The 1962 World's Fair: A Timeline

An overview.

January 20, 2012 Published in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met

The Begining
The A-Y-P Started It All 

Century 21 wasn’t our first go-round. The 1962 extravaganza was first conceived as an anniversary of Seattle’s first and smaller world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. On the Pay Streak midway at A-Y-P, a Baby Incubator Exhibit showed off preemies in new-fangled warmers, and the Igorrote Village exhibit allowed visitors to gawk at Filipino natives in thatched huts. “They were what we now think of as kind of politically incorrect,” says historian Paula Becker, coauthor of The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy. A-Y-P’s biggest legacy was less-cringeworthy: The fairgrounds shaped the then-tiny University of Washington campus.

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Funding the Fair
Organizers solicited some 300 local businesses to collectively invest up to $3 million to help offset the overall cost—$69 million—of producing the fair. Backers were promised that an average of 55,000 people would pay to enter the fair each day, and that the investors would receive 40 cents of every ticket sold.

A February 1960 prospectus titled “Your Investment in Century 21” painted the v gision of a futuristic metropolis, a city to which global denizens would flock en masse, wallets perpetually open. The rhetoric ranged from promises of new factories (“…as numerous industrial firms are favorably exposed to the benefits of the Northwest for plant location”) to ideological missiles in the Cold War (“the benefits of our free enterprise system will be effectively displayed”).

By December 1960, the prospectus had succeeded; Joseph Gandy and the organizing committee had topped their $3 million goal—with $250,000 to spare.

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The World’s Fair Committee

Joseph Gandy, a Ford dealership owner, would become fair director and the face of Century 21—newspaper columnists took to calling the expo Gandyland—but it was city council member Al Rochester who lit the first spark. Over martinis at the Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle in January 1955, Rochester, who’d drummed up business for the A-Y-P’s exotic dance shows as a boy, floated his idea for a grand 50-year anniversary to the chamber of commerce director and a Seattle Times reporter. By February, the governor of Washington had signed a bill creating a World Fair Commission and appointed hotelier Eddie Carlson as chair. “If you want to get an important job done, ask the busiest man in town,” the Times mused, after Carlson instituted regular 7am breakfast meetings of the committee. Carlson thought big: Before the year was up, plans were unfolding for a world’s fair and a new civic center. With the added brainpower of Gandy and general manager Ewen Dingwall—a former mayoral assistant—Rochester’s nostalgia-driven festival soon became the Century 21 Exposition, the fair of the future.

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Rearranging Seattle’s Traffic
With attendance predictions for the fair nearing 10 million, Century 21 shifted its congestion-coping brainstorming sessions into overdrive a year early; making visitors feel welcome was priority number one. “We must saturate this program with good old Western hospitality,” the expo’s vice president of transportation and parking, A. W. Morton, told The Seattle Times in April 1961. And aside from urging fairgoers to take public transit—like the flashy new monorail that flew above Fifth Avenue—that meant beefing up parking options for those who insisted on driving.

Expo organizers did find room for about 20,000 parking spots around the city, including the paved-over Interbay landfill, which cost more than $230,000 to convert. Booths were built to sell fair tickets, and buses would be on hand to ferry attendees to Seattle Center. Even pet care was available for those who couldn’t leave their dogs and cats at home.

Interbay could accommodate 5,000 cars, yet on opening day less than 100 fair-goers pulled in. Weeks later the fair’s general manager counted just nine cars in the lot. What happened? While Morton hadn’t overestimated the number of drivers, he had failed to consider the entrepreneurial spirit of local residents who paved their own private lots to make a buck. By July 4, Interbay shut down entirely, but not before parking one more vehicle: the Goodyear Blimp.

Peter Canlis was nervous. “Dad told us about how this grand new restaurant spinning in the sky was going to take our business,” his son Chris Canlis recalls. Peter even considered building a new Canlis on the Seattle Center campus. Chris was 15 in 1962; today he’s owner emeritus of the family restaurant now run by his sons—a restaurant that remains, shall we say, impervious to competition. Spinning or otherwise.

Thanks to the World’s Fair, the city was on the culinary landscape. “Suddenly the world discovered Seattle,” Canlis says. “Till then I think people thought we lived in tents and teepees.” It also led to Seattle’s propensity for using its restaurants to prove itself to the world—a propensity that would ultimately lead to the development of the culinary genre everyone loves but no one can define: Northwest Cuisine. 

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The Needle Builder
Paul Collop was a builder, not a writer. He said so in his first column in The Seattle Times—“This writing dodge isn’t exactly my line,” he began—but the construction boss was soon waxing poetic about the Space Needle he was erecting. The Pacific Car and Foundry superintendent called it “this yellow Tower of Babel” and “a big praying mantis inside its cocoon.”

Soon Collop was getting fan mail for his weekly installments; Seattle ate up the updates on ring girders and the complaints that women visitors at the job site distracted his men, who “all stopped work to look.” Mostly he bemoaned the weather; poor conditions halted progress, and he was building the 600-foot structure in winter—a Seattle winter at that. The Needle was completed just in time, opening a month before the fair with construction debris still on site.

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Rejected Fair Ideas
Ways to promote the fair, as reported by The Seattle Timestwo weeks prior to opening day:

  • “Pouring crude oil into the crater of Mount Rainier and lighting it as a torch”
  • “Drop an expendable automobile from the top of the Space Needle”
  • “Walk an elephant from Denver to Seattle by way of Los Angeles”
  • “Have a camel ride up and down the Space Needle elevator”
  • “Launch and retrieve an astronaut in Seattle for the opening of the fair”
  • “Have a Harlem Globetrotter try to shoot a basket from the top of the Needle”
  • “Float a Goddess of Liberty statue in Puget Sound”

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The Space Needle Napkin
On a 1959 visit to Germany, World’s Fair Commission chairman Eddie Carlson saw Stuttgart’s concrete Fernsehturm tower and imagined one for Seattle. His napkin sketch of such a steeple—a doodle he recreated in the 1980s—was the basis for the Space Needle design.

The Main Event

The Fair Comes to Life
Called the Gayway—yes, titter away at the name—the fair’s midway would later morph into the Fun Forest. The U.S. Science Pavilion became the Pacific Science Center. Food concessions were located in the old armory that became Center House, itself about to transform again. The Sky Ride air tram spanned Century 21 and operated into the 1980s, when it was moved to the Puyallup fairgrounds.

Tour the fairgrounds:

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JFK Opens the Fair from Florida
Just before 3pm on Saturday, April 21, 1962, President John Kennedy, in a blue pinstripe suit, scissored across a beachfront manse in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was enjoying Easter weekend, and sat before a telegraph key and a telephone to deliver the opening speech for Century 21. His words—the vowels extra long, the final Rs complete no-shows—poured from speakers at the fairground stadium and over the eardrums of some 12,000 spectators: “I am honored to open Seattle’s World’s Fair today. What we show was achieved with great effort in the fields of science, technology, and industry.” He reached for the telegraph key linked to a Navy radio telescope in Maryland, which zeroed in on a radio wave emanated from Cassiopeia A, a supernova 11,000 light years away. The president pressed a gold button on the telegraph and the star’s faint signal brought the fairgrounds to life. Bells chimed. The Space Needle’s rotating restaurant spun. The International Fountain erupted. And party balloons floated up from the stadium like bubbles in a champagne glass. Century 21 had begun.

Watch President Kennedy open the fair:

Jet Crash in the ’Burbs
On April 21, a plane crash dampened the opening-day revelry after a fairground flyby went bad. The engines on an Air Force F-102 flamed out and the pilot safely parachuted into Lake Washington, but the jet’s impact killed two residents in Mountlake Terrace.

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The Home Of Tomorrow, Yesterday
With its modern living exhibit, General Electric tried to forecast the world to come. “I remember it had a closet that you would hang up your dry cleaning in, and the closet would dry clean your clothes,” says the fair’s director of film and television, Albert Fisher.

The full-scale model house was packed with electric miracles of the future touted by GE, including a push-button electric sink and an at-home computer that could track a household’s banking and grocery shopping. Today a local company that built its fortune on just such a computer continues imagining the home of the future. Since 1994, Microsoft has operated its own full-scale home on its Redmond campus, prototyping the still-in-development technology that, in the words of the official Century 21 program, is “consigned for delivery in the world of tomorrow.”

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Boeing Wants You
With science geeks flocking to Boeing’s backyard in 1962, the fair seemed like the perfect venue for Seattle’s aerospace outfit to recruit new talent. The company ran newspaper ads almost daily for its career booth near the Science Pavilion, promising “unique ground-floor opportunities” on futuristic projects like the Air Force–funded Dyna-Soar, a Space Shuttle–like glider.

The only problem? The Seattle economy in general swooned postfair. After adding a record 10,900 jobs between March and April 1962, the city’s economy tanked in ’63, with Boeing shedding 15,000 employees. And it only got worse that December when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara killed the Dyna-Soar before its first flight. Boeing recovered, of course, but not without having to watch competitor—and future acquisition—McDonnell Douglas get props for engineering NASA’s Gemini program.

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The Queen of Show Street
“Hello, suckers!” That was how Gracie Hansen greeted the crowd every night on Show Street, the adult section of Century 21. The Morton, Washington, native’s girlie and variety show was the biggest attraction. “Gracie said, ‘Astronauts like space, but they also need sex and cotton candy,’ ” says biographical playwright Don Horn. Besides Gracie Hansen’s Paradise, Show Street’s slightly seedy corner included adult puppets from Sid and Marty Krofft and a peep show.

Hansen was a kind of latter-day Mae West, who despite her diminutive height was a commanding presence in her furs and baubles. “She wore a lot of jewels, and she liked feathered things,” says longtime friend Gordon Malafouris. “She’d say, ‘What I can’t wear, I’ll carry.’ ” Before the show’s topless showgirl bits and vaudeville acts, she’d pop up on the Paradise stage to do some stand-up and a rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She kept it cleaner than her image, says Malafouris: “She never used vulgar or dirty words.”

Seattle residents largely tolerated the adult entertainment of Show Street, though there were the usual angry letter writers and one fully nude performance only lasted a few nights. The racy attractions underwent a midfair retooling, and at one point Hansen’s own show was better known for barks than boobs. “It was the thing that saved her show for a while—people came to see Louie the Dog,” says Horn. “She said, ‘I can’t believe the dog stole the act when I have topless women!’ ” 

Despite her (mostly) clean living, Hansen cultivated a naughty image and didn’t correct people who called her a madam. After the fair she continued to produce racy stage shows in Portland and eventually ran for governor of Oregon—coming in a respectable third. Her star grew during the fair, but her coffers didn’t; she lost money on her show, and titillation never outperformed the science exhibits. Despite her best efforts, says Horn, Hansen didn’t quite live up to her claim to “save the fair from science.”

The Belgian Waffle Invasion
Thanks to an enterprising man named Walter Cleyman, Seattle—heck, America—got its first taste of Belgian waffles in 1962. Though they would garner more national attention during the ’64 New York fair, the Euro noshes were introduced stateside at our expo. Cleyman traveled here from his native Belgium (waffle irons in tow) to shill from two stands, one a twee chalet on the Gayway.

“I’m probably like everybody else,” recalls the fair’s special events director Louis V. Larsen. “I don’t think I’d ever heard of a Belgian waffle before.” Then-novel toppings of strawberries and whipped cream, not to mention the complex crispiness of the waffles, would send eaters over the moon. (An “uncultured” customer could request syrup, reported Spokane Daily Chronicle.) “This unusual smell that nobody had smelled before penetrated the air,” recalls Seattleite Marie McCaffrey, an 11-year-old at the time.

Of all the fair’s far-flung delicacies—the Mongolian steak sandwiches, the Argentinean beef—Cleyman’s imports proved the runaway hit. To wit, strawberries occasionally ran out, at which point workers plucked pineapple from fellow food slingers. Newspaper reports have Cleyman pocketing more than $350,000 after churning out half a million treats.

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Welcome, Avant-Garde
The Beatles had yet to cross the pond, but there was a serious cultural invasion happening at Century 21, with fairgoers practically tripping over folk dancers from the Philippines and theater troupes from Korea and Japan. Of all the colorful international performers, French filmmaker Jean Herman snagged headlines with his untitled, “downbeat” four-and-a-half-minute film: “a montage of fast and frenetic photographs” of a chaotic modern city, wrote New York Times reporter Bosley Crowther. There were shots of rock bands and crowded city sidewalks, bra ads and models in stages of undress. Reactions were mixed. “The decidedly cynical implication, no matter how amusing it may be to more sophisticated viewers, seems to come as a considerable surprise amid all the progressive, upbeat, and forward-looking implications of the fair,” he wrote.

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Notable Century 21 Visitors

Igor Stravinsky conducted the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at the opening of the Opera House on opening day.

Richard Nixon, then an ex–vice president and candidate for governor of California, visited with his wife, Pat.

Bob Hope performed at the Aqua Theatre, where overflow seats were in rowboats floating in Green Lake.

Bill Gates was just six when he attended the fair; it could have been the first time he saw a computer.

Lassie, the dog star of the eponymous show, also visited the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.

Prince Philip piloted his own plane into Seattle.

Robert F. Kennedy spoke before a packed house and his children tried the rides on the Gayway.

Sammy Davis Jr. got raves for his revue at the Orpheum.

The Shah of Iran and his wife appeared on the second day of the fair, insisting on mingling with the crowds they attracted.

Walt Disney came to see how the fair adapted the crowd-control lessons of his own Disneyland.

Carl Sandburg read a selection of his poems on the fair’s closing day.

Count Basie reportedly complained about the acoustics during his fair performances, according to fellow arena headliner Benny Goodman.

Joan Baez, considered to be on the rise as a folk singer, took the stage at the Playhouse.

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The Crime Wave That Wasn't
It was supposed to be a pickpocket’s paradise—a sea of distracted humanity blinking at the marvels of the modern world, leaving billfolds and purses exposed for thieves to pluck. The Seattle Police Department dispatched 50 officers, which bolstered Century 21’s army of about 200 security guards. A total of 325 larcenies were reported—far below police predictions. Citywide, the biggest spike in crime was the plundering of parked cars (an activity that increased at least 100 percent over the previous year). But hardly a wallet or handbag ever left a fairgoer’s side. SPD told The Seattle Times that 16 pockets were reportedly picked in one day, but 14 of the wallets ended up in lost and found “with the money still in them.”


Christine Graham, age seven, was the fair’s four-millionth visitor on July 13, 1962.

By the Numbers
April 21–October 21, 1962
Fair Admission Adults $2, children $1
Space Needle Admission Adults $1, children 75¢
Out-of-State Visitors to Seattle 7 million
Attendance 9,696,936
Fair Income $23 million

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Image: Albert Fisher

It Happened to Albert Fisher
It’s the sort of thing you expect to see in, well, an Elvis Presley movie. Bright-eyed 20-year-old leaves his native New Orleans and, wham, the kid’s BFFs with the King himself. In 1962, Albert Fisher scored a job as director of TV and movies for the fair, which meant he rubbed elbow patches with the likes of Candid Camera’s Alan Funt, talk show host Merv Griffin, and newsman Walter Cronkite—all of whom filmed TV specials at the fair. And when Elvis Presley arrived in September to film It Happened at the World’s Fair (a musical that finds the King on the monorail, in the Space Needle, and fleeing security guards across the fairgrounds), Fisher and the singer struck up a friendship.

When local shooting wrapped, Elvis invited Fisher to Los Angeles to consult on the film—basically to make sure the sets looked like the Seattle World’s Fair. The opportunity resulted in a lifelong career in television and film. “Meeting Elvis and working on that film changed my life,” says Fisher, today a producer in Hollywood.

“We actually went on a couple of double dates while in Seattle. I was dating a Scottish girl at the time.” Elvis bought out the two back rows of the now-demolished Music Hall theater and he and his entourage—Fisher and the Scot in tow—slipped in after the film began and exited just before it ended, avoiding the notice of rabid fans. The film? Kid Galahad, starring Elvis Presley.

Rock out with Elvis in the trailer for It Happened at the World’s Fair:

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Peaceful Protests
On May 5, while fair attendees fantasized about life in the twenty-first century, 400 peaceniks staged a protest, but it was a far cry from the WTO rioters who would storm Seattle nearly four decades later. Repping groups like the Unitarians for Social Justice and Seattle Women Act for Peace, they called for an end to nuclear arms testing while marching calmly from City Hall to the fairgrounds.

Not only was it drama-free, the protest was the lone high-profile act of defiance during the fair’s run—unless you want to include the letters sent to Century 21 offices pooh-poohing a rumored visit by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

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The Cold War and Godless Communists
“I did not detect either angels or gods” in space, said Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov at his World’s Fair press conference. In the midst of the Cold War, his statements toed the atheist line of the USSR: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in man.” That stopped the presses.

Titov’s routine photo op instantly became a Cold War battleground, and Sharon Lund Friel of the fair’s press headquarters remembers the flap it caused: “It was offensive. But at the same time, some people were very suspicious of Russia. It was just the era we were living in,” she says.

Though Century 21 was a fair that revolved around the space age, Titov’s deity dis was only softened by American astronaut John Glenn four days later; he said, “The God I pray to is not small enough that I expected to see him in outer space.” It was the Cold War’s biggest mark on the fair—until the Cuban Missile Crisis coincided with closing day in October.

Brave New Fashions
Scan any crowd shot taken at the World’s Fair and beam with sartorial pride. Not even the kids wore jeans. And Vogue magazine sponsored thrice-daily shows at the Fashion Pavilion just east of the Needle. For $16 a day, local and regional models stepped out in pointy-toe rain boots, Norwegian-style jacquard sweaters, and, as one fashion journalist put it, “man-made wonder fabrics, science’s gift to modern women.”

Georgia Gellert, one of only two female expo executives—and the one in charge of fashion happenings—told a reporter that the imperative was to show visitors “why the American woman is the best dressed woman in the world.” But she might have secretly wanted to persuade the world that it was the Seattle woman, specifically, who was the best dressed and most elegant of them all. Gellert coaxed Mademoiselle and Town and Country into running World’s Fair fashion spreads. The latter gave 30 pages to Seattle’s brave new world: knife-pleated wool skirts, French ottoman knits, and elbow-gloved socialites.

In one image Lee Milburn, then a 21-year-old model and aspiring stockbroker, wears a structured Christian Dior coat in orange brushed wool from the Frederick and Nelson department store; in another, her own wasp-waisted coatdress from John Doyle Bishop, the most dashingly put-together couturier of the day.

View a slideshow of space-age fashions from Town and Country magazine, August 1962.

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Jobs for (Pretty) Women
What did it take to push the Space Needle elevator buttons in 1962? Apparently you needed to be tall, young, and hot. “Operators and starters must be at least five-six, good-looking and between 20 and 35,” The Seattle Times reported. It went without saying that these eye-pleasers were women, sometimes described in the newspaper by weight and hair color. Sounds about right, says anyone who’s seen Mad Men.

Not all the requirements were for aesthetics, says Louise Threadgill, who booked 7,356 skyward trips during her tenure as elevator operator: “You had to be tall because they wanted you to be able to see above the crowd.”

Aside from the “pretty” requirements over at the Space Needle, fair employment was a boon to most young women, says HistoryLink historian Paula Becker. Sharon Lund Friel, who despite being only 22 years old, held a management position in the press office, noticed how the fair was being spun. “For men there’s the science center, and for women there was the fashion pavilion,” she says. “We were right on the cusp of the women’s movement. We accepted a lot of things without saying, ‘Jeez, they’re not talking about the waist size of the man I’m working right next to.’ ” Still, she had no problem managing a staff of male press aides.

Of the hundreds of people honored during the six-month fair, says Becker, most of the women highlighted were beauty queens. “If you visited the fair and your name was mentioned [in the press], you probably had a crown on your head,” she says.

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Guess Man
Walter Straley, president of Pacific Northwest Bell, had a lot of confidence in the future. In April 1962, just before the fair, he offered The Seattle Times a projection of what the region would look like by the twenty-first century. He predicted four bridges would stretch across Lake Washington (nope) and one across Puget Sound (nada) and a monorail “between Tacoma and Everett, looping around Lake Washington” (we wish). But what Straley lacked in transportation prognostication he aced in forecasting human fertility. He predicted that the nine counties comprising the Puget Sound region—at the time home to a measly 1.7 million—would have a combined population of 4.3 million. According to the 2010 census, it’s 4,372,392.

NYC Doesn't Heart Seattle
We’ll just assume the Big Apple was suffering from prefair jitters—the city was gearing up for its 1964 world expo—because something has to explain the acrimony it seethed toward us in ’62. Kenneth Keating, U.S. Senator from New York, fired the first salvo months before the Seattle fair opened when he declared Century 21 “small time.” Later, media personality Dorothy Kilgallen piled on with the prediction that “nobody would drive across the country just to see some science exhibits,” The New York Times reported.

Kilgallen was wrong, of course. And her city would soon feel the pain, especially when it came to profits. “New York nitery operators have found something new to worry about,” Variety reported in June 1962. “Latest figures on advance party bookings indicate summer business will drop an estimated 25 percent because of the increasing draw of Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition.”

While some Empire Staters eventually came around—The New York Times published a handful of travel stories recommending the fair—other NYC media outlets dogged Century 21 organizers till the end. “They’re fighting like crazy in Seattle,” groused Emily Genauer of the Herald Tribune.

Paul Thiry, lead architect of the fair, cried foul and suggested, according to The Seattle Times, that “the attempt to represent what has been ‘a heartwarming experience in cooperation’ as a battle royale among designers in Seattle is a New York ‘attitude,’ nourished by its own protective contemplation of the 1964 fair scheduled there.”

New York dropped the hate as its own event drew closer, but it may have had reason to feel threatened. While that city’s exposition was “four times the size and had a much more international feel than Seattle’s,” says Albert Fisher, who served as TV and film director for both fairs, “Century 21 has had a longer lasting, more visible legacy. New York has little to show for its fair today, but Seattle’s fair changed the city.”

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Million Dollar Display
It’s not uncommon to spot Space Needle–festooned frosted tumblers at mod stores around Seattle, but drinking vessels were just a slice of the ephemera on offer at the fair. Charms, ashtrays, whiskey decanters, medals, stamps, and coins all bore logos or scenes of the expo. Those looking to collect the coins found them at the Million Dollar Display. The name isn’t hyperbole—the attraction housed a million silver pieces minted in the early 1900s. Numismatists could purchase a nine-piece set of bronze or silver medallions for $28.50 and $112.50, respectively. Today complete collections fetch around $175 and $500.

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The Beam Up
Images from the fair were part of the first-ever live television broadcast between the United States and Europe. The pan-Atlantic broadcast, on July 23, 1962, featured 90 seconds of scenes from the fair, recalls Albert Fisher, Century 21’s TV and film director. The images bounced off Telstar 1, a satellite slingshot into the atmosphere days earlier. “The world,” says Fisher, “was really watching us then.”

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Imbiber's Dilemma
In light of Seattle’s strict liquor laws, the city’s restaurateurs had to make it easier for a visitor to get a drink. A campaign to allow liquor sales on Sundays gained momentum but didn’t succeed. So an underground economy thrived instead, recalls El Gaucho owner Paul Mackay. Drink-seeking visitors to Seattle soon learned that a hotel bellman or taxi driver was a reliable source of booze on Sundays or late at night.

In 1962, 21-year-old Mackay recalls that servers at bars and restaurants moved through dining rooms on Saturday nights, plucking cocktails and glasses of wine out of customers’ hands, before the stroke of midnight signaled the Sunday morning ban. “It created the kind of atmosphere where people drank incredibly because they knew at midnight it was over,” he recalls.

The hospitality industry’s ire at not being able to serve fairgoers on Sundays helped inspire the repeal of the Sunday Sabbath–keeping “blue laws” starting in 1966.

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Accidental Flashers
Among the vertigo-inducing amusements on the Gayway: the Wild Mouse mini rollercoaster, bumper cars, and, perhaps most unforgettable, the Rotor. For 35 cents a pop, Rotor riders—one Robert F. Kennedy, who visited the fair in early August, among them—stood against the inside wall of an enormous barrel, which, once it began spinning, pinned passengers to its surface via centrifugal force. After several dizzying rotations, the Rotor slowed to a stop and riders slid downward. Their clothes didn’t always immediately slide with them. For women in skirts or dresses, recalls the fair’s director of special events Louis V. Larsen, this meant an unintended peep show as they nearly slipped out of their garments. The phenomenon attracted many an impish fairgoer. Not that that’s why Kennedy took a ride.

The Legacy

The Monorail Campaign
You didn’t ride a monorail to work this morning, right? What was supposed to be the “transportation of the future” is now the tourist trap of the past, Seattle’s coolest Jetsons-style attraction. It was at first a financial success: The $3.5 million system recouped its cost before the fair was shuttered. But when, during the fair, the city got to vote on turning it into a citywide system, Seattle turned it down.

Flash forward to 1997. Cab driver Dick Falkenbury posted a sign that read, “Extend the Monorail,” at the corner of Broadway and John Street, then watched a driver park his bus and exit just to sign the attached petition. “People were so ready to sign,” he says. “It’s the only transportation system that actually works,” he adds. “Since it’s been built, after several earthquakes, we’ve never had to so much as realign the rails.” Indeed, after half a century, the train has long outlasted Germany’s now-defunct Alweg company that built it.

Falkenbury’s petitions—one of which gathered 18,000 signatures with just $2,100 in funds, he says—led to a series of initiatives and, eventually, the Seattle Monorail Authority, which collapsed in 2008 after spending $124.7 million in taxpayer funds and building nothing. Seattleites had become increasingly wary of costs and the towering tracks. “Maybe they grew up with parents who disliked this monorail intrusion upon Fifth Avenue back in 1962,” says German Alweg expert Reinhard Krischer, whose mechanical engineer father was one of three to build Seattle’s monorail.

University of Washington historian John Findlay calls the train a “spectacular failure” instead of the revolutionary rapid transit system it was meant to be: “That was a dream,” he says. “It’s kind of a toy.”

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We Got Cultured
By the time the fair was over, the 74-acre campus was primed for a cultural renaissance. The Civic Auditorium with its “barnlike interior” had been gutted and refurbished as a 3,500-seat opera house fit for the likes of Igor Stravinsky; across the way, the new 800-seat playhouse (now Intiman Playhouse) cried out for its own theater company. So once the fair’s gates shut for good on October 21, 1962, the city set about creating Century 21 Center Inc., an organization of civic leaders that, along with Allied Arts, would transform the fairgrounds into the arts and entertainment hub it is today.

Before the year was up, two new opera companies—Western Opera and Seattle Symphony’s opera arm—were clamoring to take advantage of the stately new venue. Rather than bleed each other dry, they merged to become Seattle Opera under director Glynn Ross. Four years later, it was one of the three most prolific opera companies in the U.S. (topped only by the Met and New York City Opera). Meanwhile, Allied Arts’ Robert Block and Bagley Wright, then-chair of Century 21’s performing arts committee, went stumping in New York City, looking for a director to lead a year-round professional theater company. A repertory company—with its large ensemble of actors—was like signing up for bankruptcy, but their risk paid off: In 1990, Seattle Repertory Theatre added “Tony-winning regional theater” to its tagline.

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Expos Go Green
As the name implied, Century 21 was all about blasting into the future, rather than preserving, or conserving, the past. Fairground construction felled blocks of old buildings, including an elementary school and a former fire station. Visitors marveled at General Motors’ fuel-chugging Firebird III powered by a gas-turbine engine, as well as a host of household-of-the-future devices that made liberal use of energy or disposable plastics.

In 1970, Earth Day was established. A year later Spokane’s delegation submitted bills to the state legislature seeking help in pursuing a world’s fair of their own. The bill’s introduction stated, “In the almost 10 years that have elapsed since Century 21, man’s place in nature and his relation to his environment has become the most critical concern of our state and nation.”

Spokane’s Expo ’74 was the first to have a conservation theme, “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.” While the Space Needle recast Seattle’s former skyline, Spokane’s fair was held on reclaimed industrial grounds. The event also celebrated the newly restored Spokane Falls, a roaring reminder of the Northwest’s more rugged days.

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Seemed Like A Good Idea
While Century 21 is widely regarded a success—it’s one of the few World’s Fairs in history to have paid for itself—not everyone involved came out on top. There was Spanish Village, a Spain-themed pavilion funded by Wallingford businessmen that went bankrupt, and Indian Village, a mock teepee encampment, the poor management of which left its temporary inhabitants even more destitute. On a smaller scale there were would-be entrepreneurs like Barbara Sharkey Smith, a first-time author who penned Seymour at the Seattle World’s Fair, about an anthropomorphic seagull (Seymour) whose gull’s-eye view of the expo was intended to appeal to kids. It didn’t. And when no one bought the book, Smith, a Capitol Hill mother of two, was stuck with 2,000 copies and was $1,400—about $10,000 today—in the hole. But, she told The Seattle Times, “A lot of people smarter than I took a much worse beating.”

Seattle Got Its Sports Arena
It gave us the Pacific Science Center, the Fun Forest, the Opera House—thanks, World’s Fair. But Seattle got more than arts and science. At least six weeks before the fair’s opening day, architect Paul Thiry was already contemplating how to remodel the Washington State Coliseum from a home for the Bubbleator to an arena. In fact, plans for converting the “hyperbolic paraboloid” into a sports venue capable of luring a pro franchise had begun a year before the Howard S. Wright Construction Co. broke ground in 1960.

So on March 7, Thiry offered his own vision of a postfair coliseum: an 18,000-seat arena that could host indoor track, tennis, and boxing—although hockey, most agreed, would be the “star tenant and moneymaker.”

Thiry had a strong ally in Dorm Braman, who as a city council member had campaigned for reelection by promising to turn the Seattle Center grounds into “something all Seattle can enjoy and profit from for many generations to come.” Braman was so committed to the $5 million project that after ascending to the mayor’s office in 1964 he successfully lobbied city council for an additional $1 million. That June, after a modest six-week delay, the renovated coliseum opened. And as expected, the Seattle Totems’ semipro hockey team was the first tenant. Seats with the best sight lines went for $3.50.

Ironically it was an NBA exhibition game in October 1966 that would set the course for the future of the coliseum. Nearly 9,000 basketball fans showed up for the tilt—featuring Seattle U alumnus Elgin Baylor—and opened the league’s eyes to the possibility of fielding a team in the Emerald City. Two months later, NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy announced Seattle would be the home of its 11th franchise. That the SuperSonics would be stolen away by Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett in 2008 makes Kennedy’s statement about the team’s owners all the more depressing: “We feel local representation is important to the success of the franchise.”

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We Learned to Love Science
Since the World’s Fair was dedicated to “Man in the Space Age,” the U.S. Science Pavilion got prime real estate—more than six acres. Most visitors made it to the exhibits about space, the scientific method, and an introductory 10-minute film by designers Ray and Charles Eames. And according to science, the experiences changed attendees.

University of Washington sociologist James B. Taylor quizzed exiting pavilion visitors in an extensive study, finding changed attitudes. “Science came to be seen as more feminine, excitable, and warm,” he wrote. Optimism was in the air as fairgoers left increasingly believing in “the likelihood of science eliminating crime and poverty” and with a greater consensus about the likelihood of a lunar landing by 1980. Science may have given visitors warm fuzzies, but it was still, Taylor noted, fuzzy: “The public’s conception of science became more vague…the public did not increase in understanding of the scientific method,” he noted.

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The City Skyline Changed Forever
Seattle was already acquainted with modernist architecture when Century 21 began, but the Space Needle’s unprecedented curves and columns—along with the fairgrounds’ other modernist flourishes—cemented the city’s movement away from more traditional buildings, says Peter Steinbrueck, architect, former city council member, and son of the late Victor Steinbrueck, who codesigned the Needle. “We never turned back after that.” And because Seattle zoning laws tend to corral skyscrapers downtown, the Needle remains a stark standout on the north end.

The space-age fairground structures marked the last major collaborative effort among the region’s top architects—including Museum of History and Industry and Frye Art Museum designer Paul Thiry, and Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the Pacific Science Center. Cities are more likely to import big-name architects for major civic projects, notes Steinbrueck; the postviaduct redevelopment of the waterfront hasn’t gone to local contractors.

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