Court C Coffeehouse is gone – but its seeds have sprouted

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Some described it as a “hippie hangout” – and maybe it was. But it was also far more than that.

From 1968 to 1975, The Court C Artist’s Mall and Coffee house was a thriving center of energy in a typical visibly declining urban core of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The political establishment in Tacoma at the time had other priorities. The racketeering scandals of the Carbone family, the arrest of sheriff George Janovich and the torching of Tacoma’s beloved Top of the Ocean were still simmering out of sight for most of us.

Downtown Tacoma was becoming just another boarded-up, abandoned cityscape. You can see Tacoma’s grim street scenes in the photo collections of Cysewski http://www.cysewski.com/photo/1970Photo/1970web/tacoma/index.html or http://www.cysewski.com/seattleweb/tacoma/.

The city fathers seemed resigned to preside over the decline of Tacoma core. They blamed demographics or The Tacoma Mall or almost anyone or anything else they could think of. But no matter the cause, the solutions seemed out of reach. Tacoma was dying.

Every week it seemed, a new business would close or move to the mall. Downtown Tacoma was definitely where the action wasn’t. But that wasn’t how an emerging generation saw it. Several young (and many not-so-young) people with vision, energy and a tiny bit of capital saw gold where others just saw grime.

The center of gravity for this new movement was the old Colonial Theater at 916-18 Broadway (built in 1914, it was the first theater in Tacoma with air conditioning, and was the first designed exclusively for film projection – not live performances).

But Court C (so named because the primary entrance was on the uphill/alley side – Court C) had a wide-open agenda – perhaps too wide for some – but I’ll get to that later.

Mural, interior of Court coffeehouse Image courtesy of The News Tribune

Mural, interior of Court coffeehouse
Image courtesy of The News Tribune

A News Tribune column, from December 12, 1968, describes the discussion topics of the coming weekend – political extremism, sensitivity training and 17th and 18th Century Christmas music (featuring a sing-along with a hand-built harpsichord). These discussions (and sing-alongs) were led or hosted by professors and clergy from Tacoma, and sometimes Seattle.

Earlier in December (December 5) the topics were homosexuality on Friday, the “anti-establishment revolution” (“with audience participation”) on Saturday and the jobs corps on Sunday. The Sunday program began early that night so televisions could be set up to watch a “Public Broadcasting Laboratory program dealing with the anxiety of America’s cities” – with discussion.

Another Trib column (August 21, 1968) describes a discussion of suicide on Friday, a panel on poverty on Saturday and a series of three plays by Malcolm Boyd on Sunday (with discussion following each performance).

A topic in October of 1968 had a focus on “The kind of police force Tacoma needs.” October of 1968 a discussion centered on the formation of Tacoma’s Neighborhood Council program (celebrating its 25th year in 2017).

Another political topic dominated the conversation the second weekend in November 1968 – “Autopsy of an Election” was how they framed it (this was the unexpected election of Richard Nixon as president) with “Yellow Journalism” separating news from scandal as the topic on Saturday and “Is the Institution of Marriage Outdated?” as the topic for Sunday.

A News Tribune column from November of 1968 addressed “Red Power” (Native rights, mostly based on fishing rights) and on Sunday a “panel of concerned Tacoma Negroes will tackle questions concerning the role of White people in the black people’s struggle for equality.”

In July a Friday conversation topic was “Tacoma’s Architectural Future” led by James Harris of the design firm Harris and Reed.

Obviously some of these topics are still burning issues, and many raised objections back then.

City Councilwoman Becky Banfield, at a City Council meeting, questioned the founder of the Court C Coffee house, Lynn Hodges, as to why homosexuals had to be brought to Tacoma (from Seattle) “for teaching or something like that.”  She was later invited to a debate at Court C. She refused to even be seen at Court C because it promoted “groups or ideals which are definitely contrary to my personal beliefs.”

Not everyone was so reluctant- future mayor Bill Baarsma, and future state senator Dennis Flannigan were willing to address local politics.

One guest speaker (Walter B. Pulliam of Seattle’s First Baptist Church, which had a ministry to “Seattle’s homophile community”) wrote that Seattle had the third largest concentration of homosexuals in the country (only after New York City and San Francisco) with “at least 12,000 known and as many as from 50,000 to 80,000 estimated.”

I know it sounds naive and perhaps even preposterous, but back then we imagined that we could solve our social problems – or at least talk about them in a civil manner.

Among many other agencies and non-profits, Associated Ministries emerged from this cauldron of empowering conversations.

But there was much more to Court C. Chris Lunn joined forces with the founders and introduced a focus on music. Beginning in January of 1969, Friday nights featured live music.

Local musicians and bands abounded – especially on open-mic nights. Some, like Tim Noah, went on to win at least seven Emmy awards, while others used their musical talents and interest in other ways, like Jim Page, Uncle Bonsai, T.R. Stewart, Linda Waterfall, Dean Tsapralis, Jorgan Kruse and Debbie Aqua. This musical tradition of featuring local and emerging talent with the occasional larger name (at least in acoustic circles) continues at The Antique Sandwich Co. (5102 N. Pearl) and The Other Side of the Tracks in Auburn.

Court C intersected with the “folk music revival” of the late ‘60s and presented acts like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Lee Hooker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and many others.  Imagine seeing these artists in a venue with seating for 200 for the price of one dollar. Prices for concerts later went up in 1970 – all the way to two dollars.

Besides music, there was a spoken arts night called The Circus of Tongues – where anyone was invited to speak, read or otherwise share their fascination for words, stories and the verbal arts. This tradition was picked up in the past few years by Creative Colloquy with their readings at the now closed B-Sharp Café, Drunken Telegraph story-telling and Speak Your Soul, which ran in Tacoma from 2007 to 2015.

Yes, at Court C you could find tie-dye, macramé, babies and nascent entrepreneurs – and ten kinds of sandwiches priced from 25-85 cents. You could buy, or live out the ethic of The Whole Earth Catalog – which Steve Jobs described as “Google in paperback form 35 years before Google.”

Tacoma’s first food co-op (The Food Bag) started there.

In 1975 Chris Lunn moved the music venue up the street to 6th Avenue (Victory Music, current site of Jazzbones) and later to Auburn – though he still maintains ties to Tacoma and the Antique Sandwich.

The food co-op also moved to 6th Avenue (the current location of Gateway to India).

The decline of America’s cities continued, the war in Viet-nam seemed to go on forever and depleted our resources and morale and confessional acoustic music was no match for the flashing lights and mechanistic pulse of disco. Polyester replaced tie-dye and Tacoma, like many cities across the country emptied out.

Court C closed in 1975 and the building was later torn down and the space currently offers parking for The Broadway Center.

The same cultural fault lines persist. Respectfully listening to those we disagree with is still a challenge. Progress is as illusory as nostalgia. Organic has become mainstream, tie-dye is back, and even macrame is having a resurgence.

Downtown Tacoma is once again the epicenter of arts, performance and independent businesses. I can’t get away from the idea that Court C inspired many of these movements, programs and institutions from SOTA, UWT to Spaceworks and many more.

Yes, some called Court C a “hippie hangout” and maybe it was. But it was certainly my kind of place.