Hot cup of local lore – with cream and sugar

October 11, 2007 

Bob’s Java Jive is Tacoma. But in 1927, who could have known that the Coffee Pot (the Jive’s original name) would become such an icon to locals?

Then again, a coffee pot-shaped building is bound to become a magnet for the sorts of strange happenings that inspire local lore. And during its first eight decades of operation, the Java Jive has attracted movie stars, rockers, bootleggers, off-key karaoke crooners and, according to one possibly apocryphal story, a famous bank robber.

And – oh yeah – monkeys. Can’t forget the monkeys.

Here’s a cross section of happenings – culled from News Tribune archives and customer accounts – that have made the Jive so much larger than life.

1927: The Coffee Pot restaurant – a prefabricated building constructed by local veterinarian Otis G. Button – is assembled on Tacoma’s Tideflats and then bolted in place on South Tacoma Way.

Singer Bing Crosby and film stars Harold Lloyd and Clara Bow patronize the establishment during its early years. During Prohibition patrons enter a little black room, accessible through a secret door in the ladies’ room, to partake of liquor and gambling.

1937: A dance floor is added to the restaurant.

1940: New owner Harold Elrod remodels the Coffee Pot, adding a dance hall. Novelty entertainment includes Harold Lloyd’s hobbyhorses, invented by a mechanic at a motion picture studio in Hollywood and named after the silent film star. Some later consider them a precursor to the mechanical bull.

“So great has the fad of hobby horse riding become in California,” reads a 1940 News Tribune story, “that the largest and most popular hotels and night clubs are shunned, it is claimed, if they aren’t equipped with the innocent but treacherous gadgets.”

1955: Local businessman Bob Radonich buys the restaurant and renames it the Java Jive after an Ink Spots song, the most popular selection on the jukebox that year. “I wanted to rename it the Java Jug, but the liquor board wouldn’t let me,” he recalls years later. “They were pretty strict in those days.”

1960: The Ventures, score their first big hit with “Walk Don’t Run” after honing their skills as a performers at the Java Jive.

1961: The Wailers – also regular Java Jive performers – score a regional hit with “Louie Louie.”

1965: Radonich’s son, the Fabulous Maestro Bobby Floyd, begins performing at the Java Jive. Over the course of two decades he amasses an encyclopedic knowledge of TV theme songs and golden age pop standards.

“I’ve been playing most of my life,” he tells a reporter years later. “I haven’t had too many lessons; most songs come easily to me if I hear them enough.” With drummer Steve “and His Sexy Sticks” McMahon, he forms the Nostalgics.

1967: Granny Go-Go, a fixture of the late-night movie program “Stu Martin’s Double Date at the Movies,” begins go-go dancing at the Jive, becoming a staple for nearly three decades.

1968: Radonich decides customers should be able to drink under the stars. Thus begins the tradition of patrons autographing bright plastic and paper cutouts of stars and other shapes and sticking them on the ceiling.

1971: Skyjacker and bank robber D.B. Cooper – who some claim was a Java Jive visitor – parachutes from a jetliner flying over the Columbia River with $200,000. He is never heard from again.

Late ’70s: Radonich gives the Jive a makeover, decorating the establishment with kitschy artifacts picked up during his travels with the U.S. Navy in India, Madagascar and other exotic locales. The bar’s showroom is dubbed the Jungle Room, and Java and Jive – a pair of miniature chimps – take up residence in a double glass cage.

1980: Singer Kurt Kendall meets guitarist Bill “Kahuna” Henderson at the Jive. Kendall recalls that they didn’t quite hit it off right away. “I still had feathered hair and was trying to be new wave, and he was totally into the Ramones and had the whole Ramones hairdo and the black leather coat and everything.” But the seeds for legendary Tacoma garage-punk band Girl Trouble are planted.

1981: A poolroom is added to the Jive.

1985: Radonich’s wife, Lylabell, dies on Christmas Eve. Bobby Floyd quits performing after 20 years of entertaining at the Jive.

Mid- to late ’80s: The Jive is a magnet for local punks and new wavers. Among the rockers drawn to the scene are members of the band Nirvana, who play their first public shows at Tacoma’s Community World Theatre in 1987.

Years later, an apocryphal story circulates about Nirvana showing up to play a show at the Jive only to be rebuffed by Radonich, who is turned off by the loudness of the band’s music. (Some versions of the story say Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam draws the owner’s ire.)

“No, that’s an urban myth,” says Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who nevertheless recalls spending lots of time at the Jive.

“They still had the monkeys. And you could tell they were well taken care of. But the monkeys looked like they were pretty burned out at having people stare at them.”

Girl Trouble’s Kendall expanded on the monkeys’ temperament: “There was a sign that said ‘Don’t tap on the glass.’ And of course people would tap on the glass and they’d just, like, go ape, you know. If you busted the glass they would probably jump out and rip people’s heads off.”

Speaking of which …

1988: Java and Jive go bye-bye. Accounts differ regarding the circumstances of the simians’ departure. Radonich tells a News Tribune reporter that he sold them after the person caring for them left town. Others say animal-rights protests and Health Department complaints contributed to their suddenly leaving.

1989: Radonich puts the Java Jive up for sale: Asking price $1 million. The Treasurer-Assessor’s Office puts the value of the land at closer to $59,000 and the building itself at $16,000.

Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” opens in theaters. The film is iconic among Gen-Xers for actor John Cusak’s boom box serenade scene. But the Java Jive is also featured in the background of some shots.

1990: The movie “I Love You to Death” opens, starring Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix and also featuring scenes shot at the Jive. One urban legend has Reeves wanting to buy the venue and move it to Hawaii.

Future alt-country star Neko Case is employed as a bartender around this time.

1996: Granny Go-Go dies.

1998: A fire guts the apartments adjacent to the Jive, but the historic venue is spared.

1999: The Jive gets another makeover as Tacoma artists Teddy Haggerty and Dan Richholt paint a jungle mural around an addition to the back of the pot.

2002: Owner Radonich dies at 83.

2003: Tacoma’s Landmark Preservation Commission adds the Java Jive to its ledger of historic places on Aug. 27. The bungalow behind the Jive – which is in a state of severe disrepair – is moved to Parkland.

2007: The city shuts the venerable nightclub down for a list of fire code violations in January, and the future seems uncertain until members of the community rally to bring the building up to code.

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389

ernest.jasmin@thenewstribune.com

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