David Brewster: Town Hall will outlast the rest

Several hundred people turned up at Town Hall on Sept. 21 to honor and roast David Brewster, the Madrona resident who was retiring as Town Hall's executive director.

They came, as co-host Mark Sid-ran, in his best Woody Allen imitation, put it, "to celebrate David. And also bury him."

It was a moment of Seattle history worth noting.

A consummate observer

Brewster, former publisher of the Seattle Weekly, bridged the era between old Seattle, the pre-1962 World's Fair establishment that still misses the Frederick & Nelson tearoom and the narcissistic, dynamic and "discovered" Seattle that emerged in the mid-1970s. As journalist, editor, publisher and, finally, executive director of Town Hall, Brewster has been Seattle's consummate engaged observer.

Stimson Bullitt, an erect, striking figure in his early '80s, took an inconspicuous seat left of the stage. A tanned Paul Schell exchanged man-hugs with friends. It was a gathering of Seattle Whigs, where, if the Times were mentioned, New York was most likely meant. Or London.

A study in contrasts

The Yale-educated Brewster, a New Jersey native, is a study in contrasts.

He came to town in 1965 to teach English at the University of Washington, where he conducted classes in poetry, fiction, the humanities and writing.

Three years later, after a short stint with The Seattle Times, Brewster went to work full time for the gutsy Seattle Magazine, which folded in 1970.

By then, Brewster, born in 1939, had already established himself as one of Seattle's brightest journalists.

Or, as Gordon Bowker, one of three founders of Starbucks, told the crowd, "I wanted to be a writer for that [Seattle] magazine. The writer that most interested me was David Brewster."

Bowker - slightly rumpled, down-to-earth - recalled a story Brewster had written on disaffected kids in Bremerton. Brewster, Bowker said, had related their various forms of disaffection to classical music.

The crowd laughed knowingly.

"I've got to meet this guy," Bowker had told himself.

Brewster moved on to serve as editor of the Argus under legendary publisher Phil Bailey - father of Barbara Bailey, past owner of Bailey-Coy Books.

Brewster, with a group of investors, founded the Weekly in 1976.

From the Weekly to Town Hall

The Weekly is also a study in contrasts. Its pages have contained some of the best writing and reporting this city has ever seen. And some of the most maddening - if solipsistic consumerism and conspicuous cleverness are maddening.

The vehicle Brewster envisioned as a purveyor of first-rate literary journalism also became the touchstone for Best Places groupies and getaway yuppies.

And those personal ads at the back, advertisements for the self, were, and are, a gold mine in which narcissism produced its inevitable corollary - loneliness. Or at least well-credentialed seeking. You can pick up an alternative publication in any big city in the country, and plenty of mid-sized cities, and behold our "alternative" monoculture.

When The Stranger burst upon the scene in the early 1990s the new barbarians were at the Weekly's gate.

As Brewster told me in a 2002 interview: "I adopted a high-minded view. It looked like a niche they couldn't expand. By then (1995), when we thought [The Stranger] was going in the red, it was too late."

Brewster and his investors sold to the Village Voice in 1997.

No more internal pressure to do rock reviews.

No more pressure from cigarette advertisers to deliver a younger demographic.

Instead, Brewster led the effort to found Town Hall as a community cultural center on First Hill, a showcase for civic, and civil, discourse and a wide range of arts performances. In the process, the historic Church of Christ, Scientist at Eighth and Seneca, was given new life.

Town Hall opened in 1999.

The range of happenings there is impressive: Northwest Sinfonietta presenting "Mozartiana," a celebration of music and dance from India; Dennis Kucinich on the Iraq War's toll on working families; Ray Kurzweil lecturing on "Man and Machines"; The Onyx Chamber Players playing Beethoven; a reading by poet Mary Oliver; Bulgarian bebop.

Author Salman Rushdie appeared late last month.

His real legacy

The roast honored and poked fun at Brewster's multi-faceted, high-minded persona.

There were serious speeches and comedic skits.

Jonathan Raban delivered a wry rendition of a Robert Service poem.

There were Swedish folk dance tunes and a Schubert piano piece.

Brewster's Town Hall replacement, Wier Harman, staged a truly funny "I Don't Know How to Be Him," a takeoff on the Andrew Lloyd Webber song of a slightly different title.

There was a sense, on stage and in the crowd, that Town Hall is David Brewster's real legacy to this city.

If Brewster has been the soul of Town Hall, Town Hall has evolved into one of the better angels of Seattle's nature.

Mike Dillon is publisher of the Madison Park Times.[[In-content Ad]]