Issaquah Library celebrates 1962 Seattle World’s Fair

April 10, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Fearless construction workers check the joists on the Space Needle’s halo. Photo from ‘The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy’ Photo from 'The Future Remembered'

The region is in the midst of a back-to-the-future moment.

The 1962 Century 21 Exposition opened a half-century ago and transformed Seattle and surrounding communities. Paula Becker and Alan Stein, staff historians for HistoryLink.org, chronicled the expo in the book “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy” — a retrospective commissioned by Seattle Center and the Seattle Center Foundation.

The authors plan to lead a discussion about the book April 14 at the Issaquah Library.

Organizers originally scheduled the library event for Jan. 17, but a snowstorm led to a delay. Now, Becker and Stein plan to hold the event a week before the 50th anniversary, as Century 21 nostalgia grows as thick as a Belgian waffle.

April 21 marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy tapped a telegraph key encrusted in golden nuggets to open the fair. The expo lasted until Oct. 21, 1962.

Tracy Robinson, Seattle Center Foundation executive director, said the Puget Sound region matured to reach fair organizers’ visions from a half-century ago.

“They had hopes and dreams for our community 50 years later, and I think we really have lived into them,” she said. “We hope through the six months that we take some time and energy and notice that we’ve become a pretty spectacular community.”

‘I was so excited’

In the process to produce the 300-page chronicle, Becker and Stein gathered memories from people around the region — fair organizers, employees, visitors and VIPs.

The book features a photo of Paula Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at Sunset Elementary School, snapped as the then-6-year-old girl stepped through the gate as the 9 millionth visitor to the fair.

Becker and Stein also interviewed Albert Fisher, a successful film and television director, producer and writer in the decades after Century 21. Fisher acted as liaison between the fair and television networks and film studios.

“I was 20 years old at the time and I recognized that this was an opportunity that would probably change my life — which it did,” he said in a recent interview from Los Angeles.

Fisher accepted the position after a former colleague from a New Orleans TV station joined the fair staff in Seattle and extended a job offer. Fisher resigned from the Crescent City station and caught a flight to Seattle the same day, a Friday, and started at the fair on the following Monday.

If you go

‘The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy’ discussion and slideshow

On the Web

Learn more about the role Issaquah and local residents played in the Century 21 Exposition from the most recent issue of Issaquah Living magazine at www.issaquahpress.com/ category/issaquahliving.
Read the article about Sunset Elementary School teacher Paula Jones’ 1962 Seattle World’s Fair experience at http://bit.ly/zJtPpv.
Learn more about the Next Fifty, a six-month celebration dedicated to Century 21, at www.thenextfifty.org.

“When I took that flight from New Orleans to Seattle, when we flew over Seattle and landed, it was the first time in my life that I saw snow, that I saw mountains, that I saw ocean. It was pretty dramatic for me to see all of that,” he said. “I was peeing in my pants, I was so excited about this opportunity to work at the world’s fair.”

Louis Larsen, special events director for the fair and a Kingston retiree nowadays, said the location — in a distant corner of the United States, far from major cities — enticed fairgoers from beyond Washington. (Becker and Stein interviewed Larsen for the book.)

“There hadn’t been a world’s fair in this country in over 20 years,” he said in a recent interview. “The Northwest was a place that a lot of people had talked about. They knew about its beauty from National Geographic and publications like that. The two covers of Life magazine certainly didn’t hurt at all, either.”

‘This is the president’

Larsen, then 37, said the festive atmosphere at the fair extended far beyond Show Street, a showgirl-populated playground for grown-ups.

“Every night was like New Year’s Eve,” he said.

In the run-up to opening day, Fisher planned a careful choreography for Kennedy to press the key to open the fair at noon sharp. The plan called for the president to use the same key President William Howard Taft used to open the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition 53 years earlier.

Seated on the podium not far from dignitaries gathered to open the fair, Fisher called Kennedy’s Florida vacation home as the minutes approached noon. The man at the other end chitchatted and asked about the fair.

“Finally, we were about a minute to go and I said, ‘Is the president standing by?’ and there was a little bit of a pause,” he said. “The voice came back and said, ‘This is the president.’”

Fisher froze. The ceremony built to a crescendo as the assembled crowd readied for the president to open the fair.

“Finally, Kennedy says, ‘Isn’t it about time I should start?’ I just stammered out, ‘Y-y-y-yes, Mr. President,’” Fisher said.

Fisher, Larsen and other fair staffers encountered almost too many boldface names to count — astronaut John Glenn, entertainer Nat King Cole, Prince Philip, then-former Vice President Richard Nixon, then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and, of course, Elvis Presley.

“The moment that I met him, I was just blown away by what an absolute gentleman he was — how courteous he was, kind, compassionate with everybody,” Fisher said.

Presley, in the city to film scenes for “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” and Fisher forged a fast friendship.

On a double date, the men and their dates slipped into a downtown Seattle cinema to see “Kid Galahad” — a Presley flick.

“‘Here I am, I’m watching an Elvis Presley movie with Elvis Presley sitting next to me,’” Fisher recalled. “‘How cool is that?’”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at  www.issaquahpress.com.

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