In this People's History, Marie McCaffrey tells the story of how Seattle's Fat Tuesday -- the annual carnival-style celebration that takes place in Pioneer Square -- got started. The first Fat Tuesday went from February 14 to 19, 1977.
The First Fat Tuesday
This is how I remember the first Fat Tuesday -- exactly. It was 24 years ago and I was 25 years old.
I was talking to Bobby Foster one day in the Central Tavern, which seemed at the time to be the center of the universe in Seattle. Bobby owned the Central along with his partner Jamie Anderson.
This particular day, Bobby had an idea to improve the blah month of February when people stayed home after the holiday parties. He thought he could put on a small version of Mardi Gras and drum up some business in Pioneer Square. Just as he finished outlining his cunning plan, Ed Neff came in the door. Ed owned the Bombay Bicycle shop, a popular music and dance bar in Pioneer Square. Ed was very excited. He had this great idea. Mardi Gras in Pioneer Square.
The motion was seconded.
Anyway, things quickly got underway. Bob, it turned out, had an incredible gift for organizing. He put together an impressive Fat Tuesday Committee, including Norman Langill, who then had a traveling show in a big truck called One Reel Vaudeville which was later shortened to One Reel, and went on to produce Bumbershoot and the Goodwill Games arts festival.
We met regularly in the downstairs back room of the Elliott Bay Book Store. I was an out-of-work baker, 40 credits short of my "Art" degree from the U of W. I knew nothing. I had no skills to bring to the party, but I had a lot of enthusiasm, so my job became selling coupon books.
This was the idea. We would get every business to buy an ad in the coupon book. Then we would use this money to print the books. Each book would sell for $10 and with it you could get into every club without a cover charge. Then we would take this money, and put musicians in every restaurant and bar. My job was to go around Pioneer Square and sell ads in the coupon book with my friend Motter Forman.
Wild Running Beers
The first thing that gave us a hint that this was going to be big was the running of the Rainiers. Rainier Beer was doing the promotion where they anthropomorphized the Rainier beer bottle by putting little legs and feet on it and pretending it was a wild animal. They decided to film an ad in Pioneer Square with Rainier beers running through the streets like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Over 10,000 people came down to participate. Way more then they needed. No one was expecting that. Whoa!
When you don't have experience with putting on a big event, you worry about not enough people. It never occurred to us that we would have too many people. We didn't know there was such a thing as too many people.
You could say that Fat Tuesday opened to unforeseen crowds on Tuesday, February 14th, but that would an understatement. It was better than we had ever imagined. There was music everywhere. Every bar was packed with coupon-book-wielding revelers. We were floating down the streets in awe of what we had created. It wasn't like Seattle at all. It was like a looser, richer, more sinful city, one where people were raised by Catholics, not Lutherans.
By Friday, things began to get what you might call out of control. My most vivid memory is being in the Fat Tuesday office when the reports started coming in. Someone had just thrown a rock through the Central's window. A crowd of people were trying to tip over a metro bus, passengers and all. Mayhem! Bobby had a phone receiver to each ear and was talking to two different people at the same time. He looked up at us and said "We have to cancel it."
We just laughed. "I think it's too late."
Of course, what was running through Bobby's head, and all of ours, was the sinking feeling that if something happened, like someone was hurt, or killed, it would be our fault. We would be responsible for tragedy, when all we wanted to do was bring the city a little fun. It was a sobering moment. However, things soon got back under control. And Pioneer Square partied on.
Finally the big day came [parade day]. We had been worried that it would rain and be nasty, but the temperature was in the seventies. Not a cloud in the sky. I got on the bus with my boyfriend (now husband) Walt Crowley and headed downtown. My friend Rheta Deal, who had organized the poster contest and art show, and designed the logo and coupon book, was the grand marshal of the parade, and I was part of her special grand-marshal entourage, or whatever it's called.
Rheta made us dress up in bright-red faces, black tights, fake animal-skin ponchos, white rubber tubing, and white turbans. She never did tell us what we were. Fifty thousand or more people came, and they all marched together from the Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square in a sea of party madness. It was a spontaneous moment of pure fun and we celebrated on until the end.
The weather was wonderful, unseasonably warm, and it contributed to the enormous turnout throughout the event, but especially on parade day. It all ended just fine on Sunday night. Even though the potential had been there for big trouble, we had escaped. We also knew next time we might not be so lucky. There was some pelting with beer bottles, there was an alleged public coupling, and someone in Pioneer Square died of a heart attack, not related to Fat Tuesday. All in all, probably less crime then on a normal Pioneer Square weekend. We were relieved.
That is until Monday when The Seattle Times published a piece with this headline: "Death, Destruction, and Despair in the Streets of Pioneer Square." What followed was an account of the heart attack, the public coupling (never proven), and an arrest. It just kind of sucked the fun out of the whole thing. New Orleans wrote us a sympathy letter, saying if they had so few problems it would be a miracle.
The whole coupon-book thing did not work too well. It turned out a lot of people just paid the cover charge. Fat Tuesday owed some money to some musicians. I recall a fund-raiser later.
As anybody can tell you, the first one is usually the best. This is because you have no idea what you are doing, and the event sort of creates itself. It is a big surprise, and surprises are fun. There have been 24 Fat Tuesdays since that one, and although I never go to them, I sure hope everyone is having as good a time as I did in 1977 when I had the luck to be in the right place at the right time to help put on the first Fat Tuesday in Pioneer Square, Seattle.
Postscript: As I listen to the news this morning, February 28, 2001, I am saddened by the violence of this year's Fat Tuesday. Time will tell us something about why this happened, but my guess is that 24 years later, this was the last Fat Tuesday.