Gary Gonter, the man behind a South Sound music empire, dies at 79

Gary Gonter at the Founders Event in the Fair View Club in 2012.
Gary Gonter at the Founders Event in the Fair View Club in 2012. Courtesy

The founder of a South Sound music empire and former director and president of the Washington State Fair has died.

Gary Gonter, 79, died March 27. He and his wife, Midge, opened Bandstand Music, their first store, in 1965 across from Clover Park High School. They also founded Gonter’s Music City, and had stores from Southcenter Mall to Centralia and points in between.

Gary Gonter started the business in the 1960s after a former music store owner said he didn’t want to sell new electronic equipment, including amplifiers such as those used by The Beatles, said Gonter’s son, Laird.

“Gary said: ‘This is the latest, greatest rock and roll,’ ” Laird Gonter said. The Beatles used Vox amplifiers, and Gary Gonter’s store was the only one in the area selling them.

Prior to owning the stores, Gonter taught chemistry and music at Charles Wright Academy.

He had volunteered at the Puyallup Fair, now known as the Washington State Fair. Gonter’s grandfather was an original shareholder of the fair, said Kent Hojem, the fair’s CEO.

Gonter was in charge of bringing big-name acts to the fair and modernized the grandstand’s sound system in the late 1970s. Hojem said Gonter understood that the fair needed a variety of acts to attract different crowds to the annual event.

“He adhered to a formula that was not only going to bring in the top-name acts, but also was going to be financially successful,” Hojem said. “You’re really selling an experience, and Gary saw that.”

People in the first few rows, for instance, would get to have dinner backstage with the entertainers, Hojem said.

Gonter started “the Wranglers,” a volunteer group that helped keep the fair’s rodeo running smoothly.

He helped launch music careers, too.

Randy Litch received a guitar, a Gibson ES-335, and amplifier for his birthday when he attended Mount Tahoma High School.

“I was super excited. It was a big deal for me,” he said. Soon, Litch was teaching guitar classes in a back room at Bandstand Music, and he realized he could make a living playing music.

“It worked out way better than I anticipated,” Litch said. He played at the fair at Gonter’s request, and they stayed in touch for the music store owner’s entire life.

Gonter’s daughter, Lisette Welk, said entertaining was Gonter’s life.

“It was all about putting on the next party,” she said. “He loved entertaining his friends at the fair.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports