A closer look at Seattle’s unsung hero: the Jewelbox.
Reach back- way back- into Seattle entertainment history and you’ll find that many roads lead to The Rendezvous. The multipurpose space, which featured a screening room, restaurant, and basement speakeasy, was opened by B.F. Shearer in 1927 in the midst of Prohibition. The screening room was of particular importance at that time, as Seattle’s “Film Row” was based in a stretch of roughly two to four blocks along First and Second Avenue (between Bell and Wall streets). The area was something of a deal-making hub: Hollywood films were screened and regional distribution and bookings were negotiated through branch offices of studios like MGM and Paramount Pictures right in the neighborhood. Remarkably, the tiny Art Deco theater known as the Jewelbox would outlast not only the glory days of Film Row, but many of the surrounding neighborhood landmarks.
The Rendezvous went through many owners and incarnations (including porn theater and dive bar where sketchy characters and ironic hipsters rubbed elbows for a time in the late 90s) before finding new life as a bad juju-free, beautifully renovated lounge and showroom. In 2002 new owners Jerry Everard, Jane Kaplan, Tia Matthies, and Steve Freeborn reopened the struggling location hoping to preserve history and revive the unique multi-use venue where artists of all types could once again take up residence. (Between them, the four had ties to the launches of other legendary Seattle venues such as the OK Hotel, the Crocodile Cafe, and Capitol Hill’s Moe).
The boutique theater inside The Rendezvous is one of the best known (and sometimes under-appreciated) weapons that Seattle has in its flourishing performance community. The miniature stage provides a proper setup and cozy seating where fledgling performers and producers can hone their skills and learn how to put on a professional show. More burlesque performers and troupes have started at the Jewelbox than anywhere else in the city. As some may recall, the theater was once home to Academy of Burlesque recitals before they simply grew too large to be contained there.
Last summer Jane Kaplan, who has overseen booking of the Jewelbox since the early days, shared some memories of the tiny venue’s hefty impact on Seattle burlesque:
Jessica: Could you share a little historical background on the Jewelbox…?
Jane Kaplan: [with historical content by Gregory Baxley] During the 1920s Belltown became the center of the film industry in the Pacific Northwest, as all of the major studios had distribution centers called ‘film exchanges’ along Second Avenue. The area was known as “Film Row”, featuring home offices for MGM, United Artists, Universal, Columbia, RKO, Paramount and Warner Brothers. The 60-seat Jewelbox Theater was constructed as an industry screening room in 1927. This was the dawn of classic cinema, as talkie films quickly made silent cinema obsolete. Local distributors and visiting directors and actors used the Jewelbox for executive private screenings, and customers wishing to build their own theaters could visit the Box to see a scale model. Jimmy Stewart screened movies in the cozy Jewelbox, alongside many other stars and starlets of the day. During Prohibition, the cave-like basement lounge, now dubbed the Grotto, was home to a free-flowing speakeasy, while burlesque stars graced the small stage upstairs. The high profile nature of the venue remained intact through mid-century, but as the Golden era of Hollywood began to fade, so did the neighborhood.
By the late 1960s, then co-owner Bill Rausch turned the basement into a card room, and renowned comedian and gambler Jimmy Durante showed up frequently. The city wasn’t pleased and eventually shut down the business for a number of years. By the late-1970s Film Row had died, and many of the staple structures were either torn down or abandoned. The Jewelbox Theater is the one remaining screening room in the neighborhood.
Ten years later the Rendezvous revitalized itself with a dive bar mentality, catering to both film and music crowds. Complete with smoke-stained ceilings and walls covered in grime, it reflected the decaying nature of the neighborhood. In 1990 the Jewelbox Theater functioned as the only legal place in the state of Washington where you could both drink and watch a movie on the big screen. Then as the grunge era took over the country, and Seattle was once again thrust into the spotlight, many young music acts took solace between its red walls. It was a diversified rock venue, complete with bar, stage, loft and grotto. The venue has since been featured in an array of films and documentaries, hailed as a defining site for the Seattle-led music industry takeover that lasted throughout the decade.
In 2002 the new owners moved in, working to keep the neighborhood heritage alive. Belltown was again an upscale kaleidoscope, a microcosm of the culture of the nation in a single neighborhood. In restoring the place [Steve Freeborn, Tia Matthies, Jane Kaplan and Jerry Everard] worked to retain the Rendezvous’ red-velvet flavor in every room, including the theater, lounges and private Grotto. While stripping the outer layer of the building’s interior walls, near-mint, vintage wallcoverings were discovered. Restored to its original 1927 condition the Jewelbox Theater holds up to 65 guests and has in place a professional
standard PA system, stage lighting controls, and a performance stage ideal for plays and cabaret shows.
Jessica: Who did the earliest burlesque shows there?
Jane: The very first burlesque-type performers in the Jewelbox were the Rollvulvas. They were great and were truly the first before the resurgence…the forerunners to the resurgence. See this article to learn more about them: http://www.seattlepi.com/ae/article/Rollvulvas-Belles-Bloom-is-odd-but-curiously-1086245.php
Then came Burning Hearts. Cleo [Petra] really helped build the community by bringing in multiple artists from lots of different backgrounds…unlike the Rollvulvas, who were a set group of women that always performed together.
Jessica: How have things evolved over time in terms of the room’s relationship with burlesque, drag, and other types of performance?
Jane: So many fabulous performers have come through our doors. We’ve grown with the entire community as it has discovered itself. We’ve had films and television about burlesque filmed there. We’ve had the stars of the current Seattle burlesque scene start on our stage: Indigo Blue, the Atomic Bombshells, Polly Wood, Shanghai Pearl, and more. We’ve been the hotbed of the resurgence and a place where people come to hone their craft and grow. And this relationship continues. Some of the artists that have appeared on our stage outgrow us…which is very exciting. And some still like to call our stage home and use it, because of its intimate nature, to experiment with new ideas or productions.
Jessica: The room has certainly been a hospitable place and ideal stage for new performers to hone their skills and learn technical “how to’s” on staging events. In fact, I often prefer seeing shows there to larger, not-so-ideally-suited venues in town. Can talk a little about the role the Jewelbox plays?
Jane: There are so few places in Seattle that provide what the Jewelbox provides. We really try to work with all kinds of performers to help them reach their goals as individual artists. This is why the room is so versatile from being able to show films to music performances, fringe theatre productions to cabaret and comedy. We try to have it all available at a very reasonable rate so that the money never gets in the way of the artists ability to create, imagine and experiment. This, we feel, is very important…providing a fully functioning theatre, music venue, film screening room, you name it; creating a comfortable and low-risk, artist friendly space so the performers can concentrate on their
Here is a gallery of some of POC’s favorite photos taken at the Jewelbox over the years: