Open House

Once blocked from Rainier Avenue, Columbia City Theatre reconnects to the street—and to the public.

Now that Columbia City Theatre has a front door again, it's open to the public. This little jewel box of a theater, its vintage proscenium freshly gilded, was built in the 1910s as an independent vaudeville house. Since then, it's been a movie theater, a nightclub, a dojo, and a disco, hosting artists and personalities like Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, and Bruce Lee. But as time passed, and another storefront was inserted between the theater and the sidewalk on Rainier Avenue, the venue began to decay.

In the '90s, developer Craig Diffenbach bought the building with elaborate plans for a recording studio and live-performance space that could supply content at the height of the dot-com bubble. In recent years, it has served as the venue for Aimee Mann's Internet broadcast of her Magnolia soundtrack, and recording sessions for the PBS stand-up comedy series Comics From A to Z. But local audiences—until now—have been more likely to see it on-screen than in person.

Earlier this year, Diffenbach began working with promoter Yvette Soler to bring an audience for live performance to the space. They started by opening a door between the theater and the building on Rainier (a new bar also owned by Diffenbach), making the space accessible to the street again.

The plan is to offer music or performance six nights a week—weeknights in the bar and weekends in the theater space. The lineup is still in flux, but the names that Diffenbach drops are intriguing, including the Drunk Puppets, the Black Box Opera, and Arne Zaslove. The opening show, the Columbia City Cabaret, bills itself as a "burlesque cabaret" hosted by Tamara Dover (aka Tamara the Trapeze Lady), and features a rotating cast from the local burlesque community. That kind of programming seems to fit in with the changing nature of Columbia City, where new restaurants and the refurbished Columbia City Cinema have drawn the usual mixed feelings about gentrification. But it's hard to argue with the croissants at the Columbia City Bakery or the Sicilian menu at La Medusa, and this theater project could have the same kind of success.

The theater is set up cabaret style, with small tables to hold drinks from the bar in front and food from the adjacent Tutta Bella pizzeria. The category on the liquor license is actually "dinner theater," but this is closer to a moderately priced Teatro ZinZanni than the old Cirque Dinner Theater. Dover has said her model is Ricky Ricardo's club from I Love Lucy, but the "naughty" offerings on opening night were a bit beyond that G-rated ideal. The nod and wink of traditional burlesque is a natural for an ironical age, and Seattle is home to a growing population of "peelers" and exotic performers. We also see our fair share of aerialists, and on this evening several artists combined the two, with Dover performing a "Trapeze Striptease" at the end of the show.

Opening night was much like a shakedown cruise for an ocean liner, with understandable production glitches and missed cues, but Dover was a pro at keeping things moving and the audience was warm. With candlelit tables and tiramisù for two, the Columbia City Cabaret could be a great holiday date night, opening the door on a whole new era of nightlife in this changing neighborhood.

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