in 1999 — a handsome 1929 Wurlitzer. The $30,000 organ has 13 sets of pipes. It has flutes, drums, a piano, glockenspiel, harps and horns and can make bell, whistle and horse-hoof sounds. Volunteers and professionals keep the ever-expanding instrument singing.

The shows are wacky productions rooted firmly somewhere between 1860 and the 1930s. They've done Ragstravaganzas, operettas and variety shows, Laurel and Hardy laughathons and Buster Keaton silent flicks. Gags often entail someone tripping or getting a pie in the face. Hall loyalists laugh enthusiastically at the jokes, no matter how corny.

And then there's the younger generation, just grasping the bygone era.

Ellen and Colleen Shraeder, 11 and 14, of Sammamish say they're the only kids they know who watch Laurel and Hardy. "Brats" is Ellen's favorite film.

"I like seeing them act like kids," she said, giggling.

Epilogue: Meaning of it all

That the Shraeder girls know who Laurel and Hardy were is music to the partners' ears. Clown noses and musical saws aside, it's all about education and preservation, they say.

"There's a lot of history that's gone, and it's rich fodder," he said. "People still laugh at the same kinds of situations in the silent movies because they're still the same kind of awkward situations people get into."

Other vaudeville-era forms, like black-face performances, are viewed far differently now. But the Hall doesn't shy away from old films that feature them.

Ethnic stereotypes are part of the historical material and embedded in American history, Jeebs said. "The real enlightenment comes from the fact that you can actually look at it."

Unfortunately, ragtime has largely fallen into the clutches of academics who spend more time jawing about the music than making it, Jeebs said. "We're showing it the way it was and performing it as it was. You don't have to explain it to people."

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752 or pstockton@seattletimes.com.

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