By Steve Dunkelberger
The year was 1927. Charles Lindbergh made his solo, nonstop transatlantic airplane flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences formed. The carving of presidential faces on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota began. And, Tacoma’s historic Java Jive poured its first cup of coffee. Beer would come later. America was “a dry nation” thanks to Prohibition, after all.
Bob’s Java Jive, at 2102 South Tacoma Way, started pouring steaming cups of joe as the Coffee Pot Restaurant, a working-class diner and pie shop that served the thousands of furniture and pickle makers who toiled in the Nalley Valley. Those operations are gone, but the Java Jive remains.
Designed by Bert Smyser for local veterinarian Otis Button to operate as a restaurant, the concrete behemoth was crafted on the tide flats, shuttled to its location in sections, and simply bolted together onsite, making it one of Tacoma’s first prefabricated buildings. It was a popular spot for South Sound travelers who found themselves chugging through town on Highway 99 in the days before Interstate 5, which did not open for another generation.
The cafe’s coffee pot architecture was an immediate landmark that served a Pavlovian trigger for generations of drivers to pull over for a quick bite and leg stretch.
Serving more beer than coffee these days, the Java Jive’s interior tells the story of America as well as Tacoma.The red bar seats date back to its early days, showing decades of graffiti of proclaimed love and loss and wear from thousands of nights of beer spills and drunken hookups, and the jukebox remains a relic of the 1940s.
Once a famous hang out for Tacoma crooner Bing Crosby and film stars Harold Lloyd and Clara Bow, the stage that once offered go-go dancers now offers up-and-coming bands a place to play. It served as an incubator for groups like the Ventures in the late 1950s, after the roadside eatery changed to a night spot in 1955, the year it gained its current name. It had also been known as Harold Elrod’s Coffee Pot and Geneva’s Tavern before taking its name from a song by the Ink Spots. The Wailers, who released their big hit “Louie Louie” in 1961, played there.
The History Channel’s “Hit the Road” also did a segment on the historic dive bar and the fact that its iconic 25-foot-tall coffee pot design once housed “Jave” and “Jive,” two chimpanzees. They apparently liked to play the drums. It is rumored that famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper showed up after his mid-air jump with bundles of cash strapped to his chest.
Noted artist and film star Teddy Haggarty and Dan Richholt painted its exterior mural in 1999.
The Jive was placed on the city’s roster of historic places in 2003 and added to the national register in 2014. It is also immortalized by local artist Chandler O’Leary as the Queen of Hearts in a commemorative deck of playing cards of Tacoma landmarks.
And yes, it still offers coffee.