Billy King, Pike Place Market’s honorary mayor, worked with tavern owners to launch soapbox derbies in the 1970s.
FRANK SHAW, a retired Boeing employee with a Hasselblad camera, often was drawn from his Lower Queen Anne apartment to the attractions of Seattle’s waterfront and its neighbor, Pike Place Market, especially on weekends. Other popular subjects for Shaw were high school soccer matches at Seattle Center; work in progress on public art; and community festivals, in Seattle and its suburbs.
Here in our “Then” photo, on May 25 or 26, 1975, Shaw found a place along the crowded railing above the landmark block where Pike Alley reaches its intersection with First Avenue, Pike Street and Pike Place. In 1975, Shaw was not yet attracted by the colorful lava-looking montage of posters and the Alley’s gum-splattered sides, some of which Jean Sherrard shows in his “Now” photo.
A weekend earlier, Shaw had recorded a bongo jam at the University District Street Fair. Midweek, he snapped the stern-wheeler W.T. Preston leaving Colman Dock, and he also visited Westlake Mall, where sculptor Rita Kepner was busy chipping away at her 3,600-pound object d’art commissioned by the city for its “The Artist in The City” program.
In the mid-1970s, Kepner and many fortunate others — me included — were supported by the Seattle Arts Commission in the making of public art. I consider it one of the nicest things to ever happen to me. Much of the art survives, delicately scattered about the city.
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Ultimately, the art was funded by the Nixon Administration, in the year following his 1974 resignation. Those of us who were funded continue to enjoy the irony of Nixon’s part in making the daily stresses of life easier for us. Now, nearly a half-century later, I can still confess that, “Nixon was very, very good to me.”
The year 1975 was one for bell-bottom pants. How many pairs can you count in the horseshoe of race spectators standing near the starting line? I figure about nine. I had three pairs, which I bought at The Wise Penny, the Junior League’s thrift store on Capitol Hill’s Broadway Avenue.
On the authority of the artist/promoter Billy King, Pike Place Market’s honorary mayor into the 1980s, the Market’s soapbox races began with perhaps two boxes in the 1970s, but rapidly expanded. Billy got the idea for a derby from Doug Payson, an architect who lived near the Market in the basement of the Bay Building.
Next, King carried the idea to the owners of the Market’s taverns, three of them. With their support grew a bacchanalian affair but with good manners protected by the prudent friends of the Market and also somewhat by a complicit police department.
For his role as mayor/master of ceremonies, Billy wore a tuxedo and used a PA system. The race needed a caller at its single dangerous corner, a short block west of First Avenue. Distinguished in his tux, Billy stood on a chair at the corner, describing the progress of the several races to their two collections of spectators, those east of the corner and those south of the corner, on the longer part between the corner and Union Street.
I asked Billy whether he could identify either of the two racers about to let gravity have its way, or, for that matter, anyone in the crowd. He answered, “Nope. All the regulars were in the taverns!” Billy had been elected mayor by the regulars sitting on Victrola Tavern stools.