Why does Seattle still care about the World's Fair?


By Keith Seinfeld

The Seattle World’s Fair – which opened 50 years ago this weekend – was pretty small on the global scale, compared to later World’s Fairs in Montreal or Vancouver, B.C., or Seville, Spain. It would seem tiny next to the immense Exposition in Shanghai in 2010.

But the memories of 1962 burn strong for those who attended. And historians and civic leaders say the legacy still matters today.

Even if you're brand-new to Seattle, you might have heard that once upon a time there was a World’s Fair here. Maybe, you even learned about it on an elevator ride – to the top of the 605-foot Space Needle.


‘Pack up your troubles’

Worlds Fair sign at 47th and Aurora, 1962. Wikimedia CommonsThe Needle is the most-visited tourist attraction in the entire northwest, and it has been since it opened. If you take one of the capsule-shaped elevators, with their great glass windows, on a 41-second ride to the observation deck, the elevator operators will always mention the legacy:

“The Space Needle has been here nearly 50 years. We were the centerpiece for the World’s Fair back in 1962,” said my guide, whose badge reads “Laura” on a recent trip to the top.

The view includes not only Puget Sound and the mountains in the distance, not only Queen Anne Hill and the downtown skyline, but also below you, the white arches of the Pacific Science Center, and the tent-shaped roof of Key Arena are clearly visible.

These are the Fairgrounds of the Century 21 Exposition, which, along with the Monorail, are the physical legacy – and what promoters were selling to the nation back in the spring of ’62.

A national marketing campaign included stories in Life Magazine and on the Ed Sullivan Show, as well as a 60-second TV advertisement, with a breathless narrator exclaiming:

“Everybody is planning to see Seattle's spectacular $100 million World’s Fair.”

Followed by a jingle that went:

"Pack up your troubles and forget your cares
Pack up your family,
And head for the fair – in Seattle."

This TV commercial also neatly captures the theme of the Fair, and the spirit of the times. As the narrator says,

“Welcome to the future …. Rocket ride to Mars in the breathtaking U.S. Science Pavilion. See the fabulous city of tomorrow, in the gigantic, wall-less, pillar-less Coliseum.”


Competition with the Russians

“It was sort of like the Puyallup Fair and a science fiction movie all in one.”

That’s the neat summary from Knute Berger, a Seattle writer and unofficial expert on World’s Fairs, having attended seven of them, starting with Seattle's, when he was an 8-year-old kid.

For the nearly ten million who attended, especially the kids, the excitement came from a combination of futuristic awe and all of the carnival aspects – rides that hadn’t been seen here before, exotic foods. People remember oddities ranging from a Chinese rickshaw, to an adults-only burlesque show.

The focus on science was almost accidental.

Originally, it was going to be a Western theme, “but Sputnik got launched, and suddenly you had a national call to arms that the space race was very important. [U.S. Sen.] Warren Magnuson told the fair organizers, if you make this fair about science I can get you federal money. And, so, they said, ‘Great!’”

It was perfect timing, given the cold war with the Soviet Union, says historian Bob Rydell of Montana State University. Rydell has written books on fairs going back to London’s Crystal Palace of the 1850’s and the giant fairs in Chicago and New York.

“Seattle was a terrifically important fair, because it comes fast on the heels of Sputnik and the fair is just widely important in positioning the United States culturally for cold war,” Rydell said.

Pres. John F. Kennedy was even scheduled to attend, during the final days of the Fair. But he had to cancel the visit, in October 1962, because the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.


The emotional tug of the Century 21 Exposition is still felt today, as witnessed by these comments from interviews and from KPLU’s Facebook page:

“I was 17, and what I especially liked was the magic of the fair. There was the Bubbleator, which was the elevator with a big bubble, and there was the science pavillion, and all this brand new architecture,” says Charlie Staadecker.

“I was a 9-year-old. We took a day off of school. I have vivid memories of the monorail ride going in. But to me I think the smell of the fair, the food from waffles to all the different ethnic foods, was something that was really different,” says Tom Norwalk, CEO of Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We bought tickets a year ahead of time. And the Bubbleator was so unusual at that time, and we stood in line for hours and hours,” says Marli Iverson.

“I was 5 years old, and we lived in Chehalis. The folks had a station wagon, and all I can really remember is the car trip,” with his three siblings in the backseat, says Howard Burton.

“I was a cook on ‘show street’ at a place called The TP Salmon Barbecue. Right in same area was Gracie Hanson’s girlie show …. For a 19-year-old male, it couldn’t have been better,” says Ralph Munro, former Washington Secretary of State.

Turning point in Seattle history

Despite crazy talk about life on Mars, or flying cars, the fair did help Seattle begin to see itself differently, says Berger. Before the Fair, Seattle was known as a dank logging town full of soldiers and sailors – stuck in the slow-lane. The skyline had hardly changed in the nearly 50 years since World War 1, when the Smith Tower went up.

“If you look at the 50 years since the Space Needle was built, you can’t even see the Smith Tower. There's an entire downtown modern city that exists now, that didn’t exist.”

Berger says he learned from the late Bagley Wright, a prominent real estate developer who had a hand in the Space Needle, that the fair helped boost investment and growth downtown, by giving banks the confidence to finance skyscrapers.

In a way, he says, you can see the fair as turning point in Seattle history – a break between the resource economy and the knowledge economy. It excited the region about science and technology, and impressed kids with the idea that anything’s possible. Both Paul Allen and Bill Gates have said they were influenced by visiting the fair as kids.


It's still here ...

Perhaps, the main reason the fair still matters, beyond the emotional tug it has on those who attended, is the physical footprint.

The fair had a little of everything, high-brow and low-brow, and clearly the main thing it left was its physical footprint.

The Space Needle is along with the Eiffel Tower, one of just a few World’s Fair symbols that are still known internationally. And the rest of the buildings at Seattle Center, from the Coliseum (now KeyArena) to the Pacific Science Center to the opera house (now McCaw Hall), are an extraordinary legacy, compared to most other World’s Fairs, says Rydell, the historian.

And that legacy is no coincidence. City leaders had been dreaming of a civic campus for Seattle many decades before 1962. One of the biggest justifications for all the expense and trouble was the city would finally gain its cultural campus.

Over the years, the carnival aspects have gone away, one by one – including the Fun Forest of rides just last year. Today, the old fairgrounds are home to more than 30 theatrical, dance, music and arts organizations – none of which existed 50 years ago.


On the web

Seattle Public Library | World's Fair photo archive

Intersect | Images from the Fair

Expo Museum | Great set of links and videos

KCTS | Documentary: When Seattle invented the Future

The Next 50 | Official site of this year's celebration and remembrances