(click to enlarge photos)
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 6, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Feb. 9, 2020)
Tripping the light fantastic at Seattle’s Trianon Ballroom, ‘Cupid’s Headquarters’
By Jean Sherrard
Advertising that patrons would “trip the light fantastic,” the legendary Trianon Ballroom, designed by architect Warren H. Milner, opened its doors on May 20th, 1927, at Third Avenue and Wall Street. With its springy, white-maple floors, overseen by a giant, silver, clam-shaped bandshell, the Trianon quickly became Seattle’s premier dance palace.
Held the same day Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, the Trianon’s inaugural drew the city council, chamber of commerce and Bertha Landes, Seattle’s first female mayor. Four-thousand dancers foxtrotted to the sounds of Herb Wiedoft and his Brunswick Recording Orchestra. Between sets, dancers were entertained by vaudeville acts and a dancing exhibition by Priscilla Pharis and George Blanford, a couple who had triumphed at a recent dance marathon in Los Angeles.
The Mediterranean-style dance palace showcased the nation’s biggest of big bands, including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and Louis Armstrong, along with the local Max Pilar and Vic Meyers bands. (In 1932, Meyers, swapping bandstand for grandstand, would be elected Washington state’s lieutenant governor, serving 20 years.)
The Trianon became “Cupid’s headquarters,” contended Ted Harris, its longtime manager, in a 1975 Seattle Times interview, “because so many guys and gals met their future mates there.” Couples, he said, gathered on the long, open balcony, with its 17 arched windows facing Third Avenue, for “a little romantic action.” For late-night swing shifts and visiting servicemen during World War II, the Trianon remained open till 5 a.m.
Despite condemnation from some Seattle pulpits, couples continued dancing cheek to cheek at the Trianon until its closing in 1956. By then, ballroom dancing was declining in popularity as youths of America fell under the spell of the less formal dance moves of rock ’n’ roll.
Here we must sound a particularly sour note.
Through much of its tenure, the Trianon’s owner, John E. Savage, insisted upon a segregated dance floor, claiming repeatedly (and falsely) that a city ordinance prohibited “mixed [race] dancing.” The result: hugely popular African American musicians were welcome to perform, while African American dancers were turned away. For Seattle’s growing black community, this irony was painfully bitter, scarcely remedied by management’s “compromise” of selected Monday night shows set aside for “Colored Folks.”
After the ballroom’s closure, the building was converted for use as a Gov-Mart department store, then into an exhibition warehouse for a business selling pool tables, shuffleboards and jukeboxes.
Before partitioned office spaces took over the vast Trianon interior, the maple floor was cleared one last time. On May 18, 1985, two days shy of the 58th anniversary of its original opening, the Trianon held its last dance in the ballroom. All were welcome.
As promised, here’s another of column regular Ron Edge’s found treasures: a pdf of the opening night booklet for the Trianon (18 Mb).
For more Now & Then fun, click through to this week’s 360 degree video, narrated by Jean.
And a few late-breaking photo additions from Paul: