Dimly lit by vintage wall sconces and diffused light from the glass-and-concrete grid ceiling — which doubles as the 1st avenue sidewalk above — this new underground venue radiates a sense of having stood witness to many decades of Seattle history.
The space at 94 Pike Street was most recently occupied by The Can Can Culinary Cabaret, which has been staging dinner and dance performances since 2005. (It moved to 95 Pine Street in September 2021.) Before that, it was the jazz club Patti Summers Restaurant and Cabaret, in business for 22 years. Further back, the history goes somewhat dark, but according to Robynne Hawthorne, co-owner of the latest incarnation, this space has existed in various forms since before The Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which leveled nearly every building downtown.
“We were told by numerous people in the market that this was originally a horse stable for Union Station before it became part of the market in 1907,” said Hawthorne, of Rabbit Box. Her partner in this new venture is an old friend, Tia Matthies, who has built other notable Seattle venues including the OK Hotel, The Rendezvous and The Royal Room.
Hawthorne, too, is an experienced venue owner and music coordinator, known for several buzzy and beloved Seattle spots, including a café-cabaret-bar-theater in the University District called Pearl Coffee House, and the Fremont bar Horses Cut Shop, later expanded and renamed Underwood Stables. All of them were snuffed out by landlords a few years after opening.
“I put all my heart into [my other businesses] and... they were swallowed by the world,” said Hawthorne. But even in the face of an arts scene slow to rebound from the pandemic, she has high hopes for this new venue, both in terms of staying power as well as serving as a beacon for artists and performance audiences downtown.
The Rabbit Box Theatre had its grand opening on Nov. 3, as a full-service restaurant, bar, and stage that will host curated experiences, including live music, comedy and literary events for both adults and children.
One reason Hawthorne feels optimistic: This time she knows her landlord wants her business to be there.
A selective and intentional community, Pike Place Market requires all new business applicants undergo an 8-to-12 week review process by The Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), which is the manager and landlord of the majority of the buildings within the nine acres that make up the Pike Place Market Historic District.
During the review process, the PDA, the PDA Council, and the City of Seattle’s Pike Place Market Historic Commission prioritize “specialty businesses that appeal to the needs of the immediate community, regional shoppers, and businesses that increase the diversity of the Market.”
“Just knowing how long some of these places have been in the Market [and] the fact that we have been encouraged by our landlords to be here... that’s huge,” Hawthorne says. “They're like, ‘No, we want you here. You’re supposed to be here.’”
Hawthorne’s idea for Rabbit Box — to make the space a literary-forward “house of stories” for kids and adults — was an immediate hit with the review committees. But before Hawthorne and Matthies could begin their renovations on the space, they first had to get their design ideas approved by the Market Historical Commission to ensure their plans preserved the unique physical and social character of the space.
As Hawthorne and Matthies’ original proposal read, Rabbit Box’s mission is to “honor our Seattle history and maintain the relevance of art, music and letters in Pike Place Market... to provide tourists and locals with the feeling of the history of The Market by paying homage to the former owners of the space... and to offer Seattleites and tourists a meeting place after a worldwide pandemic.”
Rabbit Box was fully approved in October, 2021, at which point, Hawthorne says, she could “start to make moves.” Fast forward a year later, and The Rabbit Box Theatre is an art deco-inspired drawing room, complete with ornate settees, vintage lamps, and emerald-green floral wallpaper.
Hawthorne and her team tore out walls, added archways, and brought in antique elements, such as a reclaimed wood floor from an old horse stable in Tennessee, that nod to the space’s previous uses and long history. An onsite “home of the letter” — a small side room offering free letter writing supplies, and a mail slot — encourages visitors to write and send snail mail.
“We wanted to see if we could bring [in] a little bit of the many eras that have occurred in here,” said Hawthorne.
Noting that she is passionate about books, Hawthorne said the space is designed to accommodate all kinds of storytelling, including literature, music, visual art, letter-writing, food and drink. She believes at this moment in pandemic history, storytelling is especially essential.
“I feel like during the quarantine we learned — at least I did — that there’s a collective need to tell our stories... and we all have a different way of telling our own,” she said. “We have built this space to honor that.”
The emphasis on storytelling is reflected in the venue’s name, too — based on one of the most cherished stories in Hawthorne’s book collection. The Rabbit Box, a rare 1970 book by American playwright and poet Joseph Pintauro, is part of a quartet of books he wrote called The Rainbow Box. Hawthorne used the books as touchstone for the venue’s décor and food menu, as well. Illustrated by artist Norman Laliberté, the pages are decorated with old sepia photographs, ornate cursive writing, and various representations of rabbits, which symbolize “the nuance of knowing something that you may not be able to put your finger on.”
“They’re children’s books for adults,” she explained.
The connection makes sense given Hawthorne’s long career as a tutor for kids with learning disabilities — which is also why she is committed to hosting children’s literary and educational experiences at the theatre. During the pandemic, she saw her students become restless and weary from online classes and in need of experiential learning opportunities and ways to process their emotions. She believes they still do, and has big plans for engagement.
“For the children’s literary events I’m starting with the classic Saturday matinee, and that will include either book readings or film. We have two puppeteers... and I want to do Reptile Man or bring in the [Seattle] Aquarium and do educational pieces on animals,” said Hawthorne. “I just I feel like the kids don’t have a cultural place.”
Hawthorne also plans to host regular live music events at the theatre, something she did at previous venues, and has continued to do as a music coordinator for Ballard’s Hotel Albatross (which her romantic partner, Drew Church, co-owns). The stage is set and has already featured bands such as those in the Ghost Shadow Theatre show.
Local musicians, ravenous for stable places to play coming out of the pandemic, are eager to book with Rabbit Box, which has already hosted a few events in the last three months as part of its soft opening. Seattle musicians are particularly excited that the theatre has plans to host regular events from resident artists, which isn’t typical of local venues.
Synth-pop musician Leeni, country-folk band Lo-Liner, and Americana musician Caitlin Sherman, are already booking as resident artists, putting together monthly events at the space that will feature their own music and collaborations with other artists.
“I don’t think [a residency] is all that usual, at least it hasn’t been for us,” said Arlan Lackie, whose band Lo-Liner is slated to play every third Wednesday at Rabbit Box, starting November 16th. For Lackie, whose other seven-piece band The Crying Shame nearly broke up due to the strain of childcare, social distancing and the inability to play live during the pandemic, this regular gig represents a new beginning — both for his fourpiece Lo-Liner and for live arts and culture events in Seattle.
“I feel like there’s been a sort of hesitation to commit too far into the calendar,” Lackie said. “What I noticed as a musician during the pandemic, [there’s] just a real fear of getting too excited and then to have and then having the letdown [of a show cancellation].” He said having a regular gig makes him feel optimistic. “The Rabbit Box’s opening, it’s like a fresh start.”
Sherman, likewise, is coordinating and performing a regular monthly variety show called “Family Affair,” which will feature local artists in stripped down and unusual iterations. She chose the event’s name to commemorate the community revitalization she expects to see while performing at The Rabbit Box.
“As we all emerge from varying levels and lengths of isolation, there are events that will take on the feeling of a sort of reunion,” said Sherman. “I liked the idea of a monthly event that brings together musicians in a more stripped-down setting than they usually play.”
It’s not just performers who are anticipating a sense of reconnection at The Rabbit Box. Isaac Kaplan-Woolner, a Seattle podcast producer who attended one of the soft opening events, says his interest in live events has waned a bit since the pandemic. But he is happy to find a space in the Market — one that feels like it’s for tourists and locals.
“I’ve lived here a long time and I tend to avoid the Market. It doesn’t feel like there’s much to draw me here, or at least the hordes of tourists tend to keep me away,” Kaplan-Woolner said. “It’s really nice to have something that feels like a local space... hidden within the bowels of the market. I felt at home there.”
The initial excitement around The Rabbit Box would seem to bode well for bringing people to Pike Place Market. But sustaining that interest will be crucial, as pandemic recovery for the market has been slow, according to Madison Bristol, Marketing and Public Relations Officer for Pike Place Market.
“The Market’s strength coming out of the pandemic came from a remarkable community coming together and supporting one another,” Bristol said, noting that the PDA provided $3.85 million in COVID rent relief and incentives to Market businesses in 2020 and 2021.
In its efforts to draw people back downtown, Pike Place Market has also bolstered its marketing efforts since the pandemic. “The PDA works very closely with any new business that join the Market to help promote their new space… and produce special events,” Bristol said.
When asked if she’s worried about the slow recovery of the Market, and of reduced arts event attendance in Seattle, Hawthorne maintains a positive outlook. Her symbiotic relationship with the Market, in addition to the interest she’s received from fans of her previous venues and other market businessowners have her feeling confident. Not to mention her programming plans.
“When you curate [regular] events that bring people together,” Hawthorne said, “it is a good way to bring people into a space.” She wants to see The Rabbit Box Theatre grow old at 94 Pike Street — a possibility thanks to a flexible lease from the PDA — and build on the space’s long history as a Seattle gathering place.
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