Ryan Worsley’s debut documentary lovingly profiles a now defunct Seattle bar and night club called “The Funhouse.” But her film is more than just a scrapbook. It also explores how much a place like that means to the community that embraces it and critiques the morality of gentrification which often means the death of DIY institutions.
As “Razing the Bar” illustrates, the Funhouse was more than just the divey rock and roll bar that dared to stare down Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project in tourist-laden Seattle Center. To the uninitiated, it was “the scary clown bar,” but to a group of entertainment misfits, it was a hangout, a home and an incubator. You didn’t have to be fully formed to play there, and for many young bands, it was the “first show that mattered” thanks to receptive audiences and a talented and fair booker who always made sure his acts ended the night with dollars in their pocket and a place to crash.
That booker, Brian Foss, is also the protagonist of the story. To many, the Funhouse was Foss. Worsley makes this clear through interviews with Funhouse alumni, peppering their anecdotes with photo collages, old show footage and scores it with the music of the bands who played there. One former patron calls it the Punk Rock Cheers, which perfectly sums up how much it meant to so many people.
The story of the Funhouse extends beyond the local scene. Every great city needs a place like the Funhouse, an indispensable part of the underground entertainment scene. Regardless, the building was sold in 2012 and razed to make way for luxury apartments, an all-too-common story in many burgeoning cities. Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in America, so it makes sense that these new transplants would need somewhere to live. But the tragedy is that it is at the expense of the spirit of the city, which makes it a unique and desirable place to live in the first place.
As one interviewee points out, many of the musicians celebrated in the EMP would have relied on a place like the Funhouse to showcase their early work. Little by little, we lose the small venues where the next Kurt Cobain could play. Many credit the Funhouse to the current Cabaret and Vaudeville revival.
The Funhouse wasn’t just a springboard for acts. One of Foss’ apprentices started there at a very rough time in her life. Today, she holds a prominent position at Austin City Limits, one she never would have been considered for as a drug-addled runaway.
Despite the inevitable destruction, “Razing the Bar” does have a happy ending. The communities that formed at the Funhouse are still as active and close-knit as ever. Foss also continues to book shows for two like-minded clubs around town. He’ll carry the torch as long as he can. The Funhouse may be gone, but the spirit lives on in all those who touched its sticky floors.