A Changing Belltown Still Has its Ghosts. In ‘Belltown Exposed’, They Come Alive.

This Sunday night, the Rendezvous decks the halls with decades past, in a unique free, through-the-eras party and variety show called Belltown Exposed. It celebrates the release of a new art photography book of the same name.

In the new book Belltown Exposed: Facts & Fictions From Seattle’s Historic Film Row, photographer Staci Bernstein stages “living pictures” to tell stories of the neighborhood that was known as Film Row during the 1920s, became a haven for artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and gave birth to Grunge in the 1980s and 1990s.

NWT previewed a few photos from Bernstein’s book (see some below) and talked with Rendezvous owner and theatre artist Jane Kaplan about Belltown Exposed: the show, the book, and the storied neighborhood.

Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.


How did it come about that you bought the Rendezvous back in 2001? How have your aspirations for it changed over the course of owning and running it?

Thirty years ago, I took Rita Giomi’s audition workshop inside the Jewelbox Theater, and my love affair with the space began then. When the love of my life, Jerry Everard (Moe’s, Neumo’s and The Crocodile) asked if we ought to consider buying it, how could I resist? When Steve Freeborn and Tia Matthies (OK Hotel) came on board, it was a go.

I’ve always just wanted to bring constant life to the Jewelbox Theater and make it an accessible venue for artists. A few years ago, I went from Jewelbox Theater programmer to having more involvement with the Rendezvous Restaurant and Bar. For the past few years, I’ve been dedicated to sharing Rendezvous and Film Row history. And Madeline, our visionary manager, is taking us into the future.


What was your background before that? What else are you involved with artistically around Seattle?

I’m a theatre director who took a break. Gratefully, years ago Frank Corrado and ACT’s Pinter projects (Pinter Fortnightly and the Pinter Festival) gave me an opportunity to get back to directing. Most recently, I directed Bon Appétit! with Anne Allgood, Julia Prud’homme, and Mark Anders.

[Editor’s note: you can read NWT’s review of Bon Appétit! here. It plays next on November 10.] 


Where did the name the Rendezvous come from?

Great question. George Blair, the first owner, chose the name in 1926. The french word rendezvous means “a meeting at an agreed time and place” or “a place of popular resort; a haunt”. The Rendezvous has remained one of Seattle’s longest running restaurants so we would never change it now.


What was the impetus for the book Belltown Exposed? How did it come together, and what was your role in it?

My friend, filmmaker Staci Bernstein, and I worked together on two short historically inspired films funded by 4Culture’s Site Specific Program. We loved collaborating and needed a new project.

Staci pitched the idea of creating photographs from Belltown’s Film Row history, and for the next five years we brainstormed and produced together. Staci’s gorgeous talent shines in the photos! Next, Shin Yu Pai suggested we talk with Bruce Rutledge at Chin Music Press. We dropped in unannounced, shared Staci’s photos and he said yes, let’s do a book! It was a dream come true. Next Bruce brought on [playwright and multi-disciplinary artist] Scot Augustson to tell Belltown Film Row history through “two truths and a lie”, as a playful way to engage people in learning about the past.


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What can people expect from the show on Sunday? How does it tie into the book?

Sunday’s celebration commemorates the book release of Belltown Exposed and Belltown’s Film Row history. We are dressing up the Rendezvous in a few of the decades that Staci recreated for her photos. We have a stellar list of performers throughout the venue. In the theatre, catch Angie Louise, K. Brian Neel, and Ade; with Ken Workman, descendant of Chief Sealth, joining us for a talk. In the Speakeasy Grotto, jazz with singer Joanne Klein and the quintet, The Savoy Night Owls. We chose Halloween weekend so we could give away free candy and encourage those inclined to dress up (think Prohibition speakeasy, 1950s, Grunge) to don their favorite decade.


What’s so special about Belltown that you want to keep alive today?

Its history and spirit.


What’s the story with the secret tunnels around the Grotto?

The Rendezvous is located in the B.F. Shearer Building which was a factory that fully outfitted theatres up and down the West Coast. The building is a labyrinth. If you go outside and look up you will see a tower over the building. That is where they used to hang the theatre curtains to dry. On Sunday, we will invite folks into the basement to see where the manufacturing took place and the grunge bands rehearsed.


What’s the weirdest true story you can tell us about the space? 

We got our red chairs from the Opera House after the 2002 remodel. We recently learned that B.F. Shearer outfitted the 1962 remodel and had built the chairs in the basement [of the Rendezvous]. The chairs came home.


Is there truth to the ghost stories?

I think so.

[Note: you can read more about the history of the building and its ghosts here.] 


What would you like to bring more of to the Rendezvous?

Always more art, more artists. We are so excited to have Chef Jason Munger join us, with his vision for creating prix fixe menus to match our shows.


What does the next decade hold for the Rendezvous?

Our goal is to keep the Rendezvous and Jewelbox Theater going strong for the next 93 years, at least. To that end, Jerry and I have made the Rendezvous a social purpose corporation — that means that all the profits go to the employees instead of shareholders. We encourage independence and passion for continuing the legacy. Madeline, who joined the team a year and a half ago, has done an amazing job bringing Rendezvous parties and programming to a new level. Our dream is that Madeline and our team continue to make the Rendezvous shine for decades to come.

Belltown Exposed shows 10/27 only, at The Rendezvous in Belltown. Admission is free; RSVP encouraged, here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; Jewelbox Theater and main-level bar may be accessed by wheelchair, but other levels and some common areas are not accessible.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.