Walking into a silent, empty Crocodile doesn’t feel the same. Gone are the tallboy-cracking bartenders and merch-ogling fans that once hovered around the sticker-splattered booth. By the time you read this, the Melvins show posters and Charles Peterson’s iconic black-and-white Nirvana photos may have already come down from the walls.
Seattle music fans have seen their last show at the Crocodile’s original home in Belltown.
After nearly 30 years, one of the city’s most storied clubs is leaving the sticky-floored temple where three generations of music lovers have seen bands on the cusp work out their awkward stage banter en route to stardom.
“Obviously, there’s emotions,” says managing partner Adam Wakeling. “But this whole last eight months has been totally emotional, not knowing whether or not we’re going to survive.”
Wakeling and the rest of the Croc’s masked-up brass assembled in the Back Bar last Friday, days before they’d start lugging boxes to the club’s future home four blocks away. With the club’s lease expiring in the coming weeks, ownership had approached their landlord about purchasing the 1920s building, looking to secure its future in a development-happy neighborhood. One looming residential project threatens to engulf the rest of the block. The years-in-the-making project, which would raze a sizable chunk of Seattle’s funkiest nightlife corridor, contributed to the closure of Tula’s Jazz Club and Shorty’s punk/metal pinball dive, though Shorty’s found new digs nearby.
When purchase talks halted, the Crocodile owners asked about re-upping its lease instead, only to be shot down without explanation, Wakeling says.
The landlord could not immediately be reached for comment.
“Having the stability of a new lease or purchasing the building would have been nice, because obviously we love this place,” says co-owner Marcus Charles, who helped revive the club in 2009 after a 15-month closure due to financial problems. “On the flip side, though, this building in and of itself doesn’t encapsulate the Crocodile. The people … the history, the bands who come through — all those things are what really made the Crocodile.”
Talent buyer Hunter Motto, who grew up attending all-ages shows at the Crocodile, admits to tossing back “a drink or two too many” after realizing “this place isn’t going to be around in the same capacity.”
But after eight teeth-grinding months of pandemic uncertainty, the crew has an ambitious plan they expect will open a bigger, bolder — and most importantly, more stable — new era for the Crocodile. Once this COVID intermission passes, anyway.
The Crocodile is taking over the former El Gaucho building — which includes an 18-room hotel — and plans to create a multivenue entertainment complex that will expand the Croc’s footprint on the local concert landscape. The old-school steakhouse’s central dining room will be the Crocodile’s new 750-capacity main room (about 200 more than the current Croc), bumping out part of its tiered seating area to construct a stage. Before El Gaucho moved in in 1996, the old Sailors Union of the Pacific hall held concerts by a young Radiohead, Korn and home state greats Bikini Kill and the Posies.
El Gaucho’s once regal, now comfortably weathered bar will stay put and the lower level Pampas Room that once hosted burlesque and jazz shows will become a 300-capacity sibling club — an upstairs/downstairs combo a la Neumos and Barboza, which Charles co-founded on Capitol Hill. The basement club will be a significant step up from the tiny stage crammed into the Croc’s old Back Bar, which earned fanfare with its wood-fired pizzas. “We’ll have an actual, real venue space instead of playing the front room of a pizza restaurant,” says Wakeling, noting the size is perfect for developing local artists.
Alas, the Croc’s red-tile pizza oven can’t make the move. But they will serve a different style of pizza (and other bar food) in a street-level happy-hour bar and throughout the clubs.
Also under Crocodile control is the 3,800-square-foot space that second-run movie theater Big Picture vacated this spring. It will become a 96-capacity comedy club that will also host one-person shows, art exhibitions and other smaller, community-focused events.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Croc will continue operating the third-floor hotel giving the rooms that used to be sailors’ quarters a light rock ‘n’ roll makeover. Not a bad perk for touring acts, once touring becomes a thing again. They aim to reopen the hotel in February, followed by the street-level bar around March. As for the venues, Charles is hopeful live music will return by September 2021.
If this sounds like a big undertaking while the live entertainment industry is canceled, well, it is. Earlier this summer, Wakeling estimated it would cost north of $400,000 just to hold the original Crocodile space until next summer. Had it been an option, the club’s investor group — which includes Alice in Chains drummer Sean Kinney and Susan Silver, who managed AIC and Soundgarden — was willing to stick it out, Charles says. But they’d rather spend that cash expanding the business instead of standing pat.
It also doesn’t hurt that the new landlord is “totally hooking us up,” Charles says. That new landlord, who Charles also rents his Local 360 restaurant space from, is investing in the club and agreed to a 20-year lease. That will hopefully allow the Crocodile to remain in Belltown for the long haul, while the development boom has made affordable venue space around the greater downtown area scarce.
“To find a place like that a few blocks away from here, it’s almost unimaginable,” Wakeling says.
While there’s loads of upside in the new locale and the Crocodile’s legacy can’t be erased, losing the original home of one of Seattle’s last remaining grunge-era haunts is a tough blow. That connection to the past is the main reason the Croc became a nationally recognized club and bona fide tourist destination, but it didn’t stop making history in the early ’90s. The Croc has been an important milestone club for Seattle greats from different genres and generations.
At the height of Nirvanamania, Kurt, Krist and Dave played a raucous surprise gig there. It’s where in 1998 a young Ben Gibbard, about to give 300 fans an encore they can brag about today, realized that maybe Death Cab for Cutie could make some noise beyond the Northwest.
“I had this moment where I got really emotional and I was like, ‘This is real,’ ” Gibbard said last year. “Playing the Crocodile was everything I ever really wanted when I was a teenager living in Bremerton and coming to shows.”
Just one year ago, in front of a packed Crocodile crowd, local hard rocker Ayron Jones impressed a label exec enough to take a chance on a shredder guitarist from the Central District. As of this writing, Jones’ debut single “Take Me Away” — a blues-scorched anthem Seattle fans have known for years — had spent several weeks in the top 10 on Billboard’s mainstream rock songs chart.
No matter how the new spot shakes out, there will inevitably be grumbles that it ain’t like it used to be. But the Crocodile team seems confident they can overcome that, partly because they did it before. When Charles’ group took control in 2008, they “gutted the entire building.”
“There was nothing left,” says the music and nightlife vet, who helped build the Capitol Hill Block Party into a festival that draws 10,000 people a day. “I got pneumonia because there was no heat and literally we had mounds of dirt all over the showroom, because we had to retrench all the plumbing lines.”
The sparkly new bathrooms and high-end pizza bar may have initially put off some, who accused the Croc of losing some grit. But more than a decade later, it’s still one of the most beloved clubs in town.
“It’s gonna be sad,” Charles says. “But it’s also going to be riveting and exciting. And that’s gonna be the trick for us — to re-create that feeling in a different place.”