Newly discovered photos by Don Maxwell
These slides were recently discovered by the Maxwell family and shared with us. Don Maxwell was a musician and photographer in Seattle, active in the 1930s- 1950s. He loved the Show Box and took many photos of the marquee. His photos are some of the best historical records we have of what the entry to the Show Box looked like in the 1940s. Photos courtesy of the Maxwell family.
History and Spirit
The high-profile conversation around preserving the Showbox has had a ripple effect, opening space for broader dialogue about equity in historic preservation and saving cultural spaces in our rapidly redeveloping city. As Seattle transforms into sterile retail spaces and luxury apartments, the cultural sector is tasked with protecting the left-over scraps and struggling to maintain a sense of place that includes history and spirit.
Historian Peter Blecha has already chronicled Showbox history, so please read his essay for details on ownership, structure, use, and the many, many artists who have graced the Showbox stage over the past 80 years. A Seattle icon, this beloved venue has played an instrumental role in our city’s musical history and modern cultural identity.
Whose history do we preserve and why?
What kind of city do we want Seattle to be moving forward?
Seattle residents live on the land of the Coast Salish people, who are still here. Preserving Seattle’s recent cultural history must be placed in this context. By saying that the Showbox is culturally significant to Seattle’s history, we do not wish to be myopic or insensitive to the past or to the current struggles of people who inhabit this city today.
When the Showbox opened in 1939 as a theater and dance hall, it was the end of the Great Depression and the eve of WWII. With a spring-action dance floor, this ballroom was made for dancing. Professional musicians were organized in unions and made a living gigging around town in the numerous jazz clubs, theaters, and dance halls.
However, Seattle was a segregated place. The American Federation of Musicians Local 76 was a whites-only chapter, and Local 493 represented black musicians who were restricted to certain areas of town like the Central District and Jackson St. The two unions merged in 1958, and the musician’s landscape has drastically changed since the forties and fifties.
Today, few professional musicians earn a living solely by playing live music locally in clubs, and unions have far less power. The Showbox books all genres of music, promoting hundreds of live shows per year.
From the outside, the Showbox is a humble building. The magic is inside. It’s what the place means to people that matters. This is often the struggle in preserving cultural spaces. Preservation laws prioritize structure over meaning (or suggest structure is the primary meaning) and do not protect use of space.
Is our cultural legacy only one of wealth and power, rockstar architects and opulent spaces? Of course not. To the community, it’s the relationships formed and our experiences within these spaces that matter most. It’s the hours spent dancing and singing with friends and strangers alike. We create and maintain community with these joyful experiences. This is worth saving.
On July 29, 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate both the interior and exterior of the Showbox, commenting that the venue is clearly culturally significant to the community as evidenced by the outpouring of support. While cultural significance is one of six possible landmark criteria, it is hard to establish and not often used to designate buildings. One Board member commented that how they apply the landmark criteria must evolve with the times and recognize that culturally significant spaces are worth saving. This is a huge win for Seattle beyond just the Showbox.
Humans are hardwired for music. It may have been our first language, with rhythm and melody of the human voice leading to speech. There is no scientific record of when spoken language evolved- only speculation. We do know the oldest existing musical instrument is a bone flute dating back 40,000 years. Music may be our last language; music appreciation lasts longer than language and memory in Alzheimer’s patients. No matter its origins, music is forever entwined with humanity.
In The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson writes, “Human beings were made for music. Its thrill and rapture are picked up almost immediately by little children. Music served early humanity as a means of integrating societies and heightening the emotions of the people.”
Music continues to do this today, stimulating curiosity and empathy across cultures and creating joyful, transformative experiences. Music is the world’s universal language and connector, but we need places in which to gather, play, and listen. At the heart of the community’s love for the Showbox is our relationship to music, to memory, and to each other through music. These relationships should not be dismissed as nostalgia. It’s so much deeper than that. Music is a part of being human. For some of us, it is akin to breathing.
Seattle, City of Music
Seattle has lost many of its music venues over the years. We need to protect the ones remaining. We must save the Showbox, a special place that embodies both history and spirit.
All photos by Shannon Welles, except black and white marquee photos by Don Maxwell, courtesy of the Maxwell family, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra photo by Joe Fridlund, and 1937 photo, unknown. Logo by Barbara Longo.