Tomorrow turns 50: In 1962, Issaquah residents crossed Lake Washington for fair’s futuristic fun

February 21, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Diners enjoy drinks — and a now-forbidden smoke — in the Eye of the Needle revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle. MOHAI, Milkie Studio Collection

The distance from Issaquah to the future measured a mere 17 miles.

In 1962, as the Century 21 Exposition greeted fairgoers from the United States and beyond, residents from Issaquah — then home to about 3,000 people — crossed Lake Washington from April 21 to Oct. 21 for the Space Age fair.

Nowadays, 50 years after the spectacle at Seattle Center closed, memories remain as clear as the Bubbleator dome. The fair introduced countless palates to strawberry-topped Belgian waffles and tempted millions of guests to brave the maze inside the IBM Pavilion.

“Everybody went to the fair,” said Lorraine McConaghy, public historian for the Seattle-based Museum of History & Industry, or MOHAI. “It was not just an urban phenomenon. It was a regional phenomenon.”

The iconic Space Needle — then painted in Technicolor hues — and the Bubbleator left lasting impressions on locals. The bubble-shaped elevator carried fairgoers to exhibits inside the Washington State Coliseum.

“It was so novel,” former Issaquah resident Patricia Brooks Greetham said. “Who had ever seen anything like that before?”

Townsfolk joined almost 10 million people to gaze upon the arches at the U.S. Science Pavilion (reincarnated after the fair as the Pacific Science Center) and stroll along the Gayway, a giggle-inducing name — in 2012, at least — for the midway.

In 1962, as Century 21 unfolded, many guests focused on the chance to experience the fairgrounds as a high-tech amusement park.

Marilyn Batura and friends attended the fair “as often as we could, if we could get someone to drive in there. That was a fun summer.”

Russ Fish spent Wednesday evenings during the fair at the amateur radio booth in the State of Alaska Building. The former Issaquah resident and retired state trooper remembers the cosmopolitan scene on the fairgrounds.

“It could have been New York City for all I knew. It was just that kind of atmosphere back then,” he said. “The world is coming to us.”

Gothic arches at the U.S. Science Pavilion (left) loom above the fairgrounds and the Christian Witness Pavilion at the Century 21 Exposition. MOHAI, Robert D. Ashley Century 21 Collection

The representatives from distant lands — Prince Philip and the Shah of Iran joined fairgoers — offered unheard-of sophistication to fairgoers from then-rural Issaquah.

“I was pretty much a country bumpkin, and hearing people speaking in different languages was fairly new to me,” longtime Issaquah resident Margo Campbell said. “There were people there from all over the world that had come to the fair.”

The focus on science and technology impressed then-7-year-old Tom Anderson, a lifelong Issaquah resident, even if reality differed from the future depicted at Century 21.

“Many of the things that we enjoy now were not really even envisioned — for example, my iPad,” he said.

Issaquah resident Denny Croston, then 16, and some friends slipped into the fair under the guise of applying for a job.

“It was not a cool thing to do, but with our financial situation, it was about all we could do,” he said.

Batura remembered the fair as a getaway to the city from a far-flung suburb.

“It was just something to do,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot to do in those days in Issaquah.”

The 1962 Issaquah High School graduate got Elvis Presley’s autograph as the megastar filmed the romantic farce “It Happened at the World’s Fair” in Seattle. (Unfortunately, Batura lost The King’s autograph in the decades since the fair.)

Romance blossomed on the fairgrounds off screen, too.

Mary Scott, a longtime Issaquah-area resident and former Issaquah School Board member, met a childhood friend for a date at Century 21. The date, John Scott, proposed to her on the former fairgrounds the next summer.

Rides along the Gayway, the fair’s space-themed amusement zone, rise in front of the iconic Space Needle. MOHAI, Robert D. Ashley Century 21 Collection

“We were just relaxing and having fun. I think because of that, it really did lead to the engagement,” Mary Scott said. “We were just being ourselves and not trying to impress anybody.”

Margo Campbell and future husband Dick Campbell boarded a bus to downtown Seattle on a date to the fair. The occasion marked the inaugural jaunt on public transit for the junior high school students.

“My mom probably thought we were going to get lost and never come back, because in those days, Issaquah seemed like a long ways away from Seattle to everybody,” she said.

The impact on pop culture resonated beyond the Century 21 souvenirs and schlock. The exposition represented a colossal shift for the Puget Sound region and attracted attention from around the globe.

“It sure put Seattle on the map — not that we weren’t before,” Scott said. “It reminded people that we weren’t just a decaying town from the gold rush and a town that built airplanes. I think it made Seattle feel pretty good about itself.”

Even after 50 years, civic pride from the Century 21 era continues to shape the region.

“I think, quite frankly, that a lot of us were surprised that we were able to bring it off,” Scott said. “It was amazing — and it was fun to go.”

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