Matt Driscoll

Santa Claus and Chico Marx got a key to the city. So why won’t Garth Brooks?

Chico Marx, left, seen here with his brothers Groucho, center, and Harpo, received a key to the city during a visit to Tacoma in 1955. Garth Brooks isn’t going to get one when he’s in town later this week, according to News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll.
Chico Marx, left, seen here with his brothers Groucho, center, and Harpo, received a key to the city during a visit to Tacoma in 1955. Garth Brooks isn’t going to get one when he’s in town later this week, according to News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll. Courtesy

It was a somewhat nonsensical question that, upon further review, maybe wasn’t that nonsensical after all.

Might Garth Brooks, music legend and noted collector of friends in low places, be awarded a key to the city when he arrived in Tacoma this week for five eagerly anticipated shows?

The question originally came from my colleague, Debbie Cockrell. She’d recently been named The News Tribune’s official Garth Brooks Reporter, a very important and prestigious position. Like the true professional she is, Cockrell jumped right in, expertly covering all things Garth as the hype surrounding his first Puget Sound show in nearly two decades reached a country crescendo.

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Before you dismiss this as pure hyperbole, know there were signs to suggest a key to the city was a real possibility for Brooks. Cockrell, attacking her new beat with fervor, had caught wind of a visiting royalty-style press conference tentatively scheduled for late this week. Plans to hoist a Garth flag from atop the T-Dome also were in the works, she’d learned through her vast network of sources and a few clandestine parking garage conversations.

The plot was thick and seemingly getting thicker.

Then there was the precedent. This summer, Lafayette, Louisiana, Mayor Joel Robideaux presented Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood with keys to his city before the duo performed five shows there. Robideaux went as far as to name Brooks and Yearwood “Honorary Cajuns.”

Still, rumors of a key to the city, for Garth Brooks? That’s big, heady stuff, if true.

Enter the Garth Brooks Columnist, angling to get to the bottom of it all. What can I say? I’m shameless.

It was all adding up, I concluded. The probability of Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland extending a similar recognition to Brooks and Yearwood during their stop in the City of Destiny – perhaps knighting the two as “Honorary Tacomans” – was getting better by the moment.

Then reality, like thunder, rolled.

The idea was decisively quashed by the spoilsports in the city’s flack shop.

“Garth Brooks is not in line to receive a Key to the City,” Maria Lee, a city spokeswoman, told me via email.

I tried to hide my disappointment.

“There is currently no formalized written criteria and/or process (for awarding keys to the city),” Lee continued. “All requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the Mayor’s Office.”

Fair enough, I thought. While famous the world over, maybe Garth hadn’t done enough to merit such a recognition in Tacoma.

Or hadn’t he?

That’s when a deep dive at the Tacoma Library’s Northwest Room, under the expert guidance of supervisor Brian Kamens, revealed the truth of the matter.

Fact is, there are plenty of instances when keys to the city have been awarded under more questionable circumstances in Tacoma’s long history, and Garth has a better case to make than many of the city’s past honorees.

Take, for instance, the ceremony in February 1924, when Tacoma Mayor Angelo Fawcett bestowed a key to the city upon the Irvings Imperial Midgets. If you’re not familiar with the group’s work — which would be understandable — the Irvings Imperial Midgets were a European theatrical group known for musical comedy, acrobatics, boxing, wrestling, singing and dancing.

Today the troupe would surely have a less offensive name, but you can never take away their key.

But wait, there’s more.

In November 1939, Mayor Joseph Kaufman — who was appointed to the position after Mayor John Siegle died in office — took the bold step to award a key to the city to Santa Claus. (This was long before we launched the War on Christmas, obviously.)

While a case can certainly be made that Santa Claus has done more for this world than Garth Brooks, I think we all know who has sold more records.

Finally, in July 1955, Mayor Harold Tollefson awarded a key to the city to Chico Marx — the oldest of the Marx Brothers.

Known for his gambling habit as much as his comedy chops, Chico Marx received his key to Tacoma during the groundbreaking ceremony of the U.S. Oil and Refining plant on the Tideflats. (Presumably, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo all were unavailable.)

So does Garth have a case to make?

Historically, yes, I’m now certain of it. The annals speak for themselves.

Still, it’s also clear that somewhere along the line the standard for receiving a key to the city increased — and perhaps that’s for the best.

That didn’t mean I was ready to put the issue to bed quite yet, though. After all, you don’t become The News Tribune’s official Garth Brooks Columnist by giving up without a fight.

So I texted Strickland with a last-minute inquiry. Or was it a plea? By this point, lines had been blurred.

Tacoma’s mayor was resolute. Garth Brooks would not be receiving a key to the city, I was told in no uncertain terms.

Fine. So it goes, I thought. Sometimes rumors are just that.

But if you’re the conspiratorial type, just know that Strickland was strangely mum on the Chris Gaines question.

Stay tuned.

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