–by Elizabeth Franklin
If you were to walk by this pair of buildings today, I would bet that you’d have no idea what incredible history has taken place right there. A short time ago, I too certainly would have never known that this spot, just up the hill from my college campus, once hosted an incredibly vast selection of concerts and Tacoma history. These buildings used to be known as the Crescent Ballroom. It was a legendary performance venue that stood as a prominent music destination ranging from the days of early jazz to the peak of grunge rock. Some of the recognizable musicians and bands that graced its stage included Duke Ellington, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. I wanted to write this blog post to help preserve this venue’s magnificent history and to hopefully teach you something you did not know before.
This is the Manley-Thompson Ford Building. It was built in 1918 as a Ford dealership and was designed by architect Emmanuel J. Bresemann. It was named after the partnership of Harry R. Manley and Robert B. Thompson, who both owned the business. They had also both been partners prior to this endeavor, owning another Ford-related business in town, The Ford Supply Company, and later becoming the Manley-Thompson Brothers. In its heyday, the Manley-Thompson Ford Building was a top tier showroom with its offices and storage located in the above levels. The partnership lasted until 1920, when Robert B. Thompson retired. And by 1927, Harry R. Manley had left Ford to work for Willys-Overland Motors. It continued to be used as an auto facility until 1929, when it was taken over by the Angle-Mulligan company, which went out of business by 1930.
Check it out! You can still see the “Ford” logo painted on the building to this day.
This is the Auditorium Dance Hall. After a fire burned down the previous building in 1921, the new auditorium building was constructed and it was open by 1922. It was designed by architect Roland E. Borhek, who was also responsible for the design of Tacoma’s Rialto Theater. Before it became known as the Crescent Ballroom, it was a lively and eventful auditorium on Fawcett Avenue.
Before the Auditorium Dance Hall existed, it was the location of Germania Hall, built in 1889. Germania Hall had been another important Tacoma performance venue but was completely lost to fire in 1921. In its later years, it had even become a convention center and dancing academy. And before the Ford building existed, there had been an auto repair business established in 1911 located at that spot. Anton Huth, a German immigrant, originally owned the land that both the auditorium and Ford building sat on. After his death in 1916, his wife inherited the land.
After the Angle-Mulligan company had left the Manley-Thompson Ford building by 1930, it was decided that the Ford building would be merged with the auditorium building. Thus, by 1931, both buildings were combined and voila! The Crescent Ballroom was born!
The early era of the Crescent Ballroom was adorned with music and dancing. The photos below show musicians in the 1940s and 1950s performing on the Crescent’s stage.
And as Tacoma’s early rock n’ roll scene blossomed, the Crescent welcomed it into its auditorium. Well-known homegrown Tacoma rock acts such as The Sonics, The Wailers, and Little Bill & The Bluenotes played there during this period. Other acts of this period that performed at the Crescent included The Kingsmen, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, The Fleetwoods, Bobby Vee, Duane Eddy, The Corvettes, The Dynamics, The Frantics, The Viceroys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more!
But by the 1980s, the music that frequented the Crescent Ballroom had changed significantly. It became a hotspot for punk and grunge music in Tacoma. I heard from a guy named Mark Bader about how the Crescent’s potential as a punk venue in the 1980s seemingly took form. He told me about how in 1985, after there had been a dry period without shows since the mid-1970s, he reached out to the Crescent’s caretaker at the time, an “old hippie named Al”, and managed to book a show for his band, Sound Color. For $100, they rented the Crescent, stageless at the time, and built their own temporary stage for the show. After that show, it seems music returned back to the Crescent in full swing, or mosh if you will. And fun fact, the guy hired to run sound for that show was none other than Tacoma’s own Jerry Miller of Moby Grape fame!
The flyer from that show is below:
Bands that played at the Crescent during its punk days from the late 1980s to 1990 include Nirvana, Melvins, Soundgarden, Suicidal Tendencies, Dr. Know, Butthole Surfers, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone, GBH, Redd Kross, Bad Brains, Poison Idea, The Gits, Mudhoney, Tad, My Sister’s Machine, The Accüsed, D.O.A., and many others! And circa 1989, the Crescent was renamed “Legends” for a short couple years during which many of these legendary bands played. Its days as a punk venue lasted until around sometime in 1990, when eventually it seemed its days hosting shows ceased and never came back.
Video of Nirvana playing at Legends (1990):
Video of Melvins playing at Legends (1990):
Video of Alice in Chains playing at Legends (1989):
Audio recording of Clown Alley playing at the Crescent Ballroom (1987):
Some flyers from the Crescent Ballroom’s punk years:
The Crescent Ballroom’s decline in prominence and eventual end as a venue was largely due to the fact other popular venues, such as the Tacoma Dome, started appearing and outshined its spotlight. Major touring acts stopped booking shows at the Crescent and audiences shifted their focus towards bigger and newer venues. The Crescent could not compete with its competition.
At some point, The Crescent Ballroom was mostly abandoned and its structure grew into a run down, exhausted shell. Shown below are images of its time in disrepair. It had definitely seen better days!
But thankfully, the building was eventually remodeled and refurbished. It is now home to TRA Medical Imaging’s headquarters in Tacoma. Although its exterior was left intact, the insides of both buildings were entirely changed. I visited the building myself and creeped around a couple levels of the Manley-Thompson Ford Building. The first level is now filled with different rooms belonging to TRA Medical Imaging, and the walkway from the front door leads to an elevator. I took the elevator up to level 3, where I found the main desk belonging to TRA Medical Imaging located. And scattered throughout the lobby and third floor, I noticed that somebody had taken the time to frame various pictures of the Crescent Ballroom and its show flyers around the building. I was so thrilled to see that somebody had conserved some of the history there in some way. Next to the Ford building, the auditorium of the Crescent is now being used as a parking garage. Although it is not the same performance venue gem that it used to be, I am very thankful that the building was saved and that we still have the opportunity to see it today. My photos of the Crescent are shown below.
As you have read about, the Crescent Ballroom had a very long and important history in Tacoma. It has been a part of Tacoma throughout much of its musical history and still stands, continuing to absorb the riches of the city. Hopefully you enjoyed this article and learned something new. Next time you pass by Fawcett Avenue, I hope that you can look at this incredible venue and remember its magnificent history.
About the Author
Elizabeth Franklin prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2021, she was a sophomore pre-major.