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Sunday, April 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U District's Blue Moon Tavern celebrates 70 funky, friendly years

Seattle Times staff reporter

As tavern business plans go, it's eccentric.

Every Saturday, Blue Moon Tavern owner Gus Hellthaler leads his regulars on a walking tour of other watering holes.

"He gathers up his customers and takes them around drinking at other people's bars," laughed Jeremy Tupper, 57, as he enjoyed a drink three miles from his favorite U District haunt, the Blue Moon.

But that seems fitting for the legendary Seattle drinking spot, which is celebrating its 70th birthday this week.

Founded in 1934, it was one of the city's first legal bars after Prohibition ended. Its Northeast 45th Street location — a good, stiff walk from the University of Washington — was no coincidence. A state law at that time banned alcohol sales within one mile of college campuses.

"It was exactly one mile away," said historian Walt Crowley, author of "Forever Blue Moon," a history of the tavern. Yesterday he stopped by the tavern to drop off 300 copies of his newly revised book.

But Crowley skipped yesterday's eight-mile "hike" to other bars and taverns. The Blue Moon Urban Hiking Club, created five years ago by Hellthaler and UW professor Jack Oram, logs about 400 miles per year. It's not for wussies — these people power-walk, moving twice as fast as many mountain-trail hikers.

"We've lost a few neophytes along the way," said Hellthaler (pronounced hell-tower). "We make it to the first bar and they're looking around for the nearest bus stop."

While most hikes are local, the group occasionally tries new terrain, such as Roslyn, Kittitas County, or Bremerton. The group's size varies from two to 14; yesterday's seven men and four women ranged in age from 32 to 63.

"We're coming up on 2,000 miles," said Hellthaler, 55, while lifting a glass at Canterbury Ale & Eats on Capitol Hill. "We're due for a tune-up."

"Or at least a re-tread," offered fellow hiker Jeremy Tupper, a Seattle contractor.

In its early years, the Blue Moon was a popular hangout for UW professors and students — including fraternity and football-team members. In the '40s it was known for its racial tolerance; it was one of the few mainstream taverns that served blacks and Native Americans.

The following decade saw its emergence as a lair for beatniks, painters and poets. When UW professor Joe Butterworth got fired during the McCarthy Red Scare, the tavern became his home away from home.

"He'd sit in the back translating the 'Communist Manifesto' " from German into old English, Crowley said.

After a predictably counterculture '60s phase, the bar fell into decline through the '70s. Then in 1982, Hellthaler and two former Blue Moon bartenders (who had finished school and become a lawyer and an engineer) bought it, beginning its turnaround. Today Hellthaler is the sole owner.

A tremendous outpouring of popular protest saved it from demolition in 1990. Although a campaign to make it an official city cultural landmark failed, the property owner was persuaded to abandon plans to replace it with a modern retail/condominium project. Hellthaler's lease was extended to 2034, the tavern's 100th birthday.

Regular customer Larry Van Over has been hanging out at the Blue Moon for 25 years, remaining loyal throughout its more difficult era. "It's amazing how this loosely woven web of friendships continues to hold us all together," he said.

Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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