Seattle Now & Then: Pike Market Soap Box Derby, 1975

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Either starting or about to start at the Pike Place Market’s 1975 Soap-box derby. Photo by Frank Shaw
NOW: Hillside students in Jean’s video editing class pose here at the Pike Place Market.

Especially on weekends, Frank Shaw, a retired Boeing employee with a Hasselblad camera, would often be pulled from his Lower Queen Anne apartment to the attractions of Seattle’s waterfront and its neighbor the Pike Place Market. Other popular subjects for Shaw were high school soccer matches at Seattle Center, public art works-in-progress, and community festivals, both in Seattle and its suburbs.

Here on May 25th or 26th Shaw found a place along the crowded railing above the landmark block where Pike Alley reaches its intersection with First Avenue, Pike Street and Pike place.  In 1975, Shaw was not yet attracted by the colorful lava-looking montage of posters and the Alley’s gum-splattered sides some of which Jean shows in his “now”.  A weekend earlier Shaw recorded a bongo jam at the University District Street Fair.  Mid-week he snapped the sternwheeler W.T. Preston Leaving Colman Dock, and Shaw also visited Westlake Mall where sculptor Rita Kepner was busy chipping away at her 3600 pound objet d’art commissioned by the city for its “The Artist in The City” program.

Having temporarily lost the UDistSt.Fair bongos I’ve substitute another mix of Shaw and drums wit this Pike Market jam.
Meanwhile the leader, we presume, in another heat, The sign attached to the “box” names its sponsor the Duchess Tavern, we assume.

In the mid-1970s, Kepner and many fortunate others – myself included – were supported by the Seattle Arts Commission in the making of public art. I consider it one of the nicest things to ever happen to me.  Much of the art survives delicately scattered about the city.  Ultimately the art was funded by the Nixon Administration, in the year following Watergate and his 1974 resignation. Those of us who were funded continue to enjoy the irony of Nixon’s part in making the daily stresses of life easier for us.  Now nearly a half-century later I can still confess that “Nixon was very very good to me.”

Unidentified contestant No. 69 after the race and perhaps injured. But never mind there’s a can of refreshing Rainier Beer resting beside him on the hood of the car he uses for support.

1975 was year – or one of them – for bell bottom pants.  How many pairs can you count in the horse show of race spectators standing near the starting line?  I figure about nine.  One or more of them may have been purchased at Block’s Menswear, signed here “Block’s Bell Bottoms” on the north side of Pike Street  mid-block between First and Second Avenues.  I had three pairs which I bought not from Block but at the Wise Penny, the Junior League’s thrift store on Capitol Hill’s Broadway Avenue.

Market Mayor Billy King gets a grooming from artist Gertrude Pacific on Pike Place. (P. Dorpat sometime in the early 80s, perhaps)

On the authority of the artist/promoter Bill King, the Pike Place Market Mayor into the 1980s, the Markets soap box races began with perhaps two boxes in the 1970s, but it rapidly expanded. Billy got the idea for a derby from Doug Payson, an architect who lived near the market in the basement of the Bay Building. Next King carried the idea to the owners of the Market’s taverns – three of them.  With their support  began thus a bacchanalian affair but with good manners protected by the prudent friends of the market and also somewhat by a complicit police department.  For his role as mayor master of ceremonies, Billy wore a tuxedo and a PA system.  The race needed a caller at its single dangerous corner, a short block west of First Avenue. Distinguished in his tux, King stood on a chair at the corner describing the progress of the several races to their two collections of spectators, those east of the corner and those south of the corner, on the longer part between the corner and Union Street.  (We share a map on the dorpatsherrardlomont blog.)

This Seattle Times clip from May 27, 1976 makes note of the upcoming “fifth annual Pike Place Market Street Fair, and the running again of the “annual soapbox derby.”

When I asked Bill King if he could identify either of the two racers about to let gravity have its way, or, for that matter, anyone in the crowd, he answered, “Nope, all the regulars were in the taverns!”  Billy had been elected by the regulars sitting on Victrola Tavern stools.


Anything to add, lads?  Features galore instructor Sherrard.

THEN: The Pike Place Market’s irregular block shapes and bluff-side topography joined to create a multi-level campus of surprising places, such as this covered curve routing Post Alley up into the Market. Here, in 1966, the “gent’s” entrance to Seattle’s first Municipal Rest Room (1908) is closed with red tape and a sign reading “Toilet room, closed temporarily for repairs.” The Market was then generally very much in need of repair. (by Frank Shaw, courtesy, Mike Veitenhans)


THEN: A circa 1920 look north along the tiled roofline of the Pike Place Market’s North Arcade, which is fitted into the slender block between Pike Place, on the right, and Western Avenue, on the left. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: The Hotel York at the northwest corner of Pike Street and First Avenue supplied beds on the American Plan for travelers and rooms for traveling hucksters. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: In this April morning record of the 1975 “Rain or Shine Public Market Paint-in,” above the artists, restoration work has begun with the gutting of the Corner Market Building. (Photo by Frank Shaw)


THEN: Friends of the Market president, architect Victor Steinbrueck, leads a cadre of Friends marching for Market preservation in front of the Seattle City Hall most likely on March 18, 1971. (Photo by Tom Brownell from the Post-Intelligencer collection at MOHAI)

THEN: Mark Tobey, almost certainly Seattle’s historically most celebrated artist, poses in the early 1960s with some Red Delicious apples beside the Sanitary Market in the Pike Place Market. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: The 1974 fire at the Municipal Market Building on the west side of Western Avenue did not hasten the demise of the by then half-century old addition of the Pike Place Market. It had already been scheduled for demolition. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive)

THEN: Charles Louch’s grocery on First Avenue, north of Union Street, opened in the mid-1880s and soon prospered. It is possible – perhaps probable – that one of the six characters posing here is Louch – more likely one of the two suited ones on the right than the aproned workers on the left. (Courtesy RON EDGE)

THEN: The Moose float heads south on First Avenue at Columbia Street during the 1912 Potlatch parade of fraternal and secret societies. Behind them are Julius Redelsheimer's clothing store and the National Hotel, where daily room rates ran from 50 cents to a dollar.

THEN: Seattle Architect Paul Henderson Ryan designed the Liberty Theatre around the first of many subsequent Wurlitzer organs used for accompanying silent films in theatres “across the land”. The Spanish-clad actor-dancers posed on the stage apron are most likely involved in a promotion for a film – perhaps Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) or Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1929) that also played at the Liberty. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Steel beams clutter a freshly regraded Second Avenue during the 1907 construction of the Moore Theatre. The view looks north toward Virginia Street.

THEN: An early-20th-century scene during the Second Avenue Regrade looks east into its intersection with Virginia Avenue. A home is being moved from harm's way, but the hotel on the hill behind it would not survive the regrade's spoiling. Courtesy of Ron Edge.


THEN: Looking west on Pike Street from Fourth Avenue, the variety in the first block of this retail district includes the Rhodes Bros. Ten Cent Store, Mendenhall’s Kodaks, Fountain Pens and Photo Supplies, Remick’s Song and Gift Shop, the Lotus Confectionary, Fahey-Brockman’s Clothiers, where, one may “buy upstairs and save $10.00”. (Courtesy, MOHAI)

THEN:The early evening dazzle of the Roosevelt Theatre at 515 Pike Street, probably in 1941. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Looking south from Pine Street down the wide Second Avenue in 1911, then Seattle’s growing retail strip and parade promenade. (courtesy of Jim Westall)

THEN: Part of the pond that here in 1946 filled much of the long block between Massachusetts and Holgate Streets and 8th Avenue S. and Airport Way. (Courtesy, Ron Edge)

THEN: Looking southeast over the open acres of the Western Washington Fair Grounds following the matinee performance of Cheyenne Bill’s Wild West Show during the summer of 1909. (Courtesy, Old Seattle Paperworks)

THEN: First dedicated in 1889 by Seattle’s Unitarians, the congregation soon needed a larger sanctuary and moved to Capitol Hill. Here on 7th Avenue, their first home was next used for a great variety of events, including a temporary home for the Christian Church, a concert hall for the Ladies Musical Club, and a venue for political events like anarchist Emma Goldman’s visit to Seattle in 1910. (Compliments Lawton Gowey)

THEN: In 1910, a circa date for this look north on First Avenue across Virginia Street, the two corners on the east side of the intersection were still undeveloped – except for signs. The Terminal Sales Building, seen far right in Jean Sherrard’s repeat, did not replace the billboards that crowd the sidewalk in the “then” until 1923. (Seattle Municipal Archive)





















2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Pike Market Soap Box Derby, 1975”

  1. Back in the 70’s the Pike Place Mkt was “home” to many interesting and cool folks!!! I took the bus from WS many times to just hang out and people watch, and eat Henny Penny chicken….
    Thanks for posting these great photos of the PPM races!

  2. The Artst in the City was a great program. Thanks Paul for the shout-out bringing good memories. That sculpture is now at Seattle Center at the entrance to the Children’s Theatre. Rita Kepner, Sculptor

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