A CITY ON A HILL | The last enchilada

It isn’t really my intent to write here only about beloved pieces of the cityscape that are going away. But darn it, there are so many of them, and they’re disappearing at such a rapid pace.

There’s Cinema Books, the long-running (38 years!) movie book palace beneath the Seven Gables Theater on Roosevelt Way and Northeast 50th Street. Ex-University of Washington film history professor Stephanie Ogle, who’s owned the store since its start, is retiring. Everything’s 50-percent off until the bitter end.

There’s Osaka Teriyaki at Second Avenue and Pike Street, since 1995, one of the last survivors of lower Pike Street’s onetime “lowbrow” reputation. It lost its lease after its owner was arrested on charges of trafficking in stolen goods.

But one of the most notable of recent vanishing landmarks is Mama’s Mexican Kitchen (2234 Second Ave.), the family-owned eatery that, for 41 years, has been a bastion of the pre-gentrification Belltown. It closes this year, probably in September. Its 1924 building will be razed for yet another 60-unit, “mixed-use” development.

Mike McAlpin, who’s owned Mama’s from the start (and used to also own the Lava Lounge two doors down), sold the building to Vancouver developers. He says he’ll retire. Many of his employees have been there for 15 years or more.

There are also conflicting stories about whether the building next door on Second Avenue (housing the Lava, Rocco’s Pizza and the Belltown Funky Studios apartments — the last pre-Denny Regrade building still standing in the area) is also going away. All that’s known for sure is that McAlpin didn’t own that building.

A time past
I’ve been going to Mama’s almost since it opened. (Full disclosure: I also briefly dated McAlpin’s niece.) Mama’s Second-and-Bell corner spot once seemed way out in the wilderness, a million years from either downtown or Seattle Center. Art and music types had begun to flock there, attracted by what were then low rents close by to everything. Mama’s became a hangout and a resource for this and many other subcultures in the community.

Its cheap and plentiful food, its strong margaritas, its friendly Elvis/Marilyn interior décor and its unpretentious vibe kept its regulars coming back, even after many of them couldn’t afford to live in Belltown any more.

Yes, there are fancier and even more “authentic” Mexican joints out there these days, or at least ones more amenable to modern tastes. (Mama’s recipes came from McAlpin’s Cal-Mex grandmother and are heavy on melted cheese and fresh but mild salsa.)

And there are many, many other dining and drinking joints in today’s Belltown — some at prices as tall as the condo towers that now dominate the area. But there isn’t anything else like Mama’s, and there probably never will be.

Seattle connections

Meanwhile, either the first- or the second-most-famous former Mariners co-owner (before or after Danny Kaye) ended late-night TV’s longest run (fittingly for such a retro-music fan, it’s been 33 and a third years!) in May.

Besides having been an investor in the Ms during the baseball team’s disastrous George Argyros era, David Letterman often had Seattle-connected guests over the years, including Foo Fighters as the official last guests on his last show and Eddie Vedder on his third-to-last show.

Also: comics legend Lynda Barry, Sleater-Kinney, Soundgarden, Bill Nye, Joel McHale, Kyle Maclachlan, Artis the Spoonman, Brandi Carlile, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Fleet Foxes, Built to Spill, Band of Horses, Sean Nelson’s old band Harvey Danger and especially the late Seattle-born comedian George Miller.

Letterman’s leaving the public stage means I’ll now probably never get to ask him what, if anything, he remembered about Frances Farmer. He and the ill-fated Seattle-born film actress were each on Indianapolis local TV, albeit at different times.

I do know a guy who’d studied drama with Letterman (and future “Three’s Company” star Joyce DeWitt) at Indianapolis’ Ball State University. This guy had remembered Farmer’s TV show in the 1960s but, alas, not much about it — only that she’d been a low-budget version of Loretta Young, introducing creaky, old movies in the afternoons.

CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of “Walking Seattle” and “Vanishing Seattle.” He also writes a blog at miscmedia.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.