Seattle Artifact

The birth of pre-funk

a look at Seattle’s first real citywide Mardi Gras

By Brad Holden April 20, 2023

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

According to the online slang compendium Urban Dictionary, the term “pre-funk” is defined as “an informal social gathering that takes place prior to the official ceremony, or social gathering, usually involving intoxicating activities and generally resulting in inebriation.” Further research shows that it’s actually a regional phrase, specific to the Pacific Northwest, and is a shortened version of the word “pre-function.”

I first heard the term back in the ’90s when making weekend plans with my friends. One of our Seattle-area apartments would be chosen as the predetermined meeting place that was used for a first round of partying prior to hitting the city’s nightlife. This was always known as our “pre-funk.” But where did this term come from? An old piece of local advertising may finally reveal its origins.

The beginning of this etymological journey begins with a home in the Ravenna neighborhood. Somebody was helping his/her grandfather — a former tavern owner and noted packrat — ready a house for sale, and my name came up as someone who could help with the clearing-out process. I arrived the next day and discovered an amazing inventory of items from his days as a bar owner: an old jukebox, vintage beer signs, and a garage full of antique auto parts. I helped find buyers for some of the big-ticket items, and as payment for my time, they let me keep a wooden crate full of old photos and papers that I had discovered in the attic. I had briefly combed through the contents and was excited to get them home and take a closer look.

Indeed, the crate turned out to be quite the treasure chest with one item in particular grabbing my attention. It was an old paper handbill for a Fat Tuesday event in Pioneer Square. On the back was a hand-drawn illustration of a person I recognized as being Bobby Foster — a local personality from the 1970s. A little research showed the flier was from 1977, the year of Seattle’s first-ever citywide Mardi Gras celebration (previous bashes were generally limited to particular venues). This explained the pen-and-ink drawing on the back, as Foster was one of the primary organizers for that infamous event. I was holding a true piece of Seattle history.     

As it turned out, though, a whole other layer of value was to be found at the top of the handbill, with the seemingly innocuous phrase, “pre-function.” I knew that “pre-funk” was a shortened version of pre-function, which itself was a regional word that had originated somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. But when did pre-function first start being used? And when did it morph into “pre-funk”?

A little online sleuthing revealed that “pre-funk” was listed as Washington state’s top slang word, and that it originated in Seattle in the late 1970s. Further research confirmed that it originally started out in its full form, “pre-function.” Could it therefore be possible that this Fat Tuesday handbill was the first use of the word? I checked various databases of local ads and promotional material from the 1970s and, indeed, this flier is the first written example I could find where the term “pre-function” was ever used. Whoever designed this likely had no idea that they were creating a phrase word that would eventually become part of the local vernacular.

Fat Tuesday flyer. Photo courtesy of the author

As for Seattle’s first citywide Mardi Gras celebration, it was first conceived as a way to give a “midwinter lift” to people’s spirits. This was an exciting time in Seattle’s past. The Kingdome had recently opened, which, in turn, welcomed Seattle to the Seahawks and the Mariners. In addition to the city’s two new sports teams, the popular new stadium also gave a huge boost to nearby Pioneer Square, which had recently been given a major facelift after being designated as an Historic Preservation District. The Mardi Gras celebration was, therefore, intended to be a coronation ceremony of sorts, a party to celebrate a new burst of civic pride, as well as reintroduce everyone to the historic charm of the city’s first neighborhood. 

One of the primary architects of Seattle’s first Mardi Gras was Foster. He had previously worked as a Boeing engineer, but quit his day job when one of his favorite watering holes, the Central Tavern, was put up for sale in the early 1970s. He and another Boeing engineer purchased the derelict tavern for $8,000 and completely refurbished it just after Pioneer Square was designated as an historic district. It soon became one of the city’s top drinking establishments.   

In late 1976, Foster and other Pioneer Square merchants began brainstorming ideas that would eventually form the basis for Seattle’s first Mardi Gras. This was not an event that was traditionally celebrated in the mostly Protestant city, though Foster and others wanted to plan something that could help local businesses during the post-holiday slump, as well as help give the city a late-winter’s boost. 

Other business owners loved the idea and Seattle held its first Mardi Gras in 1977. The weeklong event began on Monday, Feb. 14, and featured a colorful array of attractions designed to draw people in: strolling musicians, puppeteers, clowns, magicians, jugglers, and assorted circus acts that were set up throughout the neighborhood. A large Mexican mariachi band even strolled through the streets. 

The real celebration took place on Saturday the 19th, which was the last day of the event. Attendees were encouraged to dress up in costumes and masks, and a large closing parade was held earlier in the day that started at Pike Place Market and ended at Occidental Park. As afternoon turned to dusk, though, the family-friendly atmosphere of the event slowly dissolved and things started to become a bit more boisterous. It was unseasonably warm that day, with temperatures in the ‘70s, so thousands more people showed up than expected and many began openly drinking in the streets. The rowdy energy of the crowd was further amplified when the nearby Rainier Brewery decided to use the event to film a commercial in which more than a dozen people in giant Rainier beer bottle costumes ran through the streets. Designed to look like the Running of the Bulls in Spain, the so-called “Running of the Beers” elicited loud cheers and applause from thousands of inebriated revelers who had packed the sidewalks.    

Later that night, Seattle police realized that it was woefully understaffed for such an event after free cases of beer appeared on various corners and an already drunk crowd suddenly gained access to ample supplies of free booze. At one point, a group of people tried tipping over a Metro bus full of terrified passengers, and officers also complained of having projectiles thrown at them. On Sunday morning, thousands of empty beer bottles and debris reportedly littered the streets.

Despite the unruly nature of that day, the annual event has managed to survive with several of the neighborhood’s historic buildings now serving as a monument to Bobby Foster and others who helped resurrect Seattle’s oldest neighborhood back in the 1970s. The Kingdome was demolished in 2000, but many establishments, such as the Merchant’s Cafe and the Central Saloon, have survived and continue to operate as popular drinking destinations, especially for sports fans looking for a place to “pre-funk” prior to attending a game at one of the nearby stadiums.

Brad Holden is an amateur historian and is the author of two books: “Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners and Graft in the Queen City,” and “Alfred M. Hubbard: Inventor, Bootlegger and Psychedelic Pioneer.” Check out his Instagram page @seattle_artifacts for more interesting tidbits about Seattle’s history.

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