An Oral History

The story of a small arts festival that became a Northwest tradition, told by the people who lived it.

An Oral History

The first thing you should know is that we are sorry we didn’t talk to you, too. We really, truly are. Because we know: You have a favorite Bumbershoot story. You saw the best show of your life there. You met your future wife and/or husband there. You saw a street performer or bought a book or saw a play or an exhibition or a movie that maybe didn’t change your life but enhanced it in a way you hadn’t foreseen when you bought a one-day pass hoping to see some third-level garage-rock band you’d heard on the radio at work.

Your story isn’t the only one missing in action here. There simply wasn’t space for Bumbershoot’s prehistory, from the 1968 Sky River Rock Festival to Seafair to any number of neighborhood arts fests. Ditto the story of the One Reel Vaudeville Showthe archetypal late-’60s troupe, who performed on a flatbed truck and would later become One Reel Productions, the nonprofit corporation that has produced Bumbershoot since 1980.

Yet that part of the story has never entirely left the festival. Known in its first two years as “Festival ’71” and “Festival ’72,” Bumbershoot’s absurdly eclectic flavor was with it from the beginning. Literature, theater, dance, visual arts, crafts, performance art, more food than you can shake a stick at (but just about anything you can put on a stick)not to mention all that music. And just like the real-time event, there’s no way this virtual mass recollection can fit it all in. So think of these highlights (and a few lowlights) as a mapa place to begin hunting in case you’ve ever wondered where it all came from.

The 70s

Barbara Earl Thomas (director, City of Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival Commission, 1989-95; artist, 2003 Bumbershoot poster): I was at the Arts Commission when Bumbershoot was thought up all those years ago. It was a very modest little festivalI think the budget was in the thousands. It was small. It evolved in a time when Boeing was bust, and there weren’t as many people in the city as there are now.

Charles R. Cross (former editor, The Rocket): If you want to get a sense of what Bumbershoot was like in the early years, simply go to the middle of the thing, around the fountain. In the early days, it was like the kind of stuff that happens there. There wasn’t a schedule, or if there was, no one paid attention to it. It was much, much looser. There might have been only a dozen musical acts over the entire weekend.

Judith Roche (One Reel producer, 1986-present): At the first Bumbershoot, I did a bunch of dance things on the fountain lawn with people. It started as a sort of free-for-all. People just kind of signed up.

Jim Page (performer): Seattle was magic in those days. The first time I rode the Seattle Transit, the bus picked me up hitchhiking. At the first Bumbershoot, I remember playing my street set. You could find a spot on the ground where there wasn’t any stages. I was playing all the time; for a period of years, I would start playing guitar at 9 in the morning and stop at 2 a.m.

Baby Gramps (performer): I remember doing marathons every day and night for four days. It was a sleep- deprivation thing; a couple buddies of mine did it with me, staying up four days and nights performing. I wrote a lot of my weirdest songs like that. I didn’t do them all the time; people can remember me saying, “Now for No. 492.” Some people stayed up with me.

Jon Kertzer (director,Smithsonian GlobalSound Network): I took a job at the end of ’73 with the Seattle Parks Department. Part of the job involved organizing the music for Bumbershoot. The major concerts were in the old Opera House, which held 3,000 people, and the [old] Seattle Repertory Theater, which held 800 or 900 people. The opening night concert in ’74 was Ry Cooder and John Hartford; the next night was Willie Dixon, the Chicago bluesman, and Clifton Chenier, a zydeco player from Louisiana; it was opened by Dave Alexander, a blues piano player. Stan Getz had an overflow crowd in the Repertory Theater. I remember setting speakers into the ground behind the hall so people could hear it that couldn’t get in.

Jon Kertzer: John Chambless became the overall director of the festival [in 1975]. He had been a philosophy professor at the University and had been one of the organizers of the earliest festivals in Seattle, the Sky River Rock Festival [in 1968]. He had not gotten tenure and was pushed out of the University of Washington in the early ’70s. He had been an activist, a fairly radical voice on campus in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Then at some point in the late ’70s or ’80s, he went to work for Lyndon Larouche on the East Coast, and went totally right wing.


Judith Roche: After a few years, the festival had lost energy. The first few years, it was great fun doing the hippie-on-the-lawn thing, but we had to move on.

Jon Kertzer: In the late ’70s, the city basically pulled its support for arts festivals from the Parks Department.

The legendary truck the One Reel Vaudeville Show performed on.  

Barbara Earl Thomas: Bumbershoot had a history of being open and free and laid-back, but in order to pay its artists and support the public services, cleaning up the festival or whatever, it couldn’t rely on volunteers.

Jon Kertzer: They experimented with some individual concerts, charging $5 or a small amount. That was before they put a gate around the whole festival and charged admission.

Charles R. Cross: Many people were upset about that. When the prices went above $5, people complained about that. The whole transition of Seattle [is] that no one used to run anything thinking about how much money it was going to make. The whole city seemed to be run on tradition, on funkiness, on connections between peoplethere really were bastions of hippies left over here running a number of arts organizations. One Reel was one of them.

Judith Roche: It was on the vine and people were bored with it. The city was about to kill it, and One Reel took it over and said, “We’ll turn this into something.”

Barbara Earl Thomas: [One Reel founder] Norm Langill used to drive me crazy, because his mind was always working. He was the little boy who ran away to the circus, and he’s still in it. He’s seen this organic thing grow and grow and grow.

Jon Kertzer: I worked for One Reel as a technical director in 1981. It was a very smooth transition. It didn’t seem like a big change, except we had artists like Chuck Berry and Emmylou Harris that we could pay for.

Charles R. Cross: The show that Norm Langill pointed out to me when I interviewed him as having really sent Bumbershoot on its way was in 1980, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago played. He cites that as everything that Bumbershoot was supposed to be about. They played one song for 45 minutes. It was a phenomenal piece of spontaneity.

Artis the Spoonman (performer): When I saw the Art Ensemble, they ripped. Lester Bowie was just remarkable. After they played, all I could think about was emulating them.

Larry Reid (artist): Bumbershoot used to host an art-car gravity race called the Bumbernationals down the big hill in front of the Coliseum, which is now KeyArena. The grand prize was $1,000, and was awarded for best design rather than fastest car. I won the grand prize in ’81 and ’82. In ’83, I decided to goof it up. The “Holy Roller” was a wooden cross on wheels. I dressed up as Jesus, complete with wig and crown of thorns. “Blood” shot from my hands as I sped down the hill, nailed to the cross. Going back up the hill, I dragged the cross while being whipped by a Roman soldier. Phony Christian hecklers in the crowd taunted “Jesus” on the way up the hill.

Matthew Kangas (curator): Truthco were hired to do a series of giant inflatables; it was essentially Claes Oldenburg with helium in it. It was, let us say, art as spectacle rather than art as contemplative exhibition.

Charles R. Cross: The real turning point for Bumbershoot was 1985. There was a big concert promoter in this market called Media Onewho eventually became Clear Channel. They made a bid to the city to put on Bumbershoot, and it was neck and neck. In response to that, One Reel made the festival much more professional. There was a much greater attempt for it to make moneyprices went up considerably.

Barbara Earl Thomas: When you look back at [the so-called “Bumber Wars”], it looks like the growing pains of the festival. Once it got to a certain size, people started to see that this could possibly be a lucrative venture. There was a thought that it wasn’t necessarily a One Reel festivalanyone with the skills and experience could put it together. But Bumbershoot did have its own particular Seattle personality. That’s what the line in the sand was about.

Sheila Hughes (producer, One Reel, 1985-present): I joined the company right after the Bumber Wars. It was viewed as a victory for the arts communitythe “let your freak flag fly” mentality got endorsed, so the festival built itself up from that moment. Back then, One Reel was a small outfit. There were about eight or nine of us working on Bumbershoot out of a little storefront office on Second Avenue in Belltown; everybody else who worked on the festival [was] seasonal.

Larry Reid: I was the manager of a punk band called the U-Men and got them booked in 1985. The Mural Amphitheatre, at that time, had a stage built out over a pond that separated the stage from the audience. The U-Men’s drummer, Chas Ryan, came up with the idea of pouring lighter fluid on the pond and igniting it during the finale. During the last song, myself and a roadie poured the fluid into the pond. The singer, John Bigley, came dancing out from back stage wielding a flaming straw broom that had also been doused. When he swept the broom over the pond, it explodedflames dancing 10, 15 feet in the air. We somehow failed to take into account that the stage extended OVER the water, and that the flames would follow the lighter fluid UNDER the stage. The cops waded into the crowda mosh pit was a fairly recent phenomenon then, and cops might have assumed there was a riot going on. The soundman began throwing his gear off the stage. I decided to get the hell out of there before I got arrested. The band never missed a beat. In a 1994 interview, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm said it was the best show he’d ever seen.

Sheila Hughes: One Reel’s old truck lived on in the Ballard truck lot for years. One year, we donated it to [artist] Claire Colquitt. He turned it sideways and made this thing called a Funscrapera nightmare funhouse, basically. You walked through, and huge chutes had bowling balls crashing down beside you. It just got placed on the fountain lawn, with very little explanation, and then everybody who went through itfamilies, kids, whateveremerged with their hair standing on end.

Jason Talley (ex-bassist, Red Stars Theory): I can recall Soundgarden, with Jason Everman on bass, playing in front of the Spinal Tap horned skull. [Spinal Tap’s] “Big Bottom” was their encore.

Gary Gibson (general manager, Seattle Channel): I managed shows at the Coliseum back in the ’80s for Bumbershoot. I wanted to convey something to Miles Davis. This guy who worked for him said, “You can’t talk to him. He won’t talk to white guys.”

Jon Kertzer: The story I heard is that in his contract, it said he had to get picked up by a limousine. He came out to the front of the airport, whispered something into the ear of his valet, and the valet said to the person from the festival who was there, “Miles will not use that limousine. It’s a white limousine, and Miles don’t get in no white limousine.” They had to get a black or grey limousine.

Gary Gibson: I got to drive Ray Charles to the airporthe had a half-hour to get from the stage to the airport. He came off the stage in his tux, they handed him a bag, we got in the car. And he starts changing right there in the car. Does Ray Charles wear boxers or briefs? Ray Charles wears bikinis.

Jon Kertzer: Chuck Berry’s contract [specified] a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier and a Dual Bassman cabinet. The amplifier was not hard to get, but the speaker cabinet hadn’t been made in 20 years. We figured we’d get something equivalent. The Coliseum was filled with 15,000 people, probably the biggest show Bumbershoot had [done]. He saw that we didn’t have the specific cabinet, and said, “Look at my contract. If I don’t get that cabinet, I get an extra $2,000 cash or I don’t play.” We had to run around the booths and gather $2,000 in small bills.

There was also that time when he threw Steve Foss, the original bass player in Heart, offstage. Usually, if you’re a pretty good rock and roll musician, you know how to play; he just starts playing and you follow. Berry kept going over there and motioning to Steve during the show, and at one point he just walked over and pulled his cable out of his amplifier and told him to get offstage in front of everybody.

Doug Cavarocchi (producer, One Reel, 1999-present): I heard Ken Stringfellow say that they formed the Posies so they could get a gig at Bumbershoot.

Jon Kertzer: I created something called Bumberdrum in 1988. The first one, we had Tito Puente, Billy Cobham, Zakhir Hussain, and a traditional Yoruba percussion group. They all played individually, but then they started interacting with each other. Anyone who was there was just high from it afterward.

Artis the Spoonman: The third Bumberdrum was with Airto [Moreira], and we got to jam together, and what’s he do but he pulls out a pair of spoonsand he rips. [shouting] He rips! It was tremendous, and he just looked at me so cocky. Afterward, he’s putting his stuff in his trunk. I said to him, “You’re the man.” And he flipped me off! [laughs]


Charles R. Cross: It is fair to say that Bumbershoot had an identity crisis in the early ’90s. It was essentially an organization run and booked by old hippies, and they were not programming stuff for kids. In retrospect, it seems that criticism was just: Bumbershoot missed the boat for a few years with up-and-coming local bands, but thankfully that shifted.

Doug Cavarocchi: I moved here in 1991. The Friday of Bumbershoot, my boss at the Tower Records in the U District handed me a ticket and said, “Go. I want you to find out what this city is about.” That was really good advice. I expected a rock show, but the street performers attracted me more than anything up onstage.

Peter Buck (guitarist, R.E.M.): I moved here in ’92, and went to my first Bumbershoot right after. I went to Jazzfest in New Orleans for 10 years in a row, and it had that feeling, except Jazzfest is a real get-drunk, tear-it-up crowd. You don’t really see people passed out drunk at noon at Bumbershoot like you do in New Orleans. It’s more family oriented. I have kids, and it’s fun to see clowns and people on stilts.

Charles R. Cross: It was a good idea to book Sir Mix-a-Lot, but Bumbershoot, at that point, hadn’t figured out security. The fans broke several of these gigantic glass panels around the Coliseum. There was tear gas. I was right in the middle of that, and it scared the living crap out of me.

David Byrne during Bumbershoots mid-90s commercial peak.  

Sir Mix-a-Lot (rapper): Literally within 15 minutes, the place was full. I didn’t realize people were sitting around with ice-cream cones going, “Let’s go check Mix-a-Lot out.” [The security problems] happened after the show. One of my guys got in a fight, there were some fights out front. But I was used to thatI used to DJ at the Boys Club on 19th and Spruce; they were shooting out front every night.

Charles R. Cross: There was a fantastic riot that I was in the middle of in 1994, for TchKunG!, a local industrial noise band. They burned a bunch of shit, and that didn’t go over real well with the fire officials. I’ve never in my life seen police beat people with batons except at that show. There was a fair amount of stink about it, because the cops had overreacted and maced a number of people. [One man was arrested and 20 others were pepper-gassed.] The police were afraid that grunge kids were going to take over the world or something ridiculous. Now, we see kids slam dancing and realize that it’s a harmless rite of passage. But at the time, there was a real fear.

Sheila Hughes: Even after the Bumber Wars, the city still owns the festival. But they also financed the festival. Then in ’93 there was a small loss, and in ’94 there was a large lossand the city realized they didn’t like being in the risk position. At that point, One Reel took over the financing as well as the production.

Barbara Earl Thomas: Bumbershoot had gone on serendipitously and had broken even or made money, and the city hadn’t realized what it would be like to take a loss. As director of the festival commission, I managed that link between the city of Seattle and the actual festival itself. My role there was to be the person who was translating for the city. I wrote the position paper that took the festival out of the city and put it in a private nonprofit. The arts were not the city’s soup du jour. The city still participates, but it’s no longer responsible for the gains and losses.

Sheila Hughes: When I first got here, we were the only thing happening on Labor Day weekend or even two weeks on either side of it. We had to work with Portland and Vancouver in order to arrange a three-leg stint for somebody. Now, the [artists were calling us. So we really had to step up. 1995 was a make-it-or-break-it year. We did the Jimi Hendrix electric guitar festival. It was our first year taking it from the city, so we pretty much had to make it work.

Charles R. Cross: The Hendrix tribute concert had a lineup of essentially anybody who’d ever been a great guitar playera lot of people who didn’t have much of a connection with Jimi Hendrix, but somebody said, “Why don’t we get Mike McCready and throw him onstage here?” And it worked.

Peter Buck: In the stadium, I saw Buck Owens playing with the Screaming Trees. I met [Owens]; he was kind of like Foghorn Leghorn, with a booming voice. Even [the Screaming Trees’] Mark Lanegan went up and talked to him, and Mark doesn’t talk to a lot of people.

Doug Cavarocchi: The Monday Buck Owens played, I wanted to go, and I had to work. I was a bartender at the Pacific Inn in Fremont; people came into my bar, and I threw them all out and made them go to Bumbershoot. If they came back with a ticket stub and told me they’d seen Buck Owens, they could have free beer. About half a dozen people took me up. [Another time], riding my bike home after working a long, kind of greasy shiftI lived on Capitol Hill, on Summit and HarrisonI got home, and could hear the Ramones so clearly. The cloud cover was such that it was perfect. I went inside, got a beer, went out and sat on my front stoop, and listened to the rest of the Ramones’ set. I’d been so bummed all day because I was going to miss it, and there it was, waiting for me.

Charles R. Cross: One of the greatest shows I ever saw was Mel Torm頦ollowed by Mudhoney and the Ramones. [Torm靠told me afterward that it was the greatest show he’d ever played in his life.

Sheila Hughes: 1997 is considered around here a sort of watershed yearDavid Byrne, Sheryl Crow, Blues Traveler, Beck, Sonic Youth. Everything sort of culminated, and with it came some problems, too. The stadium was far too crowded for the Beck show; there were some wristbands and some other things came into effect to keep the festival vibe without going to separate paid tickets You can’t just invite 50,000 people and hope they sort themselves out.

Charles R. Cross: For a number of years they’d put a wild-card spot on the schedule. One of them was Patti Smithit wasn’t announced, but if you were smart enough to be there, you got to see Patti Smith with about 250 people. How many legitimate, Fortune 500 companies organizing anything would just say, “On NBC tonight at 8, it’s a wild card. We’re not going to announce it in advance, we’re just going to run the best thing we can.”

Doug Cavarocchi: This little girl who looked to be about 8 years old walked up to Robbie Fulks and handed him a note that said, “I’m your biggest fan, I know all your songs. Can I please sing with you?” About halfway through the set, he brings her up, and they sing “Parallel Bars” togethershe sings Kelly Willis’ part. It was really great, right up till the endI think he forgot that they end up cursing each other out. You could see on his face, like, “Oh, God, what’s about to happen?” And the little girl, without blinking, sings, “That’s ’cause you’re an asshole.” And he laughed so hard he actually fell over.


Charles R. Cross: I’ve [talked to] a number of people who work there about the financial status of the festival. For the most part, this has been hard to pull off. Some of the choices they make do not make sense from a sheer dollar-and-cents standpoint. Most other festivals that happen around the country only book acts that bring in revenue. Bumbershoot doesn’t work that way, even today.

Sheila Hughes: Even now, as producer, the most fun thing is to listen to surveys after the festival. They may come for the headliners, but when they’re asked what was the thing you’ll never forget, it’s some exhibit they walked through, or some strange performance-art kind of thing.

Baby Gramps: It’s always great, even in the rain. I remember one time I was playing Bumbershoot, and it started hailinghail the size of golf balls. I remember running to shelter and I kept performing. Everybody who was watching ran with me.

Sheila Hughes: You have to make sure people see what they hope to see and not just come and get crushed. You have to make sure the experience is worth their $20.

Artis the Spoonman: I’ve never fucking paid my way in there, and I never will. If it doesn’t work at one gate and someone just says, “Oh, it’s Artis, just let him in,” then I’ll go over to the next one. If I can’t go up to someone at the gate and [be] let in, I ain’t going.

David Cross (comedian): At the end of the first night I experienced it, I asked one of the security guards, “How many arrests do you have to make every year?” And he said, “Oh, a couple. Guys are drunk. No violence or anything.” That blew me away. I was [seeing] the Fastbacks and Sleater-Kinney. They had a beer garden in the back of the room, and a makeshift balsa wood picket fence thing, and a skinny 20-year-old kid in a yellow T-shirt saying, “You can’t come in through here.” And everyone said, “Oh, OK,” and went around the side to the entrance. In Boston or L.A., that would not happen. People would say, “Fuck you, bitch” and push their way in, and the festival would be over in two years. I can’t imagine it working in any other city.

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