On the evening of March 29, 1968, the doors to Court C Coffeehouse at 915 Court C (the alleyway in the middle of the block between Broadway and Market) swing open and the first group of people to experience this unusual new venue in downtown Tacoma find their seats. They may or may not be thirsty for coffee, but they are definitely thirsty for dynamic conversation and creative opportunities. This night is the first of hundreds of facilitated discussion evenings, focusing on civic, social, and political issues, that will continue throughout the next seven and a half years. Over that time, the vision for the coffeehouse grows and the facilities expand to include an artist-and-small-business mall, community service gathering places, a musical performance venue, and a full-service cafe. Court C Coffeehouse and Artists' Mall brings new vitality into Tacoma's city core and provides community members a unique space to gather during a tumultuous time in history.
The idea for Court C Coffeehouse originated with a group of ministers and laypeople from five local churches (First Baptist, First Congregational, First Methodist, First Lutheran, and Church of the Holy Communion) who came together under the name Possibilities Incorporated to create a neutral space where everyone was welcome to discuss and learn about the myriad issues facing the country and the community. They hoped that Court C would bring new vitality to the stagnant downtown.
According to Reverend Lynn Hodges, one of the group founders and editor of the Cross Currents newspaper that covered Possibilities Incorporated and Court C news:
"Three objectives evolved as the Coffeehouse got under way. One, provide a place where different people of all ages could listen and learn to know each other and build bridges of understanding; two, provide opportunities for persons to develop self-expression through discussions, music, arts, and crafts; and three, provide an atmosphere of acceptance where persons with personal problems could relate to someone who could help" (Hodges, 2).
In addition, Hodges wrote:
"Tacoma's social awareness quotient was terribly low when Court C opened. There were few social action groups then -- no Urban League, no Tacoma Area Urban Coalition, no ADC Mothers Group, no Minority Concerns Task Force, no Awareness Development Group, no Model Cities program -- to mention but a few of the organized efforts that are now active and well known. Naturally, Court C's insistence on facing up to vital and long neglected issues and ideas was revolutionary to some Tacomans" (Hodges, 3).
Attempting to manifest these goals, in September 1967 Possibilities Incorporated raised $1,200 to secure and renovate a space in the old Keyes Building, located south of S 9th Street between Broadway and Court C, near the Rialto Theater. Erected by attorney Wayne Keyes in 1914, the building over the years housed tenants that included KMO Radio and a variety of movie houses. (It would be torn down in 1988).
"Court C Coffeehouse" was chosen as the name for the new venture because "it gave the location in a pleasant alliterative manner" (Hodges, 2).
Discussion Evenings and Open Mikes
The original venue was simple with an eclectic mix of tables and chairs (enhanced later with murals by local artist and shop owner Jay Tronsdale [1933-1994]), a bare-bones kitchen, and a microphone. That first discussion evening on March 29, 1968, was hosted by Norm Lawson, committee chairman and local Methodist minister. The evening featured insights by leaders from the Le Rapport Coffeehouse in Seattle and ended with folk singing. Hundreds of discussion evenings followed, led by different people from the community. From timeless to era-specific, a few topics from the first five years were "The Case Against War in Vietnam and the Case for War in Vietnam," "When I'm 64," "Has the Supreme Court Tied the Hands of the Police," "The Pope and the Pill," "Indian Fishing Rights," "A Night with Attorney General Gorton," "African Tribal Culture in Sierra Leone," "Israeli-Arab Dispute," "Tobacco Pollution and How to Stop Smoking," "Finding Adoptive, Foster, and Group Homes for Children," "World of the Homosexual," "Black Power, What Is It?," "College Unrest and Student Control," "Communal Living, Past and Present," "Food as Sacrament and Celebration," "Husbands in the Delivery Room," "Pros and Cons of Being a Senior Citizen Today," "Should Marijuana be Legalized?," "Dictatorship in Haiti," "Is Tacoma Mental Health Clinic Necessary?," and "The Second Coming of Christ" (Hodges, 3-4).
Once the discussion evenings were firmly established, live music became the next focus of Court C. Chris Lunn relocated his Folk and Blues Workshop and Musician Referral Service from Palo Alto, California, to Court C. Lunn's dynamic personality, outreach and advertising skills, and dedication to music and musicians provided performers and audience members an opportunity to experience acoustic (no electric) music from performers of all skill levels. In 1969, the coffeehouse advertised jazz on Mondays and Tuesdays, folk and blues on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and "Concerts" on Fridays and Saturdays.
Lunn also implemented open-mike nights, which proved to be significant in the careers of a number of local musicians. The first was held on Thursday, December 4, 1969, and included Tim Noah, Mike Dumovich, Mike Ball, Mike Kinder, Walt Matheson, Chris Lunn, and Vada Gardner. That first night proved to be so popular that another evening was soon added, cementing the open-mike slots for Wednesdays and Thursdays. These open mikes ran from 8 to 11:30 and allowed each musician or group to perform three songs with lighting and an introduction from Lunn as master of ceremonies. A listening atmosphere encouraged the musicians and set the tone for other open-mike venues. It was expected and stressed that the audience remain quiet and attentive to the performers. As for the musicians, as long as they remained committed to music Lunn was always available to help them improve their performance, marketing, and creative skills.
One of the musicians at the first open mike, Tim Noah, went on to become a beloved and award-winning performer. He starred in his own KOMO-TV show, How 'Bout That!, and founded the Tim Noah Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish. According to Noah's website:
"In 1969, Tim left the farm, moved to an apartment in Seattle and got his first gig in a cocktail lounge. 'The customers didn't listen, I got fired and moved back home again. But, walking down a lonely street one night, I picked up a newspaper at my feet and read an article about Court "C" Coffee House in Tacoma. I drove mom's Plymouth Valiant a hundred miles, signed up and sang three songs to an audience that really listened.'
"He kept writing songs and went back to Court 'C' again and again. 'I was aware of this magical connection I was having with the audience.' There were others who noticed and Tim was given his own night at the coffeehouse to do a concert" ("About Tim Noah").
Friendships and Collaborations
Noah's experience of finding Court C at a turning point in his life reflects the experience of many people who participated in the supportive and creative environment of Court C. Jim Page, honored in 2008 by Seattle Met as one of the 50 most influential Seattle musicians, described his experience at Court C:
"I hung out at the Court C Coffee House in spring of 1971. It was an artist community and a half way house, a draft counseling center and music jam space. It was whatever you needed it to be. Sometimes I would show up in the morning and stay all day. You could eat cheap and good, and drink endless cups of coffee. Looking back I realize that there are several of us who have gone on to make our lives in music, and the support and safety that Chris Lunn provided us as young people was fundamental. Although Chris is primarily known for his musical support and open mics, his real role was as a youth counselor. Many dead-end kids never would have survived without his help. He was never negative; he never put you down or insulted your talents or your dreams. He was a shoulder to lean on if you needed it. Thank you Chris Lunn, and thank you Court C "(Page email).
Friendships and musical collaborations blossomed in the backstage room as performers waited for their turns to play at the open mike. Although guitar-playing singer-songwriters were predominant, different acoustic instruments and musical styles found a home on the stage. In a 2014 Seattle Weekly interview, country-music performer Dave Harmonson recalled meeting Dudley Hill of the gypsy-jazz group Pearl Django at Court C:
"I remember seeing him play ... He was flat-picking bluegrass, and he was the best I'd ever seen. ... I saw people who really knew what they were doing, and I said, 'I gotta start learning this'" (Elliott).
Tom Kell, a professional musician and teacher who along with other Court C musicians formed The Skyboys, an alternative country-rock band well-known in the Seattle area during the late seventies and early eighties, said of his time at Court C, "It was a life changer for me. It sent me on my way" (Kell email).
Discussion nights continued on the weekends. As time went on, open-mike participants would be given their own concert time from 10:30 to midnight after the discussion groups. National acts were also brought in, such as blues performers Johnny Shines in 1970 and Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1971 (in 2016, recordings of both those Court C performances could be found on YouTube).
The restaurant continued to expand and improve. Lunches were served to the sounds of musicians performing and at one point GIs were served free lunches on Sundays. Minors were always welcome as it was an alcohol-free venue.
Colleges in the area, along with the military bases, were utilizing the free Folk and Blues Workshop musician-referral services for their own coffeehouses. This opened new and appreciated benefits for both listeners and performers.
Court C Artists' Mall
A huge leap in services and creativity took place beginning May 15, 1970, when the 10,000-plus-square-foot upstairs of the building was opened for art studios and shops. The first group of businesses to come in included a craft shop, guitar shop, senior citizen drop-in center, book store, bead company, and the campaign office for Carl Maxey (1924-1997), making an antiwar bid against incumbent Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. The space grew to hold 14 shops and many more booths. Different community service organizations, including the Pacific Counseling Service (military advice for servicemen), located there too. Additional shops were included in the downstairs space with a second entrance opening at 914 Broadway. This was celebrated by a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Tacoma Mayor Gordon Johnson on May 17, 1971.
Although the first entrepreneurial experience for many young adults took place at Court C, older people established businesses too. Marian Hawkins and her husband Curt started a shop there in August 1970 called Court C's Knit and Knot Shop. A few months later, she told a reporter:
"I felt like the grandmother of them all when I came ... But I don't feel out of place. They really make you feel welcome. The kids are friendly and helpful. There are so many beautiful things the kids create with their hands here" (Bruce Johnson).
Later, Louise Kessler, who became known as "Mama K," started out as the mall secretary and then became so inspired that she opened her own seamstress shop, ending up in a role similar to that described by Marian Hawkins.
As the word spread, more and more people came to see what was happening. By April 1971, 5,000 people were on the Court C newsletter mailing list, which inspired creation of the Cross Currents newspaper. Shops came and went (offering leather, natural cosmetics, sewing, jewelry, candles, guitar building, painting, tie-dye, macramé, copper enameling, glass, 2-D art, natural foods, and more) but offered many people an outlet for their creativity and wares as well as a unique shopping experience for Tacoma residents.
Barbara Houk Van Haren was a Court C fabric artist and shopkeeper and later a business owner and community advocate in Tacoma. This is her remembrance of Court C:
"I met local politicians, Black Panthers, draft resisters, artists, musicians, and so many people who were traveling through Tacoma at Court C. I made some of the best friends of my life during that singular experience so I'm eternally grateful that I somehow ended up being a shop owner there. I think that Court C provided something that people needed during that topsy-turvy time" (Van Haren email).
Court C offerings were not for everyone though. On July 30, 1971, the shop owners and musicians participated in a street fair on Broadway where the street was transformed into a pedestrian mall for two days. A Tacoma News Tribune article reported:
"[A]t least one observer expressed disgust ... 'It's nothing but junk they're selling ... they detract from the dignity of Broadway,' he said. Another man responded, 'Without these kids, Broadway would be nothing'" (Anderson).
End of an Era
Not only the shops but musician, patrons, and the original stakeholders changed and evolved with the times. Rev. Lynn Hodges, who had been such a committed leader, stepped down in 1972 to take a new job in California. In February 1975 Lunn moved the Folk and Blues Workshop out of downtown Tacoma when it became apparent that the revitalization that had been expected was not materializing. He changed the name to Victory Music, which in 2016 remained active in the region. Victory Music received a Washington State Governor's Art Award in 1988. (Occasionally people use "Court C" and "Victory Music" interchangeably when talking about the early coffeehouse years.)
By August 1975, the shops left too. Court C, after seven and a half years, closed. Future Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey, then a University of Washington journalism student doing an internship with the News Tribune, wrote a feature story published on August 31, 1975, accompanied by photos of the deserted building. He quoted bookstore owner Karen Fayth, who summed it up when she said, "It's the end of an era, Court C served a purpose but now the need is gone" (Horsey).
The Vietnam War had ended a few months earlier and the new technology era was beginning -- Microsoft was founded on April 4, 1975.
Reflecting back on Court C in 2016, Chris Lunn said:
"Court C played a significant and wide range role in influencing issues, politics, art, commerce, and music in greater Tacoma. For those who had a shop there, who served in some political discussion, who played music there, or who ran the facility, Court C helped clarify and expand their viewpoint. Whether it was selling or buying an original piece of pottery or glass, listening to an original singer-songwriter, discussing the role of the military, government, or the latest new thinking on an issue, both parties learned and grew and thus the community expanded and grew. You got to test your ideas, art, music, business sense, and interact with the greater Pierce County and help it grow and gain strength that lasts even today" (Lunn email).
When Hodges left Tacoma in 1972 his parting written words echoed the original vision that, in myriad different ways, not only manifested during the years of physical existence but carried seeds into the future:
"Support your local coffeehouse -- and impeach community apathy" (Hodges).