Retro Rager

40 Years Ago, Boeing Threw a Party for the Record Books

Will the first person back in Seattle pick up 2,000 pounds of glitter?

By Stefan Milne August 20, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Boeing’s 1979 holiday party set a Guinness World Record.

“I’ve staked out a spot on the third balcony where I can jump, if things don’t go well,” Greg Thompson told The Seattle Times in 1979.

The occasion for his glib dread was a Boeing employee party he produced in the Kingdome—which took the Guinness World Record for the “largest Christmas party ever staged.” Boeing, right now, doesn’t scream yuletide magnanimity, but in 1979, less than a decade after its 60,000-person layoffs, which prompted the famous billboard—“Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights”—the aerospace giant was in a spirited mood.

Today, Thompson tells the story from his office in Interbay, thronged in green velour drapes. Earlier that year, he’d gone into Bill Boeing Jr.’s office—in his recollection it was Bill’s—with a model to pitch his idea for the show: Christmas trees, snow everywhere, three stages wrapped to look like presents, an ice rink. Kids riding a train that encircled the stadium floor. Thompson and his associates mimicked the show lights with flashlights. 

In Thompson’s telling, when the presentation ended, Bill Boeing threw back his head, let out a gusty exhale, and said, “Can you do it for a million dollars?”

“I said, ‘Sure.’ No idea what it would cost…. I think it cost damn close to a million dollars.”

Boeing gave out 130,000 tickets and Thompson and his crew enlisted 1,200 company volunteers and a cast of 2,506. The Seattle SuperSonics played the night before, so the group had only 12 hours to set up a show astounding in its raw stats: 1,000 Christmas trees, 100,000 lights, 150,00 white balloons (to simulate snow), more than 500 Boeing employees to help, 2,000 pounds of glitter.

During setup Thompson swaggered around like the director on a Hollywood epic, wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat and bell-bottom jeans. Volunteers inflated and tied balloons in the stands until they filled whole sections. Thompson brought in a “real fire engine and a real hydroplane and a real semitruck and had them parked all around with ribbons on so they looked like toys.”

By the time the show was set up, performers didn’t have time to finish a full rehearsal. Thompson took his third-level perch and directed the show via walkie-talkie: Cue the dancers! Cue the donkeys! Cue the people dressed as angels, hanging from the ceiling on cables! “We just sort of did it, you know, winging it.”

At the end Santa descended in a wooden sleigh to the sounds of “White Christmas.” Over 103,000 people attended the two performances, all because, Thompson claims, Boeing did the math: The company could give everyone a turkey, but this seemed cheaper.

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