Seattle’s first disco nudged the city toward its left-leaning future.
In the last two years, Seattle has evolved so far so fast that the hyper-progressive trinity of marriage equality, legal weed and $15-an-hour minimum wage is already a just another bullet point on the city’s permanent record. History, it seems, is easy to make in this place. Preoccupied as we are with its current convolutions, we forget that history has often been made here and cultural amnesia can be as much an asset as an affliction. When your vision is forever aimed ahead, ridiculous personal whim might turn into legend behind your back.
Few cities sustain the delicate, critical balance of Utopian misfits and dependable cynics that have long populated Seattle. Both camps collide in the best Seattle stories, the stories that are simultaneously emblematic and idiosyncratic. Like the story of Shelly’s Leg, which veers from a freak parade-float accident to a crystallization of an era and then—like a half-hearted local band or a low-rise building in South Lake Union—disappears under the heavy bootheel of progress. This particular disappearance, however, involves a gasoline-fueled firestorm.
Opened in Pioneer Square in 1973, Shelly’s Leg was Seattle’s first disco and Seattle’s first openly gay nightclub. How open? A huge, hand-painted sign above the bar proclaimed “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.” A photo of the sign ran in Billboard magazine in 1975. The original now hangs at MOHAI for reasons greater than posterity: It’s a prototype for similar displays seen today in gay establishments from the Castro to Chelsea. You’ll find almost-identical verbiage posted at currently flourishing Capitol Hill nightclubs like Pony, Neighbours and R Place.
Shelly’s featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, back when mixing records with two turntables was a youth-culture novelty. It hosted live bands from all along the West Coast and rock-star entourages after Seattle concerts. It was the nexus of outlandish fashion, pop music and disruptive politics in Seattle, a place frequented by gays and straights, men and women, white and black—anyone seeking cutting-edge culture with a flair for the surreal. It was unprecedented before and has been unduplicated since.
“The problem with history is that the people at the time weren’t paying attention,” says Burl Barer, a former radio DJ who was one of the first to play at Shelly’s Leg. “The significance of Shelly’s Leg was that it was the first successful gay nightclub in Seattle, but I bet if you go back historically you can find the equivalent the previous decade. But the presentation of the music, having a DJ and the bar and the dancing…”
Barer trails off. He lives in LA now; he moved away from Seattle in 2000. Like each of the people interviewed for this story, his memories of Shelly’s Leg are befogged by time and distance and the general debauchery of being young in the 1970s. But everyone, regardless of their personal connection to the place, remembers Shelly Bauman, the woman who gave her leg to see a collective fantasy come to life.
Seattle in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a much different place than it is now. (Hell, Seattle in the early ’00s was a much different place than it is now.) Pike Place Market was a ramshackle, unloved arcade where locals shopped for fish and flowers—“dark in the daytime,” as Shelly’s regular John Otto recalls. Downtown was “surplus stores and peep shows. Prostitutes up and down Pike Street. Bars on First Avenue from the Market going north—they got seedier each block. Sailors in town and chronic drunks would start at bars closer toward the Market and as they got drunker would get kicked out and move on. Each bar was a little worse than the one before.”
South of the Market, porn shops and adult theaters stretched to Pioneer Square. And pre-Kingdome Pioneer Square was the center of gay nightlife in Seattle. Jukebox bars like the Golden Horseshoe, the Columbus Tavern, the Trojan Shield and the Double Header (arguably the oldest gay bar in America), cocktail bar the Macombo—these were gay hangouts, the Silver Slipper the preeminent lesbian bar. Although they were understood to be gay-friendly, they were dimly lit and low-key and certainly didn’t advertise their preferred clientele. Owners typically paid off police to ensure their own surreptitious existence. Gay culture had yet to emerge from the shadows of civil society. The Stonewall Riots, the crucial pivot toward gay liberation in America, happened in 1969—and Pioneer Square was a long, long way from Greenwich Village.
Over in the Central District, Joe McGonagle, a co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe in his early 30s, lived in a huge house that was a magnet for the gay party crowd. In the early ’70s, 15 or 16 people flopped at the place, dubbed Villa Mae by McGonagle’s housemate Pat Nesser. Lots of acid-taking and weed-smoking and basement dance parties occurred, as McGonagle describes in the oral history of Seattle’s LGBT community Mosaic 1: Life Stories. McGonagle says that Shelly Bauman showed up one night in 1970 and just kinda stuck around, befriending him and Nesser through sheer tenacity. Intoxicated by youthful vigor and who knows what else, they’d bemoan the wan nightlife of Seattle and fantasize about the swinging kinds of places they’d hang out if they could.
By various accounts, Bauman was a classically trained dancer, a stripper, a drifter, a bon vivant and an alcoholic. She was born and raised in Illinois but arrived in Seattle in 1968 at 20 years old via Florida, where her parents lived. She was unabashed about her hard-knock life, even with new friends: Her father committed suicide when she was 16, after which her mom told her he wasn’t her real father anyway, then kicked her out of the house. According to her obituary from the Seattle Gay News, she spent her first couple of years in Seattle living with a black family in the Rainier Valley.
Everything changed for Bauman on July 14, 1970. In his book Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Seattle University professor of communications Gary Atkins describes in detail that day’s Bastille Day Parade in Pioneer Square. According to oral reports from people there, it was organized by a restaurant owner to bring revelers to the neighborhood to spend money in bars and restaurants. Around 10 p.m., the meager spectacle streamed from the Sinking Ship—the cockeyed parking garage on First and Yesler—to Occidental Plaza and back: a pickup truck carrying a Dixieland band (nothing more French was available) and two French-made cars. Caboosing the parading was a vintage fire truck owned by an antiques dealer.
This fire engine was fitted with a cannon used to fire lifelines into tall buildings. That day, the cannon was loaded with paper confetti—not unusual, as the owner often fired celebratory blasts on July 4th or during family gatherings. The firing pin was supposedly kept separate from the cannon during the parade. As the engine tottered through the streets, people hopped on and off and rode the cannon atop the float, four or five at a time, including the teenage son of the owner and, at one point, Shelly Bauman. Police and other officials allowed the public drinking, the fireworks and general Francophilia to carry on. Eventually Bauman dismounted the cannon and was swept up in the throng behind the fire truck.
“No one has ever been adequately able to describe what happened next,” Atkins writes.
Court records state that onlookers noticed the barrel of the cannon swinging up and down and then pointing in the crowd. In her deposition, Bauman said she saw the cannon pointing right at her and heard a single, tremendous explosion.
Bauman came to lying in the street. She said she reached from her right side to her left to move her jacket but there was no jacket there; her hand went straight through her side to the pavement. Her lower abdomen was blown out, her organs and blood spilled all over. She’d been hit by the cannon shot—apparently paper confetti wadded solid with spilled booze and ignited by a firecracker. A doctor on the scene reached inside Bauman’s abdomen to pinch an artery with his hand, saving her from bleeding to death. An ambulance arrived and rushed her to Harborview where her left leg was amputated along with part of her pelvis and small intestine. Bauman spent nine months recovering. She’d be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life.
After Bauman finally emerged from the hospital, she doggedly pursued a lawsuit against the parade organizers, the cannon owner and the City of Seattle. Three years of legal battles led to a $330,000 out-of-court settlement. She knew exactly what to do with the money.
With the gay center of Pioneer Square in their sites, Bauman, McGonagle and Nesser found an amenable spot to build the nightclub of their dreams. The three-story brick building at the corner of South Main Street and Alaskan Way was constructed in 1889 as the Alaska Hotel, catering to Gold Rush prospectors on their way to the Yukon. It was since converted into a weekly-rate residence called Our Home Hotel and also housed different music venues over the years—once a jazz club called the Poop Deck and more recently a rock joint called the Grapevine.
Bauman put down $18,000 and signed on to pay $700 a month to buy Our Home Hotel. She spent another few grand renovating the place. Nesser and McGonagle recruited friends from Villa Mae to do the heavy lifting and local artists to provide the décor. By December 1973, Seattle’s first disco was ready to open. Among ideas for a name, Nesser came up with the Great White Swallow and the Organ Grinder. These were frowned upon by City licensors. One they okayed: Shelly’s Leg. The tagline: At the Foot of Main.
From the moment it opened, Shelly’s was a hit. There was no place like it north of San Francisco. Its core aesthetic, as dictated by Bauman, was glamour—if not anathema to Seattle’s blue-collar introversion then at least unheard of here. The club put sexualized spectacle—as flaunted in pop culture by glam-rockers like David Bowie, the New York Dolls and films like Cabaret—on center stage.
“She wanted the Art Deco look,” says Jo David, a friend whom Bauman hired to decorate the place while he was a student at Cornish College of the Arts. “She brought in palm trees and stuff like that. Black-and-white tile floors—it was just linoleum but I cut patterns of martini glasses and palm trees into the tiles.” David acid-etched the mirror behind the bar and two more, floor-length mirrors astride the restrooms.
“Men’s bathroom, women’s bathroom—you could never tell who you were going to run into between the drag queens and the promiscuous activity,” David says. “There was always some kind of crazy sex or something going on.” He painted a pair of eight-foot-tall female figures—“Maxfield Parrish-style”—under the wall sconces on either side of the DJ booth.
The DJ setup, according to Atkins, was the most elaborate in Seattle, featuring “two Russco Cue-Master turntables, four JBL studio monitor speakers, three phase-linear 400-watt amps (one as a reserve in case of blowout), a Soundcraftsmen audio frequency equalizer and a Lafayette SQ-L 4 channel decoder.”
The technology was new and the concept of a discotheque outlandish. “It was a new thing to have no live music, just people spinning records,” Otto says. “Disco wasn’t established as a genre like it is today where you think of specific artists. There was a much broader range of music played—as long as you can dance to it.”
In his 1975 write-up of Shelly’s Leg for the Seattle Times, columnist Erik Lacitis explained exactly what this crazy DJ phenomenon was all about: “[The DJ] tries to continually build up the mood in the disco by the records he plays. One record ‘segues’ into another, sometimes so perfectly that the end drum beat of one song is immediately followed by the beginning drum beat of the next song. There is never a break between songs.”
Burl Barer, a friend of Bauman’s boyfriend, played Shelly’s two nights a week at the beginning. He says his experience as a radio DJ at KOL got him the gig; he knew how to play a set. “I just played the stuff that kept people dancing,” he says. Like what? “Whatever the dance hits were in ’74. They had a stash of records—I didn’t bring ‘em from home. It was the same then as it is now: Whatever’s gonna keep ‘em doing ‘The Hustle’ or ‘Poker Face’.” Barer says he was fired in less than a year for rebuffing sexual advances from a male bartender.
The raised dance floor was kept bright to better accommodate the flamboyant atmosphere Bauman wanted in the place. “Probably not as fancy as you’d see today, but there were a ton of flashing lights,” says Roger Winters, a longtime gay-rights activist and former Shelly’s regular. This was no dark, anonymous bar. “People got dressed up to the max,” David says. “It was the place to go be seen.”
This newfound, brazen visibility of gay expression was a big deal. Even the mainstream press recognized it. “The popularity of Shelly’s is another example of fashion-setting by homosexuals, who have set trends, for example, in clothing and hair styles,” Lacitis wrote.
Within a few months the crowd at Shelly’s Leg increased exponentially, filling the place to its 163-person capacity and beyond. Even on weeknights the line to get in wound around the block and the wait could be up to two hours—unless you knew one of the owners, in which case they’d add your name to a Rolodex kept by a bouncer at the side door. Many underage kids with fake IDs were given preferential treatment. “That made the place seem more exclusive than it was,” Winters says.
For better or worse, exclusivity and glamour had found their way to underground Seattle. “It was a different sort of glamour though,” says John Otto, “because Seattle had this earthiness, this grittiness, this subliminal nature that places like LA have never had. LA has a dark underbelly but it’s a bright, shiny, superficial place. Seattle gets deep. So even though glamour is what we strived for, there was depth to it as well.”
David, who remains an avid art collector and socialite, was an intimate of Bauman’s over the years. He says that after the accident, her outsized persona grew to new extremes, resulting in love-hate relationships with many of her friends. David used to visit her at her new place in West Seattle, where they’d developed a strange ritual.
“I’d get her in her wheelchair and round up her two dogs, those god-awful huge Dobermans, and I’d walk with her, pushing her chair along the length of Alki boardwalk, her in her furs and jewelry and glitter and platform shoes, occasionally whistling and yelling at her dogs,” David says. “When you name your two devil dogs Satan and Lucifer, it makes quite an impression. I used to shrink into my coat as I pushed her and she’d scream in front of some unsuspecting passersby, ‘Satan! Lucifer! Satan! Lucifer!’”
But beneath the charisma, Bauman was in constant pain from her accident and as a result was prescribed pharmaceutical painkillers—a dangerous temptation for an addictive personality like Bauman.
“She was glamorous—that was part of what she wanted to maintain,” David says. “And she was bored as hell being in a wheelchair. She called herself a fag hag—that’s the first time I ever heard someone call themselves that openly—I think because that provided her with the glamour she needed. And she dressed beautifully and wore the largest, most outrageous platform shoe she could find. She’d buy a pair and ditch one.
“She wanted everything, but what she wanted most in life was to be a full woman and free of her wheelchair,” David says. “But that was lost forever, so she had to distract herself by surrounding herself with wild and crazy people.”
The place-to-be heyday of Shelly’s Leg lasted about two years. Then the inevitable occurred.
“Bellevue straights and other people started coming in,” David says. “Pre-yuppies from way early in the evening that wouldn’t leave and the place would be packed with looky-loos.” Shelly’s went from in-crowd clubhouse to big-city destination, losing its tight-knit vibe while gaining greater acclaim. Lacitis’ Times column appeared in August 1975—itself a harbinger of the club’s changing climate.
As if by design, a traffic disaster punctuated Shelly’s decline: Just after midnight on Dec. 4, 1975, a semi-tractor decoupled from the gas tank it was pulling on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The tractor sped away as the tank dropped off the edge of the viaduct and exploded on the street below in an immense wall of flame—right in front of Shelly’s Leg. The explosion torched a dozen cars parked outside and blew in the windows of Shelly’s. Miraculously, nobody inside the packed nightclub was hurt.
The damage done by the fire was more than structural. Bauman paid for renovations and the club reopened but Shelly’s Leg never recovered; it was a replica of its former self. Different sources place the date of Shelly’s closing—some say with Bauman owing major back-taxes to the IRS—in 1977, ’78 or ’79.
After that, Bauman left Seattle for Hawaii and later for St. Petersburg, Florida. She returned to the Northwest in the ’90s with the last of her settlement money, but her remaining friends insisted she live outside Seattle, far away from the temptations of drugs and partying. She lived out her last years in a duplex rented to her by an old friend in Bremerton. Bauman died in 2010 at 63 years old.
The gay and gay-friendly crowd that first flocked to Shelly’s Leg found new haunts—first the Boren Street Disco on the Denny Regrade and later, more visibly, Tugs in Belltown. In 1980, one of the managers at Shelly’s, Ken Decker, opened a stylish new disco called the Brass Door on Capitol Hill where 95 Slide stands today.
Thus began the migration of Seattle’s LGBTQ community up the Hill and into the core of the city. Today its involvement in Seattle arts and politics is taken for granted in this leading-left American metropolis.
Pioneer Square now wavers between a different sort of downtrodden outcast and hopeful gentrifiers. The Our Home Hotel houses 17 condos and a ground-floor art gallery. A slew of dance clubs remain in the neighborhood—big-budget bottle-service places like Trinity and the Fenix that are packed on the weekends with swarms of inebriated young people. Walking around the area on a Saturday night you’d never know Shelly’s Leg ever existed, but Seattle wouldn’t be the same without it.
Photos: Top: MOHAI, Seattle PI Collection, Grant M. Haller; Center: Seattle P-I Archives