Issaquah residents recall Seattle World’s Fair as 50th anniversary of closing approaches

October 2, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Ron Blyth and Beverly Blyth Huntington show off the pop-up souvenir their family produced for the 1962 World’s Fair. By Greg Farrar

In the heady months from April to October 1962, more celebrities visited the Century 21 Exposition than “The Tonight Show” couch.

The boldface names — Walt Disney, George Burns, John Glenn and dozens more — trekked to Seattle to gape at the Space Needle, ride the Bubbleator and snack on a Belgian waffle. Even Lassie came to the fair.

In the hubbub, longtime Issaquah resident Kaaren Mathiesen sold souvenirs at the fair from a booth near the Food Circus, a global food court and a nucleus of activity.

Funnywoman Carol Channing stopped at the booth to purchase a postcard and on another day Mathiesen sold Liberace a giant postcard to send to his brother.

“I kept very calm, cool and collected, but I sure smiled a lot,” she said in a recent interview.

The fair ran 50 years ago, from April 21 to Oct. 21, and by the end, Mathiesen and other local residents involved in the once-in-a-lifetime event said the Century 21 Exposition reshaped the region.

“It brought people to the realization that Seattle was no longer a little fishing village,” she said. “It put us on the map.”

In another connection to the Century 21 Exposition, late Issaquah resident Jackie Souder served as the bandleader for the Official World’s Fair Band.

Mathiesen remembers the souvenir stint at the fair as “the best job I ever had.” Dressed in a Century 21 Exposition uniform — a blouse imprinted with the Space Needle, A-line skirt and hair teased into a beehive — she sold plates, pens and other bric-a-brac.

Once, from the souvenir booth, she caught a glimpse of Elvis Presley as crews filmed “It Happened at the World’s Fair” on the grounds.

“I was at work, and I couldn’t rush away and say, “Oh, Elvis! Elvis!’” she said.

Future perfect

If you go

Before the 50th anniversary celebration concludes for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, residents can still soak up history from the event.

Seattle Center features exhibits celebrating the Century 21 Exposition through Oct. 21 at the International Fountain Pavilion, 305 Harrison St.

  • “Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs, 1853 to 1982” is a traveling exhibit from the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del.
  • “The Future Remembered” showcases artifacts, photographs and more from the Seattle World’s Fair selected from the Museum of History & Industry’s collection.
  • “Looking Forward: Young Social Entrepreneurs, The New Heroes” explores young visionaries applying innovative solutions to create a better life.

The campus also includes guided walking tours at 10 a.m. the second and fourth Thursdays of the month and at 11 a.m. the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Experience the cultural, architectural and historical legacies from the fair on the 90-minute walking tour led by expert guides from the Museum of History & Industry and the Seattle Architecture Foundation. Cost is $5 per person. Call 206-324-1126, ext. 66, or go to www.seattlehistory.org, for information about tickets and more.

Issaquah resident Bob Lyon, then a teacher at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School, spent the summer as a manager at a pizza booth inside Food Circus. The young employees clamored for spots as extras in the Presley flick.

In the meantime, “we were selling pizzas by the hundreds of slices per day,” Lyon said.

Sometimes, employees traded slices for tickets to fair attractions.

“The best thing of all, of course, was the rides up and down the Space Needle,” he said.

Lyon stayed in a Volkswagen bus parked near Seattle Center; once the Food Circus closed each night, he roamed the fairgrounds.

Often, a dance troupe from Spain or the International Fountain caught Lyon’s attention. Gracie Hansen’s showgirl revue along adults-only Show Street also beckoned, although he remembers the show most for a bit about a headstrong dog refusing to perform tricks on command.

Marilyn Boyden, a lifelong Issaquah resident and a middle schooler in 1962, used to catch a bus to downtown Seattle, meet a friend from Edmonds and they rode the monorail together to the fairgrounds.

The futuristic form of transportation intrigued the young Boyden.

“Honestly, I remember thinking that this is how we were going to travel,” she said. “We all thought that public transit would look like the monorail.”

Sometimes, the girls rode the Wild Mouse rollercoaster along the Gayway, or midway, or left the fairgrounds and headed downtown to shop at the Frederick & Nelson department store.

Optimism abounded in the pre-assassination and pre-unrest 1960s — and the fair reflected the mood.

“It’s kind of ironic because we also lived with the threat of nuclear holocaust,” Boyden said. “The Cold War was very real.”

Fair to middling

The fair left a bittersweet legacy for local brother and sister Ron Blyth and Beverly Blyth Huntington.

Before the fair opened, Blyth rode a construction elevator up the incomplete Space Needle. Blyth’s father knew the project superintendent and earned permission for them to undertake the white-knuckle ascent.

Just before the fair opened, Ron and Beverly and their father developed a pop-up souvenir to show the fairgrounds in color-splashed 3-D. The family printed 10,000 copies to sell at the fair, but after the souvenir distributors balked, the family rented a booth on the fairgrounds.

Blyth and Huntington pitched the 18-by-8 ½-inch souvenirs to fairgoers, but sales sagged and, once the fair ended, several thousand pop-up souvenirs remained unsold. Eventually, the family sold the leftovers for scrap.

Their vendor passes, however, allowed Blyth and Huntington to roam the fairgrounds, catch live shows and pop into the international pavilions.

Meanwhile, on the Eastside, Issaquah Chamber of Commerce leaders established a fair information booth along Interstate 90, precursor U.S. Route 10.

On the Web

Learn more about the role Issaquah and local residents played in the Century 21 Exposition at http://bit.ly/HBKjb6.

Inside the A-frame structure, 168 volunteers offered fair facts and Evergreen State greetings for 12 hours each day from May 12 to Sept. 30.

The booth hosted representatives from all 50 states and 28 foreign nations. Organizers could arrange accommodations for fairgoers from Issaquah via a direct telephone line to the lodging center at the fair.

In June, Mathiesen attended a reunion for former fair employees at Seattle Center. Organizers, naturally, served Belgian waffles to the attendees.

The confection looms large in the minds of fairgoers, even a half-century later.

“That was one of the reasons you went. I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything quite as decadent as the Belgian waffle,” Boyden said.

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