Although the neighborhood around Bob’s Java Jive has evolved over the past 92 years it’s been standing, the coffee pot-shaped building still feels as if it has been plucked out of the past. It has certainly stood the test of time.
The local bar has countless rumors that range from pet monkeys to Nirvana — and it’s all part of what keeps the business interesting. Much of the local lore is true. Just ask Keanu Reeves. We’ll get to him later.
Today it may seem like Bob’s Java Jive’s glory days of the ’70s and ’80s are long-gone, but the Jive has a way of rolling with the times. This 25-by-30-foot concrete coffee pot has adapted through nine decades of existence, and is still percolating with the local culture scene.
Originally known as the Coffee Pot Restaurant (do not mistake it for a teapot!), it was built in 1927 by local Tacoma veterinarian Otis G. Button. It was designed by local artist Bert Smyser — the first instance of many in which a strangely shaped building would lend itself as a place artists could express themselves.
The pot was first a breakfast place. Then a diner drive-in. Then a speakeasy. After lots of rebranding, it was finally bought by Bob Radonich and his wife, Lylabell, in 1955, and that’s the point it earned its present-day moniker — Bob’s Java Jive. The bar’s name was inspired in part by ’50s pop group the Ink Spots and the lyric: “I love coffee; I love tea. I love the java jive, and it loves me.”
The Jive eventually metamorphosed into a chaotically themed Polynesian dance club, complete with two macaque monkeys named Java and Jive (a mother-and-daughter pair). Through the ages, Bob’s Java Jive has changed to fit in with the culture of its day, but it also is a reflection of Tacoma’s quirky past.
Physical upkeep of a building as old as the pot is difficult, especially in the Jive’s case, when it feels like every speck of dust in the place is some sort of historical artifact. For instance, the ceiling of the bar hasn’t been painted since 1968 because it is absolutely smothered with signatures from people all around the world who have come to visit.
“In 1972, we were gonna paint the ceiling, and you would have thought that we were going to take a wrecking ball to the whole building,” said Danette Staatz, the daughter of the original Bob. “Everybody was so upset, we haven’t been able to paint the ceiling since.”
Danette’s son, Rich Staatz, has taken over a lot of the day-to-day at the Jive. He’s the third generation of the Java dynasty to own the place, and he’s been training for it ever since he was born. In fact, when he was a baby, his bassinet was kept right in the kitchen next to the cups and dishes while his mom performed as a go-go dancer in the club. With such a strong legacy to uphold for the iconic landmark in Tacoma, Rich recognizes the commitment he has taken on, not only to the Jive, but to his family.
“To me, it’s an honor, a privilege, and a duty, really — all rolled into one,” said Rich. “You gotta survive. It’s a lot of work to take care of one of these places.”
The Jive used to be an attraction right off of highway 99, the central highway through Tacoma. People would drive by and be lured in by the quirky shape of the building, then stay for a beer and the house band. But when I-5 was built right over the Jive’s spout in 1969, it bypassed highway 99, now known as South Tacoma Way. There wasn’t the same kind of traffic — and it hurt business.
In 2014, it received cultural landmark status. Its value to the community is what kept its neon lights shining for those years. Nowadays, when it comes to attracting patrons to the bar, Rich’s work becomes more about preservation than innovation.
“We’re kind of like curators of a place that has its own heartbeat. You know what I mean? It has a way of embracing you,” said Rich. “The thing about the Jive, beyond any other place I’ve ever been, is that it just kind of puts its arms around you. It’s a little bit of that Jive lovin’. It’s hard to put it into words; you have to experience it.”
Rich gives The Jive’s warm-spirit credit to spouting out the many music legends that have passed through the pot. Nirvana was apparently a regular band at the Jive. And Neko Case, a contemporary indie rock singer, used to bartend there back in the late ’80s.
“It’s a thriving place for the community where they’re able to express themselves,” said Rich.
All kinds of musicians were brewed up in this pot. Other legends of the Jive draw in customers too, like actor Keanu Reeves, who starred in the 1990 film Love You to Death, portions of which were filmed there. You can play pool at the same pool table that Reeves did. He offered to buy the coffee pot building for $1 million and move it to Hawaii. Danette’s dad turned the offer down.
The Java Jive belongs in Tacoma — and it has a committed family that has made it legendary. And a coffee pot hanging out in Hawaii? It just seems better suited for the gloomy, cool, and wet Pacific Northwest. Don’t you think?