— by Deyana Pangelinan
In 2018, huddled in the dusty dilapidated corner of a slowly deteriorating building on South Tacoma Way lies the recently closed down restaurant of what used to be called, “Ah Badabing Pizzeria” right next to a quaint little Subway sandwich shop. (Figure 2) To an individual who may not know much about this building’s history, the first glance of the outer appearance may seem bleak under the overcast clouds, depressing, lonely, and nearing the end of its time. But it was not always this way. In fact, in this exact building lies what used to be Steve’s Gay ‘90s Bar, a popular restaurant and music venue that hosted many great performers. In its prime it had huge neon signs that pointed the way to “South Tacoma’s newest dining hot spot” and could hold around 700 people in the building itself! (Figure 1) So, let us go back and examine how this whimsical establishment called Steve’s Gay ‘90s dazzled the music scene of South Tacoma Way during the 1900s.
In 1941, a businessman named Stephen O. Pease partnered with a woman named Mrs. John Martinolich, of the shipbuilding family, to open up a business called “Steve’s Tavern” on 5238-40 South Tacoma Way. After two years had passed, he bought out all of her interests in the building and was the sole owner. In 1949, the liquor-by-the-drink legislation was implemented by the government, and Pease realized that he needed to open up a restaurant in order to obtain a liquor license. As a result, he partnered up with another business owner by the name of John Stanley who had owned a coffee shop next door. Stanley was in charge of running the restaurant area while Pease ran the lounge. As years went on, they bought the area surrounding the original restaurant and remodeled it to become part of Steve’s. This venue became a tourist attraction and popular hangout during the 1950s-60s as it was most known for its live music and dancing. During the mid-fifties, Steve’s bought a legitimate cable car from a San Francisco auction that was able to drive on the streets. The cable car brought more popularity for Steve’s and guests were able to purchase post cards with images of this cable car next to the restaurant to save or send off to loved ones. Steve’s remained open until 1997.
One of the main aspects that made this place so distinct from the rest was their aesthetic which aimed to look like the 90s, not the 1990s but the 1890s! The décor captured this theme brilliantly with the booths decorated to appear as “surreys with fringe on top” covered over with checkered pattern tablecloths and wagon wheel chandeliers hanging overhead. (Figure 3 and 6) The restaurant also offered music from a Hammond organ, dining, dancing, and employees dressed in 1890s costumes. So, guests could enjoy a dazzling live performance with a cocktail in hand paired with the American style food that was served on a smorgasbord. The smorgasbord was featured every day of the week and was open from 12 noon to 9 p.m. and matched their theme through similarities to the Nineties “free lunch” concept. At the time, the lunch only costed around $1. The mural behind the buffet table in both Figure 4 and 5 depicts the local surrounding 1951 businesses in a “Gay Nineties” setting including Jordan Bakery and Pantex Cleaners.
Found in Figure 6 is an image of the stage area where most of the performances took place. The hand painted signs that surrounded the stage were made by a South Tacoma artist by the name of Bill Knabel who had also done curtain advertising work for other musical venues such as the Pantages and Grand theatres. At the center of the stage is where nightly performers for the restaurant, Jane Powers and Arnold Leverenz performed on the Hammond Organ. Powers entertained dining guests with music during dinner hours. Leverenz was the “featured song stylist of Gay 90’s music.” During their performances, these two would wear 1890’s styled costumes. (Figure 7). Powers and Leverenz were not the only performers at Steve’s. The restaurant supported and featured many up-and-coming artists from all different types of genres such as jazz, rock, and country. One can imagine the challenge that came with maintaining the theme with the musicians’ performances. Sometimes, the musicians would wear costumes from the 1890s but would perform music that was from a much more modern era, resulting in a clashing and confusing combination.
This couple in Figure 8 was listed in the 1956 City Directory as “musicians” at Steve’s Gay Nineties as they were frequent performers. Their names are Earl and Inez Russel and are pictured smiling brightly while posing with their banjos. Earl was often times featured in the restaurant’s musical advertisements to promote the Cable Car Rooms.
For those who do remember Steve’s, one type of performing act that remains iconic to this venue are can-can dancers. This particular photo features the dancers Beverlee Crombie, and twins Callie and Connie Mernaugh whom would dance every Friday and Saturday night. (Figure 9)
Steve’s was famous for using local talent and these girls grew up around the Tacoma area. Crombie graduated from Clover Park High School in 1995. The Mernaugh twins graduated from Stadium High School. Beverlee Crombie grew her career to outside of the Tacoma area by studying dancing in Los Angeles with Vera Ellen, Leslie Caron, and Sheree North. In 1956, she performed in the revue at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas and was also booked for an engagement at Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles.
Famous singer, Diane Schurr frequently guest performed during weekends at Steve’s. She started performing at the venue during her teenage years. This particular performance pictured in Figure 10 occurred on January 23, 1968. Nicknamed, “Deedles,” she had her first gig at the Tacoma Holiday Inn at the young age of only nine years old. Years later, she was introduced by Dizzie Gillespie at the 1979 Monterey Jazz Festival and moved on to record numerous albums. Her talents were greatly acknowledged and appreciated as she received multiple Grammy awards.
Another frequent and famous singer at Steve’s was Peggy O’Neil. (Figure 11) Her real name was Margaret Farrugia and she graduated from Lincoln High School and was a mother of six. This particular photograph was taken on May 10, 1968 where she is pictured wearing plumed feathers in an upswept hairdo and matching jewelry and accessories on her black evening dress. Peggy was a highly popular singer who specialized in singing “the blues” and old-time “torch” songs. She also sang in the 3-day celebration hosted at Steve’s for their 19th anniversary called the “Good Ol’ Days.”
Steve’s Gay Nineties had a strange combination of a whimsical venue, Can-Can dancers, jazz and rock singers, and a smorgasbord style of serving food. Yet somehow this mix seemed to work very cohesively at the time. It is what contributed to its wide success and popularity and what attracted tourists and famous musicians to the venue. Steve’s Gay Nineties, it’s 1890’s theme, the delicious food, homely ambiance, and the colorful performances and events that they hosted not only made a special place in Tacoma’s heart but also enriched Tacoma’s musical history and culture.
- Historic photographs courtesy of Tacoma Public Library Image Archive
- Cardboard America
- Grit City Magazine
- The Slow Decline of the Pie Shops
About the Author
Deyana Pangelinan prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Winter Quarter 2021, she was a freshman interested in pursuing a degree in Business.