Shelly’s Leg was the first disco, straight or gay, in Seattle. It opened in December 1973. It looked like a 1950s-basement rec room, furnished with old neon signs and plastic plants. From the very start it was immensely popular. The line to get in would wrap around the block. If you were cool enough or hot enough, you could gain entrance through a backdoor where the bouncer kept a list created by co-owner and namesake Shelley Bauman.
“Straight discos don’t have the capability or sensibility to put together something like this. Every night about 9:30pm, it was like three Greyhound buses full of people descending on us. The word was just out that this is the place to come and dance. It got to the point where you couldn’t tell who was straight and who was gay.”
The most amazing thing about Shelly’s Leg was that as the patrons entered the bar through the front door, the first thing they saw was with a large sign that read:
Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.
So, what about the nutty name? Bauman was a free-spirited straight woman with a profound sense of the absurd. In 1970, at Seattle’s Bastille Day Parade, she was riding on a float that featured an antique cannon that shot confetti over the onlookers. But, the hard-partying crowd poured drinks down the cannon, congealing the confetti into a hard ball. At one point, when the cannon finally fired, it took Bauman’s leg with it. She sued the City for $1 million and after years of wrangling, won a $330,000 settlement.
She decided to use the money to open a disco with, and for, her friends. They had trouble coming up with the right name, until an evening on LSD brought them the idea of a name that would immortalize what had earned them the money for their project: Shelly’s Leg.
Shelly’s Leg was located in Pioneer Square, at the time, the center of gay nightlife in Seattle. Shelly’s Leg audaciously put itself out there as a welcoming and safe spot for the Seattle Gay Community. Up until this time, the few gay bars and bathhouses in the city were discreetly hidden away. Shelly’s Leg quickly became a top spot in town, one of positive local consequences of the Gay Liberation Movement that emerged nationally after NYC’s Stonewall Riots in June 1969.
Bauman grew up in Chicago. She studied to be a classical dancer as she was growing-up. When she was in her teens, Bauman’s family moved to Florida, and when she was 16-years old, her father committed suicide. She had been close to her dad, and after his death, her mother told Bauman that was not her real father, and then kicked her out of the house. After living on the streets for years, she found work as an exotic dancer. In 1968, Bauman moved to Seattle.
She became friends with two gay guys, Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, who lived in a big party house in the Central Area with a bunch of other gay men. McGonagle was the co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe, a Pioneer Square gay bar that was popular in the 1960s. Nesser worked there as a bartender.
After the horrible accident at the parade, Bauman was rushed to Harborview Medical Center where her left leg was amputated. She spent nine months in the hospital and had several surgeries. She was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The three housemates talked about opening a new gay bar with part of Bauman’s settlement money. They soon found a place at the intersection of South Main Street and Alaskan Way that they fixed-up and applied for a liquor license. They were open for business within a year.
Shelly’s Leg brought something special to Seattle at a time when it was a very conservative, rather dull, small city. People talked about the new bar with the dance floor all over town. It was even famous 300 miles away in Spokane where I grew-up, where it was spoken of with a kind of reverence and wonder. Shelly’s Leg featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, with two turntables spinning records. Gay and straight people mixed on the dance floor.
Shelly’s Leg’s popularity was destroyed in the same way it was born: by an accidental explosion. In the early morning hours of December 4, 1975, an oil tanker on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, directly above the bar, collided with a guardrail, unhitching the 5000-gallon tank which exploded gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg, setting the disco on fire. It was a true Disco Inferno. Somehow, no one was injured.
Bauman, McGonagle, and Nesser renovated the club with the insurance money, But, Shelly’s Leg never really recovered. The patrons moved on and it lasted only a few more years before being closed by the IRS for taxes owed. Shelly’s Leg was history by 1978, just when disco music and culture had achieved mainstream popularity.
After Shelly’s Leg closed, Bauman, confined to her wheelchair, was still a fixture on Seattle gay party scene. I knew many people that counted her as a friend and I would see her at gay spots around Seattle. The gay nightlife moved away from Pioneer Square to the more popular Capitol Hill. In 2002, Bauman moved across Puget Sound to Bremerton. She died at home there on November 18, 2010.
The sign declaring Shelly’s Leg was a gay bar is now on permanent display at Seattle’s Museum Of History And Industry.