Seattle Now & Then: the Volunteer Park Bandstand, 1932

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: In June 1932, Flag Day celebrations featured patriotic music, a pageant of costumed characters in colonial dress and high-schoolers Mariruth Moran, Frederick Moe, Jr. and Jane Buchanan reading their prize-winning essays to a 2,000-strong crowd.
NOW1: Vocalist Sara Gazarek entertains a laid-back crowd of jazz fans on Aug. 17, 2023. On Sept. 21, Owen Richards Architects received a 2023 Civic Design Award from the Washington Council of the American Institute of Architects for the amphitheater.

Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 28, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Oct. 1, 2023

Amphitheater has hosted stirring sounds and stories since 1915
By Jean Sherrard

If the Volunteer Park amphitheater could talk, oh, the tales it might tell. Its successive bandshells have born witness to countless civic, religious, musical and theatrical events spanning more than a century.

The site’s first bandshell, designed in 1915 by eminent architect Carl F. Gould, proved an instant draw. The generous lawns north of the park’s reservoir handily accommodated large crowds.

T.H. “Dad” Wagner and his 40-piece band

An inaugural sunset concert on June 20, 1915, featured hugely popular T.H. “Dad” Wagner’s 40-piece marching band. Thousands clapped to waltzes, operatic excerpts and selections from the farce “High Jinks,” as well as a medley of Sousa-esque marches.

Besides summer concerts, the amphitheater has hosted a wide array of civic and religious events.

The local Moose Lodge #211 promoted White House-inspired egg-rolling contests in the early 1920s. Local children were exhorted to “bring their own spoons” until soggy April grass dampened enthusiasm.

Easter sunrise services, undaunted by inclement weather, ran from 1926 through the late 1960s, often commencing with a lone bugler before dawn. Faithful crowds once reached 50,000, reported The Seattle Times.

Charles Lindbergh with Mayor Bertha Landes in 1927

In September 1927, more than 30,000 grade-schoolers gathered on the greenswards to welcome “their greatest modern day hero” Charles Lindbergh after his trans-Atlantic flight to Paris. The Times also boasted about his monoplane’s locally grown spruce struts.

Our main “Then” photo, from June 12, 1932, features a Flag Day commemoration of George Washington’s bicentennial. Prize-winning essays about the first president’s “Youth and Manhood” (with cherry tree, we presume) were read by Queen Anne and Garfield high-school students.

The Flag Day crowd in 1932, seen from the Gould bandshell’s backstage wings.

From 1945 to 1961, the amphitheater annually observed “I Am an American Day,” honoring new citizens. (In 1962, the ceremony moved to the Seattle World Fair’s Flag Pavilion.)

By the late 1960s, countercultural summer “Be-Ins” entered the park’s mix. Column founder Paul Dorpat might occasionally be found cavorting with favorite local band Formerly Lamarr Harrington.

In 1974, the site celebrated the first Seattle Pride Week festivities, which continue at the amphitheater today.

Carl Gould’s by-then-crumbling bandshell was torn down in 1947 and replaced by a makeshift wooden stage until the early 1970s, when landscape architect Richard Haag erected a roofless brick structure in its place.

Haag’s 1970s bandshell – perhaps on the bleak side

In our “Now” photo, its stunning $2.7 million replacement, designed by architect Owen Richards — noted for Seattle Center’s Chihuly Garden and Glass and the SIFF Film Center — opened in July 2022.

“We tried to find an appropriate scale which was of a piece in the landscape,” Richards says, “while providing a welcoming performance space.”

Northwest-born Sara Gazarek entrances a young admirer.

The new structure’s graceful, sweeping roof, reverberant acoustics and spacious stage surely will tell stories for generations to come.


To view our “live” 360-degree video of this column, click right here.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: the Volunteer Park Bandstand, 1932”

  1. Your job is history, and you do it very well. But my job is acoustic music, so what interests me about bandshells is their ability to project sound toward the audience without the use of electrical amplification. My understanding is that this is accomplished by designing the shell to approximate a parabolic reflector. I’m curious to know how well the current design reflects sound compared to the previous designs.

    1. Interesting question, John. I’m guessing ‘Dad’ Wagner’s forty piece band wouldn’t need amplification, but as far as more intimate and unamplified performers, I have no idea. I must confess, as an old stage actor, it’s always been a little disconcerting to see mics attached to performers indoors or out. It may seem curmudgeonly but once upon a time, performers had to be LOUD and CLEAR.

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