Seattle Center kicks off its 50th anniversary celebration with music and fun.

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With the haunting notes of a Native America flute, the flying feet of a Filipino drill team and the strains of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, Seattle Center on Saturday launched into the first day of a six-month celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair.

Five decades ago, Seattle took a step toward diversity. It was two years before the Civil Rights Act and the fair hosted 27 nations and invited local ethnic groups to show off their best.

The Seattle we know today is the fair’s legacy, said Saturday’s speakers. “In 1962, Seattle wanted to seize the future and the fair reflected it,” said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

The fair was the beginning of the Chinese Community Drill Team, now a staple at many Seattle events, and well known for their dazzling gold-gilded, cardinal costumes.

Performing 50 years later was special for the team, said Sofia Price: “It’s coming full circle.”

“It feels good, being there with all the other cultures,” said her teammate, Angel Fong.

“This event was the beginning of Seattle as a major city,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. “All the things that were done” in the city, including the Bagley Wright Theater, Seattle Opera, Seattle Art Museum, “spun out of what started here.”

Saturday’s ceremony included the recorded address of President John F. Kennedy, who, on April 21, 1962, opened the fair over the telephone.

In the recording, Kennedy said the accomplishments and inventions at the fair are “a bridge that carry us confidently toward the 21st century,” and he hoped the future would mean a “happy and peaceful world.”

From the stage at the ceremony, former Center manager Dave Hughbanks, who in 1962 worked in the city’s special-events office, recalled handling Kennedy’s call, making small talk with the president and mistakenly thinking he was talking to an aide until Kennedy finally asked him if it wasn’t time for him to speak.

Hughbanks also showed the audience where the former IBM and Standard Oil pavilions once stood.

And he pointed out where the Princess Phone — the first phone to be designed from a marketing rather than a utilitarian purpose — “was rolled out right over there.”

It was all amazing to Jerry Skilton, 54, who sported a Space Needle model on top of his cap as he waited for the Seattle Men’s Chorus to perform.

Skilton fondly recalled visits to the fair, remembers the Bubbleator rising out of water from a circle of lights, an ethereal voice advising visitors to “step to the rear of the sphere” as they entered.

Maria Salina remembered her father’s Argentina Restaurant, where the aroma of barbecue meat from an open pit drifted onto the grounds. Diners ranged from Walt Disney celebrities to Dizzy Gillespie.

Whether it was Saturday or 50 years ago, visitors were basking in sunshine by the spray of the International Fountain as computer-generated music played.

Tall and statuesque as the Needle itself, Karen Choyce, who was 2 years old when the fair opened, glided around the grounds, clutching a Space Needle replica and wearing a hat with a Space Needle on top. She attracted a throng of photographers.

“If the Statue of Liberty and the Space Needle had a child, it would be me,” she said.

Choyce said she had dressed for the occasion like she would dress for the party of an old friend.

“This is the place we’ve come to all our lives.”

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com.