What is that strange concrete structure perched on the south end of Seattle’s Green Lake? It’s a staircase, it’s a set of bleachers…It’s the Aqua Theatre!
Or, at least, what’s left of the Aqua Theatre.
Now just a shell of its former self, its hard to envision what the theatre looked like in its glory days. Today, it’s a popular spot for joggers, and the perfect bench for anybody wanting to rest a while and look out over Green Lake, but at its peak, it had the capacity to seat 5,582 people.
Built in a mere 67 days for the first-ever Seafair (1950), the 5,200-seat Aqua Theatre would become one of Seattle’s most popular outdoor performance venues. At a total cost of $247,000 (about $2,477,741.49 today), the Aqua Theatre was by no means a budget building, but for the next two decades its seats would often be filled to capacity for concerts, plays, and other performances.
Opening day for the Aqua Theatre was August 11, 1950 for what an advertisement described as a “flashy, splashy water spectacle”– The first-ever performance of The Aqua Follies–and it sold out. 5,200 people came to see a night of ballet, comedy, singing, dancing, and high-diving.
Aqua Follies performances (also called “Swim Musicals”) enjoyed immense success throughout the 1950s, as did other forms of entertainment. The Summer Opera Company produced “Music Under the Stars”, concert versions of operettas accompanied by ballet. Full-length plays and musicals including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Oklahoma!”, and “The King and I” were also performed at the Aqua Theatre to the music of a floating orchestra.
To accommodate the popularity of the shows, 382 additional seats were added in 1960. Two years later, the World’s Fair brought visitors from around the globe to Seattle and the Aqua Theatre for an array of events from musicals to a jazz festival to performances by Bob Hope. The Aqua Follies performed for 21 nights, rather than the usual 13. But along with the visitors and the success, the World’s Fair also brought new, indoor performing spaces, such as the Coliseum (now Key Arena) that were fresh, comfortable, and out of the rain.
The Aqua Follies performed their last show in 1964, and the theatre began its descent into disuse and disrepair. It remained a venue for concerts, often catered toward the younger crowd. On August 8, 1966, The Northwest Battle of the Bands Championship was held at the theatre. For as little as $2 (about $15 today), a person could see Don & the Goodtimes, Merrilee & the Turnabouts, The Sonics, George Washington & the Cherrybombs, The Bumps, The Live Five, Jack Horner & the Famous Plums, Dusty Springfield, Sam Sham & the Pharaohs, and vote for a winner!
On May 11, 1969, the Aqua Theatre hosted Three Dog Night with opening acts Spring, Jaime Brockett, Translove Airlines, and Led Zeppelin. The theatre and surrounding areas was packed. Those who didn’t have tickets perched in trees, sat atop the concessions stand, sprawled out on nearby lawns, huddled on a nearby dock (causing it to sink slightly), and crowded the stage in canoes and rubber rafts. Some even swam in the stage’s pool!
Later that summer, city inspectors discovered that the structure was damaged and the facility was condemned. The Aqua Theatre’s last performance was on August 20, 1969, featuring the Grateful Dead.
The following year, the diving towers were removed and the demolition slowly progressed until 1979 when most of the seating was demolished and a new shell house was built.
I visited the Aqua Theatre in October 2010 (I sure wish I was there August 8, 1966, instead!) It has a wonderful history board hanging on the back side, filled with information and historical pictures. The theatre itself is quite a sight to see! I’m not sure why large chunks were cut out of the structure (structural soundness, perhaps?), but the remains account for about 3 out of 7 original seating sections.
It was fun to look out at the lake and envision where the stage once was.
For further information, and great historical images and memorabilia, I encourage you to check out these links on Historylink.org:
Also, check out this great Aqua Theatre footage from the Kiro 7 Archives.
And, of course, if you ever find yourself near Green Lake, I encourage you to go see what remains of the Aqua Theatre for yourself.