Tacoma’s first home for music:

The Community World Theater

By Joshua Swainston on May 5, 2012

Girl Trouble's drummer, Bon Von Wheelie, sets the music scene of 1980s Tacoma:

"The punks got chased a lot. People would be violent just because they dressed different. You had to be tough to be into that scene. It made people stick together almost because they had to, it was safer. It's hard to think that people would get violent over a fashion choice, but in those days, they did."

The multi-lingual church at 5441 S. M St., just off of 56th, used to be a theater. In 1930 it was the site of a projectionist union conflict and subsequent bombing. In the '60s and '70s it showcased X-rated films. But for 16 months between 1987 and 1988, the space became the center of Northwest music: an all-ages mecca for the grunge, punk and hardcore of the area that previously had been hiding in the shadows, waiting.

The crazy idea

In 1986, Tacoma did not have Hell's Kitchen or The New Frontier Lounge. There was no commercial support for an independent arts community. At best the punks of Tacoma had house parties. That was until Jim May, a guy with a skill for convincing bands to play said house parties, took it upon himself to envision an all-ages venue to showcase the music and art of the alternative Northwest.

"Jim [May] lived with Bill 'Kahuna' Henderson of Girl Trouble and a couple of other guys in from local bands, and they frequently had house parties featuring live music from local and sometimes touring bands from outside the area," explains Carl Chalker, bassist for the Twist, and owner of Magoo's Annex.  "Jim was the guy that booked most of the out-of-town bands for these events. There were a handful of original bands in town and a few others from Olympia that made up the then re-emerging South Sound music scene, all of which were always looking for someplace to play. While Olympia briefly had the Tropicana Club and Seattle had a couple clubs and bars that accommodated original music, there were really no clubs or other venues for original young acts in Tacoma."

Jim May, former operator of the CWT, explains how blind ambition led him to what would be the Community World Theater: "It was something we always wanted to do. We had no money at all, but just felt that if we could get a space, things would come together. We had a realtor, Cy, that would show us buildings, and even though they were great old buildings in the downtown core, they all had major roadblocks. An old theater, on the other hand, had the potential, so when Cy showed it to us, it was love at first sight. I borrowed $800 from my mom for the deposit and we got the keys October  1986. I worked and begged for months, from family, friends and total strangers. To them I am forever grateful."

Having the funds to rent the space wasn't enough. The old porn theater needed a huge overhaul before it could be used as a music venue.

May's brother, Gary Allen May, headed up the process of transforming the CWT into a workable space. "Punk rock saved the world more than anything else in the '80s, so the CWT, in retrospect, was exactly the right thing to do. I did most of the building, bolted down the seats and wired some reliable power for the stage, built a real, larger stage with a real carpenter, Matt Aynardi ... stuff like that. Jim was the brains behind the operation, and promoted a lot of materials and labor for free. Several people did a tremendous amount of work just because it was necessary, and they're not forgotten. We all remember Mara Dralle ... the business manager? I dunno. Jim was the brains, but she had the actual smarts, and did tremendous things in office-type organization and phone work. Kahuna (of Girl Trouble) designed the CW logo. Jim had a pretty good knack for getting along with people, including neighbors and cops. What can I say? It worked, for a while."

Mara Dralle, lead vocalist for Doll Squad, and default business liaison for the CWT, says, "I remember something about that silly dance ordinance in the city. We needed to get around that somehow so it was important that CWT be a multi-use facility. Thus the plays, films and spoken word presentations. Some of us were now ‘of age' and could get into clubs in Seattle, but we really felt we had a responsibility to make a place where under-aged kids could experience music and art in Tacoma. It turns out kids and older folks came from Seattle to Tacoma and the Community World Theater for shows!"

Mecca of music

The short list of musical acts that played the CWT reads like a who's who of punk, grunge and hardcore. The Accused, 7 Seconds, AMQA, Brotherhood, Camper Van Beethoven, Circle Jerks, Coffin Break, Danger Mouse, Doll Squad, fIREHOSE, Flipper, Fugazi, GBH, Girl Trouble, Go Team, Jesters Of Chaos, Killdozer, Melvins, Muck, Nirvana, NOFX, Pen Cap Chew, Poison Idea, Screaming Trees, Skid Row, Skin Yard, Soundgarden, U-Men, Vandals, White Zombie and Zamo. This is the significantly abridged list of performers who played during the short time the CWT was in operation. For more info on who played the CWT reference the fan website at mikeziegler.com.

Type "Community World Theater" into any Internet search engine and you'll undoubtedly find that the CWT is most notably famous for its involvement in the beginnings of Nirvana. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic acted as roadies for the Melvins while playing the CWT as Bliss, and then as Pen Cap Chew. It was while at the CWT that the band officially took on the name Nirvana.

"Ever the showman, Jim got an amazing array of musical talent to play at CWT. While perhaps the most noteworthy was Nirvana playing their first-ever show as Nirvana, there were many other nights where the never-quite-fully-functional venue absolutely rocked. It was great. There was always this kind of amateur Andy Hardy "let's-put-on-a-show" kinda vibe about the place that made it really endearing, while at the same time the level of talent and variety in the place made one have to take it pretty seriously,"  says Chalker.

Unfortunately, the mere mention of Nirvana in the canon of Northwest music has greatly overshadowed the other amazing events that occurred at the CWT. 

The band Nisqually Delta Podunk Nightmare, featuring Slim Moon and Donna Dresch, played the venue frequently. Moon later went on to form the record label Kill Rock Star. Dresch, who also played in Danger Mouse in 1988, was pivotal in the Riot Grrrl movement and founded Chainsaw Records.

Local mainstay Portrait of Poverty cut their teeth at the CWT when they played as AMQA.

Flash Connel, guitarist for Portrait of Poverty and former owner of Hell's Kitchen, tells of the unity within the CWT: "This was before Olympia and Seattle alienated Tacoma and made their marks on the national music scene, so a lot of people made the trek north or south to see what Tacoma had going on at the time. Seattle had the Teen Dance Club Ordinance, which made all-ages shows illegal without a massive insurance policy, and at the time the Olympia and Tacoma scenes were virtually one. There were some amazing crowds for mediocre bands, and there were some mediocre crowds for some amazing bands."

Calvin Johnson played with the Go Team at the CWT in the early years of his K Records empire. In fact, Gary Allen May was featured on the first-ever K Records recording while with a band Supreme Cool Beings circa 1982.

The Community World Theater soon became a central point in a game of Six Degrees of NW Music. Even Neko Case, Tacoma hometown nightingale, designed promotional posters for shows while she was in high school.

Tacoma favorites Girl Trouble spent many nights playing the CWT.

Wheelie describes what it was like to play the CWT: "Sometimes the PA was barely working and by the end of Community World I think the main stage lighting was somebody's old floor lamp. But then we played with the Melvins and Kildozer and Community World was at capacity. The little stage area would prevent oxygen from flowing. At this show I remember almost fainting from the crowd taking up all the oxygen. I had to try to drop my head below my knees and keep drumming! When the Melvins came on, Buzz actually did pass out at the end of the show and fall back into his amp. Everybody thought it was part of the act."

The man pulling the strings

Without the direction and continual tending of Jim May, the CWT could not have existed. Everyone from that time gives immediate gratitude to the man who created an oasis for the outcasts.

"Jim May had a very unique vision and was using the Community World Theater for all sorts of creative endeavors," says Johnson. "There was music, film, crazy dancing, black-light posters and pyramids of thunder. Jim is not an ostentatious fellow. He was always working the projector, concession stand, fixing the plumbing or selling tickets, re-wiring the PA or whatever needed to be done. I never saw him once in the VIP room, except to clear the dirty glasses or refresh the cut flowers. We learned that good fun and hard work go hand in hand. Since that time, I have not been able to think of Tacoma without thinking of that bottle-rocket battlefield that was our beloved Community World Theater."

"There was nobody like Jim May. When Jim came on the scene, the party started. He was hilarious and sarcastic and always had some kind of goofy project going," says Wheelie.

Tommy Niemeyer, guitarist for the Accused, remembers meeting Jim May: "We knew Jim had found a place for bands to play and it was this cool old theater, which was a dream come true for sure. I remember seeing it early on, when they were getting it cleaned up and gutted and stuff. Then when we first played there, it was just such a cool feeling. It was one of the first instances I can recall of seeing someone I know realize such a lofty goal by really working their asses off for it. That's one of the coolest things to experience in my book: watching someone attain a dream, or accomplish something most people would brush aside as unrealistic, or ‘too hard'." 

No good turn goes unpunished

On June 28, 1988, the CWT hosted the Circle Jerks and 7 Seconds. Maximum capacity for the theater was set at 222. On that night the Tacoma News Tribune reported that the venue housed more than 700 patrons. The crowd was amped up to see the two West Coast based punk bands.

After many years May can talk about the disputes that led to the closing with an air of wisdom.

"We had a one-year lease, with option to buy. The owner, Al Mushkin, bless his soul, wanted out from day one. He was constantly sending new leases with doubled rents. He also had a knack to only visit when the theater was full. He also had some rock promoters, promising him the moon," May says.

The long-running leasing and rent issues between Mushkin and May mounted until it all came to a head in a single night. May stood outside with the police and fireman and explained that shutting down a Circle Jerks show in the middle of a residential neighborhood would cause more damage from unruly patrons than anyone was prepared for. The authorities listened to reason and let the show come to its natural conclusion. The show went off without a hitch and as the concert cleared out, patrons streamed past the authorities that had come to shut down the theater. Just that quickly the Community World Theater was no more.

"Al [Muskin] had told them that the theater was trashed and he wanted action," May continues. "The next morning the police and Al came back and the theater was clean as a whistle."

"F***ing sucked," concluded Johnson. "Nothing good happened in the Northwest for the next decade."