The Double Header — a former hub of drag, rock ’n’ roll and queer performance culture in Seattle’s Pioneer Square — hopes to reopen in the next few months under the name Nightjar. Its new owners, who run Re-bar, say they want to preserve the old bar’s 1930s renegade legacy.
What is true about the Double Header? Stories suffuse the old Pioneer Square bar like the tobacco smoke that left a sticky goo on the wallpaper, which its new owners — who plan to revive the place — have already replaced.
What we do know: It was a fully functioning gay bar since at least the 1930s, back when owner Joe Bellotti Sr. (born in Italy and a veteran of World War I) was a grand duke among Pioneer Square’s gritty royalty and one node in the Seattle Police Department’s infamous live-and-let-live payoff network.
If you paid your money to the cops, you could pretty much do what you wanted, said Bellotti Jr. — a former Boeing engineer who took over the family business at 407 Second Ave. in the 1960s and turned it into a celebrated cultural epicenter with drag/punk/performance-art groups like the legendary Ze Whiz Kidz, which brought spectacle and electricity to the place.
Ze Whiz Kidz staged meticulously designed, cardboard-set satires of shows such as “Hollywood Squares” and a ribald version of the German myth “Rapunzel” (about the girl who let down her hair from a tower for a suitor to climb) using a long mane of pubic hair instead.
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“It was wild — you had to be there,” Bellotti Jr. said.
In the early 20th century, the Double Header had a downstairs room, first a casino and later a place where people of the same gender could dance without getting harassed. Those are facts, but people tell plenty of legends.
Was there a downstairs phone that the upstairs bar staff would call if the cops staged a raid, so men and women could quickly swap to opposite-gendered partners? Was that big hole in the downstairs wall courtesy of an angry lesbian who (depending on whom you ask) punched through it when somebody stole her date, or smashed the head of a straight man who’d made an offensive remark?
And was the optical-illusion staircase from an upstairs dressing room (the size of a storage closet) designed with modestly angled stairs but a sharply angled banister so ’40s drag queens could gracefully descend to the stage without having to duck beneath the ceiling and pipes?
“Anything you hear about it is probably true, one way or another,” says Bellotti Jr., who ran the bar until it closed about a year and a half ago. “If you itemized everything that happened in that place, you’d have a book as big as a phone book.”
Now the Double Header hopes to reopen in the next few months with a new name, “Nightjar” (the name of a nocturnal bird), and capital from the most recent owners of Re-bar: DJs and entrepreneurs Michael Manahan and Dane Garfield Wilson. They say they want to preserve the Double Header’s legacy.
Manahan said they want to “copy and paste” some of Re-bar’s drag, burlesque and dance-music scene to Nightjar, too.
Longtime theater director Ian Bell describes Re-bar, which hosts local favorites such as Dina Martina, as “a theater squatting in a disco.” He hopes Nightjar will keep that tradition alive — and maybe help revive the tradition of Pioneer Square being a hub of queer culture and experimental performance art.
Steve Wells, who used to visit the Double Header and ran Re-bar from 1990 to 2006, said the bar “should be a national monument … it was a time warp. Your generation cannot fathom what those people went through in their lives.”
When he used to drop by in the early ’80s, he said, “half the men were femmes and half were butches; half the women were femmes and half were butches. And the hairdos — oh my God. You could smell the Pomade in the air … They were serious business. You didn’t go in there sloppy. And the music was a Polish oompah band. It couldn’t get any better.”
Wells, who is not affiliated with Nightjar, recalled a pack of other gay and lesbian bars in Pioneer Square during that time, including the 611, the Silver Slipper and Shelly’s Leg.
Bellotti Sr. originally ran the bar and casino sometime in the ’30s (though, Bellotti Jr. admits, “the dates are fuzzy”). At the time, it was a “dime-a-dance” joint. Men, many of them military men, would pay a dime to dance with a lady.
The Double Header became a gay bar in the 1930s, when “Pioneer Square is where all the gay kids hung out,” a local drag queen, popularly known as Vilma, said in an interview for the book “An Evening at the Garden of Allah,” by local historians Don Paulson and Roger Simpson. (Vilma died in the early 1990s.) Vilma said he’d been in Minneapolis “and all I heard was ‘Seattle, Seattle, Seattle’ and this fabulous place … I hopped on a boxcar and headed west.”
At the time, Vilma added, Margaret and John (Bellotti Jr.’s aunt and uncle) were the managers, and they would “do anything for you if they liked you, even bail you out of jail, but if you crossed John he’d throw you out in a minute, gay or straight.”
The Double Header, Vilma added, “was the only place on the West Coast so open and free for gay people.”
When Bellotti Jr. took over in the ’60s, he started hosting theater and music. “We went from three kegs of beer to 80 kegs in about three months,” he said. “But I don’t like to brag. I don’t really give interviews. But that’s the way it was.”
Bellotti Jr. also cleared up the myth behind the bar’s name: Over the years, some people said Double Header was a penis/sports pun, since it’s near Seattle’s sports arenas. New-owner Manahan thought it got its name from the fact that the Double Header, post-Prohibition, was the first (legal) bar in the city to offer separate bathrooms for men and women.
“No, no, no,” Bellotti Jr. insisted. “That is not true.” The Double Header, he explained, simply got its name for having two floors — the bar upstairs and the casino downstairs.
Why would his father, an Italian immigrant and veteran, and Bellotti Jr. — whose wife was on the speakerphone interview prompting him to tell stories — run a gay bar in such a gay-intolerant time?
Bellotti Jr. said his dad was a very liberal, enterprising man. “He was just one of those people,” he explained with a shrug in his voice. “‘It is what it is and they’re all just people … The place was known internationally. From Australia and Europe, seamen would come in and say: ‘We’ve heard of this place and want to spend the evening there.’ It was a wonderful atmosphere.”
The new owners have done some light renovation — keeping the old wood bar, reportedly won in a poker game, but replacing the wallpaper covered in that patina of tobacco gunk, except a few sticky strips of the original in an upstairs room as a testament to the legacy of the Double Header’s influence in Seattle.
“Obviously,” Manahan said, “the history of the Double Header lends itself to the history of the kind of culture we’re interested in preserving in Seattle.”
“Pioneer Square used to be the place to go,” Wilson added. He walked across the old wood flooring, past a work table with piles of gloves and screws and tools for the remodel. “I think we’re getting back to that. It’s getting a little more life. We want to bring that reputation, that history back.”