Stadium Bowl: from Bands to Disney Stardom

–by Henry Nguyen

Tacoma is known for its rich history and that is reflected through the historical buildings that can be found still standing today. Taking a stroll through the Stadium district there is a sense of the old world that can’t be found anywhere else in Tacoma. At the center of the Stadium district, you’ll find an iconic landmark that overlooks Commencement Bay.

You might be asking what’s so special about a stadium for a high school? Almost every high school in the nation has one! The Stadium’s beauty must be seen to understand why it’s a cultural landmark. Not many schools can say their stadium is on a cliff and not many can say that that their stadium made it to round 3 of America’s Best High School Football Stadiums.

Not many can also say they’ve had a chance at one point in time have legends like Babe Ruth, Theodore Roosevelt, John Philip Sousa, Heath Ledger, and many more visit their high school stadium. That is what makes the Stadium history different.

Courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

It all comes back to community. According to Tacoma History, the “Boost the Stadium Parade” in 1908 showed a need for an amphitheater at the new Stadium High School (formerly known as Tacoma High School). The campaign had raised $45,000 which today would be translated into roughly $1.4 million when adjusted for inflation. This goes to show the power of what a community would be able to accomplish given a goal to better the community.

The photos above come from the Tacoma Library archives where they have hundreds upon hundreds of pictures from the past. These pictures here are from their gallery depicting the construction of the Bowl from 1909. What started was as a gulch nicknamed “Old Woman’s Gulch” ended up with an incredible stadium that’s able to hold thousands of guests.

According to the Society of Architectural Historians, the architect of that was responsible for designing the bowl was Frederick Henry Heath. He specialized in his own hollow wall tile construction technique. You can see that reflected in the way that they constructed the seats which appear to start with the outside frame first.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

One of the more notable musical concerts that have taken place in the Stadium was on July 27, 1915, when John Phillip Sousa and his band visited the Stadium. As seen in this photo here the small but powerful band is seen playing to a audience surrounding them as well as cars being parked at the bottom. It is not sure what song is playing in this moment. However, Sousa’s work was known to be very patriotic in nature and really set the stage for what kind of music high school bands will be playing thereafter.

Born in Washington, DC in 1854, John Phillip Sousa’s rise to fame was conducting, composing, and arranging music in the U.S. Marine Band. He then left the Marine Corps to form his own band made up of civilians instead of military members. He then got nicknamed the “The March King”. If you were ever in a band like I was, you’re most likely very accustomed to the music that Sousa’s composed.

Let’s take a moment to sample of some of Sousa’s work. It is clear that there is a heavy use of brass instruments that reflect the bravado of the United States of America. It is only appropriate for Sousa to perform at the bowl due to its history of having prominent presidential figures present speeches at the very same stadium.

To describe Sousa’s work, it’s very patriotic and what you would come to expect from a marching band. The performance at the bowl was not only appropriate not only because of the presidential speeches but because of what was going on in the world as well. World War I was just on the horizon and music is an art that has the power of uniting people in a unique way.

Fast forward to the modern era, the bowl is still able to prove that it has musical chops and is not shy of being the part of mainstream Disney attraction. In 1999 a romance comedy film titled 10 Things I hate About You released. Directed by Gil Junger the film featured the likes of Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film’s main setting is in Seattle but it’s DNA and where the characters go to high school is at Stadium High School.

Let’s now watch the iconic scene from the film. This clip features the cover of the song “can’t take my eyes off of you” and features Heath Ledger playing his character Patrick Verona dancing and running around on the steps of the stadium. Shots of Commencement Bay and parts of Browns Point make a small cameo in this scene as well.

If you notice in the scene there’s a part where Heath Ledger’s character is running around. Meanwhile in the background the marching band is continuing to play the song. Whether this just makes sense for the high school setting or if it’s paying homage to the bowl’s roots, you can’t deny the way that both Heath and the Bowl are immortalized in this film.

It’s clear that the Bowl has some serious history behind it and shows that it’s more than just a stadium for a high school, it’s a landmark that has come to define this part of Tacoma and has been iconic in the way that it’s able to show off the best parts of Tacoma’s architecture.

Let’s now take a trip through memory lane in this KING-5 piece on the high school. You’ll come to find out that you can actually tour the school via the interviewee Chris Staudinger’s Pretty Gritty Tours. This shows that the school as well as the bowl itself has not lost it’s charm and that it’s a real relic that can stand the test of time.

About the Author

Henry Nguyen prepared this article as his final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time he took the class in Autumn Quarter 2021, he was a senior majoring in Communications.

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