This weekend, the beloved Seattle bar/nightclub/theater space Re-bar commemorates its 25th anniversary with a series of celebratory burlesque performances, game shows, and DJ nights.
This provides us with a perfect opportunity to stroll down Re-bar Memory Lane, with the type of cherished-memory-collection that's all too often inspired by a venue's demise. Thankfully, Re-bar is alive and kicking, a fact that's celebrated by Re-bar alum DJ Riz Rollins, performance artist Sarah Rudinoff, legendary original owner Steve Wells, and more more more after the jump.
I'll go first! My history with Re-bar is extensive, which means my conflicts of interest in writing this post are extensive, so let's get 'em out of the way: In the '90s, Re-bar produced three of my solo plays (Letter to Axl, Exploring Whoring, and Straight) and another show I had a (very small) hand in (Kevin Kent's original Sister Windy show). But before any of that, Re-bar was my first favorite place in Seattle. I arrived here in the summer of 1991, when Re-bar's Thursday night "Queer Disco with MC Queen Lucky" brought weekly lines around the block and an insanely infectious party inside. I was still a semi-closeted gay hatchling, and Re-bar was the first place another dude asked me to dance. It was also the first place I encountered queer culture—from the bar's early promotional stickers placing Ernie Bushmiller's Sluggo and Nancy in same-sex pairs to Greek Active's queer recontextualizations of Shakespeare—that spoke directly to me. The place was ridiculously fertile with creativity. Early on, I remember being handed a flyer by the sweet, shy guy who worked the bar, advertising his own upcoming drag show. This guy had never given off a single whiff of being interested in drag, or of being a performer, and I attended the show braced for perhaps the drag equivalent of my cousin playing a song he wrote on guitar. Instead, I had my mind blown by one of the earliest shows by Dina Martina. The place remains full of brilliant surprises. I am forever in its debt.
Riz Rollins, DJ, KEXP's Expansions
If i can remember it, I went to Re-bar the second week it opened. I had been to the spot when it was the Axelrock and S and enjoyed those incarnations, but when I got to Re-bar, I remember thinking "I'm not a DJ, but if I were, THIS is where I would want to do it." Mind you i really wasn't a DJ and I didn't think I wanted to be one. It was NOT my aspiration. I was content to manage a record store, content in the present with no thought of the future. True enough I was a music collector and owned so many records I was literally sleeping on top of them in my tiny one-room shack. I owned one turntable and a cassette deck and would occasionally make mix tapes guessing the tempo of songs and "mixing" them using the pause button. The Virginia Inn got a few of them, but I didn't give them out to people. and I didn't think of myself as a DJ, until one day in the record store (I didn't have a telephone at the time), Paula Sjunneson AKA The Swedish Housewife came in and said, "I'm doing this new night at a new club called Re-bar. It's on Sunday and i'm looking for a DJ. I've been doing the acid house night at the Vogue, but i'm sick of it. I want to do a night where we play black music—hiphop, R&B, funk, that type of thing. and I'd like you to be the DJ."
AND I SAID "NO." I said, "Can't do it. For one, I've never DJ'd before and I don't think I have enough music to play a five-hour set and I certainly don't think i could do it EVERY week. Maybe every other week and maybe with another DJ, but certainly not alone...." So she hired me and Bruce Wayback and sternly told us, "Play what you want, I don't care about mixing, but NO HOUSE MUSIC." I said "Cool"—I didn't have any house music anyway. The very first night, I do my first hour or so and then pass it over to Bruce and within three songs, he's upped the tempo to house and the crowd seemed to be into it, but at the end of the evening, Paula come up to me and says, "I fired that guy. I told him no house music and I meant it. You're just going to have have to do it alone every week."
I did and continued on doing it there ..for the next TWENTY YEARS. I eventually ended up playing Sundays and Fridays and took over for Helena's Wednesday World Beat night at its the peak, playing five hours three full nights a week. Over the years, Re-bar has hosted every conceivable music genre, performance art, theater and cabaret, original plays....Re-bar has seen and done it ALL. You'd be hard-pressed to name a club in any city in the country and perhaps the world with such history that's still going strong. Re-bar Seattle has been my home and inspiration, my classroom and study, my experiment, my church all this time. Some of my best friends in life come form there. Re-bar gave my name a name, my face a face. and even after all these years through multiple owners and changes, one of my favorite achievements is to be a member of this family.
Terry Miller, AKA TROUBLE, DJ
There was a guy who used to be at Re-bar every Thursday for Disco night. No one was offered the job of go-go, but this guy thought it was his job, no, his god-given right, to get up on the speakers, take off most of his clothes and shake his scrawny body and stringy hair in time to the music. Every week. He was amazing. MC Queen Lucky, the genius behind Disco night, is still at the top of my all time favorite Seattle DJs.
There was a group of friends I went out with every Friday night to hear funk, Acid-Jazz and soul. I would get heavily stoned and groove all night to Riz and company. This was more than twenty years ago. I’m still friends with all of these people today.
Five years into the bar’s existence I walked up to one of my drag queen acquaintances (Ginger Vitus) to say hi. He immediately introduced me to a guy who said he liked my lips. We wound up making out in the bathroom. I am still with that random hook-up to this day.
I used to go see theater produced by that guy in Re-bar. Macbeth, King John, Saint Joan—I hated live theater and didn’t like actors much either so I never talked to anyone. For some reason a rumor went around Greek Active that I was French. Dan Savage’s French Boyfriend. The first time someone actually heard me speak, they gasped. I’m still ignoring actors. Dan is still doing theater when he can.
My first TROUBLE club night was at Re-bar. My first DJ Ira Glass battle was at Re-bar. My first Modest Mouse and 764-Hero shows were at Re-bar. My first Dina Martina was at Re-bar. The first time Joey Arias kissed me on the mouth? At Re-bar. That I could’ve done without, but the rest—the rest has been amazing.
Charles Smith, theater artist
At Re-bar, if your shows were successful, they could run much longer than any other fringe or Equity theater in town could. The first two shows I did there in 1993 both ran for nine weeks each. I was in the second play done at Re-bar (The Importance of Being Earnest) and even though many actors in town made fun of me for doing a play in a bar with a bunch of drag queens, within a year, everyone wanted to perform at Re-bar and I haven’t had to audition for any show I’ve been in since.
I was able to teach myself how to design lights (trial by error) with Re-bar’s equipment late at night after the bar had closed. It was my own personal studio where I could make as many mistakes as I needed to before showing the final product to the director. I stage managed and designed lights and sound for many shows including the Dina Martina extravaganzas of the late 90s. I stage-managed the first two shows Dina did at On the Boards which led to the job I’ve had at OtB for the last 14 years. Best Re-bar memory: meeting a guy on the dance floor about 11pm one Sunday and making out with him as we "danced" until closing (then took him home). Worst Re-bar memory: Dan Savage drunkenly screaming the entire score to The Pajama Game in my one good ear on a Thursday night (he'd had half a beer).
Sarah Rudinoff, theater artist
Re-bar is home. I did my first solo work at Re-bar, because Steve Wells [Re-bar's owner throughout the '90s] asked me to—I think sometimes I created shows because Steve gave me dates. When Re-bar was half the size and Grady West was managing the bar, seeing Dina Martina on that tiny little stage was mind-altering—it took me a year before I realized that the Grady and Dina Martina were the same person. I spent a year of my life in the building playing Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2000 with Nick Garrison. We were the first regional production of the show, no one really knew the play. We would change in the pool room and I would put my beard on every night on my tip toes in a small mirror above Steve’s desk. During one of our last shows, I was at the closing moment on my knees and I took a deep breath to sing my last note and swallowed my wool soul patch—it got stuck in my throat. I ran through the pool room and the office into the handicap-accessible bathroom, stuck my finger down my throat, threw up the hair ball, then ran back on stage and finished the song. Performing at Re-bar always allowed for disasters to become a part of the show.
Before I did the run of my solo show Go There, I had an old friend come and clear the space because sometimes Re-bar can feel like it full of intense vibes and I wanted to feel cleared out. She came out of the men's room and said she met some leather daddy ghosts in there and asked them to kindly leave and they did. I believed her. Some of my all time favorite performances there: seeing Joey Arias for the first time, Imogen Love and Kevin Mesher’s Deflowered in the Attic, Scott Schumacher’s Prince in Purple Rain and Joe Randazzo’s Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (both part of Ian Bell's Brown Derby Series), Dan Savage’s Greek Active with the roaringly talented Shelley Reynolds, so many good plays and shows. And dancing. I had many 20-something nights dancing to DJ Riz and Queen MC Lucky and then falling in love behind the theatre curtain on one of those plastic couches. Funky, safe, vibrant. Always what I wanted in my playground sandbox. I love you, Re-bar.
Re-bar has always been the place to have your crazy, unclassifiable night. Your scrappy DIY theater show, your drag night, your pencil-fighting, your piñata building contest. Pho Bang—the magical live-music-meets-horror-drag weekly—lived there for years. In this photo, Marcus Wilson of Pony (right) is dressed as "Lester." Lester used to hold a boozy bingo night at Re-bar back in 2004. I miss those Sundays!
Schmader here again. One of the great old stories of Re-bar involves Sub Pop and Nirvana, who threw their Nevermind release party at the bar in 1991. This party is the stuff of legend, with tales of alleged photo-booth drunkery, food fighting, and forced ejections. To get the story straight once and for all, I turned to former Re-bar owner Steve Wells, who told me he "remembers like it was last night."
Steve Wells: Something most people today can't even imagine about that time, about the Washington State Liquor Control Board, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, getting a license to sell beer and wine, let alone "spirits", was a very difficult process. Maintaining that license could be even more difficult. Especially, in downtown Seattle, where, to protect the "status quo", licenses were much more expensive to get. New clubs, especially gay clubs, or any clubs that played "black" music, were under their microscope for violations of liquor laws regarding over-serving, drunkenness, drug use or sales on premises, and minors being allowed in.
In 1991, Re-bar became very popular, and naturally, then attracted unwarranted attention from the WSLCB agents. On busy nights, and sometimes just around 1:30 a.m., even on slow nights, they would often park their cars across the street, watching the front door, and would make sweeps through the bar, checking IDs, usually in a very confrontational manner.
That's the "background" story.
In the meantime, Seattle bands were really taking off, and we loved it! So it was a point of honor to have Sub Pop have Nirvana's record release party for Nevermind at Re-bar.
The week of the party, I was wanting a new artistic installation around the dance floor. I contracted with awesome Seattle artist Carl Smool to hang fantastic fabric pieces he'd made that were like long, dangling, multicolored box kites. The Seattle Art Museum owned them, lent them to us for a month, and naturally, expected them to be returned in good condition.
Sub Pop did a great job of subtly promoting the party, and bought a couple of kegs of beer, and paid for it to be catered. It was a good spread, and a great crowd assembled for the party. Bruce Pavitt, co-owner of Sub Pop was on the deck, spinning disco, funk, etc. Everything went great for about two hours, but then I noticed that Kurt, Krist, Dave, and others kept going up into the DJ booth (NOT the photo booth), and were obviously getting drunker and drunker... way more than they could on beer.
Then, the free beer ran out, and things started to get kinda rowdy. I don't know if that was because people were pissed-off that they had to start paying for their beers, but the mood of the room definitely changed, and then the guys were going up into the DJ booth, more and more, and then we noticed the WSLCB's cars had pulled up into the parking lot across the street, with their headlights on, pointed at the front door.
I got scared, climbed up into the DJ booth, and found Bruce and his buddies chugging on a half gallon of, I think, Jack Daniels—the large size bottle that is known as a "Handle," 'cause it has one. Empty bottles littered the DJ booth's floor and frankly, I would have liked to join in, but all this activity forced me to become an uptight queen.
Suddenly, Kurt, Krist, and maybe, Dave, but also others, started a food fight, with what was left over... The "victim" being Carl Smool's artwork! It got totally crazy, and I guess I freaked about the whole situation, rounded them up, including Bruce, and with the help of the doormen, got them out of the door, just in time for them all to barf on the curb...Pretty. Soon after, the WSLCB guys approached with their flashlights, started questioning the door guys, and I then declared the party was "OVER", turned up the lights, and told everyone to leave, making me out to be a total asshole with the crowd. Oh, well.
That's how I remember it. And to this day, I love them all.