In 2013, Michigan transplant Dane Wilson was toying with the idea of buying Re-bar, the theater and nightclub in the Denny Triangle that opened in 1990, when he struck up a conversation with a patron on the sidewalk that sealed the deal. The night in question featured a Neil Gaiman-and-Star Trek-themed burlesque show, a geeky-meets-sexy combination typical of Re-bar’s onstage offerings.
“I asked this guy, ‘How did you find out about the show?’ and he goes, ‘Well, I’m a Black, gay, anarchist satanist that just moved here from Austin, Texas, and this is the first place I’ve been to,’” Wilson recalls. “That was like me in Kalamazoo [Michigan] hanging out at the coffee shop for hours because there’s no place to go.”
The next year, Wilson and business partner Michael Manahan, a longtime Seattle DJ and music promoter who has since relocated to Portland, bought the scruffy but storied nightclub, which has hosted the gamut of Seattle cultural icons from Nirvana to drag comedian Dina Martina.
Re-bar turns 30 this year and will celebrate on Saturday, Feb. 22 with drag shows and dancing. Performers Sherry Vine and Joey Arias will both give solo performances, then combine forces as The Garden of She-den, before everyone takes the dance floor under the watchful eye of Seattle’s masterful man behind the decks, Riz Rollins, whose DJ career began at Re-bar three decades ago. It may be the venue’s last milestone birthday, however, as the site was put up for sale last year.
From wrestling to art exhibits
Don’t let a party headlined by drag queens and a gay DJ fool you. Since nightlife entrepreneurs Steve Wells and Pit Kwiecinski opened the Howell Street venue, an 80-year-old building whose entertainment credentials stretch back to its debut as the Nighthawk Tavern in the 1930s, Re-bar has steadfastly resisted being pigeonholed. It is neither a gay bar nor a straight bar. Neither a dance club nor a theater. It’s all of those at the same time — often on the same night.
In an era of nightlife specialization, when a bar or club seeks an edge by doing one type of alcohol or one type of genre with aplomb, Re-bar harkens to a more jack-of-all-trades style that has largely faded from the cultural landscape in most cities.
The modest one-story building has a main stage framing a well-worn wooden dance floor, a side stage with space for 100 seated patrons, a U-shaped bar in the middle and diner-style booths cradling the back wall. “It’s a blank canvas that can be as minimal as one red lamp [the décor during Sunday night party Flammable] or the result of six hours of decorating by a Burning Man-themed camp hosting a fundraiser,” says Wilson on a recent Saturday as staff members decorate the proscenium with crepe paper for the upcoming birthday bash.
A brief scan of the calendar offers a bewildering array of live shows and DJ nights. One Monday will see the projection screen unfurled for Collide-O-Scope, a bizarre video montage unearthed from the nether regions of the world’s VHS repositories. The next Monday, passionate fans show up for the 1975 cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” beloved for interactive live screenings where the audience sings and dances along with the characters.
On Tuesdays, drum-and-bass devotees hit the dance floor to binge on breakbeats. On Wednesdays, the chairs come back out as patrons listen to steamy raconteurs at the weekly Bawdy Storytelling night.
“Re-bar has hosted everything from wrestling to spoken word to dance nights to art exhibits,” says Rollins, who has been visiting — and playing music at — Re-bar since it opened. “It addresses the whole artistic bent of this city and I don’t think any bar has managed to do that since.”
Arguably, Re-bar’s most popular night is Sundays. Just as the rest of the city prepares to go back to work, the longest-running house-music night west of Chicago — the genre’s birthplace — has been heating up the dance floor for a quarter-century with a mix of local and touring DJs. That 25-year span has made Flammable a rite of passage for local disc jockeys.
“Going to Flammable on Sundays is like going to church,” says KEXP DJ Sharlese Metcalf, who first stumbled into Re-bar in 2012 and first played the legendary night in 2018.
“The experience is completely unexplainable,” Metcalf says. “You can feel the bass from the bottom and you’re playing on a hanging table that can move. You feel the validation of the red lamp and all the energy of people dancing.”
While Re-bar hosts more DJs than punk bands these days, its legend stretches back to the early days of grunge. The club cemented its place in Seattle music lore when it hosted the release party for Nirvana’s seminal sophomore album “Nevermind” on Sept. 13, 1991. As recounted in a HistoryLink essay, the band members got rip-roaring drunk, started a food fight and were ultimately tossed to the curb from their own party.
Three decades serving as Seattle’s beacon for the weird, artsy, queer and experimental have grown the legend far beyond a stop on a Nirvana pilgrimage tour. Comic drag performer Dina Martina got her start at Re-bar and has now ascended to bigger stages like ACT Theatre. Ian Bell’s Brown Derby Series, self-described as “ridiculous staged readings of your favorite screenplay,” is a Re-bar staple. For a dozen years, Emerald City had its own kinky spin on 1960s and ’70s game show “Match Game” when Nelson Heston Riley, better known as the Babe of Belltown, stumped audiences with goofy questions about local celebrities.
“These are national treasures in campy theater,” says Wilson.
Scrappy institutions in a changing Seattle
But like many scrappy institutions in a changing Seattle, Re-bar may be on borrowed time. Shortly after Wilson bought the club, the surrounding blocks were rezoned from seven to 40 stories. Three residential towers have sprouted in the immediate vicinity, creating a litany of construction headaches. The new neighbors, meanwhile, are more prone to filing complaints about noisy patrons on the sidewalk than popping in for a show.
“Tech bros just aren’t interested in underground Chicago house or alternative theater,” Wilson laments.
Noise complaints are the least of Re-bar’s current worries. Diamond Parking, which owns the property, put it up for sale last fall with an asking price of $6.4 million, according to The Stranger. Diamond Parking could not be reached for comment as of press time. Wilson, who sees himself as the steward of a community institution as much as a businessman, put out a survey last fall to decide next steps. There were three options: stay, move or close. With 5,000 responses, the consensus was, as he put it, “Stay put and dig in.” While the land under Re-bar and neighboring Market House Meats is for sale, the remaining parcel on the block is owned by Nicole Stone, who operates the neighboring nightclub Kremwerk and has no current intentions to sell. Wilson doesn’t believe a developer will purchase the site until the whole block is for sale.
But with property taxes now reflecting the 40-story potential, Wilson saw his rent jump from $3,500 to $10,000 per month. “The type of people that we have coming, the shows here, and the amount of people we can fit in here don’t pay our bills right now,” Wilson says. “We need about $10,000 more per month just to break even.”
The club employs 15 people and books shows for 40 promoters. Wilson estimates he has enough runway to operate the club through Pride in June unless a preservation-minded purchaser buys the building or an investor buys out Wilson’s business partner with the goal of relocating Re-bar.
This sense of fragility has been a constant. “Ever since I’ve been going there, there’s been the threat of Re-bar closing,” says Adé, a drag performer who also bartends, a common arrangement that sees regular performers end up working at the club. “We’ve all been on pins and needles since the beginning. This is the last bastion of queer, creative community in Seattle.”
If the club were to close its doors, Rollins fears the loss of a cherished teacher: “I think of Re-bar as a school where people get an education in how to live, how to be and how to celebrate.”
Re-bar 30th Anniversary Party, with Sherry Vine, Joey Arias and Riz Rollins, 8 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22; Re-bar, 1114 Howell St., Seattle; $60, ages 21+; facebook.com/rebarseattle