IT REALLY WAS a grand time, the year that Seattle became a big city. That was 60 years ago, and if today happens to be a sunny spring day, visit the 74 acres where it all took place. That would be Seattle Center, site of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The likelihood of such a massive civic project ever happening here again is pretty much zero.
In our fractious times, it’s hard to imagine the Seattle City Council teaming up with the Downtown Seattle Association and deciding: Let’s have a great big fair and build an Opera House, and a Coliseum, and a Science Center, and work with private enterprise to put up a Space Needle and, why not, run a Monorail!
Then, though, on April 21, 1962, The Century 21 Exposition, its official name, opened. It ran for six wonderful months with nearly 10 million visitors. Unlike many other world fairs, Seattle’s made a profit.
But more important than the $10 million profit, the fair left Seattle a legacy of all those venues we still use today.
The Coliseum, as one example, hosted a classic Beatles show in 1964, two years after the fair. It was where the Seattle SuperSonics had their 1979 NBA championship run. Now, under the name Climate Pledge Arena, it hosts the Kraken hockey team, the WNBA’s Storm and, hope of hopes, someday the return of NBA basketball.
There at least should be a plaque at Seattle Center honoring a man named Al Rochester, who died in 1989 at age 93. He’s remembered by local history buffs, and otherwise forgotten.
But without Al, as everyone called him, there would not have been a World’s Fair here.
Says his son, Junius Rochester, 87, “My dad was a very outgoing member of the city council, active in a number of clubs, what you might call a ‘man about town.’ ” He was such an ebullient personality that during the Korean War, Al was the city’s “official greeter” to a half-million returning military personnel.
Al had a vision. He wanted his hometown to hold another big, magnificent fair, just like the one he remembered fondly from his childhood.
That was the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, held at what now is the University of Washington campus. Its legacy includes buildings, the Drumheller Fountain and the astounding mountain view at Rainier Vista.
In 1909, Al was 14 and worked at the exposition slicing bread at a food concession. Such a job existed because presliced bread wasn’t marketed until 1928. Al had a pass and spent his free time roaming the fair.
HERE IS ONE scenario we probably couldn’t repeat today: In January 1955, Al brought his 1909 memories to lunch at the Washington Athletic Club. He then was on the Seattle City Council.
Attending the lunch were two executives from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, plus Ross Cunningham, the editorial page editor of The Seattle Times. It was at such gatherings that plans for the city got tossed around.
In his book “Meet Me at the Center,” now-retired Seattle Times reporter Don Duncan tells how one of the chamber execs chided Rochester, “Hey, Al; when you going to do something about that World’s Fair we talked about?”
Cunningham said The Seattle Times would support the idea of the fair, and he assumed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, then vibrant as a print paper, would be on board.
Al got his fellow council members to pass a resolution asking the state legislature to set up a World’s Fair exploration commission. The legislature obliged.
Heading the commission was Eddie Carlson, 43, a graduate of Seattle’s Lincoln High and the University of Washington, whose later career would include working as the head of Westin Hotels and then United Airlines.
The next year, in 1956, by a 3-to-1 margin, Seattle voters approved a $7.5 million ($77 million today) bond for a civic center. The legislature added another equal amount.
CARLSON BEGAN HOLDING daily 7 a.m. breakfast commission meetings at a couple of downtown hotels. They were all-guys meetings.
“The only woman there would have been serving coffee, and certainly not sitting at the table, unless as a secretary taking shorthand,” says historian Paula Becker, who along with another historian, Alan J. Stein, wrote “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its Legacy.”
And, she says, “As far as I know, there were no people of color involved. It probably didn’t cross their mind. It wasn’t on their radar.”
To make space for the fair, more than 200 houses, duplexes and multiplexes, and commercial structures had to be demolished.
“It wasn’t very difficult. A lot of those houses were run-down,” says Becker.
Still, imagine trying to demolish 200 private structures for a civic project in today’s Seattle.
“We just have a more open public process,” says Becker about public-works decisions in the Seattle of 2022. “This ‘old boys’ network, civic insiders who do good,’ I just don’t think it works that way anymore.”
Also, says John M. Findlay, UW history professor emeritus with a specialty in our Northwest, “It isn’t hard to do big projects if a fairly narrow slice of the population is running the show.”
These days … well, he says, “Surely a little discord and dysfunction are worth it, if it means wider participation in decision-making.”
NOW, LET’S TAKE a selective trip to the fair that put Seattle on the map:
When Elvis gifted the governor a phony ham
In 1962, Elvis Presley was 27, still svelte and hunky (although no longer in his rebel phase), making formulaic Hollywood movies.
On Sept. 5, he and his nine-man entourage arrived in Seattle from Los Angeles in two vehicles. He was starring in the musical “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” whose plot was something about a crop duster who loses his plane because of his partner’s gambling, and they end up hitching a ride to the fair, and Elvis puts the moves on a kindhearted nurse.
In a Sept. 12 story, the P-I reported that Elvis was mobbed by mostly teen girl fans wherever film crews set up shop — “literally thousands flock to the spot (to be held back at a respectable distance by approximately 40 off-duty Seattle policemen) … ”
Albert Fisher, 80, of Los Angeles, tells about the unusual ham gift. He’s had a long career producing hundreds of TV programs, ranging from “The Merv Griffin Show” to programs for the History Channel and other outlets.
In 1962, he was 20, and his job at the fair was being a television and movies liaison.
“It came out, a ham from Elvis’ farm in Tennessee had been promised to [Washington governor] Albert Rosellini. But there was no ham from the Tennessee farm,” remembers Fisher.
A ham had to be found. It fell to a young advertising guy, Dick Friel, who would later become well-known in Seattle promotion circles, to buy one. He found a nice big ham at the A&P supermarket in Lower Queen Anne.
Friel’s widow, Sharon Friel, says her husband was told by Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, who controlled everything around Elvis, “to burn the hell” out of the ham. “He didn’t want to have it look like it had just been purchased.”
The photo-op took place with a “bewildered” Rosellini, the P-I reported. The governor then gave the ham to the State Patrol captain accompanying him, who also was quoted as sounding bewildered.
Fisher says Elvis took a liking to him, and after the fair was over in October, brought him to Los Angeles to be the technical adviser on the film. He was put up for a week in a bungalow at the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel.
The studio had re-created a portion of the Space Needle restaurant and even shipped the actual table settings from Seattle. Photos taken of the skyline view were used to create a mural on rollers. The movie crew slowly moved the mural to mimic the restaurant rotating.
When the movie was released, Fisher says, he excitedly went with friends to see his name on the credits. But when it came to “technical adviser,” it was credited to Parker.
“He took it from me. I was crestfallen,” says Fisher.
The Bubbleator hasn’t stopped mesmerizing us
Really, what it is, is a translucent acrylic shell, 19 feet in diameter, in which you can cram 100 people. Especially if you command them, “Please move to the rear of the sphere.” If you’re old enough to have attended the fair, you remember that directive.
At the fair, The Bubbleator was the gimmicky elevator that took fairgoers up one floor in what is now Climate Pledge Arena.
They then were immersed in what was, for that time, a multimedia presentation of “The World of Tomorrow.”
The presentation featured 3,200 4-foot-square aluminum cubes meant to appear to be floating, and onto which images were projected: From the Greek Acropolis to Marilyn Monroe to personal helicopters to, oops, as a warning, a nuclear bomb exploding. The whole thing used 500 miles of wiring, 140 loudspeakers and several hundred film projectors.
And all these decades later, what’s most remembered about that exhibit?
The Bubbleator. Simple and hypnotic.
Which helps explain why these days, tourists keep showing up at Gene Achziger’s home in Des Moines. They type in “Bubbleator” on Google Earth, and it zooms right to his place.
He bought The Bubbleator for $1,000 back in 1985.
At the time, he was a copy editor in the features department at the P-I, and Jean Godden, later a Seattle City Councilmember, was writing a notes column. She asked Achziger to find out what happened to The Bubbleator, which had stayed at Seattle Center for years but then was chucked during remodeling.
Achziger did a little digging and found it had been donated to Seattle Children’s hospital, which didn’t know what to do with it, so it was storing the sphere in a warehouse. The guy in charge of the warehouse was eager to get rid of The Bubbleator, then taken apart into eight pieces, and he saw in Achziger a potential buyer.
Says Achziger about buying it, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The pieces sat in a pasture at his parents’ Tacoma property until Achziger built his current home and realized what he’d do with the historic structure: Put it right in front by the home’s entrance, and turn it into a greenhouse.
The greenhouse hasn’t quite worked out, says Achziger.
“It’s concave and acts like a magnifying glass,” he says. “It fries the plants. The hot air soars to 120 [degrees].”
Achziger did have an exhaust system going through the concrete pad on which The Bubbleator sits, but the water table on his property has risen and it fills the exhaust pipe. He has thought of drilling through the acrylic panels but worries they’ll shatter because they’re so old.
Except for decorating The Bubbleator with lights during the holidays, it sits empty.
That doesn’t matter to the visitors who show up. Molly recently left him a note, “Thank you for sharing The Bubbleator with the world!”
Naughty times at the fair
Yes, the World’s Fair featured science, space exploration and the likes of pianist Van Cliburn. But, according to the late historian Murray Morgan in “Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World’s Fair,” the fair’s commission also heard from politicians who believed an art exhibit would not draw as many crowds as a “skin show.”
Hence, “more base attractions,” according to HistoryLink, and the arrival of Gracie Hansen, “best remembered for presenting shapely showgirls in her glamorous Las Vegas-style burlesque nightclub” at the fair.
She was “a most improbable individual to fulfill that role,” writes Peter Blecha on HistoryLink. “She was a divorced, backwoods gal, with poor health, a garishly frumpy style and no detectable musical skill.”
Her “Night in Paradise” show at a 700-seat restaurant-theater managed to survive the Seattle Censor Board (its official name was the Seattle Board of Theater Supervisors, and by 1970, it had been disbanded).
Morgan wrote the board “was persuaded to raise its eyes to the heavens while the girls bared their breasts.”
Celebrities and more celebrities
Numerous famous people came to the fair. John Wayne. Robert F. Kennedy. Richard M. Nixon. Walt Disney. The Shah of Iran. Billy Graham, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Prince Philip stopped by, piloting his own plane from a trip to British Columbia for fishing and riding horses. Nobody had told him he’d be asked to say a few words at the fair.
In the 2020 documentary “When Seattle Invented the Future,” fair special events coordinator Louis Larsen remembers the prince as “a stuffed shirt,” who said, “What am I, a trained seal?” He went to the mike and was brief: “I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am. And a very good afternoon to you all.” Then he turned away.
Albert Fisher has a much different memory of famed conductor Igor Stravinsky, then 79, who was there on the fair’s opening night to guest-conduct the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at the new Opera House.
“He was frail and had to be helped up to the podium, with his hands kind of shaking,” says Fisher. “Then he picked up the baton, ready to start, and this frail old man became a 25-year-old. It was amazing to watch.”
Astronaut John Glenn visited the fair, along with a Life magazine entourage.
In 1959, in the early days of television, Life reached a mass audience with its picture spreads. NASA and the magazine signed a contract for the astronauts’ exclusive life stories. The spacemen earned thousands of dollars for sometimes-staged events about their lives.
Such a staged event took place when Glenn came to Seattle for the World’s Fair. NASA was a major exhibitor, for a time even displaying Glenn’s original space capsule.
On May 9, 1962, the astronaut stayed at the North End home of a Marine buddy of his from their fighter squadron days. That was Lt. Col. Richard Rainforth, the Sand Point Marine Corps Air Reserve commandant.
The next day, The Seattle Times ran a front-page story about how Rainforth’s son, Kenny Rainforth, 14, had decorated the walls of his bedroom, ceiling to floor, with photos and news clippings of Glenn’s accomplishments, along with model airplanes and rockets.
“Just to make you feel at home,” Kenny was quoted as telling Glenn.
Well, not quite.
Ken Rainforth, 74, of Kapaa, Hawaii, says all those decorations in his bedroom were put up by a Life magazine photographer. The decorations came down after a couple of days.
The reason The Seattle Times got the photo was because Johnny Closs, a staff photographer, was a neighbor of the Rainforths.
Rainforth says he admired Glenn, but, “My real hero was my dad.”