Evergreen Ballroom: Olympia's Lost Landmark (1931-2000)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/14/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9557
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The most fabled of any historic dancehall in Washington -- the Evergreen State -- the Evergreen Ballroom stood for nearly seven decades along a section of Highway 99 called the "old Tacoma and Olympia Highway." The Evergreen Ballroom (9121 Pacific Avenue SE) was situated just outside of Olympia where it became established as a favorite local dining and dancing spot for Olympians -- as well as Tacomans who were willing to travel 20 miles south.The hall's real claim-to-fame though, was as a legendary tour-stop for a few decade's worth of America's top musical performers. The venerable dancehall brought in the best big-bands of the 1930s and 1940s, the country music stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and some of the earliest local shows by the first generation of 1950s rock 'n' rollers. Among the unforgettable headliners to draw crowds to "The 'Green" -- as locals came to fondly call it -- were such marquee attractions as: Louis Armstrong, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Hank Williams, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Little Richard. Along the way the ballroom also served as a nurturing incubator for the nascent Northwest rock 'n' roll scene, providing early dates for top local bands including the Wailers, Kingsmen, and Sonics. The Evergreen was destroyed in a possible act of arson in 1932, but was immediately rebuilt. It then weathered waves of musical revolutions ranging from country rock to heavy metal to hip-hop. It long served as a key community gathering place, but the beloved hall sadly did not survive a second fire on July 21, 2000.

The Kerosene Circuit

The geographic area where the Evergreen ballroom would eventually be built was first settled in 1853 by pioneers Isaac and Catherine Wood -- and was thus originally known as Woodland. A century later, in the 1950s, it would be renamed Lacey, but for many decades in between it was considered to be the northern outskirts of the state capital city of Olympia. It was in about 1891 that a sea captain named Michael J. Sjolund brought the family over from Scandinavia to a homestead at Coyle (near Quilcene). Years later, during World War I, his son (with his name now Americanized) Walter Sholund (1889-1946) moved his own young family down to Olympia, where he took on a job in a shipyard.

After later working as a logger on nearby Hartstine Island, and then as a carpenter and homebuilder in Olympia, Walter -- who was also an aspiring violinist -- set his sights on a new line of work: running a dancehall. In 1931 he and his wife, Mary C. (nee Bolan) (1895-1970), set about erecting a classic barn-style venue built from old-growth timbers. This was still an era when such pre-electric highway roadhouses were part of what was colloquially known as the "kerosene circuit" -- public rooms lit by lanterns -- and the Sholund's efforts soon put the place on the map as a destination magnet for entertainment-starved people from miles around.

Evergreen Music

Sholund also led the room's house band, which in time included his own sons: trumpeter Irving (1915-1963), clarinet and saxophonist Ronald (1916-1980), and drummer Vernon (1917?-1980s). Other members would come to include such local players as Milt Vincent, Herb McClarty, Mike Bolster, Dave Swift, Jack Frisch, Dave Geodecke, Les Armstrong, Bill Sherman, and long-time Olympia sax ace, Chuck Stentz. Irving also lent a hand in running the day-to-day business -- as did Mary, who ran the restaurant portion. Another trumpeter, Archie Watson, once recalled those days: "I remember good Mrs. Sholund and the kitchen crew who served up good food at prices you could afford" (Watts). In addition, Mary's brother, John Bolan, pitched in by assisting with business matters.

In addition to booking various territory bands to play old-time country hoe-downs, the hall also occasionally brought in a dance orchestra from Seattle or Tacoma to try and attract the collegiate Foxtrot or jitterbug set. But as the tough economic times of the Great Depression took hold, the Sholunds sought ways to increase business. One breakthrough was a realization that a whole segment of the local population wasn't necessarily being served: the countless African American servicemen at the nearby Ft. Lewis army base. That's when Sholund began diversifying the talent he booked, a move that local lore maintains was not appreciated by some elements within the area's 99-percent-Caucasian population base. At least a few rednecks gave Sholund an earful about the matter, and so when his ballroom mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground in 1932, rumors circulated that it had fallen victim to terroristic actions -- possibly torched at the hands of members of a local branch of the notorious Silver Shirts, a racist right-wing group then active in rural parts of the state.

The Evergreen Stands Tall

The Sholunds stepped up and immediately began rebuilding the family business -- again from old-growth timbers, and this time with a larger 1,670-square-foot maple dance-floor -- and its second life began. Unbowed by the pressures, Sholund turned to the new generation’s dance music -- jazz and swing -- and over the next few years the Evergreen was the site of some truly legendary shows.

Among the notable acts that played dances at the little outpost in the Northwestern woods were bands and orchestra’s led by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Ralph Flannagan, Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton, Frankie Carle, Tony Pastor, Buddy Marrow, Perez Prado, and Guy Lombardo -- not to mention those dancing aces, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and singing sensations like the Andrews Sisters and Joni James. The sounds of these magnificent shows were spread around the whole region via live remote broadcasts provided by Tacoma's KTAC radio and host, DJ Bob Piquette. The crowds increased.

Passing the Torch

Upon Walter Sholund's death in 1946, his widow, Mary, carried on with the help of their son, who began leading the Irv Sholund Big Band. Hooking up with a new breed of concert promoters, the Evergreen was soon able to offer up an even wider array of musical attractions: Southern hillbilly acts, bebop jazz combos, and early rhythm & blues artists.

Perhaps one of the most memorable nights for some local country music fans was Thursday May 4, 1950, when Roy Acuff and the Grand Ol' Opry crew came rolling through from Nashville, Tennessee, with a new singer named Hank Williams. Over the next decade and a half additional Country/Western luminaries would also play the room, including T. Texas Tyler, Ray Price, Hank Thompson and the Brazzo Valley Boys, Ferlin Husky, Marty Robbins, Faron Young, Carl Smith, Bobby Bare, the Carlisles, Glen Campbell -- and Seattle's own star, Bonnie Guitar, and Tacoma's Buck Owens.

Then there was the gig that happened one night in 1954. That was when two famous jazz bands rolled up in their road-dusted automobiles. One was the Dave Brubeck band (with Chet Baker and Shelly Manne), and the other was a combo led by the bebop sax god, Charlie "Bird" Parker. One young witness to the concert was a teenaged African American sax player from Seattle, Frank Roberts (b. 1935), who once recalled how he went into the Evergreen that night and, scouring the room, he spotted Bird hanging out watching Brubeck’s opening set. After attempting to gather his wits, Roberts approached his idol and began gushing to him about what a genius he was -- Parker responded in a friendly but curt way: “There’s no genius -- there’s only practice” (Frank Roberts).
Rock Around The Clock

The mid-1950s brought a new revolution in musical tastes and the rather rural Evergreen became an unlikely outpost of hardcore blues, rhythm & blues, and early rockabilly shows. And one of Sholund's shrewdest business moves was to arrange for a shuttle bus service that would pick up (and later return) soldiers and other customers to various convenient stops up around Tacoma. Another innovation was the Sunday night dance series, which allowed minors to enter the premises. A couple of the early events of this era that stand out in history were the two nights -- June 28  and October 13, 1956 -- when the originator of rockabilly music, Bill Haley and His Comets, rocked the joint. Of even greater local significance was the fact that Haley's statewide tour included the Northwest's first teenaged rockin' R&B group, Seattle's Dave Lewis Combo, as its opening act.

But there had been earlier -- and there would be many later -- bluesy singers and bands to hit the Evergreen's well-worn stage. Among them were: Ray Charles, Roy Brown, Earl Bostic, Jimmy Reed, James Brown and his Famous Flames, Bill Doggett, Etta James, Hank Ballard and the Midniters, B.B. King, Little Willie John, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Nat Kendricks, the Brownies, the Larks, Joe Hinton, Ike & Tina Turner,  Jackie Wilson, the Drifters, Marvin Gaye, the Enchanters, the Capris, and the Spinners. Such shows were pivotal influences for certain area teens -- most notably, the African American members of the region's first group to go on and score national hits, Tacoma doo-wop group, the Barons.

The 1950s also saw many of the best rock 'n' roll pioneers come through the area -- and the Evergreen proved to be the perfect spot for such tours to fill out dates between stops in Seattle and Portland. Among the shows that the Evergreen hosted were those by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Buddy Knox, The Platters, Wanda Jackson, Bobby Darin, the Coasters, and the Champs.

But the Evergreen dance that holds a central place in Olympia rock 'n' roll history is the one held in September 1957, when a Los Angeles-based singer, Richard Berry, opened for the established R&B headliners, Bobby "Blue" Bland and "Little Junior" Parker. It was on that occasion that Berry introduced to his audience the new song which would soon be adopted by countless area bands -- and eventually become recognized as Northwest's signature rock song -- "Louie Louie."

The Erickson Era

The widowed Mary Sholund went on to marry Elmer Erickson, and their niece, Joyce (nee Seymour) Bryant, later noted,

"I remember coming with my parents on a Saturday night, and staying in Aunt Mary and Uncle Elmer's attached apartment. Between the apartment and the ballroom was the store room that was full of beverages and munchies. We always got a can of pop and little bags of chips (quite a treat in the 50’s). My Dad would come and get me now and again to dance with him. I remember Buck Owens. Dad would stand me on top of his feet and we'd dance around the ballroom.  What great memories, and it was something I'll never forget. As a teenager, I wasn't allowed to go there because it was a 'wild' place" (Bryant).

Although the wildness of the place was tamed a bit after the venue hired Mrs. Van Allen -- the wife of the county sheriff -- to work the ticket booth, Buck Owens's music was quite capable of getting the crowds fired up. He was a California-based country bandleader who'd come north in 1958 to work at a Fife-based radio station. Over the next couple years his career took off.  He formed a band composed of Tacoma, Puyallup, and Tumwater players, scored his own TV-show -- The Bar-K Jamboree -- on a local station, and also penned a few tunes that later became big national hits when he returned to Hollywood.

During precisely that same span of years, the Northwest's own rock 'n' roll scene began to really take shape, with a good number local teenaged bands being inspired by the shows they'd seen at the 'Green. Members of Tacoma teen bands like the Wailers, and Little Bill and the Bluenotes actually had opportunities to meet some of their idols like Ray Charles, and the bluesman B.B. King even allowed Little Bill Engelhart to hit the stage and sing with his band. In 1959 the Wailers and Bluenotes each scored national radio hits with their debut records -- as did a vocal trio from Olympia High School: the Fleetwoods. One member of that group, Gretchen Christopher, recalled of the Evergreen:

"Though the three of us never played The Green, I did perform there solo, before I put the trio together in 1958 ... . As I recall, they paid me $5 a song to step up and do a few solos with the band, as a special appearance. In the Fifties, fifteen dollars was not shabby for a 16 year old singing three songs!" (Christopher).

Sweet! But the Evergreen still really wasn't a place for a high school cheerleader to hang out. Its legacy as a rough-and-tumble roadhouse lived on. As the Daily Olympian later noted: "oldtimers around the county remember The Green as a knock-down-and-drag-out, foot-stomping, two-by-four bustout joint where fists could fly at the drop of an insult" (Watt).

The Northwest Rocks

In 1963 Irving died and the aging Mary and Elmer struggled to run the place. It was around 1965 that the enterprise was finally sold to a real-estate broker named Dick Campbell, who bought in as an investment. Although he himself had been a trumpeter in his high school band, Campbell knew nothing about either show business or operating a dining/dancing establishment. Still, he led the Evergreen through its next incarnation, increasing his crowds just as the overall audience for rock 'n' roll music also expanded -- and he did that by booking both the most popular local bands right along with national acts out on tour.

Among the earliest local Northwest rockers who played the Evergreen were Tacoma or Olympia combos: the Royal Kings with Johnny Moore, the Triumphs, Corvettes, and the Stingrays. But as the regional scene picked up steam others came through, including Burien's Statics and Seattle's Dynamics and Viceroys. Then, as the golden era of garage rock really dawned, countless others followed: Bobby and the Innkeepers, the Bootmen, Shalimars, Artesians, Majestics, Solitudes, Beachcombers, Galaxies, Sonics, Regents, Statesmen, Bootmen, Deacons, Noblemen, Entertainers, Raymarks, Nomads, Imperials, Gatormen, Pageboys, Mercy Boys, Liberty Party, Sir Raleigh and the Cupons, Bumps, Dimensions, Randellas, and the Poverty Five. The Evergreen also brought in a good number of local bands who were on the verge of making waves with big-time national hits: the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts, Don and the Goodtimes, and the Bards.

Evergreen Revisited

When Interstate 5 was finally completed in 1967 it improved north-south traffic flow but also unfortunately steered the vast majority of travelers (and touring musicians) away from the old Highway 99 route. Though the Evergreen was still bringing in acts with Top-40 hits -- like the Newbeats, Dick and Dee Dee, the Rascals, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and the Grassroots -- the room was now off the beaten path and its fate was sealed. So it was that around 1967-1968 Campbell tired of the whole enterprise and sold out to Mel Carter, who officially redubbed the place The Green. That period -- and the years that followed -- was another of fast-changing musical times: from psychedelic acid-rock, to country rock, to hard rock, to disco, to heavy metal and on and on ...  

Carter didn't last long, and the next apparent owner was Bruce Reeves, an employee of the state's Department of Natural Resources. Reeves attempted to stay current by bringing in popular Northwest bands of the day -- including Neighb'rhood Childr'n, American Eagle, Smiling Castle, Ice, Superband, Sweet Rolle, and Pitchblende -- but then as the 1970s came around, fewer and fewer touring acts came through and The Green's finances were suffering. By 1982 the room was becoming known for its metal emphasis -- indeed, one legendary October show featured two of Seattle's finest young headbanger bands, Culprit and Overlord -- but, that audience was not sustaining the business.

In 1983 Fon Morcus -- whose band, the Fonics, became the house-band -- bought the place and tried unsuccessfully to recast it as a topless bar. It was in 1983 that another entrepreneur, Bob Bundy, acquired the lease, but he also failed to recreate the room's old magic. Booking the talent once again, Morcus proceeded to bring in what amounted to a string of past-their-prime national acts including Leon Russell, Michael Martin Murphy, Johnny Paycheck, Elvin Bishop, Foghat, Edgar Winter, and a John Fogerty-less Creedence Clearwater Revisited. The dance-floor began to surrender turf to an increasingly popular billiard zone, and then the hall emerged as the brief home of a small hip-hop scene that held annual talent shows in 1998 and 1999.

Last Call

Finally, in January, 2000, Steve and Lynette Brizer took over the lease, held dances and billiard tournaments, and announced plans to open up a casino. Tragically, poor communications between the Brizers and Morcus resulted in the building having no insurance -- and finally, on the afternoon of Thursday, July 20, 2000, mere minutes after a new oven was reportedly installed in the kitchen -- the old hall broke out in flames. The Lacey Fire Department got their first 911 telephone call at 3:20 p.m., and their crews arrived quickly, but within 45 minutes the collapsed hall was a lost cause. The origins of the smoky blaze -- which subsequently spread into a five-acre grass fire -- were difficult to pinpoint because the rubble pile continued to burn until the following day.

Amidst their public bickering, Morcus announced that he would rebuild -- if the public supported a $1-million "Evergreen Ballroom Fundraiser" drive -- while the Brizers announced a "Fire Victims Fund" drive to help recoup their $200,000 personal investment. Charity concerts were advertised -- one with area South Sound hip-hop crews like DJ Jay-B, Slowpoke, Uncommon, and Half Dec, and another with Olympia folk rock band, Sister Sound Brother Beat, contributing their efforts -- but it was an uphill battle that would not be won.

Four days after the fateful fire, Olympia guitarist, Phil Quigley -- a man whose own mother had snuck out of the house as a girl to attend big-band shows there back in the 1940s -- summed up the sad vibe of that summer's terrible loss: "There were a lot of spirits in the hardwood floor of the ballroom" (Longoria). Yes, spirits that presumably joined those from the dance-floors of the many other historic Northwest ballrooms that have met their fates in recent decades.


Betty Sholund, letter to Peter Blecha, February 17, 1990, in possession of Peter Blecha; Peter Blecha conversations with (Ron Sholund's sons) Eric Sholund, 1971-1985, and Walter Sholund, 2010; Walter Sholund, email to author, August 22, 2010, in possession of Peter Blecha; Peter Blecha conversations or interviews with Frank Roberts, Rich Dangel, Little Bill Engelhart, Buck Ormsby, Neil Rush, Merrilee Rush (1983-2008); Alice Watts, "When the Big Bands and the Big Names Played Olympia," The Olympian, Totem magazine, November 13, 1983, p. 3-4; Joyce Bryant, online message to Pacific Northwest Bands website, November 2009, accessed on July 15, 2010 (http://www.pnwbands.com/evergreen.html); Gretchen Christopher, online message to Pacific Northwest Bands website, February 2003, accessed on July 15, 2010 (http://www.pnwbands.com/evergreen.html); Little Bill Engelhart, "Looking Back & Forth (column)," Blues-To-Do's newsletter, March, 2000;  Bob Piquette, "Thrilling Memories of the Ballroom," letter to editor of The News Tribune, July 23, 2000, website accessed on July 24, 2000 (http://search.tribenet.com/archive/180%5Fday%5Farchive/le7221.html); Brad Shannon, "From Top Acts to Rowdy Fun, the 'Green Was the Place to Be: Evergreen Ballroom Was a Major Draw in the '50s and '60s," The Olympian website accessed on July 24, 2000 (http://news.the Olympian.com/boom/85899.shtml); Lisa Comillo, "Fire Guts Historic Ballroom: Venerable Evergreen Ballroom's 68 Years of Memories Gone in Hour," The News Tribune, July 21, 2000, website accessed on July 24, 2000, (http://search.tribenet.com/archive/180%5Fday%5Farchive/0721a11.html); "Lacey Ballroom Burns to the Ground," July 20, 2000, KING-TV website accessed on July 24, 2000 (http://www.king5.com/local news/storydeatial.html?StoryID=3974); Doug Pacey, "Fire Levels Landmark," The Olympian, July 21, 2000, p. 1; "Evergreen Ballroom Destroyed: A Piece of Rock 'n' Roll History Is Lost Forever in Afternoon Fire," Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 21, 2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer website accessed July 24, 2000 (http://www.seattlepi.com/local/fire212.shtml); John Dodge, "Music Fans Mourn," The Olympian, July 21, 2000, p. 1; Sarah Duran, "Owner Hopes to Rebuild Historic Venue," The News Tribune,  July 22, 2000; Ruth Longoria, "Musicians Put on Show for Ballroom," The Olympian, July 24, 2000; John Graber, "Owner, Renter Point Fingers Over Ballroom Fire Insurance," The Olympian, July 26, 2000;

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