Rejuvenating one of Seattle's oldest theaters

With a past that dates to Seattle's vaudeville days, the Columbia City Theater gets a new life, and that could help liven the neighborhood too.
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The Columbia City Theater as it stood in the 1950s.

With a past that dates to Seattle's vaudeville days, the Columbia City Theater gets a new life, and that could help liven the neighborhood too.

Seattle'ꀙs newest music venue is also one of its oldest — the Columbia City Theater.

Located in Rainier Valley, the theater has roots that go back to the days of vaudeville. It originally opened in 1917 and has served as everything from a movie house in the 1950s to a home for DIY punk rock shows in the 1980s. During the heyday of jazz, its stage hosted local legends such as Jimi Hendrix (performing as a member of his high school jazz band) and Quincy Jones, as well as national titans not from around here, including Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.

The theater'ꀙs new owners, Robert Hillman and C.B. Shamah, began renovating the venue five months ago and enlisted several players in the music scene to help. The 350-capacity venue is scheduled to reopen its doors this weekend (June 25-26), and to celebrate it will host several free shows featuring some of the city'ꀙs most buzzed-about bands. The shows include sets by hip hop group Mash Hall (tonight, June 25), chamber pop group Grand Hallway (Saturday), country rockers The Maldives (July 2) and soul punks The Whore Moans (July 3).

Hillman, who lives in Columbia City, said he knew there was an opportunity to do something special with the vacant theater.

'ꀜI always thought this place was underutilized,'ꀝ he said. 'ꀜWhen I found out it was for sale we both knew very quickly we wanted to make a run of it.'ꀝ

Hillman and Shamah'ꀙs run at owning the theater could do more than just rejuvenate one of the city'ꀙs oldest music venues. It could help do the same for the neighborhood.

'ꀜWe recognize what we bring to this area and we want to create a nice destination spot here in Columbia City that will help support local businesses,'ꀝ Hillman said.

He envisions the theater becoming a gateway into the Rainier Valley for people who don'ꀙt frequent the South End, attracting clubgoers to the neighborhood's array of restaurants, bars, and businesses. This is something Hillman and Shamah are already working towards: They're partnering with the theater'ꀙs neighbor, Tutta Bella Pizzeria, to sell the restaurant'ꀙs food at Columbia City Theater — similar to the Crocodile's deal with Via Tribunali in Belltown.

Some of the theater'ꀙs renovations include a new in-house recording studio and a bar, called Bourbon, that will operate independently of the venue. The bar will be open seven days a week and will occasionally host acoustic sets by local musicians, while the theater will host concerts on Fridays and Saturday and act as a recording studio the other days of the week. The studio is being manned by engineer/producer Gary Mula, one of many music-scene "names" involved with the theater.

The venue features brick walls, a high ceiling, and an elevated stage with a bar at the back of the room. A catwalk, balcony, and VIP area provide for various viewpoints. Mula got visibly excited when asked about the room's acoustics. He said the multiple vantage points have the potential to create different sounds, which could make each person's listening experience unique.

Larry Mizell, Jr., a local hip-hop aficionado who wears many hats in the music community, also was brought into the Columbia City Theater fold. Mizell hosts KEXP'ꀙs hip-hop program 'ꀜStreet Sounds,'ꀝ writes a hip-hop column for The Stranger, and belongs to several local hip-hop groups including Mash Hall. He will be booking a monthly hip-hop showcase at the theater.

'ꀜHaving a superb venue in Rainier Valley is an incredibly important tipping point for that neighborhood,'ꀝ said Mizell, who grew up in the Rainier Valley. 'ꀜI feel like Columbia City and the Valley in general is one of the last true virtually unchanged areas of Seattle. It isn'ꀙt like the Seattle of the past 10 years. There'ꀙs a very genuine vibe of the neighborhood, and having a venue that can reflect that is important.'ꀝ

The neighborhood could be the most important factor in the new Columbia City Theater's future. Clubs like the Sunset, Tractor Tavern and the Crocodile have neighborhoods littered with boutiques and condos to support them, while Neumos, Chop Suey and the Comet have the trendiness of Capitol Hill on their side. Columbia City Theater isn'ꀙt part of a destination neighborhood like those peers, which could pose a problem when it comes to drawing crowds.

'ꀜThe biggest challenge will be getting the word out and letting people know this is a place to have a good experience,'ꀝ said Hillman, who's hoping the free shows help build a buzz. 'ꀜSure there might be a bit of resistance to get down here at first, but once people get here and see the theater, spend time in the neighborhood and realize it only takes about 10 minutes to get here from most other neighborhoods, I think there will be a lot less resistance.'ꀝ

Aside from scene vets Mizell and Mula, the Columbia City Theater crew also has enlisted the help of other notables including Fastbacks singer Kim Warnick, who will occasionally bartend, and scene fixture Jim Anderson, known as the famous face behind the soundboard at the old Crocodile Café. Anderson will return to his role behind the boards controlling the sound for Columbia City Theater.

Also on board are the people behind taste-making blog Sound on the Sound, who will be booking monthly showcases. Additionally, the venue will host a weekly 'ꀜSpin Class'ꀝ on Thursdays, where figures from the scene will act as DJs at Bourbon.

'ꀜI was flattered to be asked to be a part of this,'ꀝ said Abbey Simmons, co-founder of Sound on the Sound. 'ꀜBeing involved with a group of people that are driven by a deep devotion to the local scene, the music community, and an overall nerdy love of music, which are the same things that have driven Sound on the Sound, is amazing.'ꀝ

Having known quantities like Simmons, Anderson, Mizell and others on board gives the venue instant credibility within the music community to go along with its rich history. Kevin Sur, the venue'ꀙs manager and talent buyer, emphasized that nurturing and supporting the music community is a big part of the vision behind Columbia City Theater.

'ꀜEvery aspect of how we operate is about taking care of the artists. We want to make sure they know we are here to serve them and not the other way around,'ꀝ he said.

He added that it'ꀙs important to have members of the music community help keep the rich tradition of the theater alive: 'ꀜI think we all feel more like stewards instead of employees because of the importance of this theater to the city of Seattle and its heritage.'ꀝ

Hillman agreed and said while the venue has hosted its share of memorable performances he hopes to see many more memories made at Columbia City Theater in the years to come.

'ꀜThe more memories we can create," he said, "the more successful we will be."

If you go: The Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., will celebrate its grand reopening throughout the next two weeks with a series of free concerts featuring a diverse group of local musicians. All shows start at 9 p.m. See the theater's website for details.


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