Everybody and their dog wanted to go to the Seattle World’s Fair.
My brothers and I often clamored to visit, just four of the nearly 10 million people who attended the Century 21 Exposition during its fleeting six-month run from April 21-Oct. 21, 1962.
We happily loaded into the family Buick and motored the 5 miles cross town to the site that revitalized a run-down 74-acre “slum” section of the city at the north end of downtown, near Elliot Bay.
Fellow second-graders and I hummed with new buzzwords, such as Space Race, Jet Age, Atomic Age, Monorail and Space Needle.
The population in our six-member household swelled when we hosted a family of 10 who came to see the expo. My mom and the other family’s mom were one-time college classmates.
En route on the drive from Utah, a trailer holding all our guests’ belongings unhitched from their vehicle and swan-dived over the side of a mountain. Nothing was recovered.
We wedged folding “roll-away” beds head to toe and wall to wall in my bedroom for a girls dorm and the boys were accommodated in the same fashion in my brothers’ bedroom.
The hip, happening fair locale, its Monorail and the towering, vertigo-inducing 600-foot tall tripod dubbed the Space Needle served as backdrops for several scenes in the 1963 “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley movie, “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”
A one-time minor league second-baseman with the Walla Walla Islanders, actor Kurt Russell debuted in Presley’s film.
We lived in exciting times.
Shah Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah of the Imperial State of Iran were the first royalty to visit the fair. Mom skied with the Shah at Sun Valley when she was in college.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson, astronaut John Glenn and Walt Disney paid calls on the city and expo.
His Royal Highness Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh dined on such fare as poached salmon, Dungeness crab legs and sugared strawberries in the Space Needle’s tippy-top revolving Eye of the Needle restaurant.
In just 47 minutes, diners could also consume a 360-degree view from the Needle. A mere single 1½-horsepower motor rotated the eatery because of its balanced, precise design.
Many luminaries performed at Expo within the first seven weeks: The Ed Sullivan Show broadcast live; Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling headlined a science fiction panel; Isaac Stern, Van Cliburn and other guest soloists performed with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra while on opening night Igor Stravinsky guest conducted; Victor Borge brought comedy with his music; and The Old Vic Company performed Shakespeare. The performance schedule was full to the last day.
President John F. Kennedy intended to be at the fair’s closing-day ceremony but was excused because of a “heavy cold.”
In fact, it being the Cold War, Kennedy and cohorts were up to their eyeballs in the world-gripping Cuban Missile Crisis.
The hyper intense, 13-day confrontation brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
Even we school children were aware of the threat of nuclear war. The good ol’ duck and cover drills — would they have protected us? I think not if we had sustained a direct hit.
Resolution came in 1963 when the superpowers signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which banned above ground nuclear weapons testing.
Our favorite Expo go-tos, being kids and all, included the Gayway/Fun Forest with roller coaster mouse cars on the zippy Wild Mouse and other rides; full-scale models of the Saturn V booster rocket and John Glenn’s Mercury capsule exhibits in the Science Center with its five outdoor free-standing, soaring, 100-foot-tall illuminated towers topped with open-ribbed space-gothic arches; romps around the huge, circular International Fountain with water jets and orchestrated music; the novel hydraulic Bubbleator that lifted 100 passengers at once to the commodious Washington State Coliseum’s second level; and brand new to Seattle palate sensibilities, an array of 44 different types of delicious international cuisine in the Food Court.
Expositions such as Seattle’s are intended to be temporary. Shortly after the fair ended, about half of the expo’s original structures were torn down, but the remainder provide a vital gathering place for STEM exhibits, classical and contemporary music concerts, stage productions, athletic events, dances, festivals and fairs such as Bumbershoot.
Knute Berger reported in the February 2012 Seattle Magazine that the renamed Seattle Center has a permanent complex of theaters, pavilions, the Pacific Science Center, Coliseum/now Key Arena, the Center and Opera houses, the Monorail and open urban spaces.
“It gave us an international civic symbol, the Space Needle, second only to the Eiffel Tower as a world’s fair souvenir and a tourist attraction known around the world,” Berger said.
At night, when parked atop Queen Anne Hill looking south one can see just the needle’s lighted saucer top, seemingly rootless and hovering.
The fair generated thousands of official and unofficial mementos that advertised and commemorated its existence. Among those are piggy-type banks with branded pieces of nuclear reactor windows (yikes), folding steak knives, hats, flags, 4-cent postage stamps and clothing.
Mom went so far as to collect Space Needle teaspoons that now retail for $40 apiece online and branded drinking glasses that now sell for $15.50 each.
I even got a cool sweatshirt with the Space Needle and Monorail emblazoned across the front.
Twelve years later our family trekked to Spokane for Expo ’74, which further expanded my palate with the discovery of French and Korean cuisine.
The golden Dietrich Dome and China Pavilion structures on the Walla Walla Community College campus were recycled when Spokanites dismantled many of the existing fair buildings.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago kicked off a wildly popular succession of fairs.
Remember the 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in St. Louis and Judy Garland in the 1944 film, “Meet Me in St. Louis”?
The 1962 Seattle fair was modeled in some ways after its predecessor, The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which sprouted on the beautiful University of Washington campus in summer 1909.
Of all its buildings from pre-World War I, only Architecture Hall and Cunningham Hall remain.