On the Shores of Green Lake

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.

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The Aqua Theatre, October 23, 2010

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.

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Aqua Follies Ad from 1963 Seafair Booklet

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.

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View from the Top

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!

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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.

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Top Corner

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.

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For further information, and great historical images and memorabilia, I encourage you to check out these links on Historylink.org:

Aqua Theatre–Seattle

Led Zeppelin Rocks Seattle’s Outdoor Green Lake Aqua Theatre on May 11, 1969

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.

In Memory of Buck Ormsby

Although a bit late, it’s with sadness today that I report the passing of John “Buck” Ormsby, longtime Wailers bassist. He died in Mexico on his 75th birthday, October 29, after a fall.

Although the Wailers are not very well-known today (“Oh! You mean Bob Marley’s group?”), they are often considered the first garage band and were undeniably one of the most influential bands of the late 50s and early 60s in the Pacific Northwest.

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John “Buck” Ormsby 1941-2016

The band’s humble beginnings date back to 1958 at Clover Park High School, located just outside of Tacoma. Woody Mortenson (acoustic bass) and John Greek (trumpet) began performing local gigs with a menagerie of other musicians as a Dixieland band. Guitarist Rich Dangel asked if he could join and play a few rock n’ roll tunes with the group. Greek consented, and the trio soon turned their focus to rock n’ roll.

The shift in styles resulted in a personnel shift. Pianist Kent Morrill, and two students from Stadium High School (Mark Marush on Saxophone and Mike Burk on drums) completed the lineup. Thus, The Nitecaps were born!

As The Nitecaps started playing better gigs, Tacoma’s other teen band, Little Bill & the Bluenotes, discovered their existence. Bill Englehart, namsake of The Bluenotes, invited The Nitecaps to be their upcoming act at an upcoming dance. The group accepted, changed their name to The Wailers, and stole The Bluenotes‘ popularity.

In late 1958, the group recorded a demo of an original instrumental that somehow ended up in the hands of Clark Galehouse of Gold Crest Records. “Tall Cool One” was re-recorded in early 1959 and released as a single. It charted at #36 on Billboard Top 100. The Wailers released their first LP, “The Fabulous Wailers”, on the Gold Crest Label later that year.

Following the success of “Tall Cool One”, the group toured the East Coast and even appeared on American Bandstand. Despite Gold Crest’s wishes for them to remain in New York, The Wailers returned home. Greek left the group, and two members of The Bluenotes joined: Rockin’ Robin Roberts (vocalist) and bassist John “Buck” Ormsby.

Disappointed by the loss of their label, Ormsby suggested something novel and maybe a little bit crazy: why not create their own record label? At first he was met with opposition, but eventually Morrill and Roberts relented and Etiquette Records was born!

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Etiquette’s Signature Logo

The first single released on the Etiquette label was The Wailers’ own version of “Louie,Louie”, featuring Roberts on lead vocal. This version of the Richard Berry classic was later imitated by the Oregon-based Kingsmen, who would launch the song into infamy and the center of an FBI investigation.

The Wailers continued to enjoy local success, performing with and without Roberts and sometimes with girl singer Gail Harris or girl group The Marshans. Marush left in 1962 and was replaced with Ron Gardner, a saxophonist/singer whose energy and songwriting significantly changed the group’s sound.

By 1964, the Bristish Invasion was in full swing and The Wailers were trying to compete. The group moved toward a more polished, pop sound and publicist Barrie Jackson developed a marketable image: two-toned suits and a “Wailer” haircut. Jackson also penned fake bios on the back of their new album, Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere: Burk was especially displeased with his.

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“By listening to the fish talk” I get inspiration for my songs

Photographer Jini Dellaccio is responsible for the photographs on the album. The images on the front were taken in Tacoma’s Wright Park, while the ones on the back were taken at her home in Gig Harbor.

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Their ages are the only verifiable pieces of information

Despite the fabulous photography and fake biographies, Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere was not a commercial success. Many considered it too much of a shift from the group’s earlier, raw sound  and image, including Rich Dangel who was becoming less interested in rock n’ roll and left the band the following year.

There is much more to be said about The Wailers and Etiquette Records, but for this post, I’m going to pause here and present you with a complete listen to Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere, taken directly off of the  1964 Etiquette LP.

I purchased this record from it’s original owner who bought it while he was living in Bothell.

Buck Ormsby was raised in Tacoma, Washington. He started playing ukulele at age 7 and eventually learned steel guitar. It wasn’t until he joined The Wailers that he switched to bass guitar.

A driving force in the creation of Etiquette Records (still in business today), he is also credited with signing the wildly popular Sonics to the Etiquette label.

After The Wailers split in 1969, Buck played with Jr. Cadillac, and devoted himself to promoting Etiquette’s music. He took suitcases of LPs to Europe and struck up a partnership with Ace Records. In the 80s he revived Etiquette Records and he re-released its music on CD, straight from the master tapes.

The Wailers reunited on several occasions over the next several decades, and released an album with The Ventures in 2009, marking their 50th anniversary. A line-up including Kent Morrill and Buck occasionally performed until around 2010.

Buck’s daughter, Gregory Anne Ormsby, remembers him as a caring man wholly devoted to music.

“Everything was music, always music,” she told The Seattle Times“He was either a producer, or an event planner or a musician. He just lived and breathed music.”

This post is for you, Buck.