How It's Done looks at secrets, curiosities and mysteries behind Northwest icons and traditions. If you visit the Northwest Folklife Festival...

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How It’s Done looks at secrets, curiosities and mysteries behind Northwest icons and traditions.

If you visit the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center over the next few days, you’ll soak the senses in music, dance and food. While you’re at it, you can get a literal soaking at the International Fountain, where kids and adults — many fully clothed — frolic in shooting jets of water. It’s a tradition in which normally sensible people become wanton water nymphs, mesmerized by the power of a fountain pulsing with music.

Built in 1962 for the Seattle World’s Fair, the fountain has always been a community gathering place — even more so after a 1995 makeover made it more accessible and exciting. For the longest time, I’ve half believed in a Wizard-of-Oz-type character under the fountain, some man behind a curtain, pulling levers to produce special effects in time with music. Turns out, I wasn’t that far off because the wizard who keeps it all going — along with his crew of nine — is Ben Willard, chief engineer. He’s been maintaining the International Fountain, plus much of the Center’s machinery, for the last 27 years.

He even looks the part — with long, woolly-white hair pulled back in a tidy braid, and colorful tattoo art winding up both arms.

This wizard works out of an anonymous room on the north side of the Center, where a flat-screen monitor displays the fountain’s programs — activated by mouse click.

More impressive is the inner sanctum 30 feet under the fountain itself, which, while confirming the absence of a wizard, nevertheless holds impressive gadgets and gear, a noisy place full of screeching pumps and the clatter of falling water.

Above ground, it’s important to understand the fountain’s layout to competently watch the performance. Willard explains that around the fountain’s perimeter, there are round holes in a granite base. Those are the “micro shooters,” jets of water that go straight up. After the micro shooters, you’ll see a ring of lights. Then comes the stainless steel dome, which is covered with plate-sized round, silver nozzles. Those produce the familiar “fleur-de-lis” pattern. Circling the top are four “super shooters,” powerful people-pleasing blasts that fire like geysers.

I cornered him long enough to get the inside story on how the thing works:


Q: How high up does the water go from the super shooters?

A: More than 100 feet — maybe 150 feet.

Q: And where does the water come from?

A: There’s a moat of water that feeds the micro shooters, and under that, the main moat for the fleur-de-lis and super shooters. It’s all recycled through a sand pump; the water’s filtered and treated, so it’s safe for people to play in.

Q: How is this fountain different from the original?

A: The old one was high-tech for its time but kind of clunky. The people who designed the new one also designed the fountains at the Bellagio Las Vegas. We have different programs with water choreographed to the music. The old fountain didn’t have micro shooters or super shooters and it had big rocks around it so people couldn’t get close. We wanted the new one designed for interaction with people. We want people in the water.

Q: In terms understandable to an English major — me — how does the fountain work?

A: Pumps push the water through pipes and relays are fired to open and close the valves, allowing water out of each nozzle. The pump speeds change, depending on how many nozzles are firing at one time, and this change in speed increases or decreases the water pressure to maintain a constant height. There’s a sensor that will also increase or decrease the pump speed and pressure — depending on how windy it is outside. This keeps the fountain water from blowing out of the bowl and helps conserve water.

Q: There’s fog, too. How is that produced?

A: We use a mist pump. The nozzles are small, the size of pinheads. Because the water is under so much pressure, when it’s forced through such small holes, it creates a mist or fog.

Q: It’s quite an effect.

A: Oh yeah. When the fog rolls out and the music starts — boom — the show just takes off.

Q: How many shows are there?

A: We have 10 different programs we run during the day, and in between those we run the fleur-de-lis. That’s just the basic fountain configuration with music provided by the Seattle Center — not choreographed. In the morning, we start with the program called “The Big Show.” It’s 13 minutes long. Usually, for festivals we run the fleur-de-lis because of its medium height so that food tents and vendors don’t get sprayed.

Q: So it’s all done by computer. There’s nobody watching a monitor so you can spray people as they go by, anything like that? Because I have a friend who thinks it’s on purpose. He’s seen people standing near the fountain in dry clothes and then a spigot will open up just where they are. It looks suspicious.

A: (laughing) Well, no, but if you go down there, you’re gonna get wet. Anyway, maybe he thinks he doesn’t want to get sprayed but in his heart, he does.

Q: I see people try to sneak up on the fountain when it’s quiet, between programs.

A: Yeah, it gets calm and that lures them in, then bam — the water goes off.

Q: You’ve been doing this a long time. Does it ever get old?

A: I love it. On a hot day in the summer this whole place is packed. My crew and I take pride in keeping the fountain working for people to enjoy.

Freelancer Connie McDougall of Seattle: