Published in The Seattle Times online on April 23, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on April 20, 2023
To glimpse Seattle’s jazzy coffeehouse past, just enter The Door
By Clay Eals
Seattle’s coffeehouse craze can ground itself pre-Starbucks in the late-1950s rise of anti-materialistic beatniks and their yen for jazz and steamy espresso. Whether its New York and San Francisco hubs were showcased in national publications or Hollywoodized by Jack Lemmon’s bongo-playing in “Bell Book and Candle,” the nervy subculture took rapid hold in the nation’s psyche.
It caught Seattle-born Ben Laigo as a 23-year-old Army recruit at Fort Ord near Monterey. From there, he and buddies surveyed San Francisco’s startling North Beach scene. “It was,” he recalls, “a different kind of weekend, instead of getting drunk in a cocktail lounge.”
Raised in an enterprising Filipino family (his dad was a longtime Ivar’s chef), the O’Dea High School graduate and Frederick & Nelson window-dresser decided to import the espresso experience to his hometown. So Laigo and investors rented a downtown nook in June 1959 on Seventh Avenue between Stewart Street and Olive Way. Its name was the definition of hip: The Door.
He first booked folk music but quickly switched to jazz. “I was one of these wannabes,” Laigo, now 86, reflects. “I wanted to sit down and play the piano.” He settled for occasionally sitting in on bongo.
Open till midnight or 1 a.m. (3 a.m. Fridays), the no-alcohol eatery surpassed the beatnik niche, its crowds lining up to the now-razed Music Hall movie theater on Olive. Reflecting this, The Seattle Times’ Lenny Anderson was amused early on that when the music-loving Laigo asked a group of beatniks “several times for a little more quiet” and then to leave, one replied, “Time magazine says we belong in these places.”
In February 1962, as the Seattle World’s Fair neared, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer branded The Door “the largest late-hour espresso club in the state.”
The Door perhaps hit its zenith by sponsoring mid-fair concerts June 19-21, 1962, headlined by the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet at the city’s Green Lake Aqua Theater. But proceeds came up “a little short,” reported columnist Emmett Watson. Laigo soon sold The Door, which continued through the late 1960s.
Befitting his given first name of Buenaventura, Laigo later embraced a multiplicity of ventures. He hosted at the Space Needle restaurant, ran the Norton Building-based Harbor Club (370 members) and even invented a Seattle-centered, Monopoly-style board game called Main Entrée that sold thousands of sets.
His persona was sealed from the start. As he told the P-I in January 1960:
“If you want to do something, get it out of your system and go do it. If you fail at that, start over and do something else. But keep doing.”
Thanks to Ben Laigo for his invaluable help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
BONUS: Scroll to the bottom for a special section on “Main Entree,” the board game invented by Ben Laigo!
Here is a special section focused on Main Entree,” the Seattle-based, Monopoly-styled board game that Ben Laigo invented in 1971. First is a video in which Laigo discusses the game with Donna Driver-Kummen, who received the game as a gift when it was released. Afterward, you will find scans and pdf files of all of the game’s elements. Click and click again to enlarge them. Enjoy!