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Messenger Archives - January 2005

Art and Commerce in Belltown's Glory Days
Al Croft of Sound Mail Services Talks About the Rendezvous and Other Notorious Nightspots

Alfred W. Croft Jr. has been running Croft Financial Services in Belltown since 1970. Recently, we sat down and reminisced about the old days in the back room of his present location (since 1976) at 2318 Second Avenue, in the same building as the famous Rendezvous nightclub and Jewel Box Theatre.

"The building was built in 1928 for B. F. Shearer's theater supply company. The bar opened in 1930," Al told me. "This area was known as 'film row' because of all the activity down here with film booking centers, and of course, the Jewel Box Theatre." Local distributors used the Jewel Box for screenings, and customers wishing to build their own theaters could visit the Box to see a scale model theater. There are several theaters based on the Jewel Box design, including the U-District's Varsity theater. "By the late-1970s film row had died, and B.F. Shearer went out of business in 1971," according to Croft.

Jerry Everard is the managing partner of 2320 Second, LLC, which bought the place on March 1, 2000. The last night of the most recent incarnation of the "old Rendezvous" was on Halloween in 2001. It was a wild night, according to those who were there. The next day the place went from being a unionized dive bar into a non-union "nostalgia-inspired dive" bar - a much safer place for the new residents of Belltown to have a drink.

Before that Halloween, the Rendezvous was essentially the same since the 60s - a bar that welcomed the day, and its regular clientele, at precisely six o'clock every morning, 365 days a year. A neophyte wandering in for the breakfast special, as advertised on the front door could find a raucous bar full of all ages and races of drunks at any hour up until 2 a.m.

"Teri worked days, Dodi worked evenings. Teri used to have a name for the very first customers of the morning. She used to call it the vibrator shift. The vibrators needed that first morning drink to stop those morning shakes," Al remembered fondly.

Dodi is a Seattle legend. "Anyone trying to pull any bullshit with Dodi only had to learn their lesson once," said Croft. She was so popular that influential ex-local music scenester Archie O'Connor named his rock band after her. This was when they rehearsed in the basement, many years after Pearl Jam vacated the premises for more affluent grunge pastures. If you got too drunk from Dodi's legendary drinks, the bartender would call Greytop for you. According to Al, "Greytop cab used to have their dispatch office in the back room. You always knew you could get a cab at the Rendezvous."

In the late 1960s, then owner Bill Rausch turned the basement into a card room. Rumor has it that renowned gangster Jimmy Durante showed up there once. "The city didn't like that, and shut him down after a couple years," Al recalled. To this day no legal cardrooms are allowed within city limits, but dozens of cardrooms can be found in other parts of King County.

Dave and Betty Henenen ran the place for a while and eventually sold it to Wayne Schwartzkopf, who operated the establishment until the recent remodel. "In the morning he'd come in and take care of business - then he'd sit at the bar all day and get blitzed. He could be a real jackass when he got rolling - he would let his mouth get going," Al told me. "Wayne was affiliated with the film industry. A leftover from when this area was called film row. He always had free movie passes." Wayne died in 2003.

Belltown was famous for it's crazy bars in decades past, among them the Frontier Room (now a yuppie BBQ joint) and "that place where there was always sawdust and blood on the floor: Hawaii West" (now the Lava Lounge).

In the late '60s downtown Seattle was a happening place for adventurous barflys. "We had the Firelite topless bar, that's now the Nitelite. The Gibson House (recently closed) was a Go-Go place too, and the Magic Inn. There were about eight different strip clubs between 5th and 7th. We called the Gibson 'jolly Judy's jumpin juice joint' on account of the socially active night bartender. She also was civically active in the daytime, doing cancer walks and raising money for kids and things," Al reminisced.

Apparently Belltown used to be a lot rowdier, but Al told me he never felt unsafe around here "until the late eighties, early nineties when the drug people came in."

Before there was crack cocaine, folks flocked to Belltown for simpler pleasures. According to Al, the cathouses (this does not include strip clubs or other notoriously seedy bars) were chased first out of the International District, then out of the Pike Street area and finally into Belltown by the city cops.

"There were three or four very active houses of ill repute within two blocks of here," Al told me while puffing on a Camel. "Jenny was the manager of one of these 'body painting studios,' as the loose massage parlors of the time were called. One day, in I think 1974, three guys showed up to rob the place. She wasn't ready to give up any cash and pulled a gun in self defense. They shot her dead. Things on that front slowed a little bit after that, but most of those places lasted until the early 1980s." I asked Al about My Suzies Oriental Pacific Cafe, one of my favorite Belltown haunts until its demise in 1997. It's now the Pampas Room, below the El Gaucho fancy steakhouse.

Tony Jones ran Suzie's until it closed. He was a brusque-walking Merchant Marine cliche - a guy with tattoos pre-dating effete poser '90s Seattle by decades, a parrot on his shoulder and a pretty Asian wife named Suzie dishing out cocktails and sass. "Before that he ran the Caballero - with the Asian bar girls," Croft explained. Jones now runs the Seafarer Sports Bar and Grill on Center Street in Tacoma. Al drifted off thinking about how "we used to go bar hopping by starting in Belltown, heading down to Union street where the black bars were; by the time you got to Pioneer Square it might get dangerous. I don't know if it was fun or not but it was certainly insane behavior." Ah, the good old days.

- Rex Lameray

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