Seattle History: The Mocambo
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Seattle History: The Mocambo
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer The term "mocambo" is colonial Brazillian for "free African settlements." The 1886 building on Yesler Way is one of two that survived the 1889 Seattle fire, but not the 2007 wrecking ball. Begun as the Tyee tavern, it was followed by two famous oyster house restaurants for 50 years and became a popular meeting place for Seattle's elite and not-so-elite, such as box house king John Considine and the city's favorite madame, Lou Graham.

In 1949, straight George Wagner bought the space, opened the west dining room and birthed the new Mocambo tavern and restaurant. George was so handsome, he had all the Gay kids in love with him. After many years of blue laws, liquor by the drink was permitted and a few licenses were given out in 1951, including Seattle's elegant Marine Room in the Olympic Hotel and the Mocambo tavern. And so began the age of cocktail lounges in Seattle. (But "saloon" was still forbidden by the Liquor Board.)

The Mo was considered elegant, but a few said it was the place for the "cufflink" crowd and the "piss elegant queens." But these titles could apply to the Marine Room; the Mo was an average Gay crowd - clerks, office workers, decorators, Boeing workers, and a healthy smattering of Seattle's Gay elite.

Jimmy Kelly remembers: "There was always the flamboyant Gay man who'd save all his change that week, then turn it into a $20 bill. On Saturday night, he'd walk proudly in, sit on a stool, carefully take off his gloves, put his cigarettes and lighter and the $20 bill on the counter, buy a beer, and put all the change on the counter like he had tons of it and smoke his cigarette like Betty Davis. While he was doing all this, he looked around to see who was watching."

Jimmy McLane says: "Our group would spend all evening at the Mocambo and talk to everybody in the place. There were always a bunch who would sit at the far end of the bar. You knew their faces but you never talked to them or knew who they were or what they did. They sat like closet cases in a dark corner. We'd always invite them to join our party, but they never did. Monti, a millionaire, would hand me a fistful of money to buy a round of drinks for the house. The event of alcohol definitely upgraded the status of the Mocambo. One had to sit down to drink in those days, and it was strictly enforced. Suit and tie were required at the Marine Room, but the Mocambo was less strict and you could camp a little, but they still had the red velvet rope at the entrance. Sometimes you stood in line in the rain for an hour waiting for someone to leave before you could go in and be seated at a table."

Bill Parkin, famous Mocambo dishwasher, waiter, bartender, and later owner of the Pike Street Tavern, recalls: "The Mo was a mixed crowd until 1955, when it became mostly Gay - except for daytime, when office workers, courthouse workers, lawyers and judges came in for lunch. We've had whole juries come in with a bailiff, so we seated them in the banquet room so they couldn't make contact with anyone else. The menu was sophisticated; Coquille St. Jacques, Provencal and roast loin of pork, stuffed with prunes, etc. for $1.30."

Michael remembers: "One day, some policemen and the chief himself were in the banquet room. I was given some envelopes and told to deliver them to the policemen. It was a Christmas bonus for the payoff system."

At night it became very Gay. One Mocambo customer would drink too much and sit on top of the jukebox with one shoe off and, with his big toe, push the music selection button for you. Jimmy McLane remembers: "We didn't have too many outrageous Gays at the Mo, but once in awhile a bleach blond, painted eyebrows and purse carrying drag, Francine, would come in and scream, 'Where's all the men? There's no men in here!' and swish out the door. Francine shocked some Gays at the Mo, but those who knew her had a certain affection for her."

There was an Indian queen with long blond hair who would get up and dance on a table. He'd say, "I like you most of the time, but tonight, I'd like to run over your face with a locomotive." He'd get into a rare fight and pull hair and slap. He fought like a woman. The girls from the Florence Burlesque theater would come in and clash with the hustling girls. If there was trouble at the Mo, it was usually caused by a straight guy. One crazy Marine picked up a coat rack and everyone cleared the bar as he wiped out all the drinks and broke a mirror. Jimmy the bartender threw a glass, hit his forehead, and he bled all over the place.

Gerry says: "I was serving the tables at the Mo and these two guys were talking loud, so Danny the bartender told them to quiet down. They did for a while but I had to tell them to quiet down or leave and took their drink and set it on the bar. I was standing there and first thing I knew I was turned around by one of them and the other punched me, then they took off running. Five guys at the bar ran after them, caught one of them and brought him back. The other one threw a tire iron through the window. I charged his buddy $65 to replace the window and let him go."

Stan says: "I loved the Mocambo; it was a relief from the sometimes-rowdy tavern crowd and I could order my favorite cocktail, a Rangoon Ruby, and I could see Danny, the sweetest and best bartender in Seattle. He called us his little Poopsies."

The Gay Mocambo lasted into the 1970s, but it was getting tired and the building itself was in bad shape. Its historical significance was no longer an issue and the site was developed into a 10-story apartment building. The space occupied by the Macambo for 125 years is now someone's living room, and a new reality begins.