Most major neighborhoods in Seattle can claim at least one viable music venue, but the city’s furthest southern and eastern boroughs have always had a shortage. Columbia City is a rapidly growing area that seems ripe for a midsize venue, and if the new owners of a storied building on Rainier Avenue South can live up to their ambitious mission statement, it could have one by summertime.
On the front window of the Columbia City Theater is a large sign articulating the intentions of the space’s new tenants in great detail. Citing the venue’s “rich history of hosting legendary artists like Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller,” new owners CB Shamah and Rob Hillman outline a vision to “create a space to showcase amazing artists [and] nurture new talent.”
They are also quite explicit about disassociating themselves with the theater’s most recently vacated former tenants. “We did not purchase the business that previously occupied this building,” it continues. “We’re new tenants occupying this incredible space intending on making this historic theater live up to its potential.” Indeed, the promise is great for a space with such a colorful history. Since it opened in 1917, it’s been a jazz club, an artists’ commune, a virtual squat, a rave space, and a punk venue that was part of the ’80s DIY self-booking network.
The space is in the midst of an extensive remodel (including installation of a city-mandated sprinkler system), and is set to host a weeklong grand opening of free shows June 25–July 3, featuring a diverse array of artists: the pastoral pop of Grand Hallway, math-metal architects Lesbian, and hip-hop act Mash Hall, among others. Kevin Sur, co-founder of the Artist Home booking agency, best known for building the increasingly successful Doe Bay Fest, has been tapped to handle booking for the space. Local music blog Sound on the Sound will host a monthly showcases at the theater, and KEXP Street Sounds DJ Larry Mizell will be programming regular hip-hop nights as well. Shamah and Hillman are deliberately seeking staff with strong, long-term ties to the music community, such as former Fastback and Visqueen bassist Kim Warnick, who recently signed on as a bartender after leaving her post at the Cha Cha. Beloved former Crocodile soundman Jim Anderson is in charge of house sound. “I met with them, and they just seemed like good people with good heart. The room’s going to have some [sonic] challenges,” Anderson admits, noting the brick walls and high ceilings in the main room. “But I like a good challenge these days.”
Regardless of obstacles, it’s an extremely worthwhile and admirable endeavor, because the space is positively stunning, both aesthetically and in terms of technical outfitting. It essentially looks like a slightly more ornate, miniature version of the Triple Door, with a total capacity of 350, a darling stage framed by ornamental gold scrolling, and an overall vaudevillian vibe that could make it a logical setting for a pre-Prohibition gangster flick. An auxiliary bar off the main entry with a second, smaller stage will be ideal for hosting acoustic acts and as a socializing hub outside the main showroom.
Perhaps most impressive, a 24-channel recording studio will be run by Gary Mula, former owner of the Dutchman, a legendary SoDo studio that burned down last year. The accommodations for performers rival that of large-scale venues like the Paramount or Moore, with a full shower, dressing rooms, and lushly appointed VIP areas for musicians and their guests. “Basically, we wanted to create a space that would feel like home after a 10-hour drive,” explains Sur.
Its far-flung location could be an obstacle in drawing north-end crowds, though the booming population of Columbia City and Rainier Valley is no doubt ready for a new music venue. “The south end is growing; it’s the most diverse and least expensive neighborhood in the city,” says Long Winters frontman John Roderick, who lives not far from the Columbia City Theater. “Remember when the Tractor opened in Ballard? It felt like it was halfway to Oslo. [This space] is the perfect size, bigger than the Rendezvous but with the same classic feel, maybe close to the High Dive, but with better sight lines—a nice place for small-to-medium-sized bands to make their own scene. Some cool acts will play there, make it their clubhouse, and pretty soon Columbia City will have five rock clubs.”