June 2020: The Re-bar isn't the building, it’s the people and community that come together
Neighborhood: Denny Triangle
Opened in 1990, the iconic Seattle venue hosted underground music, fringe theater, poetry slams, game shows, LGBTQIA / QPOC focused events, live shows, and private events. From Nirvana to Peanut Butter Wolf, from Riz Rollins to Max Cooper, and from Hedwig to Dina Martina, the Re-bar presented the cutting edge of raw art in Seattle for 30 years.
It was also the first live music venue to announce their closure, since COVID, though they’re planning for a resurrection in 2021, in another location.
Staff and volunteers were busily packing up the gear and sets from inside the Rebar as I spoke with Dane Wilson, the owner. They had recently announced their impending closure and were preparing for some final livestreams. No big, public goodbye after a hard-earned three decades in business, but rather the quiet and ominous departure that we’re becoming familiar with in the COVID era.
We’re extracting all the costumes, props, objects, fountains, things from the last 30 years of memories that people cultivated here. I'm storing a lot of it at my home. There are big exterior signs, vintage lighting and design elements trim, and our Hall of Fame.
Before COVID, how was Re-bar doing?
In February, we had just started making a comeback.
We lost Dina Martina a couple years ago. And we've been basically a dead-end sidewalk for four years with all the construction happening around us (in the Denny Triangle). We didn't receive any construction mitigation from the city, because there were no agent of change laws here to protect us. So we watched all the high rises go up around us, it really changed the terrain of this area. And then another night club opened up behind us.
We were able to survive all that and, just in February, we started getting ahead again.
How much of that fed into your decision to close?
All of that put a lot of the pressure on us, but then we had the added pressure from our landlords, insurance, utilities, other operating costs. We’ve been closed since March 11th and we’ve had to cover all of our costs, on zero income.
I wanted to take care of all of our payroll, but then it was just too much to also pay 100% of our rent. We considered PPP, which is a forgiveable loan, but it’s designed to move employees off of unemployment and put more liability back on business, which I didn't think was in our best interest.
We had joined up with the WA Nightlife Music Association, to pursue cash grants- not loans - with no strings attached. We were looking to local government to provide support to the industry, to help get us through this period until we can do our work again. But, we didn’t see any of that. The support is just starting to come out now. In fact, two weeks after we announced our closure, they used a picture of the Re-bar, as the image for the news article announcing the support.
Along those lines, what do you wish the government understood about your situation?
We have zero income and we're responsible for paying all of our operating costs at the same time.
Other businesses, like restaurants, can kind of squeak by with take-out or eventually outdoor seating. We don't really have that ability. And that's why we wanted to ask for just cash grants, to float the venues through until they're able to reopen fully. But that looks like tens of thousands of dollars each month, per venue….with 50 venues in Seattle. You know, they bailed out the banks…when will they bail out all the small and medium sized venues in Seattle?
Since announcing your closure, what kind of response have you received?
We received lots of support for our Go Fund Me campaign. The strong music theater, performance art community in Seattle came out and helped us meet, actually exceed our goal. And then, oddly enough, we got a no-strings-attached $17k cash grant from Amazon because we are in the Denny Triangle.
This support that you've been able to piece together from private donations and from grants, what is that covering?
It’s all helping us pay for closing. Any we have left over, we’ll put toward trying to find our next space, starting next year.
It takes about $30-40k to close a business this size.
Everyone has a story about the Re-bar….what have you been hearing from your customers?
People came by here the other weekend and built a shrine in front of the door with flowers. Somebody taped a pack of Parliament cigarettes to it, someone taped a whole beer up to it, then somebody drank that and taped it back up again.
We had the space boarded up, which is fortunate, because someone tried to break in and tried to attack me, threatening me. But, they painted a beautiful mural of cherry trees on the boards.
Then people were doing graffiti tagging up on it. But, it was very respectable, like “Deejay Dan Rules”.
I drove past here on Saturday and there's just a guy outside of here drinking a White Claw, dancing, wearing a mirror ball necklace.
A lot of people are really sad. But, they’ll follow us anywhere.
We thought we’d be able to have one last big weekend and just rage it. But we didn’t really get that chance.
This space is a sign of changing times. And, we think that this is actually going to be a boom for us. We can create some momentum for the new space. You know, in the 90’s, the Re-bar was in the perfect spot, with lines to the end of the block. The spot was very hip and very cool. But this community has changed. So I want to create a new way for the community to interact with Re-bar, everyday living, just as a place to be.
Do you have a sense yet of what that reincarnation of the Re-bar will look like?
We definitely want to change around our business model. Something open 7 days a week, with cocktails, food, theater, and a venue with a separate bar. We are known for creating a safe space for underserved members of the community, especially for the LGBTQIA / QPOC communities.
Music, performance, dance, art, burlesque, fringe theater and a lot of that work is moving south so we want to go south too. We want to take it down to the south side of the city, Columbia City, White Center, South Park, Rainier Beach, Hillman City.
Is there anything else you want to make sure gets told about the Re-bar story?
There are so many stories. If these walls could talk, they would talk crazy shit.
But I think that we can retain that energy and move it.
Because that's the most important part: Re-bar is created by the people who come here. I think we can try to build that again on the south side. And, we can stay true to this community. I feel confident that we can call it Re-bar again.
The big thing about creating music is in supporting small and medium sized venues. Lots of people say, how can we support the Re-bar, and I'll say, come see a show, just buy a ticket, buy a drink, buy water, whatever.
Those bands that end up at the Gorge or Key Arena or Showbox, they got their start at a venue like ours. And one of the reasons they are able to get so big is because the other bands are out in the audience and the dj’s there too, telling their story. The audience pulls this all together - the small and medium sized venues are known for this - they are where the pieces come together. And that’s a vital component of creating a music scene.
We want to preserve that, but we’re seeing a lot of it leave Seattle.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help: