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Iconic Seattle lounge Vito's starts staff relief fund after fire

A man plays a melodica sitting at a piano with mirrors in the background and disco ball above.
Courtesy Tim Kennedy
/
Multi-instrumentalist Tim Kennedy with melodica at Vito's piano, under the disco ball in 2020.

On June 12, a fire in the apartment building above Vito's caused water damage, and temporarily closed the club. Owner Greg Lundgren spoke with jazz reporter Robin Lloyd about the history and the future of Vito's, and the need for help to retain the club's staff.

On how he and his partner Jeff Scott purchased and revived Vito's in 2010:

We had been operating The Hideout across the street for ten years, and were deeply invested in the First Hill neighborhood. Vito's is just kind of an institution. It's a place where my dad hung out in the sixties and seventies, a place where I hung out in my early twenties. And when it closed in 2008, I was just really hoping that somebody else would do it, somebody else would restore it and respect its history and the heritage that’s so rich there.

After two years of walking by it and seeing no activity and seeing no real signs of life, we decided that it was our job to take it over and to restore it and to kind of revitalize it.

That happened in 2010. We're close to the 12th anniversary under our ownership. Of course, Vito's opened in 1953, it has a much longer history than ours, but it's been under our control for 12 years.

On Vito's tagline “Behaving badly since 1953” and the Back Room:

There are so many stories that I don't even know where to begin. But for people not familiar with Vito's, it was a very active political space. Very active in the Seattle Italian-American community. It drew priests and politicians, and there’s a lot of folklore around organized crime and celebrities. If you've lived in Seattle a long time, you've got a Vito’s story to tell, or your grandfather does or your father does. Someone should probably write a book, maybe that’s our next project!

We've gathered a lot of the stories, but by no means are all of them rated PG. There's a lot of colorful history, and that includes some dark chapters. I think the reason why Vito’s closed in 2008 was because of a shooting inside the club. The place was not unfamiliar with some violence and some drama. Governor Al Rossellini ran his campaign and his governorship out of Vito’s Back Room. We celebrated his hundredth birthday with a party. Every mayor in Seattle has brokered deals in the Back Room. It just has a lot of “old Seattle,” that we are so short of these days.

Ruby Bishop at Vito's

Above: Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame inductee Ruby Bishop entertained patrons at Vito's every Sunday night from 2010 until her death at age 99 in 2019.

Many things get torn down in the argument of “progress” or in the argument of “new.” I think it's very important that we hold on to our cultural heritage and our history, both architecturally and otherwise. I was just afraid that somebody was going to take over Vito's and turn it into a shoe store, or put in a bay of flat screen televisions, or do something that would, to me, be kind of sacrilege. So I felt like it was our job to try to protect it.

I won't say it's been easy, but it's also something that's really valuable and precious to us. So despite all the things that have happened in the last couple of years, we're tenacious and we are coming back as soon as we can.

On navigating the pandemic, then facing a fire:

Vito's is in a 1902, five-story apartment building. There was a fire on the top floor on Sunday, June 12th. We thought it was contained to one unit, and that it wasn't too bad.

But as the as the event unfolded, the magnitude of the fire was a lot more than we originally thought. Eight people were sent to the hospital. There were 63 tenants displaced from the building. It was a real tragedy and it affected a lot more people than just our staff and our patrons and our musicians. Our hearts go out to the people who were injured or displaced by that fire. It was a tragedy all across the board.

"I'm kind of done with dramas that make us stronger. I think we're plenty strong."

We fortunately did not suffer smoke or fire damage, but we did have approximately 20,000 gallons of water coming through our roof.

We don't know exactly what our timeline is for reopening. We have a contractor; we have water damage experts. We have insurance. We have a building owner who is very sympathetic and an ally.

Our biggest concern is holding on to our staff. That's really been the thing that has driven our decisions all through the pandemic. It would have been so much easier to just close for a year or two years and then reopen and rehire and go through that whole process. But we really made every effort that we could to hold on to our staff. We did to-go orders and we did cocktails in plastic cups. We did everything we could to retain our staff, because that really is the magic of the club right now.

We have a staff that's been there since the very beginning. The tragedy is we spent so much energy and effort and difficulty just getting through the pandemic, and we were just kind of hitting our stride. We bought a brand new piano. We were back to full capacity. We had full reservations every night of the week. And then something like this comes along, which is a really quick and easy way to dampen your spirits.

We were in full dinner service when the fire started, so we had to get all the patrons and staff out of the building. The whole building was evacuated, so we didn't really know right away exactly what damage was done. We're still evaluating that. Right now, we've got a team in there doing testing to make sure that when we do come back on line that we're doing it safely for our staff, safely for our patrons. We're being cautious about it. When we do come back, I think we will be stronger.

Although, I'm kind of done with dramas that make us stronger. I think we're plenty strong.

The reason why we're doing a GoFundMe for Vito’s is not for the business. It's not for the repairs. It's really to supplement and take care of our team to make sure that they stick around. So that when we do have all the repairs done, we can bring back this “dream team,” which is so synchronized and so awesome. It really does make all the difference in our success across the board. Anything we can do to lift their spirits, to make sure that they have the income that they need to survive through this ordeal is our highest priority.

We can replace all the tiles and we can replace a floor and we can replace things that were damaged. The staff is something that's a much different story.

On that new piano:

The new piano is okay. We have people checking up on it. I was afraid that exposure to moisture or exposure to a construction crew would be bad for it. But we do have someone who is coming in and checking just to make sure that it's temperature is right and that it's staying in tune. Like a piano nurse.

If you were to walk in to the club, it doesn't really look that bad right now. We're two weeks into drying things out and storing things. But it's what's behind the walls, what's up in the ceiling, and what's under the floor that we really want to make sure will be safe. Cosmetically, the place looks pretty intact and good with a few exceptions, but we’re just being prudent and making sure that when we do return we're creating a safe environment for everyone.

Vito's Cougar Room
courtesy of Vito's
The cougar diorama in Vito's Cougar Room

The cougar in the Back Room

I want to retain a little bit of mythology, but the truth of the matter is that the back room had just always been called the “Back Room.” It harbored late night poker games and political discussions. We had all kinds of things that have happened in that room, but it was kind of claustrophobic and it didn't have a real identity of its own. So I felt like it really needed a horizon line.

A diorama is something that I've always been enamored by. And for that back room, I wanted to give it a bit more of an identity, to do something that was true to the 1950s. It looks like it's always been there. That's kind of the-tongue-in-cheek thing, that the cougar diorama is 12 years old. A lot of people think that it's 70 years old.

And that was a sign of our success, in that we were trying to make it look like it was original. It makes it less claustrophobic. It makes it more fun.

And now it’s the "Cougar Room."

The cougar came from an old German family in northern Canada. The husband had shot it in the 1970s. The wife sold it to us, and we met her in Canada and drove it across the border. So for a season there, I became an expert on taxidermy cougars and mountain lions.

We were lucky to find one that was so perfect for the space. We call her Barbara. And Barbara is fine and undamaged and the Cougar Room will come on back on line without any real changes.

On how the community can help:

We just want to thank everybody who has helped us get through the pandemic. We want to thank the people who have responded and donated to our GoFundMe. That information is on our website, it's also on our Instagram.

We know that there are 1,001 problems in the world, and 1,001 causes to support and so many people and so many things that need our attention and our money right now.

But we do ask that if you've ever enjoyed a night at Vito's, if you're trying to support the music community in Seattle, any effort, any donation is really helpful, because we would never be where we are without our staff. They really are the magic that makes that place shine so brightly.

More information about the Vito's staff relief fund is here.

Learn more about the history of Vito's at their website and at historylink.org.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.
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