Celebrate the 21st Amendment! (Part 1)

Conveniently landing on a Saturday this year, December 5th marks the highpoint of the holiday season — the 76th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment and the repeal of Prohibition. Why not mark the occasion at one or two of Seattle’s oldest bars — establishments that have been around since the end of prohibition and sometimes longer? The Seattle area has a number of bars dating back to 1933 or 1934 (and earlier), and not all of them are in Pioneer Square or the Pike Place Market areas, or particularly well known.

Let’s begin with some historical sites that even many long-time locals tend to miss.

The Double Header – 407 2nd Ave – Bar since 1934

The Double Header bar, Seattle - This old painting, with its curiously foreshortened legs, is said to be one of the drag queens famous in the 30s and 40s.
The Double Header bar, Seattle - This old painting, with its curiously foreshortened legs, is said to be one of the drag queens famous in the 30s and 40s.

Seattle now has the second largest LBGT community in the U.S., but relatively few people recognize that hidden behind an undistinguished dive exterior in Pioneer Square is a bar that once was the gay mecca of the west coast, and which has a solid claim to be the oldest continually running gay bar in the country. “Mecca” perhaps more aptly applied to the bar downstairs, the infamous “Casino” in the space currently occupied by Heavens nightclub, and the Double Header has not been dominated by gay patrons since gay culture shifted to Capitol Hill in the 70s. But it retains a mixed, if smaller, straighter, and more sedate crowd, and remains a silent testament to drag queens dancing on tables, the occasional fights between lesbians and visiting sailors, and celebrity visitors from Rudolph Nureyev to Johnny Ray to Margot Fonteyn to Tallulah Bankhead (who is said to have entered ringing a cowbell and shouting, “Avon calling all you beautiful mother ****ers!”

Here is a snippet from HistoryLink.org, which quotes from Paulson and Simpson’s “An evening at the Garden of Allah:”

    In most cities, men were not allowed to dance together. The Casino paid Seattle policemen “protection money” and there men danced happily with other men. Nicknamed “Madame Peabody’s Dancing Academy for Young Ladies,” the Casino was considered the most open place for gays on the West Coast. Shortly after the Casino opened, a new patron, Vilma (1912-1993) visited the Pool Room. “Vilma,” one of Seattle’s “best known gay men,” arrived in Seattle in 1930. He worked in the Double Header Tavern, a gay bar, on the weekends until the illness that led to his death in 1993. He was interviewed in the early 1990s. Following is a description of his first visit:

    “Two friends of mine [had] visited Seattle and raved about it. That’s all I heard, Seattle, Seattle, Seattle and this fabulous place called the Casino and all the neat kids there…. The Casino was the only place on the West Coast that was so open and free for gay people. But John [Delevitti] paid off the police; he was good at working the payoff system.”

More on Seattle’s oldest bars over the next few days.

The Double Header - The cowbell used for Tallulah Bankhead's dramatic entry
The Double Header - The cowbell used for Tallulah Bankhead's dramatic entry

More information on the Double Header:
More photos from the Double Header
A list of Seattle’s oldest bars
A very informative book on the history of gay bars and culture in Seattle is An evening at the Garden of Allah: a gay cabaret in Seattle, by Don Paulson, Roger Simpson. Used copies are available on Amazon and a portion of the book is available online here Entertaining snippets of Double Header and Casino history, usually relying in large part of the Paulson’s work, can be found at SGN, historylink, historylink again and the Seattle PI.

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