In October of 2015, working on the next volume of our book, Bucket List Bars, we traveled to the Pacific Northwest to explore the historic bars of Seattle and Portland. Our visit took us to a small Seattle bar called the Double Header, located a stone’s throw from Pioneer Square on Second Avenue Extension South.
For us, seeing this bar and talking to the people there, was an absolute must. You see this was the oldest gay bar in the United States, opened in 1934 at a time when simply being gay meant you were breaking the law. Few people were “out” and instead most hid in the shadows, hoping against hope people wouldn’t find out their “secret.”
There were few places gay people could openly congregate at the time. Bars were typically shut to them, and those that accepted them were usually the subject of police raids and general harassment. In fact, such harassment at a bar caused what people consider the starting point of the Gay Rights movement in the U.S. when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, tired of the police busting in and arresting them, rioted in 1969.
But well before that, the Double Header was a small, cozy saloon, where people didn’t have to hide who they were.
It wasn’t really founded as a gay bar, as such, but rather just a typical saloon at a time when Seattle was still considered the frontier. But over the years, probably because of the tolerance of the owner, Joseph Bellotti Sr., gay people started gravitating here. Now some might pessimistically suggest that patrons are patrons, and so as long as they were buying booze, Bellotti “tolerated” them.
Fair point, and this was certainly true of many bar owners. There are even stories that some took advantage of their gay clientele by overcharging them or otherwise ripping them off.
But Bellotti, instead of overcharging his customers, began paying off the police force to leave them alone. In fact, that’s why the Double Header became so popular over the years, it was one of the only places you could go and not be harassed by police raids (imagine how different history would have been had the owners of the Stonewall Inn done the same).
In any case, we loved the small place. It was what an old saloon should be. Sure it was divey, it was cramped, there was no live music, but it was comfortable. There was just enough light to see the decades’ worth of bric-a-brac on the walls. As we walked around, the long-serving bartender we interviewed pointed to certain artifacts, recalling the patrons who gave them to the bar.
And with each artifact came a story. There was the story about the airline pilot who would always frequent the place when in Seattle and how he’d dress in drag and hold court at the bar. It was the only place he felt he could be himself and he was always careful to make sure his coworkers wouldn’t find out.
The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the bar, with large crowds from the neighborhood, the city and beyond. Stories abound about colorful regulars, some in drag, some not, some closeted locals who put on an act the rest of the day until they walked through the doors to become their true selves.
But now that’s all gone. In December, 2015 when nobody was looking, they closed down. The history, the stories, the characters – they’re all lost. But does it really matter?
Some would argue that “no it doesn’t”.
When the Double Header closed there was a single blog post about it and that was it. It didn’t make national news, it didn’t really cause any cultural ripples. It simply closed and locked its doors for the last time.
In 2015, a few months before we travelled to the Double Header, we were interviewed about the significance of the Stonewall Inn’s designation as a New York City Landmark and National Monument. At the time, we argued that places like the Stonewall Inn tell a story about our country – and that they deserve to be preserved. If anything, the closing of the Double Header makes us believe this even more.
According to a Seattle business journal, the owner of the Double Header, Joseph Bellotti Jr., who inherited the bar (along with the entire building) in the 1960s, was simply tired of running the business and of being a landlord, and so he sold out. We can’t blame him for retiring, but it really is a shame that the saloon had to close for good. Seattle, and certainly the country, is worse off.
The next time you find an old saloon, one that’s been quenching thirsts for decades, take a moment to learn about and appreciate its history. Chances are it won’t be around much longer.