Shelly’s Leg (1973-1977) was Seattle’s first disco, an unapologetically gay establishment that welcomed revelers of every sexuality. It was named after Shelly Bauman, a Florida transplant who, in a tragic accident, lost a leg following a parade mishap in Pioneer Square. When Bauman was awarded a settlement, she provided financial support to friends who transformed an old hotel at 77 S Main Street into the disco. From opening day, Shelly’s Leg was a hit, drawing massive crowds. After more than two years as a Seattle "it" spot, a fire on the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct blew out the disco’s front windows. The establishment closed for repairs. Renovations could not restore its past glamour, and Shelly’s Leg closed soon after.
Vive La France
Shelly’s Leg was born of a dream, but that dream began with a nightmare.
It was July 14, 1970, Bastille Day, and to celebrate France’s national holiday, Seattle restaurateurs Julia and Francois Kissel planned a dinner party and parade. The Kissels owned Brasserie Pittsbourg in Pioneer Square, and the two-part festivities would take place in the same neighborhood. The Kissels held their dinner party on the top floor of a nearby parking garage nicknamed the Sinking Ship for the way the triangular structure seemed to jut out of the ground like the prow of a doomed boat. After dinner, the intention was for the parade to head south from the garage, swing back through the neighborhood, and return to the Sinking Ship. In truth, the parade wasn’t much to look at, with two cars and a pickup truck hauling a Dixieland band. But the Kissels had contacted Morris Hart, who operated an antique shop on 1st Avenue, to ask if he could include an antique fire engine. Hart obliged, and, apparently without telling the Kissels, decided to include an added feature: an old cannon, which would be attached to the fire truck.
Hart had experience with the cannon, having incorporated it into other holiday parades. At those events, he’d load paper confetti into the cannon, which he’d later ignite. Confetti would then shoot into the air, to the delight of spectators. Staging a similar performance for a Bastille Day celebration struck him as a good idea. So, before the parade began, Hart and his son, armed with a broom handle, packed two ounces of black powder and a clump of confetti paper into the cannon. The elements for a memorable time were in place.
When the Parade Passes By
Sometime near 11 p.m., the parade set off, and while the route may have been short, spectators flocked to watch. One onlooker was 22-year-old Shelly Bauman (1947-2010), who remarked that "there were people all over” (Atkins, 223). Those people were particularly interested in the cannon, and when the parade stopped for a moment, a group of them climbed atop the barrel of the cannon. The spectators around Bauman "were all laughing and saying, ‘Come on, get on, get on,’” so, she joined in, clambering onto the barrel. But when the parade began moving again, she slid off and reintegrated into the crowd.
The fire truck that hauled the cannon was an antique, and it crawled along the streets, a pace spectators took as an invitation to, yet again, climb onto the barrel. Aboard the cannon, people were in thrall to the Bastille Day spirit, drinking and igniting fireworks. Whether it was the weight of those on the cannon or their movement or something else entirely is unknown, but the barrel, which had been pointed skyward, began to bob up and down. It aimed into the crowd.
In the crowd was Carol Hart, the wife of the man who owned the cannon. When she and her son saw the barrel shift, they yelled for people to get out of the way. The situation grew chaotic. Bauman would recall she thought she saw someone dressed in blue – or maybe the person was dressed in gray – drop something into the bore, or inside, of the barrel. She found herself peering into its bore. Bauman had attended the parade with a friend, and as the barrel pointed at Bauman, she told her friend that they better move. Then the cannon fired.
Julia Kissel, the restaurateur who had dreamed up the parade, heard the cannon go off. She watched as Bauman fell. Running to Bauman, Kissel checked her pulse. She yelled for an ambulance. Bauman lay on Occidental Street, barely conscious, but aware enough to try to remove a smoldering wad of paper lodged in her abdomen. Among the attendees was a doctor, and he informed Bauman not to dislodge the paper: Its pressure was slowing the flow of blood. Remove it, and she would likely die. He then stuck his hand into the open wound in her abdomen and found a severed artery, which he clamped with his fingers. His medical knowledge kept Bauman alive until the ambulance arrived. It sped her to Harborview Medical Center.
Roomie to the Rescue
Joe McGonagle wasn’t the friend who attended the parade with Bauman, but he had partied with her. McGonagle, a co-owner of the Pioneer Square LGTBQ+ bar the Golden Horseshoe, lived in a house south of Capitol Hill, which he rented with several other gay men. One night there had been a house party. "I don’t know how [Bauman] got there," he said. "Somebody brought her." She spent the night. After she’d been there a few days, Bauman, who knew few people in Seattle, stayed. She lived in the basement.
When McGonagle heard about the accident, he rushed to the emergency room. Bauman was close to death. Surgeons determined that to save her life, her left leg would have to be amputated. Because there were no family members to consent to the surgery, Bauman had to provide it. She resisted. "So I put the pen in her hand," McGonagle said, "and I said, 'Now sign your name'," (Dady interview). She signed. Along with removing her leg, surgeons cut into her pelvic bone. Subsequent operations followed. Bauman endured a nine-month recovery. She would use a wheelchair the rest of her life.
After her release, Bauman sued the Kissels, who sponsored the celebration; Morris Hart, who brought the cannon; and the City of Seattle, which, Bauman alleged, provided police who ignored a loaded weapon at a public event. The case was settled out of court in 1973, and she was awarded $330,000.
The Fantasy Bar
At the time of the settlement, there wasn’t a disco in Seattle, but there was one in California, which McGonagle had visited with friends, including Pat Nesser (d. 1991), another roommate. Nesser was vocal in his desire to open a local disco. McGonagle was more ambivalent, but their shared home was infused with a collective dreaming, as people would sit around and imagine operating a Seattle dance venue. "That’s what we did for a year and a half. We sat around and fantasized," McGonagle said. Bauman helped make that fantasy a reality when she tapped into her settlement and supplied $18,000 to $20,000 (sources on the amount differ). Now they could build their fantasy bar.
Bauman and Nesser bought the old Our Home Hotel on S Main Street in Pioneer Square. McGonagle joined in as a business manager, though would often be called a co-owner. McGonagle and Nesser recruited help from friends and, according to McGonagle, he and others "went down there, and worked our little assess off" (Dady interview). The old hotel was transformed into a disco, with an entrance that led to a long hallway. There was a bar, a balcony, a pool table, a little side bar, and just inside the side door, a hat-check stand. Lights were added, as well as multicolored Plexiglass. And of course, there was a dance floor, with a disc jockey booth, a groundbreaking feature. "Seattle had never had a disc jockey," McGonagle said. "All you had was records on the jukebox" (Dady interview).
Prominently displayed inside was a sign that spoke to the rising visibility of LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s: "Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests" (Mosaic, 171). From December 14, 1973, the night the disco opened, and the disc jockey spun the first tune, Shelly’s Leg was a hit.
Of course, popularity breeds attention, and Shelly’s Leg drew revelers from outside the LGBTQ+ community as well as outside the city. Scores of people lined up to get in and hit the dance floor. Some attendees carried the aura of celebrity, including members of one of the world’s most famous rock bands, Led Zeppelin. Also in attendance was Sylvester, a Black, gender-fluid singer-songwriter whose gospel-infused falsetto would go on to power several disco hits. For people who had never seen a disco, and perhaps even for those who had, it was a spectacle filled with wonders. As a young person, Tom Rasmussen, who would go on to serve on the Seattle City Council, thought Shelly’s Leg was "fabulous ... I was still living in Yakima, but I saw these really big, really glamorous women [in Shelly’s Leg]. I thought, 'These are really beautiful women here. So glamorous.' I didn't realize these are men in drag at the time" (Royale interview).
The fun times and fabulous scene continued for two years. But no fantasy lasts forever. And in an eerie spin on how an accident gave birth to Shelly’s Leg, another accident led to its demise.
'A Huge Ball of Flames'
Would-be revelers looking for Shelly’s Leg had to venture to the very fringes of Pioneer Square, close to the bottom of South Main Street. Towering just to the west of the disco was the Alaskan Way Viaduct. As people danced inside, perhaps to such disco hits as Donna Summer’s "Love to Love You Baby," released in November 1975, traffic raced by on the elevated highway. Around 1 a.m. on December 4, 1975, Richard Leroy Baker was driving a tanker-truck southbound on the lower level of the viaduct. Attached to the truck was a trailer filled with gasoline. As he drove, the vehicle began to pull to the left. Baker’s attempts to correct the truck’s movement couldn’t stop the vehicle from striking the east guardrail. The trailer disconnected and capsized between South Main and South Jackson streets. The gasoline ignited, showering down along Alaskan Way South.
Alice Drake saw what happened next. "We were inside Shelly’s dancing when I looked out a window and saw this huge ball of flames coming at us," Drake said. "Everybody started panicking and running" (Brown).
The building that housed Shelly’s Leg ignited. Inside with Drake that early Thursday morning were close to 150 other people. They all fled through a side door. No one was injured, but police acknowledged a terrible possibility: Everyone could have been trapped in the disco.
The fire occurred days before the second anniversary of Shelly’s Leg, and it shuttered the disco. Vinyl records next to the turntable crackled and blistered in the heat. Renovations took place, fast enough for the venue to open for New Year’s Eve. Later in 1976, the dance club held a Halloween Night celebration and celebrated its third anniversary, with a $3 cover and "All the draft beer you can drink" (Seattle Gay News, ad) – but nothing could recapture its former allure. The business struggled, and in 1977 or 1978 (sources differ), the city’s first disco had its last dance. After its brief and storied run, Shelly’s Leg closed.
At some point, the connection between Bauman and McGonagle ended in its own fireball. "Shelly and I didn’t end up very good friends. She had royally screwed us," McGonagle said (Dady), perhaps in a reference to stories that Bauman owed the IRS back taxes on the business. And while McGonagle knew many people had fond memories of Shelly’s Leg, he wasn’t one of them. "Personally, I couldn't stand it. Night after night, repetitious, loud music. If I don't hear Donna Summer again it won't be too soon," he said (Lacitis).
As for Nesser, little is known about any connections he maintained with Bauman, though he and McGonagle remained close friends. He was working for the King County Office of Public Defense when he died on June 24, 1991, of lung cancer. He was 57. "You taught me how to live life as the best person I could be," McGonagle wrote in an obituary (Seattle Gay News, obituary). "I’ll never go through a day that I’ll not think of you."
A Tragic Life
While Shelly’s Leg was open, Bauman moved to Whidbey Island and then came back to Seattle. When the disco shut down, she moved to Hawaii. There, she met a man and returned with him to Florida, where they married. The marriage ended in divorce, but she stayed put in the Sunshine State. But things weren’t so sunny for Bauman, who battled binge drinking. When Hurricane Charley struck in 2004, she returned to the Northwest, moving in with Monte Levine, a friend, and his partner in Bremerton. "She was such a tragic person," Levine said.
She eventually got a place in the duplex next door. Her drinking continued, and one evening, medics were called to the Bremerton ferry terminal. Drunk, Bauman had fallen out of her wheelchair on the ferry.
Bauman was also a smoker who used oxygen. In 2007, while smoking, she forgot to remove a tube that connected to her oxygen machine. The tube became entangled in her wheelchair. The tube burst into flames. A neighbor came to her rescue, and she was flown to Harborview Medical Center, some 37 years after she’d been taken there when struck by the cannon blast. Little could stop the slow but steady decline of her health. On November 18, 2010, Bauman, the disco’s namesake, died of congestive heart failure in her Bremerton home. She was 63.