"Oh my god, he was so amazing," said one person who knew Alex Calderwood. "And so humble."
"He was this force of nature in the nightlife scene," said another. "He had this way of magnetizing people together."
"He was fearless," said a third person. "He was doing things that were ahead of their time."
Before the nightclub ARO.space, before Ace Hotel, before Rudy's Barbershop, Calderwood worked at a clothing store on Broadway that salvaged old work wear and resold it as vintage fashion. That's what he was doing when he met Linda Derschang, five years before she would open Linda's Tavern. "Alex was a part of Seattle nightlife since the late '80s," Derschang said. "I believe he had an after-hours club then in the International District, from 2 to 5 in the morning"—where they served drinks long after last call.
"He was a connector before the word 'connector' was around. He wasn't a schmoozer, he wasn't a networker, he was a connector," Derschang said. "From a graffiti artist to a DJ to someone designing clothes—by connecting people, he was making cool things happen in our city. And then he started doing it on a national level."
Calderwood began throwing dance parties in the 1990s, including a night at the Showbox called Electrolush (where Daft Punk played in 1996) and another called Funk Palace that he did with DJ Riz Rollins at RKCNDY. Then Calderwood (and partners) opened ARO.space, which is where Portishead played their first show in the United States. The capital letters stood for "art," "revolution," "organization." It was a nightclub, but it was also an art venue (KAWS had an early show there), and they had drag shows. (The venue later became Neumos.) While he was doing all that, Calderwood was also starting Rudy's Barbershop and the Ace Hotel with various business partners, and commissioning artists like Shepard Fairey.
"He really was a visionary in that he could see opportunities other people couldn't see," said Kelly Sawdon, who first met Calderwood at the old Cha Cha and is now the chief brand officer of Ace Hotel. Seattle had the first Ace Hotel, and now there are Ace Hotels in Portland, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Pittsburgh, and London, with another opening in Kyoto.
After the news broke, in 2013, that Calderwood had died, Tricia Romano wrote a retrospective of Calderwood's career in The Stranger. "They couldn't pinpoint the exact cause," Sawdon told me recently, "but he had a mix of drugs and alcohol in his system."
Before his Seattle memorial, "everyone started talking about what are we going to do to carry on his legacy," Sawdon said. "His impact was so significant, we thought: We have to carry on. Alex was such a beacon. How do we keep that light shining? Alex loved to be the underdog, to support the underdog, the weirdos on the fringe, the people being discounted or dismissed."
Now people who knew him are banding together to start the Alex Calderwood Fund, which will raise money and donate it to three handpicked organizations: Urban Artworks, Sanctuary Art Center, and Arts Corps. "They're all Seattle-based, and they all support youth and creative entrepreneurship," Sawdon said. The goal is to raise $200,000 this year, through various parties in Seattle and LA this fall. Find more information at alexcalderwoodfund.com.
"Supporting young, struggling artists and creative entrepreneurs was something that came naturally to Alex," said Caterina deCarlo, who first met him when working the coat check at ARO.space. (He would always remind her that Madonna was once a coat-check girl.) "Now that he has moved on, Alex's legacy is in the hands of his closest friends and collaborators. We are excited to band together and do something in Alex's honor. And we are also excited about the individuals we will meet on our journey and the opportunity to support creative communities."