“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”
In the post war years, Tacoma’s “boat that didn’t float” was a novel center for fashionable nightlife and homegrown rat pack style entertainment. The waterfront oddity at the foot of McCarver Street in Old Town opened in December 1946. It was the brainchild of Allen Rau and Bert Sungren, two adventurous developers that imagined a post industrial future for the Ruston Way shoreline after the closing of sawmills and boatyards during the depression and the war years that followed.
Their scheme was to hire local boat builders and shipwrights (Tacoma Boat Mart yard got the contract) to construct a sharply trimmed ocean liner on a small forest of pilings at water’s edge next to the Old Town dock. The stationary vessel featured a main deck that would seat 700 people for dinner and dancing on a hardwood floor with a stage and orchestra. The upper deck was designed as a private club with elaborate bar, lounge seating and gaming areas that included card tables and a bank of slot machines. The fast growing Tacoma Athletic Club had its headquarters on the upper deck and in October 1948 they bought the entire structure along with six lots on land for parking.
The late 40’s and early 50’s were prosperous times for customers at “the Top” where cash and running tabs flowed in the days before credit cards. Municipal government was also awash in federal revenue sharing funds
as the city’s population grew from 109,408 in 1940 to 143,673 in 1950. Choppy seas were just ahead though, epitomized by the tension between TAC go-getters and their crowd and entrenched elements of the City Commission form of government. The crowd at the Top were boosting a new Mid Century Modern County-City Building, a sleek new addition to the Tacoma Building headquarters of the Weyerhaeuser Company, a new interstate highway and blight removal in the downtown core which included both buildings and people. The Top became a showcase for Tacoma’s big thinkers and better class.
On the other side, Public Safety Commissioner James T. Kerr was the boldest defender of a City Hall that worked cooperatively, if surreptitiously with local crime bosses like Vito Cuttone and Frank Magrini. Kerr controlled the Police and Fire Departments and had helped quelch a civil war between elements of Tacoma’s finest by forming political alliances with the Mayor and select fellow Commissioners. Some people saw him as the most powerful man Tacoma.
For all the glamor and romanticism of the Top of the Ocean, these were badly broken times for the city. The grand sports banquets, stylish fashion shows and elaborately produced awards ceremonies held at the mock maritime venue were not completely removed from a downtown and suburban nightclub industry that was riddled with corruption and strong arm underworld tactics. The Top of the Ocean served fabulous meals (Head Chef Bill Slater was internationally celebrated and featured in the syndicated news feature “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”), presented magical dance music performed by local favorite Louie Grenier’s Orchestra, the Hal Gullett orchestra and other touring groups and had its own harbormaster to oversee a private wharf that could accommodate 20 visiting vessels. Each August, the TAC hosted a Water Carnival just off shore with the Seattle Skiquatic Follies, acrobatic water ski jumpers and synchronized swimmers. Tacoma families flocked to the Old Town dock for the show but the best seats were at the Top of the Ocean.
On the last weekend of May in 1951, with both decks and the dancefloor full of diners and guests, the Tacoma vice squad and liquor control officers raided the Top of the Ocean. Commissioner Kerr had had enough and the Tacoma Athletic Club was charged with liquor violations and illegal gambling. The irony not missed by the reporters at the Tacoma News Tribune as they reported on the events that followed. The headlines called it a “war” between an elected official and a civic powerhouse. In the minds of most Tacomans both sides were imperfect at best and criminal at worst. Such was Tacoma in those days.
On June 15th, just two weeks after the raid, the matter was settled with payment by TAC of a $100 fine. Kerr got to keep the slot machines. On October 8th Roger W. Peck bought the Top of the Ocean from the Tacoma Athletic Club ending the first chapter in the history of the boat that didn’t float. The story to follow is even more improbable……..