Green Lake’s Aqua Theatre: From Aqua Follies to Led Zeppelin

July 23, 2014 6:05am

Courtesy of: MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection.

Did you know that Green Lake has its own fascinating historical landmark dedicated to Seafair, one of Seattle’s oldest and most popular summer festivals? That’s right, our very own Green Lake Amphitheatre, that looming concrete structure that we walk, bike and run past daily, was built in 1950 for the very first Seafair. With Seafair weekend fast approaching and summer in full swing, now is a perfect time to look back on this legendary landmark!

The Aqua Theater, as the structure was originally named, was designed specifically to house the dazzling attraction called the Aqua Follies and their “swim-musicals.” According to the Historylink.org , every summer from 1950 to 1965, Seattleites filled the Aqua Theater’s 5,200 seats and were treated to a variety show featuring everything from comedy to synchronized swimming, music (emanating from an orchestra pit), as well as divers who performed amazing acrobatic feats from forty-foot towers that flanked center stage. However, the climax and star attractions of the event were two groups of female performers: the “Aqua Dears,” who performed a type of synchronized swimming, and the “Aqua Darlings,” who did not. One need only think of Esther Williams’ “aquamusicals” to get a sense of the lavish spectacle performed by the Aqua Follies.


Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection

For several more years, Seattleites packed the theater’s fan-shaped grandstand to enjoy these illustrious troupes under starry skies on warm summer nights. Then, as more “modern” forms of entertainment emerged, attendance at these aquatic performances began to wane. Even so, Green Lake’s unique setting still lured some of the period’s most popular rock bands. The swan song for the Aqua Theater was the notorious 1969 Led Zeppelin concert, which filled the theater beyond its capacity. Following the stress of one more concert, this time by the Grateful Dead, city inspectors officially marked the theater as unsafe for public use and had it partially dismantled.

The amphitheater has undergone one more image makeover and now serves a multitude of purposes in our community. Not only is it home to the Green Lake rowing club, the theater is also used by fitness enthusiasts who run the stairs, and by others who climb to the top simply to take in the view. Rumor has it that, on occasion, birders with a pair of binoculars can even catch sight of a bald eagle!