By Dusty Henry and Sharlese Metcalf
How old were you when you went to your first show? A better question – how old were you when you went to your first show without your parents? In the Seattle area, we're truly lucky to have spaces where young people can experience and create music on their own terms. But it wasn't always this way. The scene and opportunities we have today wouldn't exist if it weren't for the efforts of people pushing back on restrictive laws, investing in spaces, and actually reaching out to the youth and finding out what they want and need. If you start to look into the history of all ages music in the Northwest, you're going to hear one name a lot: Redmond's Old Fire House Teen Center.
If you look at the bands that played the Fire House over the years, you start to see a family tree of Northwest music: Modest Mouse, Bikini Kill, Death Cab For Cutie, Elliott Smith, The Blood Brothers, Minus The Bear, Waxwing, etc. And that's before you even get to national touring bands like Jawbreaker and Fugazi playing OFH programmed shows. But the bands that played the space are just part of the bigger story. As you'll read below, this isn't just about one person stepping up. It's a story about a community coming together, supporting youth, and taking a stand for what they believe in. Appropriately enough, it feels like a classic coming of age story. And it's one that's stood the test of time.
This weekend, the Fire House celebrates its 25th anniversary with two shows. On Friday, September 29th they'll host an evening with The Velvet Mornings, Rocky Votolato, and Whitney Ballen then follow it up Saturday with LocoMotive, Kung Foo Grip, Naked Giants, and Triumph of Lethargy Skinned to Death Alive. Ahead of this momentous occasion, we chatted with founder Kate Becker, former OFH director Chris Cullen, and former program leader and anniversary show Whitney Ballen (via her interview on Audioasis) to help round out bits and pieces of OFH's history. This isn't the complete story. Partially because it would take a novel to include every person who made an impact at OFH, but also because OFH is still going strong today. Nevertheless, let some of the people who have been there throughout the years tell how it was in their own words.
Kate Becker (Founder/Former Director): I met the mayor of Redmond (Rosemarie Ives) and she was looking for someone to start a program that would engage non-traditional young people. She had a 15-year-old son at the time and he had a group of friends that just weren't connecting with the mainstream in Redmond in 1991 and 1992. So she was looking for someone who would start programs that would engage young people who were not connecting with the Redmond mainstream. Insightful and forward thinking on her part.
Not everyone thought this was a good idea. There was a lot of conservatism in Redmond and a lot of resistance to these shows and to having 400 or 500 young people come together to listen to music. It was a little bit crazy sometimes... People had a misconception. They were watching MTV, they were seeing what was coming out of Seattle — not that that was a bad thing, but it was altering their perception in a way that they thought was happening at shows was sordid and dark in a way that it wasn't... Rosemarie Ives already knew that young people coming together was not a threat, so her support of my work there over the years and of the work of the Old Fire House was absolutely critical. I don't think we could've kept the doors open without her support.
Chris Cullen (Former Director/Various Roles): Before we had the actual Old Fire House building and the concepts around the programs, which is using arts and culture as a catalyst for empowerment and civic engagement, we had a program called "Nightlife". Nightlife was the first program that Kate Becker started who was hired as a part of the initiative the mayor created to begin to address what many in the community called their "youth problem." Young people, like in many communities, had nowhere to go and nothing to do so they were hanging out at the local McDonald's and creating parties at the end of old park roads where no one lived. Both are not very constructive. However, I totally understand, because it was the same for me growing up in the once rural town of Issaquah.
Nightlife was the beginning of an arts/recreation program now known as the Old Fire House. We had a big purple van and tubs of art supplies and snacks. We would roll up to the Redmond Junior High gym and unload. Basically, kids would show up to play basketball and we would engage them in art projects and discussions. We would start to create programs based on the input of the young people we were talking to. Attempting to be responsive to the current needs and trends. Myself, Wendy Colton, Mitzi Michaud were some of the very first staff to be hired by Kate to help with some of these first programs. If I missed anyone, I am deeply sorry! There was countless great staff over the years!
Becker: (Ives) hired me because I've been working with teenagers from the time I was a teenager and I was pretty young then, so I went around to parks and coffee shops and parking lots where young people were hanging out and asked them, 'What is it that you want?' And they said, 'We just want shows.' And really a lot of them said, 'We just want to play shows.' And that became our motto for the first couple of years — 'we just want to play shows.' It was on the back of the Old Fire House ID cards in the early days, so I got busy working with a group of people to figure out how we could do shows. A lot of them were young band members, some of them are still performing today.
Cullen: While engaging young people in the Nightlife program and Kate surveying young people around town, we started getting a lot of requests for more places to go to experience and place music. We had heard that there were young musicians and bands that wanted a place to play for an audience aka their peers and family. Kate suggested we meet with these young bands and discuss what their needs and interests were and to possibly create some of the first steps to starting a program that actually met some of their needs and interests as young people in the community. Our first meeting we had 80+ kids show up at one of the Redmond park buildings. The space was so full kids were hanging off the rafters. It shocked everyone, but that meeting set the foundation for the top goals and vision of what eventually become the OFH.
Becker: We would do these meetings and invite everybody, all young people, to be a part of it. It is true, we had to keep finding bigger and bigger rooms because so many people were turning out. Chris was there at the start. I hired him very early on and he went on to found Ground Zero. He's an instrumental part of the Old Fire House and one of four directors in 25 years. He later came back to the Old Fire House after I had left and Shannon Halberstadt has been the director for several years. Then Chris came back and he ran the Old Fire House for several years, too. But he also ran Ground Zero which is another fantastic all ages space. He's absolutely accurate that there was much demand. There was like a pent-up demand. It was amazing how many people would come out and want to be a part and they're willing to volunteer. Volunteer and thinking things through, making a strategy, promoting shows, coming to the shows, volunteering at the shows. I mean, it was a collective effort. I get a lot of credit and, yes, I was the driver in that and I was the founder, but so many people stepped up that really the whole community should get credit, not just me.
Cullen: Our first show was at the Redmond YMCA, which is now known as the Old Fire House building. We would use the building, which was city-owned and rented to the YMCA. The YMCA was not very happy with this idea. The show was crazy cool... despite the fears of city officials and police, it was, by all standards, a fairly smooth event.
Becker: There was such an undertone happening on the Eastside at that time of a whole lot of young people who were looking for something different than what they were finding in their everyday communities. They were so active in helping to build their own community, centered around music, very inclusive, very welcoming, everybody could be a part of it. It was an amazing time.
Cullen: We all helped with all the different jobs at the venue during the event, but at some point, Kate put a video camera in my hand and said, "film please." I knew nothing about filming, but learned and began to document a lot of the first shows we did, including the Fugazi show at the Bellevue YMCA. Where all that footage is, I don't know. Kate has most of it, I think?
Becker: We did another show the month after and then we just started going more and more into a weekly rotation. Then we started doing multiple shows, so once there was once enough demand for them... well, there was demand all along, we just had to figure out how to get a space that we could get in all the time.
Cullen: After almost a couple of years of doing shows out of numerous venues, basically any place we could get away with it, the youth went before city council and convinced them to give us a budget.
Becker: So in 1994, the YMCA that was running the kids program had decided that they could no longer afford that space and they were moving their program elsewhere. At that point, we were able to move in and turn it into a full-blown teen center.
Becker: We did break battles in the early and mid-90s that were so fantastic. There's some video footage that exists of them. Really great. Some of those people still work in our hip-hop scene today. There was a time when I worked with Greg Bennick who was the singer of a hardcore band called Trial and Jonathan Moore was the frontman of Source of Labor. Jonathan has now passed. We worked together to try and figure out how we could get the hip-hop community and the hardcore community coming to the Old Fire House at the same time. So we did some unusual lineups in those days, trying to mix it up and make sure we were trying to introduce people who might not like the hip-hop scene and might not be familiar with hardcore and vice versa. Just wanting everybody to come together and not have a segregated kind of scene.
Cullen: At the end of 1993, during this OFH evolution, I heard that the City of Bellevue wanted to start a similar program spearheaded by their city-run youth advisory council. I applied for the job and was hired.
The city collaborated with the Boys and Girls Club of Bellevue to help oversee the program. We had no program budget and no phones in an old historic church in downtown Bellevue close to the mall, but in Jan 1994 we started doing shows anyways with an all-volunteer crew. I took everything I had learned at OFH and started a similar program and the Ground Zero Teen Center was born. I developed and ran the program for almost seven years. During this time I worked part-time at the OFH and Kate and I coordinated a lot because we had the only two programs like these in the area for quite awhile before others started to show up.
Becker: One of the beauties of the Old Fire House that not everyone talks about since it was really the all-ages scene and the shows that got the notoriety, but one of the real beauties is that the Old Fire House was more than an all-ages show space. It was definitely a space for young people who had been kicked out of school, having trouble with their family, or were homeless could come and find food. They could connect with counselors through Youth Eastside services and Friends of Youth, who were partners with the Old Fire House. So they could find critical services via the Old Fire House too.
We had a very welcoming approach to everyone. We were not judgmental and all young people were welcome there and if they had a higher level of need it was our job to help them find the kinds of resources they need. There were days when I would show up at the Old Fire House and there'd be a half dozen kids sleeping on the front lawn, just waiting for me to get there because they were homeless and it seemed like a safe place for them to sleep. That's a whole aspect of the Old Fire House that sometimes is not told around the show scene, but it was a very important part of what we were doing.
Cullen: We also had regular meetings (aka BandPool) with youth around picking which band plays the next shows, keeping the shows safe and figuring out how to navigate ongoing needs and challenges. We survived with countless volunteers and tremendous community support.
Whitney Ballen (Former Program Leader): I got involved in the Old Fire House probably when I was 14. I would say that was about 2004 or 2005. I attended a show there and I just kind of fell in love with the people that were working there and were attending shows there on a regular basis. It kind of became my home away from home. I started playing music and continue to play music there and ended up working there a few years ago as well. It's always remained close to my heart. I was just a program leader there. Worked after hours, after school hours putting together weird, fun, engaging programs for teens to entertain themselves after school and kind of get people working together with people they probably wouldn't reach out to.
In Seattle for someone, on their own or as a small organization, the cost of off-duty police officers, insurance and other requirements and dance permits would make it impossible to maintain any small all ages show that would charge a nominal fee. The crux of the TDO was to make it financially not viable for anyone to hold such an event. In the case that someone was able to support this kind of event, some other reason would often be found to justify shutting an event down. Especially Hip-Hop shows.
Becker: The whole time I was working in Redmond, I was living in Seattle. I had not moved to the Northwest to live in Redmond, I'd moved to the Northwest to live in Seattle! All ages shows were still illegal here. I think that contributed to why the Old Fire House scene blew up so readily. Bands wanted to come over. Bands of note in Seattle wanted to come over. Young people from Seattle were coming over too because there weren't enough all-ages shows in the '90s in the Seattle. The TDO had gone into effect in 1985. So it became readily apparent that we needed to do something about that. We formed an organization called the Teen Dance Ordinance Resistance and the first TDO meeting was in 1994 at the Old Fire House — the first one that I was involved in; there actually had been an earlier effort in the late '80s before I was here to get that TDO repeal.
Cullen: I was not directly on the committee, but like many of us worked in the wings to support turning over this law and replacing it with something that protected young people, but also allowing for needed events, programs and services that nurture young people.
Becker: If you can believe it, it took us eight years to get it done. It was a different time. Council members were not interested in meeting with young band members. They would not take our appointments. They would not take our calls. So we had to up the ante and make it known that we weren't going away, that this was important, young people needed access to music and art. There was nothing wrong with young people coming together for dancing. We ended up staging some pretty significant things. We did shows, of course. Fugazi came out and I did a Fugazi show, along with Michael Compton at DV8. It was really a TDO Resistance show. Sleater-Kinney was on that lineup, along with The EX. It was great, 1,100 kids there. Lots of speaking from the stage. Lots of young people testifying about what it meant to be a part of the all-ages scene. It took some real advocacy. We had to stage some dance parties in city council lobbies so that council members had to walk through the crowd of young people to get out of their offices.
There was a time in a city council meeting where we were really trying to make sure our council members were hearing us. Sean Nelson, who's the arts editor at the Stranger these days, and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, the two of them stood up and started playing music and the young people stood up and started dancing right there in city council chambers just to land the point. All of this is going on, all this grassroots activism, but none of us really know our way around political circles at that time. We're just calling our representatives, our city council members, and asking them to meet with us. Richard Conlin was a council member at that time as was Nick Licata. Richard stepped up to say, 'Yeah, this makes sense! Young people should be allowed to dance and listen to music.' And Nick joined that fight and suddenly we had political champions, which was fantastic. It formed the Youth and Music task force, which I was a part of.
Cullen: The City of Seattle is now very supportive of Seattle as a Music City. Kate Becker is now the Director of the Office of Film and Music.
Becker: To the city's credit, they've come 180 degrees. Now, politicians values the music community when they're running campaigns. They seek endorsement from the music community. They want to make sure that we have a thriving music scene. Really come a long way since 2002 when the TDO was repealed. The city supports all ages shows wholeheartedly. Having young people be a part of the conversation and a part of our culture here is important to virtually everyone. It's been a really great turnaround.
Ballen: I think it's really important to not only focus on the past of the Fire House, but also focus on what's going on there now. Because it's 25 years and the last decade has still been very relevant and is also very important. I wanted to make sure (with this weekend's shows) that I included people and previous staff members and previous attendees and current teens and took basically a sample every five years or every eight – breaking it down so everyone who wanted to come celebrate the 25 years could reminisce about something but also not be so out of touch with it. New teens and current teens, I'm sure are not as familiar with some of (the bands from OFH's early years), but they're still there and they're still keeping the Fire House alive and so I wanted to make sure to incorporate them as well. So that's kind of how I decided to book both nights. So there's a current band who will still be playing there in a few years, a band kind of from my generation, and then previous generations of show-goers.
OFH operates Tuesdays through Fridays. They have drop-in hours starting at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Then shows on Fridays. There's just so much going on. They really do a great job at honing in on everyone's interests and finding activities that everyone can be included in and feel included in. It ranges from putting on modern chef shows during the day by like finding any food you can and making crazy recipes out of them and having a contest. Learning how to draw comics, learning clay animation, photography – there's just so many, it just goes from a to z. Definitely focus on music, they focus on arts, they focus on science. Just not the typical, what you'd expect people to give teens as an activity. They really are out of the box and trying to get teens to find their individuality.
Cullen: It's about honestly and carefully listening to people and having the guts to try and do something that will help others get their needs met. Understanding the power of true caring. Not, just doing something for the sake of advancing your career and bank account, but something that will transform society as we know it. The apt and rarely believed quote from Margaret Mead will suffice:"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Becker: To me, the most important legacy is around the groundswell that happened. The people who came together to make it happen. The people who volunteered, show after show. The people who were there at the end of the night as we're cleaning up all the trash from the show and everybody just wants to go home, parents of young volunteers are out front waiting to pick up their kids, that dedication to the follow through time and time again. The commitment to being a part of that scene and really making it work. That's part of the beauty of it. It is a young person's scene. If you love it, then you don't want someone to do something really jerky at the show or treat another person badly. I drew a pretty hard line on violence — you touch someone physically and you were out for a year, kind of thing. (you can edit this part out)
The beauty of it was the collective power of people coming together to make something happen and really committing to it. That is the Old Fire House legacy I treasure the most, that so many people were a part of it.
Check back tomorrow for part two of the Old Fire House oral history, featuring memories of shows from bands, staff, and volunteers throughout OFH's 25-year history.
By Dusty Henry and Sharlese Metcalf
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