It started with a left leg.
It was a dancer’s leg, belonging to Shelly Bauman, and its amputation after a freak accident at a parade ended her dream to dance.
But it was that accident that opened another dream for Shelly and helped usher in a new era for Seattle’s gay community. She used the settlement money from the incident to open Seattle’s first disco and openly gay bar in the 1970s.
She named the club Shelly’s Leg.
The dance hall marked a turning point at a time when gays and lesbians began to organize and the city began not just to accept, but embrace the gay population.
And the bar’s four-year run showed how one person, and one of her limbs, can change history without even trying.
Bauman died at her home in Bremerton Nov. 18 at age 63 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after a nomadic life of dancing and partying. Though Northwest baby boomers remember her as the disco owner in Pioneer Square — sometimes stopped and recognized at Bremerton grocery stores — friends describe her life as “tragic,” filled with drinking, drugs and health problems, cared for at her Bremerton duplex for the last eight years of her life by her neighbor, 64-year-old Monte Levine.
But she never let her limitations get in the way of a good time.
Bauman loved the lush images of the musical “Moulin Rouge” and was known for pausing movies on close-ups of Val Kilmer.
She also had a penchant for fancy shoes, even though she had one leg.
She was a notorious party girl, keeping her friends awake at night and kicking anyone who got in the way of her and her wheelchair.
Friends said the red-haired, green-eyed woman who fancied herself a Bette Davis look-alike couldn’t have been any other way.
Bauman had been living in Seattle for about a year and a half after moving throughout the U.S. as an exotic dancer when she went to Seattle’s first Bastille Day Parade in Pioneer Square in 1970 at age 22. A cannon in the parade blasted into the crowd, hitting Bauman on the left side of her pelvis. A nearby doctor who intervened saved her life and she was rushed to Harborview Medical Center. She underwent nine months of operations and recovery and her left leg was amputated, according to Levine and “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging.”
Bauman won $330,000 in an out-of-court settlement in 1973 after suing the parade sponsors, the man who brought the cannon and the city for ignoring the loaded weapon in a public event. With that money, she and some friends opened a bar in Pioneer Square, named for the lost leg that paid for the place.
Michael Brown, professor of geography at the University of Washington, said that Shelley’s Leg was not just significant for being Seattle’s first disco, but its role as a dance hall for gay people was a symbol of homosexual liberation.
“For so long in the history of Settle’s gay community, dancing had been the enemy,” Brown said, adding that same-sex dancing used to be punished and older taverns in the area prohibited dancing. “It really did signal the end of that old homophobia where people of the same sex couldn’t dance together.”
Though there were gay bars in the area, Shelly’s Leg was different because it was more upfront than the gay bars that preceded it — it was known for its sign inside that read, “Shelly’s Leg is a gay bar provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”
“Shelly’s was so visible,” Brown said, adding that gay bars at the time were nondescript and dimly lit, not calling attention to themselves. “That sign is very, very symbolic.”
It was also a gay bar for a new generation. The existing gay bars catered to those who came of age in the 1940s to 60s.
“This was not your dad’s gay bar,” Brown said. “This was a bar for the baby-boomers, for the youth.”
Shelly’s Leg had a meteoric rise in popularity, but it was erased from the scene almost as quickly as it appeared — and in much the same explosive fashion.
In mid-December 1975, an oil tanker was driving south on the elevated portion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct — above the bar — when the tanker collided into the guardrail, unhitching the 4,800-gallon trailer, which exploded and poured fiery gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg.
No one was injured inside the bar, but its front windows were blown in and the DJ’s booth and turntables burned.
The bar lasted for more than a year longer, but the crowds were never the same and the disco closed in 1977.
A ‘TRAGIC’ LIFE
Like some who attended Shelly’s Leg, Bauman herself was swept up in the party scene, drinking heavily and using drugs. She also had trust issues, friends said, which originated in her childhood.
Born in 1947, Bauman grew up in Chicago, where she studied dance. She was kicked out of her parents’ house at 16 when they divorced, so she worked as an exotic dancer in Chicago, Hawaii, Miami and Fort Meyers, Fla. to support herself. She went to Seattle in the winter of 1968, taken in by a family living in Rainier Valley, and danced until the Bastille Day accident.
“She was such a tragic person,” said Levine, who knew Bauman for 40 years, but didn’t consider her a friend until the last year of her life. “The pain that woman lived in, the psychological makeup of this person, she couldn’t have been any different.”
While Shelly’s Leg was open, Bauman lived on Bainbridge Island and then Seattle, but moved to Hawaii after the bar closed. There, she met a man from Fort Meyers, so she moved back to Florida with him and got married. The couple later divorced, but she lived in Fort Meyers until 2002.
Bauman continued binge drinking and would call her old acquaintance, Levine, in Bremerton, drunk at 3 or 4 a.m., asking for help in relocating. When Hurricane Charlie hit in 2002, she was on the first plane to Seattle and moved in with Levine and his parter, Marc Derenzy, at their house on Wycoff Avenue. Eventually, she moved into the duplex next door.
Bauman talked of moving to Seattle, but Levine told her she wouldn’t live much longer, due to her declining health, and shouldn’t get sucked into partying there.
“I’ve never met anyone so afraid of dying,” said Levine, who has worked with AIDS patients. “I think that fear is probably what kept her in Bremerton.”
Bauman continued to drink, however, around town in Bremerton and in Seattle. One night, medics were called to the Bremerton ferry terminal when she fell out of her wheelchair drunk on the ferry. Bauman used drugs and alcohol as a social lubricant because she had few friends, Levine said.
“Shelly, for all her bravado, I think she was very timid inside and I’m sure that the alcohol was one of the things that helped her be able to talk to other people,” he said.
Bauman’s health took a turn for the worse when her duplex burned down in 2007. She was smoking and forgot to remove her oxygen cannula. Her oxygen tube was wound up in her wheel chair and the end of the oxygen hose spouted flames.
A neighbor rescued her and she was flown to Harborview Medical Center, but it was then that her health declined more rapidly and it truly hit her that she was dying, Levine said.
SMALL BUT IMPORTANT
Friends and neighbors still recall happy memories, despite the gloom Bauman felt in her last years.
Crystal Gresham, 21, of Bremerton, was one of those who took care of her and considered her a friend for the last two-and-a-half years.
“It was a lot of fun,” Gresham said. “We had girl time together.”
Caring for Bauman was the first time Gresham had worked with elderly or disabled people — and her patient was a fiesty one.
“I think if she taught me anything, she taught me patience,” Gresham said.
Marty Ames, 52, lived with Bauman for a few months when they both first moved into their Wycoff Avenue duplex. Ames now lives in the unit neighboring Bauman’s.
“She was a work of art,” Ames said, recalling how the nocturnal Bauman would never let him sleep at night.
Brown said that even people who didn’t truly know her remembered her bar fondly. At speaking engagements, people still recognized her name. A stranger who heard a radio interview Brown gave on KUOW sent him a coat check ticket he had kept for more than 30 years from the bar.
Levine said Bauman would be happy to hear from people who approached her in public and remembered her for the disco, known as “the Leg.”
But afterward, he said, she would say, “What’s the big deal, I owned a bar?”
“If the bar had been named something different, who would remember her? It’s a coincidence,” Levine said.
Brown agrees that if Bauman hadn’t come along, someone else would have. But she was one of many who left an important imprint on Seattle gay history.
“I think Shelly’s part of a small but important group of straight folks who were allies,” he said. “Without those kinds of places, community just can’t exist.”