Seattle is the host city for one of the world's best-loved urban music and arts festivals: Bumbershoot. Launched in July 1971 as the Mayor's Festival '71, it initially presented about 150 mostly homegrown and free attractions on the Seattle Center campus. Hastily produced by a small team, on a meager budget (and with little publicity), Festival '71 proved wildy successful when 120,000 people turned out to see art exhibits, bands, buskers, film screenings, literary presentations, sporting demonstrations, and much more. Renamed Bumbershoot: Seattle Arts Festival in 1973, the festival steadily expanded, taking hold as a summer tradition after being moved to Labor Day weekend in 1976. In 1980 its management was contracted to a local production company, One Reel, attendance levels soared, and an entry fee was instituted. Over time, Bumbershoot has weathered its share of financial storms -- ones that eventually led One Reel to pair up with behometh concert promoters AEG. But Bumbershoot had already earned its wide reputation for creating magic moments, and many visitors make annual pilgrimages to Seattle to attend what Rolling Stone magazine once deemed "the mother of all festivals."
Restive for Festivals
Seattle has a long record of producing community music and/or arts festivals. As early as the 1880s the young town was already hosting German song festivals -- Saengerfests. Later in 1909 the town hosted a world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE), which had plenty of daily music and arts presentations. The concept of an annual summer celebration in the rainy town followed in 1912 with the first Potlatch Festival, which offered "a carnival of sports, music, dancing and feasting." Popular, but lacking conceptual cohesion, "Seattle's Potlatch stitched together the jarringly dissimilar themes of the Gold Rush, U.S. Navy militarism, and down-home summer fun, merging the three under a very loose adaptation of the Native American potlatch celebration" (McConaghy).
Seafair was launched in 1950 and it became a fond summer tradition -- but music and the arts were not emphasized. The core Seafair activities remained a dubious grab-bag: "The festival's quaint blend of neighborhood hoopla, thunder boats, mock monarchs, beauty queens, cavorting clowns, vigilantes and pirates has somehow survived a half a century of fickle fashion and censorious politics" (Crowley). Seafair was also oriented toward the majority Caucasian populace -- to the extent that Seattle's African Americans launched their own Mardi Gras Festival along E Madison Street.
Then came the Century 21 Exposition -- or 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Running from April into October it was far more than a summer fest, but it gave the city a magnificent new 74-acre Seattle Center campus, replete with new galleries and performance venues: the Coliseum, the Arena, the Horiuchi Mural (Amphitheater), the Opera House, and more. It also introduced sleepy Seattle to the world. But long after the fair faded, its campus and those venues continued to play a role in bringing arts and entertainments to the public, including multi-day events such as the Bite of Seattle, the Black Arts Fest, the Chinese Culture & Arts Festival, Festa Italiana, the Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle PrideFest, and the big one: Bumbershoot.
Festival '71 and Festival '72
In 1970, recently elected mayor of Seattle, Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) attended a national mayors conference in New York at which he was impressed by New York Mayor John Lindsay's Mayor's Arts Festival. Uhlman soon assembled his own Mayor's Festival Committee. Meanwhile the Seattle Arts Commission was also just being established, and the brainstorming over the possibility of launching a similar festival began. It was concluded that the City of Seattle should sponsor a free summertime arts festival at the Seattle Center. "The festival is envisioned as an annual event which would grow to become a major celebration by 1976, the year of the United States' bicentennial celebration" ("'Festival 71' will follow ...")
With only a few months of advance planning, the three-day Festival '71 was a remarkable success. Held in sunny August, it featured an eclectic array of roving clowns and stilt-walkers, "rock groups, jazz concerts, climbing exhibitions up the Food Circus exterior, a puppet show, art and photographic exhibitions, film festival, an 'oompa' band, free ice skating, magic-lantern show and indoor motorcycle races" ("Festival '71"). Such modest offerings gave many locals the opportunity to display their artworks -- or perform their music (including rock bands Adam Wind, Child, and Springfield Rifle, plus the jazzy Overton Berry Trio). The 150 attractions successfully brought in the crowds; while 40,000 attendees had been estimated, instead some 120,000 showed up.
The following summer, Festival '72 was produced in July and attracted an estimated 185,000 attendees. Among the performers were top local rock bands, Bighorn and Jr. Cadillac, along with Norm Langill's hippie theatrical troupe, the One Reel Vaudeville Show.
Festival '73: Bumbershoot
Considered a success, the festival was next allotted a $35,000 budget by the City, and other major contributors included the King County and Washington State arts commissions, Olympia Brewing Co., Rainier Brewing Co., and the Weyerhaeuser Foundation. C. David Hughbanks and Anne Focke were named festival coordinators, while Charles Younger was named performing-arts coordinator.
Meanwhile, discussions were held about the event's name. There were concerns that merely calling it "Festival" year-after-year was neither defining it adequately, nor marketing it in a memorable way. The fact that it was being organized and curated with "the overarching mission ... to be an umbrella for all of the arts," led to the idea of renaming it with a whimsical reference to the quaint British slang term for that trusty precipitation-management device: the umbrella or "bumbershoot" ("Festivals").
News broke in The Seattle Times on April 26 that the event had been given a new, if mildly perplexing, name -- Festival '73: Bumbershoot -- "since it will gather together a broad concentration of visual and performing arts, media and communication technologies, a boulevard fair" and more (Tarzan). Bumbershoot was expanded to five days and moved to late August (22-26). Its programming was broadened by adding more of everything: dancers, artists, craftspeople, but most notably, imported musical stars including Latin-jazzer Cal Tjader, avant-garde saxman John Handy, and violin legend Joe Venuti. The fest's "Special Guest Artist" was the Seattle jazz scene's esteemed trumpeter, Floyd Standifer (1929-2007). Among the scruffy buskers who showed up independently were Seattle street legends Jim Page and Baby Gramps. Public recognition of the value that Bumbershoot was adding to the community could be measured in part by one statistic: In 1973 the festival pulled in a mind-boggling 250,000 attendees.
Bumbershoot: The 1970s
Bumbershoot expanded to 10 days in 1974, the same year that Seattle Parks Department employee Jon Kertzer helped curate the music. One result was the booking of more big-time musical acts including bluesman Willie Dixon, zydeco master Clifton Chenier, jazzer Stan Getz, and guitar ace Ry Cooder. In addition, Mayor Uhlman and several City Council members participated directly by fulfilling various roles ranging from manning the Lost Child Center, to reading children's stories, to dressing up as clowns. Word was getting out now and a whopping 325,000 people attended.
In 1975 local attorney Peter LeSourd (b. 1938) was named chairperson of the festival, and the famously exiled UW philosophy and history professor John Chambless (who had co-founded the Sky River Rock Festival in 1968) resurfaced as the festival's director. This year saw the longest-ever Bumbershoot: 11 days from August 22-September 11. Among the added features: the public's ability to access the event schedule with their touchtone telephones via Bellevue Community College's new-fangled computer, "Chester." Entertainment highlights included jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Florida beach-bum songster Jimmy Buffett.
Marketed as the Seattle Arts Festival: Bumbershoot '76, the Bicentennial year saw it moved to Labor Day weekend, where it has remained ever since. It featured largely local talents, including the up-and-coming jazz diva, Diane Schuur, and a poster featuring artwork by beloved artist and UW instructor Jacob Lawrence. In 1977 jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was a big draw, Larry McMurtry offered a literary presentation, and Seattle's famed dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham returned home. In 1978 the One Reel Vaudeville Show wowed crowds with its ridiculous farce, "The Bride of Bigfoot," while the Memphis band Amazing Rhythm Aces headlined, and the young Montlake Terrace-raised fiddling champion Mark O'Connor appeared just prior to heading off to Nashville and Grammy-winning fame.
As the decade wound down Bumbershoot was growing up. In 1979 it added the "Bumbernationals" art-car gravity races tradition. The Bill Evans Dance Company was one of numerous dance performance offerings. Will Vinton conducted film workshops, and jazz was represented by legendary swing pianist Teddy Wilson (1912-1986), pianist/composer Marian McPartland (1918-2013), and the return of hometown guitar ace Larry Coryell (1943-2017). On the downside, the economy was faltering again and the Parks Department began withdrawing its support for the arts. A new business model was needed and further changes awaited Bumbershoot.
Bumbershoot: The 1980s
As a new decade dawned, the creativity and business acumen of One Reel's leader, Norm Langill – who'd begun producing Seattle's Fat Tuesday events in March 1977 -- had impressed Bumbershoot's management, and he scored a contract to begin producing the whole affair. Along the way One Reel (incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1973) transformed into a major event-production company.
1980 saw a controversial Bumbershoot policy change: the implementation of an admission charge (of $2.50). The heady days of a free event were over -- but the tradeoff was an increase in star attractions (Emmylou Harris, Etta James, Chuck Berry, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and classical violin prodigy Eugene Fodor). The most notable appearance by a Seattle native was that of actress Dyan Cannon, who introduced her new short, One, at the film festival. In a nod to current events, the "Volcano Gallery" presented new artworks inspired by the May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
The 1981 festival introduced a new feature: The Taste of Seattle -- a gathering of area restaurateurs offering small portions of their best culinary treats. Bumbershoot also offered Sci-Fi fans a unique opportunity to watch both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back films back-to-back. On the music front were the blues duo Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells, Brazilian jazzers Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, soul/jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, and the soulmen Sam and Dave. A low point was reached when the notoriously grumpy Chuck Berry (who was being backed by Seattle's premier rock band, Heart) flashed his ill temper before a full house at the Coliseum by reaching over mid-song, unplugging Steve Fossen's bass cord, and barking him off the stage.
The year 1982 saw the first Bumbershoot that was plagued by rain. That, and an admission price increase to $3.50, kept attendance down. The folks who did show up laughed to the comedy of the Firesign Theater group and the venerable Henny Youngman (1906-1998). Music fans enjoyed George Thorogood, Mitch Ryder, and Tina Turner on the cusp of her career revival. In 1983 Oregon's literary icon, Ken Kesey, made a rare local appearance, and two popular Seattle bands were spotlighted: the Allies and Uncle Bonsai. In addition Ray Charles, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Betty Carter, The Animals, Three Dog Night, and Oingo Boingo performed.
A salute to the original "Northwest Sound" was slated for 1984 in the Coliseum. It brought together many of the first-generation local rock 'n' roll stars including Dave Lewis, Ron Holden, Little Bill Engelhart, The Fleetwoods, The Ventures, Merrilee Rush, The Kingsmen, and Don and the Goodtimes. In addition to rock shows by the Eurythmics and Los Lobos, there was also the final concert (for a few decades) by the heavy metal/farce band Spinal Tap. Free-jazz inventor Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) played, as did redneck rebel Charlie Daniels, New Orleans' Neville Brothers, and Afrika Bambaataa.
It was in 1985 that a dispute erupted when Seattle Center director Ewen Dingwall attempted to dismiss One Reel and name an alternate production company, John Bauer's Media One, to serve as the festival's producers. The City Council objected and, after some public squabbling, One Reel -- with producers including Norm Langill, Sheila Hughes, and Judith Roche -- won a new two-year contract. Bumbershoot's new literary magazine, ERGO!, was launched, and ticket prices were again raised, this time to $4 per day. The attractions were tempting: Bonnie Raitt, Wilson Pickett, a rare reunion of the Everly Brothers, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (a high-demand show that caused the police to intervene when unruly crowds couldn't gain access to the Coliseum).
That wasn't the only chaotic incident in '85. A local underground rock band, The U-Men, was booked to play on the Horiuchi Mural Amphitheater, an outdoor stage featuring a shallow reflecting pool that separated it from the frontline of audiences. Punky pranksters that they were, The U-Men and their manager Larry Reid planned an unforgettable finale. "During the last song," Reid recounted, "myself and a roadie poured [lighter] fluid into the pond. The singer, John Bigley, came dancing out from back stage wielding a flaming straw broom that had also been doused. When he swept the broom over the pond, it exploded -- flames dancing 10, 15 feet in the air. We somehow failed to take into account that the stage extended over the water, and that the flames would follow the lighter fluid under the stage."
The crowd went wild with glee and then the "cops waded into the crowd," Reid recalled. "[A] mosh pit was a fairly recent phenomenon then, and cops might have assumed there was a riot going on" (Matos). "The pool went ablaze. Flames spread to the creosoted bottom of the concrete stage, bringing smoke everywhere. Cops, believing the excited audience to be rioting, billy-clubbed people" (Humphrey, p. 96). Reid fled: "I decided to get the hell out of there before I got arrested" (Matos). The whole incident sealed The U-Men's place in the Northwest punk pantheon; they are considered godfathers of the subsequent grunge movement.
The year of 1986 brought cloudy skies and ticket prices of $5 per day, but some 200,000 people still showed up. Attractions included performances by the Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan, comedy by Sandra Bernhard, blues by Seattle's own Robert Cray Band, oldies rock 'n' roll by Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Motown sounds of Smokey Robinson, and the Texas country tunes of Delbert McClinton. The success of that year drove 250,000 attendees to Bumbershoot '87 and its increased offerings of kids' activities, art exhibits, literary events, and food options. Music highlights included Miles Davis, Albert Collins, Taj Mahal, Roy Orbison, Dwight Yoakum, k.d. lang, and Crowded House.
In 1988 -- when One Reel's operating budget had grown to $1.14 million -- record crowds had a chance to see comedian Jerry Seinfeld, plus concerts by John Hiatt, Chaka Kahn, and Sonny Rollins. Those in the know took in a young Seattle band named Soundgarden at Bumbershoot's Club X stage. A new tradition also debuted: the "Bumberdrum" event. Curated by Jon Kertzer, it featured Billy Cobham, Zakhir Hussain, Tito Puente, and a Yoruba percussion group, each performing individually, and then in an improvised jam. A couple of years later the Northwest's own street percussionist extraordinaire, Artis the Spoonman, would join in, and in time, Soundgarden would include him on its radio hit, "Spoonman."
In 1989 Barbara Earl Thomas began serving as director of the Bumbershoot Festival Commission. That same year the city's top rap star, Sir Mix-A-Lot, played his biggest gig thus far, headlining at the Coliseum, while Seattle's Mother Love Bone (with future members of Pearl Jam) also rocked a portion of the more than 250,000 attendees.
Bumbershoot: The 1990s
Bumbershoot in the early 1990s began emphasizing exotic international music, and debuted the Boeing World Music Arena stage. In 1990 it presented Israeli singing sensation Ofra Haza, Indian drum master Ustad Alla Rakha, plus Ruben Blades, Flaco Jimenez, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Overflowing crowds attempting to squeeze into Ziggy Marley's reggae show shattered glass doors and windows at the Coliseum.
There was irony in this programming focus because, simultaneously, Northwest music was becoming the driving force in popular music with local grunge bands beginning their global reign. "It is fair to say that Bumbershoot had an identity crisis in the early '90s," recalled Charles R. Cross, publisher of The Rocket. "It was essentially an organization run and booked by old hippies, and they were not programming stuff for kids. In retrospect, it seems that criticism was just: Bumbershoot missed the boat for a few years with up-and-coming local bands" (Matos).
Bumbershoot did book a few veteran tavern bands such as Red Dress and the Dynamic Logs, but other than Alice In Chains, the fest failed to present the other early grunge bands. In Bumbershoot's 20th anniversary year of 1991 -- with Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten albums looming -- the festival booked Baby Boomer-pleasing acts Tony Bennett, Laura Nyro, B.B. King, Etta James, and Buddy Guy. This misreading about what legions of youthful music fans preferred led to slipping attendance. In 1992, some 5,000 visual and performing artists participated, but overhead costs were mounting. The introduction of a $25 "Quick-Access Pass" to provide buyers priority access to various headliner shows brought complaints that Bumbershoot was suddenly offering privilege to society's "haves."
Some of the event's original egalitarian sheen was further tarnished, and long-time fans began to stay away. With a general admission ticket now at $9, Bumbershoot (headlining UB40, Naughty By Nature, and Jimmy Cliff) lost a bit of money in 1993, and in 1994 it lost considerably more. With the City of Seattle on the hook financially, such risks became a concern, and the funding and production of Bumbershoot were transferred to One Reel while the city maintained ownership.
Security and public safety also needed attention. In 1989 a rumble broke out between members of the Crips and Bloods gangs resulting in chaos and assaults. Then, in 1994 police overreacted to audience enthusiasm at a ¡TchKunG! concert, beating and pepper spraying scores of celebratory attendees. In 1996, rowdy fans awaiting entrance to Sir Mix-a-Lot's Coliseum show shattered several huge windows, and various fights broke out bringing tear-gas volleys from the police.
For 1995, One Reel brought aboard two young talent bookers, Archie O'Connor and Dave Meinert, who added some fresh ideas -- like hiring Mel Torme to open for Seattle grunge gods Mudhoney and New York's punk pioneers, The Ramones. Also booked were No Doubt, Sublime, and a Jimi Hendrix tribute concert, plus Seattle's latest rock sensations, the Presidents of The United States of America. Another coup was the surprise/unannounced appearance by Patti Smith. In 1996 the offerings included a reunion by England's Sex Pistols plus shows by Elvis Costello, Nancy Griffiths, John Lee Hooker, a Kids vs. Cops Poetry Slam, and a screening of the Hype! Grunge documentary. That same year the city council and One Reel agreed that after two more years of public funding, Seattle would cut its management ties and let Bumbershoot run the whole show.
In 1997 Sheryl Crow, Sonic Youth, David Byrne, Beck, and The Foo Fighters were major draws. Due to overcrowding at such shows a new wristband/access policy (and chain-link fences) would be instituted in 1998 when Third Eye Blind, Jethro Tull, the Screaming Trees, and country legend Buck Owens performed. By 1999 Bumbershoot had expanded to 25 different performance stages -- room for everyone from breakout soul singer Macy Gray, to jazzman Pharaoh Sanders, to rap-rockers Everlast, to the duo of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. After reaching an attendance level of 217,000, that figure began to slide for a couple years, and raising ticket prices (to $12 to $16) again in 2000 didn't help.
Bumbershoot: The 2000s
Despite the late-1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, and then the Y2K scares, Bumbershoot forged ahead -- and that "pop music lover's dream and claustrophobe's nightmare" was mounted as usual (Scanlon). In 2000, the year that the Experience Music Project's grand opening in June included an ambitious Bumbershoot-like music festival on the very same campus, 182,000 attendees saw shows including those by Sugar Ray, Joan Jett, Tracy Chapman, and Ben Harper. In 2001 lackluster headliner bookings like David Lee Roth helped draw only 168,000, leaving a $200,000 budget hole.
In 2002 Jewel headlined and 179,000 showed, with the rebound continuing in 2003 in part due to a new electronic music stage, plus local hip-hop dance crew demonstrations by the Massive Monkeys BYC, and Fraggle Rock. Headliners included R.E.M., Wilco, De La Soul, and The Roots -- while Northwest talents included The Shins, Maktub, Modest Mouse, Long Winters, Dandy Warhols, and Jesse Sykes. 2004 presented Public Enemy, the Pixies, Seal, and Burning Spear, plus current local bands Built To Spill, Death Cab For Cutie, and Harvey Danger. And the years flew by.
Bumbershoot 2008 drew 125,000 people, while 2009 drew fewer than 100,000. Rains in 2009 doused attendance levels. In 2010 Bumbershoot responded to entry-fee complaints by offering a new $22 "Economy Ticket" (as opposed to the standard $40) but still drew only about 105,000, resulting in staffing layoffs at One Reel.
The 2010 festival was notable, however, for booking Bob Dylan. Attendance increased in 2011 and 2012, and then 2013 saw the highest profits ever. On September 2, 2013, Bumbershoot celebrated the milestone of its 7 millionth visitor. The 120,000 who attended could see Alt-J, the Breeders, Kendrick LaMar, Lissie, MGMT, Gary Numan, and the Zombies. Local acts included Heart, the Total Experience Gospel Choir, Vicci Martinez, and the Maldives. The executive director of One Reel, Jon Stone, explained that "the original concept of Bumbershoot holds true. You use your national and international acts as a hook to draw people in and then when they're all here, you use that as an opportunity to showcase all your local talent" (Stout).
In the fall of 2014 news broke that One Reel -- behind by $900,000 in leasing fees and security staff payments to the city (plus an additional significant amount to 48 still-unpaid union stage workers) -- was seeking financial relief. Rumors swirled that Bumbershoot was dead. But a solution emerged in 2015 when One Reel and the giant American concert company AEG came to terms: AEG would pay off the outstanding debts, it would provide Bumbershoot with free rent for the fests through 2019, and it would book the music, leaving One Reel to oversee the arts programming.
The crisis was averted, but challenges remained. In 2015 only 80,000 people attended. In 2017 that sagged to 74,000. By 2018 it had become clear that festival attendance levels were in decline far and wide with various beloved music fests necessarily cancelled. In 2016 mistakes were made: Bumbershoot was presented during the three days prior to Labor Day itself, and the comedy stage and Flatstock poster shows were relocated to downgraded venues. On the upside, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were a hit and KEXP radio's new facility was an attraction. Though Bumbershoot 2018 brought top acts Ludacris, Lil Wayne, SZA, the Fleet Foxes, and even a Blondie reunion, ticket sales totaled 48,024 units. Ticket fees -- $130 per day, or $220 for all three -- were criticized.
The Seattle Times pegged 2019 as a "pivotal year" for Bumbershoot, noting that AEG's contract was "up for renewal" and it was "facing declining attendance" (Rietmulder). Alas, the fest was plagued with problems: Headliner act Lizzo cancelled at the last minute, a steel barricade collapsed in front of the Fisher Green stage mid-concert resulting in 25 injuries, and the overall program was criticized for leaning ever further toward the younger tastes of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), emo, and hip-hop. Still, large crowds enjoyed sunshine and performances by Tyler, the Creator; Carley Rae Jepson; H.E.R.; Rezz; Louis the Child; and the Lumineers.
The future of what Rolling Stone once deemed "the mother of all festivals" was unsettled heading into the 2020s. The central challenge was the same: to strike a balance between imported and local talents -- and between marquee draws and rising costs. "AEG and One Reel's contract with the city requires that they maintain the festival's 'essential character' as an 'affordable public event'" (Black). That mission is one with inherent tensions at play, thus guaranteeing that each year, Bumbershoot will dependably offer surprises.