On December 8, 1928, the Dallas String Band cuts "Hokum Blues," a three-minute, mandolin-driven 78 that begins with a joke: "Hey, Cooley, can you sing?" a band member asks just before the syncopated tune kicks in. To which leader Cooley Jones deadpans, "No, I lost my voice in jail. I'm always behind a few bars, and could never get a key . . . "
It's not hard to imagine that at the same moment the DSB was cutting its jokes on shellac, halfway across the country in West Seattle, members of the Olympic Heights Social Club over at 7904 35th Avenue SW were probably cutting the rug—dancing. But who would have guessed that the Olympic Heights hall would still be filled with the sound of old-time music in 1999? A few paint jobs, concepts, and seven decades later, the venue—now called Hokum Hall—may very well be the last of the dying breed of theaters devoted strictly to vaudeville entertainment.
Like its namesake founder, Hokum W. Jeebs, Hokum Hall is a bit offbeat, definitely eccentric, but always musical. Before he launched Hokum Hall in 1993, Jeebs was an itinerant musician who blended ragtime, vaudeville, and humor at theme parks, on cruise ships, and in the '70s as a one-man-band street performer. "I played a muffler, a tuba, a toy piano, the saw, a snorkel—that was my act," he says. "Then I added a calliope and the piano-on-a-bicycle. Then I had a gimmick—how many novelty piano players are there? There are classical players, there are jazz players, there are even—when I was growing up—ragtime players. There's not even that anymore."
In 1992, Jeebs settled down in the Northwest. With co-founder and artistic director Louis Magor, he has since transformed Hokum Hall from a nondescript rental hall into a venue that educates and—most importantly—entertains audiences by highlighting the early days of popular music. In 1996, Hokum Hall received nonprofit status, and it continues to operate from September through May (summers are left for research endeavors and planning for the next season) through the support of benefactors and volunteers. During the day, the hall is headquarters to Kindermusik, a music education program that Magor runs for children 7 and younger.
The weekend shows, of course, give Hokum Hall its real magic. Classic sideshow posters line the walls, there's a calliope in the back, and a piano or two are always nearby for the performers. "Classic vaudeville and lighthearted recitals," is how Jeebs describes the concerts. "We're beginning to call the whole hall 'lighthearted entertainment,' 'cause it's not a heavy-duty concert hall—but it is a concert hall."
During the encore to last month's awe-inspiring "Music Curiosa" concert, a sold-out audience was treated to "Indian Love Call" as played on a Coke-bottle organ, glass harmonica, theremin, and the musical saw. It marked the perfect conclusion to an evening of novelty instruments and storytelling. "It's kind of strange when you do vaudeville," Jeebs notes. "People think it's baggy-pants comics and funny old shtick. But it doesn't necessarily mean that. It could just mean variety."
The conclusion to Hokum's spring season is filled with variety. "Pianomania 7," on April 16-17, takes a humorous look at the piano in all of its forms (from calliope to nickelodeon to pump organ and upright) played in its various styles. The following weeks will feature a ragtime revue and then, closing out the season in May, will be "One for a Man, Two for a Horse," Jeebs' examination of infamous medicine-man shows.
"[They] disappeared around 1950, but there are still remnants of snake oils and magnetic insoles," Jeebs says. "They were simply taking advantage of other people, conning them."
Far from duping or offending his Seattle audience, Jeebs runs a clean vaudeville house (something unheard of during the genre's glory days) and keeps his humor suitable for family consumption. "It's lighthearted and short-attention-spanned, not heavy-hearted," Jeebs explains. "It's low production, but it's done with style and grace." Sort of like Seattle's own Prairie Home Companion? "I think that we have that kind of appeal," he concedes. "During the course of the shows, I tell stories. I encourage every performer to tell stories relating to what they're doing, which is basically what Garrison Keillor is about.
"It's always been a place where people met," Jeebs continues. "In 1937, they had 'old-time dancing' here. Can you imagine what old-time dancing in 1937 was?" Stepping into Hokum Hall today, it's actually not all that hard.
Hokum Hall has a Web site (http://www.hokumhall.org) containing pertinent information on shows, featured performers, and the Kindermusik program. Old-timers living Web-free can call 206-937-3613 for information and reservations.