"I'M ALWAYS THE LAST TO KNOW," says bartender Dodi Smith as the wildlife begins filing in for late-night grazing at the Rendezvous bar on Second Avenue. "But no one told me we're closing." She turns to a customer. "Don't do that in here!" She turns back sweetly. "You can't close an institution, can you?" Not the low-life Rendezvous—not yet, anyway.
The owners of "the Zoo," as regulars call the Rendezvous (not to confuse it with the Eastlake Zoo, another institution) say rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. That's painful news for the disapproving neighbors in gentrifying Belltown, where they now like to see people walk in straight lines. It is, however, small but fine news for connoisseurs of Seattle's dives, porn shops, and nude-dance clubs, whose adored underbelly has taken major hits lately from progress. A partial list of the newly dead or threatened joints includes many treasures of downtown slumming: The Apple (porn) Theater on Boren; the Gay Nineties bar, Mirror Tavern, and Déjà Vu nude club on Pike; and the Champ "Live Girls" dance arcade on First. Their fates are sealed, doomed by new commercial developments. Of them, only the Déjà Vu, relocated to Denny Way, appears likely to persevere. As the marvelous history of Seattle sleaze quickly concludes, just the Rendezvous, the Turf bar on Pike, and the Lusty Lady strip theater on First Avenue will get asterisks in the final chapter ("*Sorry, still open").
Low-lifers who rue all forms of upscaling can only lament, as did the late architect and politically incorrect civic preservationist Victor Steinbrueck, that "the first victim of 'progress' is always raunchiness." The burial list also includes the Midtown Theater on First near Virginia, nearly the final outpost of longtime Seattle porn king Roger Forbes. (He still owns the Champ Arcade and is a partner in the relocated Déjà Vu; he owned the Fantasy Unlimited sex-toy story that also just closed at First and Pike, on property considered for a new downtown library.)
It was Forbes, a sort of X-rated Paul Allen, who changed Seattle's sex-biz landscape with a lucrative little chain of porn theaters. Unfortunately for his business, he also forever altered the way dirty movie houses would be regulated here and across America: In 1981 he lost a US Supreme Court challenge to a Renton city zoning ordinance that banned porn theaters from school, church, and residential neighborhoods—making Renton's law the law of the land. The ruling didn't affect Forbes' Seattle, Tacoma, and Eastside theaters as much as the video revolution later would. But Forbes stayed ahead of the wave by steering his investments into nude dancing parlors, linking up with Déjà Vu —"50 beautiful women and three ugly ones"—here and nationally. (His most recent attempt to open two new clubs in San Francisco's North Beach, next door to the Lusty Lady franchise, was delayed by a police investigation. A citizens group complained that a Déjà Vu corporate official with a criminal record was acting as a silent partner, illegal under California state law. Forbes received conditional permits after insisting he was the sole owner of those two spots, although he and Déjà Vu are partners in three other San Francisco clubs.)
THE MIDTOWN THEATER'S building—which includes residences and offices in the Pike Place Market historical district—is slated for sale and renovation, another relentless step in downtown's gentrification. It's an evolution most evident when casting an eye up the byways from First Avenue and Pike Street, the city's hallowed crossroads to mental health (as a social critic once said of First Ave, "It's where they think ambiance is something that takes you from the bar to the hospital.") Among the revered First & Pike lowlights was a tattoo parlor featuring "automatic tattoo removers"—a tank of live piranhas—and a porn theater (the Flick) where, on the day it closed, the film projectionist looked around his empty auditorium and decried the "moral and spiritual decay caused by goodness." Gone too is the Carcinogen Smoke Shop, and Abruzzi's, a pizza joint favored by street types and paved over by NikeTown ("NikeTown?" Nick Abruzzi asked upon hearing he'd lost his lease. "What's that, a home for lost tennis shoes?").
With the closing of the venerable Gay Nineties, dingy but never picky, the cleansing will be complete. The Nineties' building, the rent-subsidized Waldorf Towers, will be leveled and an expanded state convention center will one day spread across the upper Pike landscape with all the grace of a great freeway ramp.
At the Rendezvous, a customer asks Dodi to reassure him it won't happen here. "No, we're not closing," says Smith, the only bartender known to have a rock band named for her (Dodi, natch). "Maybe it's the Woodland Park Zoo that's closing," she says. "People often confuse us with them."