Read6: Dancing:Shelly’s Leg

Theater means not only the world of the legitimate stage, but also countless popular forms of communication–vaudeville, movies, singing, even just weekend dancing. At first, the gay dance in Seattle had been “internal” communication, performed in refuges and used to seek or solidify friendships. Heterosexuals stayed away or were forced out. No public accommodations clause in the city’s civil rights laws prevented a bar owner from discriminating –so heterosexuals could be turned away from gay bars just as gays could be excluded from heterosexual ones. But when Seattle’s police chief Frank Ramon rolled back from his 1966 proposal to de-license all the gay bars, part of the compromise he and gay bar owners reached included a promise that heterosexuals could not be excluded as long as the straights did not cause trouble. No discrimination, in other words. And so would begin the story of Seattle’s most famous gay and lesbian bar, Shelly’s Leg, which became so popular its owners finally had to post a sign publicly proclaiming it gay. These excerpts are from Chapter Ten, “At the Dance.” 

July 14, Bastille Day, 1970. For a Seattle summer, the day had been perfect, 84 degrees while the sun was up and 62 in the waning dusk. It was just right for the dinner party and parade that Julia and Francois Kissel had planned to celebrate France’s national revolution. It would also be a fine evening to mark the rebirth of Pioneer Square with a bit of public street theater.

A few miles away, at a house she was temporarily calling home, an unemployed 23-year-old drifter from Florida named Shelly Bauman had just run out of cigarettes. She decided to drive to the mud flat to buy more. There she spotted the Kissels’ parade.

It was another time of change below the Deadline, a name that by now was being forgotten. During the late 1960s, when gays and lesbians had become more publicly visible in Pioneer Square, the city’s urban planners had begun debating whether the century-old buildings in the district deserved any future. Some developers wanted the land to be turned into parking lots to serve the government offices on Arthur Denny’s knoll to the north. Preservationists countered that a historic district similar to French Quarter in New Orleans would promote new businesses and draw tourists. Either outcome portended trouble for the ragged set of gay bars and steam baths. Paved or boutiqued, the new mud flat that everyone in power was discussing did not include the continuation of places like the Casino, the Mocambo, or the Atlas Baths.

By 1969, both schools of thought had won a toehold. One side had started tearing buildings down and the other had begun renovating them. The Kissels were among the renovators. Next door to what had been MacIver Wells’s old 614 tavern, they leased a basement-level workman’s bar and grill called the Pittsburgh Lunch. Although the windows were below sidewalk level, customers could look up past sidewalk railings onto a small concrete park built around a totem pole….

Under the Kissels, the grill became a grille, a French restaurant by the name of “Brasserie Pittsbourg.” A new kind of gold rush to the mud flat was about to begin, one quarried from tourists and shoppers, but at the same time, the conversion of the mud flat into parking lots was also moving ahead. Next to the Kissels’ restaurant, the city allowed an old triangular shaped hotel to be destroyed and in its place came a prow-like multi-level parking lot usually referred to as the “Sinking Ship.” Developers also flattened the building half a block away, on Occidental Avenue, where Jake Heimbigner had been operating the Atlas, as well as an adjacent building that had held his Stagedoor Tavern. A bit farther south, across Washington Street, they removed another building next to the gay Columbus Tavern and behind the Golden Horseshoe.

By Bastille Day 1970, then, much of what had been the gay landscape of the 1960s had become parking lots, and the heart of the mud flat had been turned into an Occidental Street pedestrian mall.

It was there that Shelly Bauman saw the Kissels’ parade.

Dinner had been held earlier atop the Sinking Ship, which had been decked for the occasion with French delicacies from the Brasserie Pittsbourg and, for lack of a French band, a Dixieland ensemble. About 11 p.m., the parade swung out from the Sinking Ship southward along the mall, then doubled back on itself for the return. It wasn’t much of a parade–a pickup truck carrying the Dixieland band and two French cars. Julia Kissel had also asked Morris Hart, who ran an antique shop in the Square, to bring along an old fire engine. Hart had long been interested in collecting old fire-fighting equipment and had even named his store, located on First Avenue, the Old Fire House.

Hart had happily agreed to Kissel’s request, but, apparently without her knowledge, had also brought something else. He attached to the rear of his truck an old cannon that had once been used to fire lifelines. He had owned the cannon for about thirteen years, sometimes loading it with black powder and paper confetti to fire during family gatherings on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve. His own children sometimes dashed in front of the confetti. Later, he would tell a court that the cannon had always fired harmless shower of paper.

Just before the parade, Hart and his teen-age son used a broom handle to pack two ounces of black powder and a wad of shredded paper into the three-foot-long barrel. For safety, Hart kept the lanyard needed to shoot the cannon separate. He did not know whether the Kissels would actually want him to fire the cannon, but he figured that if it seemed appropriate, he would be ready. When he joined the parade, a city policeman waved him into the crowd, either not noticing or simply not choosing to pay attention to the weapon riding behind the truck.

Even in the short distance the parade traveled, Hart’s fire truck and cannon quickly become the major attraction. Once the parade turned back, he stopped at least once. People lining the mall quickly clambered onto the cannon’s barrel. Among them was Shelly Bauman. It was about 11:30 p.m. by then and dark. She would later remember in a court deposition that “there were people all over.” Many were speaking French, which Shelly did not understand. Others, she remembered, “were all laughing and saying, ‘Come on, get on, get on,’” and so she at first climbed onto the cannon with four or five others, and then, when Hart started driving again, she trailed in the crowd behind, walking ten feet or so away from Julia Kissel.

As the antique truck creaked slowly northward, dozens of people again began climbing onto the cannon, drinking and lighting fireworks as they did. Carol Hart, Morris’ wife, and her son noticed the cannon barrel start to wave up and down, as if it were coming loose. It began to point straight into the crowd rather up into the air. Carol Hart and her son started screaming at people to move away. In the confusion, Bauman believed she saw a man dressed in a blue or gray jacket drop something bright into the cannon barrel. She was staring directly into the bore. She remembered telling a friend she was with that they should move away.

At that moment the cannon fired…

Julia Kissel first heard the boom. Then she saw Bauman drop. Kissel ran to her side, grabbed her pulse and screamed for an ambulance.

What had begun as a public relations gimmick for the new Pioneer Square would inadvertently launch the next chapter in the history of the mud flat’s gay theater.

Bauman did not know many people in Seattle that night when she was blasted by the cannon. She had been preparing to return to Florida where her parents lived. The only person she knew well was a friend she had met a few weeks before, Joe McGonagle. By then, the co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe was almost thirty. He and several other gay men had rented a house together south of Capitol Hill and that was where Shelly Bauman had been staying.

McGonagle recalled many years later that Bauman had simply appeared one night at a party. “I don’t know how she got there,” he told me. “Somebody brought her. Sunday morning she was still there, and she was still there Tuesday morning, and she just stayed.”3

When McGonagle arrived at the emergency room, Bauman was near death. McGonagle remembered, “She said later that after she had been shot, she reached down and her hand went right through her clothes and she scraped her nails on the sidewalk. She got shot right through.” The doctors wanted a release form to operate. McGonagle was not a family member, and Bauman, only partly conscious, was too weak to sign anything. McGonagle said he grabbed a pen, stuck it in her limp hand and signed her name for her.

With that, doctors rushed her to surgery for the damage to her abdomen. They amputated her left leg and sliced into her pelvic bone. Bauman would be in the hospital undergoing operations and recovery for nine months. When she left, she took up life in a wheelchair.

She also sued–the Kissels for sponsoring the celebration, Morris Hart for bringing the cannon, and the city of Seattle for having police officers who ignored a loaded weapon in a public event. In 1973, she won $330,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

With that, it was time to turn a fantasy into reality.

Before Bastille Day, when Bauman and McGonagle and their other housemates had sat around their living room smoking and talking, one of their rituals had been to fantasize about how much better gay bars in Seattle could be. McGonagle recalled, “We’d be talking, you know, ‘God I hate this bar, God I hate that bar. If I had a bar like this, we’d do this or we’d do that.’” The urban renewal of Pioneer Square was eliminating the old ones anyway.

With Shelly’s cash, the fantasies suddenly seemed in reach.

Copyright 2003 University of Washington Press

 

 

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