What best defines the word “counterculture”? Originally coined by historian Theodore Roszak in his influential 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, the word is most often associated with the hippie movement, which crested that same year. After that movement devolved in the 1970s, the word would eventually become associated with the punk movement, which crested circa 1979. Between those two countercultures, what was the historical bridge? For Seattle circa 1973, the gay nightlife scene best qualified for that distinction — and that scene acquired a crucial haven on the date in focus here with the debut of the legendary Shelly’s Leg, Seattle’s first discotheque and first openly gay nightclub.
Shelly’s Leg was crucially located in Pioneer Square, which was Seattle’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife before the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood acquired that distinction in the early 1980s. Where previous gay bars in Seattle had all been clandestine establishments, Shelly’s Leg was brazen in its ambition to be a genuine safe space for the city’s gay community. It would quickly become a popular spot in town as one positive local consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged nationally in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. At the height of the venue’s local popularity, when it attracted as many straight patrons as gay clientele, a huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared to all who entered, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”
The bar’s intriguing name revealed a life story as tragic as it was briefly triumphant — namely, the life story of its co-founder, Shelly Bauman, a straight woman. Her bar was indeed named after her leg — which she lost in a bizarre accident in Pioneer Square three years before the venue’s debut. And that accident would lead directly to the venue’s creation.
Shelly Bauman’s life was poignant even before that fateful accident. Born in Illinois on July 23, 1947, she grew up in Chicago, where she studied classical dance as a young girl. After her family moved to Florida, her innocence was shattered at the age of 16 when her father committed suicide. Her mother then told her that that man was in fact not her true father — and then kicked her out of the house forever. Bauman then spent several years living as a homeless drifter, traveling around the country and supporting herself by working as an exotic dancer. She arrived in Seattle in 1968, where she initially lived in Rainier Valley in the home of a black family.
The accident that transformed Bauman’s life occurred on July 14, 1970. On that truly fateful date, she and a group of friends gathered in Pioneer Square during Seattle’s first Bastille Day parade. What began as a festive night out for Bauman abruptly became a life-changing tragedy.
“There was a cannon in the parade loaded with gunpowder, held in place by a wad of wet papier-mâché,” Bauman would later recall. “Someone lit the fuse and the cannon fired into the crowd, hitting [me] in the pelvis. It was the son of the owner of the cannon showing off to a friend.”
The cannon blast critically injured part of Bauman’s pelvis, along with a kidney, some of her intestines, and her left leg. Gushing blood, she could easily have died at the scene. Luckily, a doctor was nearby who intervened and saved her life by pinching an artery to stanch the bleeding. She was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where her left leg was amputated upon arrival. She then underwent nine months of operations and recovery before finally leaving the hospital. She would then spend the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair.
Rather than passively accept her fate, Bauman decided to sue the people whom she considered responsible for the accident: the parade sponsors, the man who brought the cannon, and the city for ignoring the loaded weapon at a public event. Three long years of legal battles eventually led to a $330,000 out-of-court settlement, awarded in April 1973.
What she did with the money was directly determined by her closest friends. Some time before the accident, Bauman had met Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, two gay men who lived in a large house in the Central Area with several other gay men. The house, known as Villa Mae, was a magnet for the local gay party crowd, and Bauman moved in soon after meeting McGonagle and Nesser. Crucially, McGonagle was then co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe, a Pioneer Square gay bar that had thrived during the 1960s, and where Nesser once worked as a bartender. After the accident, the three housemates talked about opening a new gay bar with part of Bauman’s settlement money — and very quickly, that dream became a reality.
Strategically located at the intersection of South Main Street and Alaskan Way, Shelly’s Leg featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, with two turntables spinning records non-stop, when that now-standard set-up remained an innovative nightlife novelty. Also featuring 1940s-inspired lounge décor, including fake palm trees and neon lighting, the venue quickly became hugely popular, with lines that stretched around the block seven nights a week. Ken Decker, Shelly’s Leg acting manager, explained the disco’s popularity in an August 1975 Seattle Times column by Erik Lacitis:
“Straight discos don’t have the capability or sensibility to put together something like this. We’ve been crowded the past nine months. Every night about 9:30 p.m. it’s like three Greyhound buses full of people descending upon us. The word is just out this is the place to come and dance.”
Shelly’s Leg DJ Mike Higgins added, “It’s gotten to the point that you can’t tell who is straight and who is gay.”
Shelly’s Leg brought a glamor to Seattle that was rare for our infamously repressed city. John Otto, a Shelly’s Leg regular, recalled the venue’s unique character in a September 2014 City Arts magazine interview, where he discussed the associated glamor, comparing it to other cities’ nightlife scenes:
“It was a different sort of glamor . . . because Seattle had this earthiness, this grittiness, this subliminal nature that places like [Los Angeles] have never had. [Los Angeles] has a dark underbelly but it’s a bright, shiny, superficial place. Seattle gets deep. So even though glamor is what we strived for, there was depth to it as well.”
Shelly’s Leg’s massive popularity would unfortunately be destroyed in much the same manner as its creation: by an accidental explosion. On December 4, 1975, at approximately 1 a.m., an oil tanker was driving on the Alaskan Way Viaduct — directly above the club — when the tanker collided into a guardrail, unhitching the 4,800-gallon trailer, which then exploded, pouring fiery gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg, shattering the front window and torching the front of the club.
Miraculously, no one inside was injured, and Bauman, McGonagle, and Nesser were able to renovate the club using insurance money. Nevertheless, the club’s popularity was permanently damaged by the incident. Ultimately, the club’s final demise was caused by a financial dispute among the three co-proprietors that led to the club being padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly’s Leg thus abruptly closed sometime circa 1978 — just when disco music and culture had finally achieved national mainstream popularity.
After the demise of Shelly’s Leg, Shelly Bauman’s life would continue to be as difficult as it was before her namesake bar’s brief heyday. Although confined to a wheelchair, she would insist on maintaining the life of a bon vivant, insatiably moving and partying here and there until she finally settled down in Bremerton, Washington, where she spent the final eight years of her life. She died at home in Bremerton on November 18, 2010. The sign declaring Shelly’s Leg a gay bar is now on permanent display at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.
Sources: “Woman, 23, Hurt By Blast From Cannon,” The Seattle Times, July 15, 1970, p. A5; Emmett Watson, “Friday Kind of Thing,” The Seattle Times, January 25, 1974, p. A9; Mike Mowrer, “Shelly’s Leg: dancing in a sexual twilight zone,” University of Washington Daily, July 25, 1974, p. 12; Erik Lacitis, “Shelly’s Leg: Souljive draws all kinds to dance,” The Seattle Times, August 31, 1975, p. E4; “Fiery Blast Rips Truck On Viaduct,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 1975, p. A1; Charles Brown, “Viaduct fire leaves damage ‘in millions’,” The Seattle Times, December 4, 1975, p. 1; Steve Mettner, “Where Have The Crowds Gone,” Seattle Gay News, March 1977, p. 11; Erik Lacitis, “Beloved Seattle: Readers share stories of places we should remember,” The Seattle Times, July 9, 2000, p. L1; Gary L. Atkins, “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging” (University of Washington Press, 2003); James Whitely, “Shelly Bauman, founder of legendary Shelly’s Leg, dies,” Seattle Gay News, December 3, 2010; Lynsi Burton, “Shelly’s left leg — Founder of Seattle’s first openly gay bar spent the last eight years of her wild, tragic life in Bremerton,” Bremerton Patriot, December 21, 2010; Jonathan Zwickel, “Get Down Tonight,” City Arts magazine, September 26, 2014.