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Seafair: the Founding: Jim Douglas's Account
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In this excerpt from his unpublished autobiography, Jim Douglas (1909-2005) recalls the many steps involved in coordinating the first Seafair. Jim Douglas was one of a group of local citizens called together by Seattle's mayor to conceive a centennial celebration.
The First Seafair
"In the early 1950s, the mayor of Seattle [William F. Devin] called together a group of people to decide what might be done to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Seattle. I was one of those selected to be a part of this group. Many meetings were held and many subjects were discussed. It was finally concluded that rather than having one event in one year the effort would be much better rewarded by having an annual affair that might attract tourists and call attention to the great assets of the Pacific Northwest.
"Obviously such an annual event would be largely built around the water since Seattle is so blessed with both fresh and salt water bodies. At the same time this subject was being pursued by the mayor's committee, there was a loosely knit organization of people involved in the marine industry who were trying to promote their industry of sailing and cruising. This organization was known as the Seattle Salts.
"Since both organizations appeared to be going down the same road and since the Seattle Salts were very poorly funded and represented a very small segment of the community, it was decided to merge the two organizations. This meant that the enlarged organization would have as its goal the establishment of an annual affair that would publicize the Northwest and specifically the boating and cruising opportunities.
"And now came a very lucky break. For many years, there was an annual speedboat race held, which was known as the Gold Cup. The race was usually held on the Detroit River, since that was the headquarters of speed boating and the winner of the race each year was permitted to select the site for the next race.
"There was in Seattle a Chrysler automobile dealer by the name of Stan Sayres. In addition to Stan's interest in automobiles, he likewise was very interested in speedboats. He had the theory that existing speedboats were not properly designed since they sat too deep in the water and thus created too much water resistance.
"Stan Sayres hired a young marine designer to design a speedboat with a very small cockpit and engine area and with pontoons extending out on each side of the hull. With this three-point suspension, the boat was subject to much less water resistance. After much work on the design of the ship, it was finally built and sent back to the Detroit River for the Gold Cup race. When the race was run, the Slo Mo, as the Sayres boat was named, was so far in front of the other boats, that the boat was hauled out and in its cradle before the next speedboat crossed the finish line.
"As a result of winning this race, Mr. Sayres was given the opportunity of selecting the site for the next year's race. To put on a race of this type required a sizable organization and some investment since there was a sizable purse given to the winner. Mr. Sayre came to the Greater Seattle Inc. organization and asked if they might be interested in sponsoring the race on Lake Washington.
"The timing could not have been better. We had a year to put together an organization and to secure funding. We had a major event to tie the marine spectacle together.
"The first president of Greater Seattle, Inc. was a very aggressive person by the name of George Gunn. George envisioned an organization similar to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Rose Parade in Portland. In other words, there would be a week long series of events, including parades and many water-oriented festivities.
"Borrowing from the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it was decided there would be a King, a Queen, and a Royal Court. The first King was to be Vic Rabel. Again there could not have been a better choice. Vic was a very large man with a wonderful personality. He was extremely well known throughout the community.
"Obviously the program that had been decided on required funding and thus a major fund raising campaign was begun. This included not only the solicitation of corporate contributions, but also an extensive membership campaign in Greater Seattle, Inc. A membership was ten dollars a year, and that membership entitled the individual to free or discounted tickets to many events. The first year there were 20,000 memberships sold.
"And now came the job of filling a week with events, only one of which would be the Gold Cup race. Each of the communities surrounding Seattle was asked to come up with a plan for an event that might be characteristic of that neighborhood. As an example, the University District had a kiddies parade and Ballard, which was highly populated by Scandinavians had a Leif Erickson festival. Each day of the week there was some regional festivity that gave a reason for tourists to come and remain in Seattle for the full week.
"About four or five months before the scheduled date of the Seafair program, it came to the board's attention that there was a traveling troupe of water performers. These were very famous high divers and swimming champions. They also had a water ballet that was very attractive and had been very popular in other cities where this group had performed.
"Since a traveling group like this would perform for a full week once an evening, this could be a very important attraction to the Seafair week. It also could provide some revenue to help fund Greater Seattle, Inc. He signed up this traveling troupe and guaranteed them that there would be water stadium seating two thousand people and all of the high diving and other equipment needed for the performance.
"George immediately hired architects to design the facility and when the plans were drawn in a very short period of time, the city was called upon to approve the plans and to fund this water stadium on Green Lake [Aqua Theatre], about four miles north of downtown Seattle. Normally such a program would have taken several years to get through the city council. The great Seattle program was so popular in the city that all permits and funding was accomplished in a few days.
"There were only about three months left before the Seafair schedule to build a complete facility. Construction proceeded around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The progress of construction was front-page news as the frenzied pace continued. The facility was completed and was extremely successful in housing the traveling troupe of water performers. Every seat was sold out for every night of the Seafair week.
"I mentioned Vic Rable as King of Seafair. Specifically he was named King Victor Neptune Rex the First. He had a very fancy uniform with brilliant colors and much gold braid. He even had a royal coal of arms painted on the sides of his own personal Cadillac. A beautiful queen was selected from candidates provided from each of the suburban areas around Seattle.
"The Queen had a court of six or eight beautiful princesses. When Seafair week finally came, King Victor was busy making personal appearance from early morning till late at night. He appeared before all of the service clubs and was in each of the parades or festive events in the suburban areas. There was a night parade and a daytime parade. Each parade with very elaborate floats was provided by civic organizations and suburban areas. King Vic, of course, was at the head of the parade with his beautiful Queen and the cars following contained others of the Royal Court.
"The final event of the Seafair week was the running of the Gold Cup race on Lake Washington. A three mile course had been laid out at Seward Park, the south end of Lake Washington. A log boom extended approximately a mile and a half around this back up to this log boom at a cost to each boat of from $20 to $50. When the race began there wasn't an inch of unsold space on the log boom. This revenue was very important in funding the cost of the race.
"There were possibly eight or ten boats entered in the race, most of them from the Detroit area. The owners were very conscious of the defeat the year before and they were there to win the trophy back. They went home greatly disappointed. Again Slo Mo swept the field and boat racing was never the same again. The traditional powerboats were put into museums and the owners copied the Slo Mo design as well as they could for subsequent races.
"At the end of the Seafair week, the mayor was a very happy individual. He had asked the community to come up with an event and they had produced a festival that far exceeded his greatest hopes."
Jim Douglas, "Autobiography," typescript, n.d. in possession of Jim Douglas, Seattle, Washington, 2000.
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