For her final paper in my Musical History of Tacoma class at UW Tacoma, student Kaisa Cannon decided to explore her father’s favorite band, Nirvana, and determine whether the band typically associated with Seattle had any roots in Tacoma.
Even a casual devotee of the grunge group would likely guess the answer to be yes, knowing that the group’s founders – lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic – got their start in their hometown of Aberdeen and made their way to Seattle via the South Sound.
But it turns out that the band had more than just a passing connection to Tacoma. In 1987 and 1988 – sometimes under earlier names such as Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Ted Ed Fred – the band that would become Nirvana made its first public appearances, including their first with the name Nirvana, at a short-lived all-ages venue known as Community World Theater. The structure still stands at 5441 South M Street.
The venue first opened in 1924 as the Community Theater, one of many neighborhood movie theaters which opened around Tacoma in the 1920s. Although not as large as the Rex Theater about a mile away in the Lincoln District, it still boasted a gracious and well-appointed interior. Historic Photographs courtesy Tacoma Public Library.
In an odd quirk of history, the Community Theater was one of two Tacoma theaters hit by bombers in October of 1930 following a projectionists’ union conflict. As the picture below reveals, there was significant damage, but the structure remained sound.
Fast forward to later in the 20th century, when small neighborhood theaters were struggling to survive in a changing media environment. Many were briefly kept alive as movie theaters by shifting from family-friendly fare to films of a more adult nature, and the Community Theater was no exception.
By the late 1980s, the theater was sitting empty. Enter Jim May, who had been hosting house concerts for many of Tacoma’s upcoming punk and grunge bands of the time. As reported by the Weekly Volcano, he had only a small budget, but had been on the hunt for a facility that could be turned into an all-ages music venue, giving up-and-coming groups the chance to perform for larger audiences.
A realtor hooked him up with the ownership of the aging Community Theater, and after much hard work and elbow grease, the Community World Theater was born. The picture below is courtesy of Mike Ziegler’s website, which documents the short history of the venue, including a list of concert dates and bands.
Footage of Nirvana at the venue exists on YouTube, in some cases with original audio, and others with original video but higher-quality audio dubbed. Here is original footage of a January 1988 concert, with the band still using the early name Fred Ed Ted:
It was their March 19, 1988 concert – complete with a poster drawn by Curt Kobain himself – when the band first performed under the name Nirvana.
In the end, it seems, the building’s ownership wanted out of the concert-venue business, and used an over-crowded theater for a late-1988 concert as an excuse to call the police and fire department, and eventually to evict Jim May’s operation. By the 1990s, the building was in use as a church, and today remains in use as a worship facility, Maranatha Family Worship Center, COGIC.