Seattle Artifact

Teatro ZinZanni is Seattle’s Moulin Rouge

The cabaret is celebrating 25 years

By Brad Holden January 12, 2024

Teatro ZinZanni mixes comedy, cabaret, spectacle, and music.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

A new and exciting form of entertainment arrived in Seattle when Teatro ZinZanni first opened here in 1998. The unique cabaret operated out of an antique dinner tent and featured a motley assortment of contortionists, trapeze artists, and magicians, with live music delivered by Ann Wilson of Heart and a five-course meal prepared by local chefs. One local newspaper described Teatro ZinZanni as “an exuberant spectacle,” and its immersive blend of delicious food and avant-garde exposition landed perfectly in ‘90s-era Seattle.

The real star of the show, though, was the tent itself. Known as “Palais Nostalgie,” the 285-seat spiegeltent is an antique cabaret tent decked out in red-velvet curtains, mirrored walls, and carved wooden booths. Originally used as a traveling pavilion in the early 1900s, it is one of the few surviving such tents in existence. Norm Langill, the creator of Teatro ZinZanni, first encountered one during a trip to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. He was instantly transformed by the spiegeltent’s mystique, and after learning about their history and how they were being used for dinner cabarets throughout Europe, he deftly managed to acquire one and have it shipped here to Seattle.

Once the tent arrived, Langill decided to create his own European-style dinner cabaret. He was the perfect person to put together such an event given his extensive background in the local entertainment industry. Once described as a “Seattle uber-impresario,” Langill founded the One Reel production company, whose first creative endeavor was putting together a vaudeville show for the 1972 Bumbershoot festival. He then ran Bumbershoot for more than three decades, and was also behind the Summer Nights at the Pier summer concert series, as well as the WOMAD world music festival. Blending his longtime career in show biz with his love for European cabaret and American cirque, Langill created what would become the very first Teatro ZinZanni. As he declared at the time, “This is a whole new concept in live theater for America.”

Langill’s first major task was finding a suitable location that could properly accommodate the grandeur of the spiegeltent. Being the centerpiece of the entire production, the tent has often dictated the show’s direction. In fact, Teatro ZinZanni has moved locations several times, highlighting the fact that spiegeltents were specifically built to be mobile. The show’s first location was on Mercer Street, near the Seattle Center, where it dazzled audiences for a 14-month run. In 2002, they moved to a new site in Belltown and operated there for five years before returning to their original location in 2007.

A decade later, the Mercer Street location was sold to developers, putting the future of the show in jeopardy. By this time, it had developed a pretty dedicated fan base and several local celebrities jumped to Teatro ZinZanni’s support, including members of Pearl Jam, John Richards of KEXP, local chef Tom Douglas, and various Seattle-based business owners. By 2018, the quest for a permanent home appeared to be resolved when Teatro signed a lease for a rather idyllic location at the former Redhook Brewery site in Woodinville. Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and the resulting financial woes derailed everything. Once again, Teatro ZinZanni faced an uncertain future.

For most businesses, such financial turbulence and chronic homelessness would represent imminent closure. But Teatro ZinZanni has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. In the early American circuses of the 19th century, if any sort of pandemonium broke out — such as an animal getting loose or the sudden injury of a performer — it was the ringmaster who was in charge of steadying the ship and keeping the show moving forward. As a devotee of old-time circus culture, Langill seems to embody this fortitude. In the case of Teatro ZinZanni, the guiding principle has always been that “the show must go on.”

Indeed, as a testament to its nomadic resilience, Teatro ZinZanni managed to survive the pandemic and resurfaced in 2022 for a brief run in the SoDo neighborhood. Currently, Teatro ZinZanni is enjoying a residency at the luxurious Sanctuary Grand Ballroom in downtown’s Lotte Hotel. The opulent ballroom was originally built as a church in 1910, therefore providing the perfect atmosphere for the show’s flashy theatrics. The spiegeltent — which has since become a cherished mobile artifact — currently sits in temporary storage, though parts of it, such as the mirrored walls, have cleverly been incorporated into the show’s set design, thereby allowing the show to maintain its original ambience.

Kevin Kent combines interactive comedy with drag queen theatrics as “Cookie.”

Filling the Frame Photography, courtesy of Teatro ZinZanni

The current show also features two performers from the original show. Tim Tyler was an early cast member who was recruited to join Teatro ZinZanni after Langill saw him perform at a dinner tent show in Germany. A veteran performer who was once part of a 1970s-era hippie circus group known as “The Mushroom Troop,” Tyler taught himself how to juggle, ride a unicycle and play the ukulele — all of which he incorporates into his various stage acts. In the current show, Tyler’s jovial character can best be described as a surreal maître d,’ welcoming people to the zany world that is Teatro ZinZanni, while also singing and performing his famous mouth-juggling act.

Another original performer is Kevin Kent, who combines interactive comedy with drag queen theatrics, resulting in the memorable stage persona, “Cookie.” He has intermittently performed as this character since the very first Teatro ZinZanni, with an act that involves plucking random people out of the audience and then bringing them onstage to be part of the evening’s entertainment.

Kent tells me that he developed this routine after once having an encounter with a heckler. Rather than having a verbal confrontation, Kent pulled the offender onstage and made them part of the show. Kent’s routine is always in the spirit of good fun, and the audience members are usually willing participants. During an early Teatro ZinZanni performance in 1999, then-Gov. Gary Locke was spotted in the audience and “Cookie” pulled him onstage for some showtime antics, suggestively unbuttoning his shirt while having him wear a Viking helmet, resulting in hearty laughter from the audience. That same laughter can be heard in the current show, especially when somebody is unwittingly pulled on stage.

At this point, Teatro ZinZanni has become a Seattle institution, serving as the city’s own Moulin Rouge. It is unknown if Teatro ZinZanni will remain at the Lotte Hotel or if it will continue to wander the local landscape, perpetually in search of a home. Either way, the famous “Palais Nostalgie” tent is ready for service, and local audiences have proven that they are happy to follow the show wherever it may go.

Brad Holden

Illustration by Arthur Mount

 

 

 

Brad Holden is an amateur historian and is the author of two books: “Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners and Graft in the Queen City,” and “Alfred M. Hubbard: Inventor, Bootlegger and Psychedelic Pioneer.” Check out his Instagram page @seattle_artifacts for more interesting tidbits about Seattle’s history.

Follow Us

The Power Of Quitting

The Power Of Quitting

Giving something up is never easy, especially because society rarely rewards such behavior

I’m not a quitter... llustration by Arthur Mount

Selling Seattle

Selling Seattle

New effort from Visit Seattle showcases the city’s stunning beauty

Visit Seattle’s new three-and-a-half-minute destination video is worth bragging about...

Echoes & Sounds

Echoes & Sounds

Seattle institution KEXP has recently launched ambitious new programs highlighting unique Indigenous and Asian music...

MoPOP, Hip-Hop, and the Power of Pop Culture

MoPOP, Hip-Hop, and the Power of Pop Culture

Michele Smith leads MoPOP into a new era

Michele Smith is coming up on a year as chief executive officer of Seattle institution MoPop. Her passion remains as strong as ever... Photo by Linda Lowry