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Century 21 Exposition debuts Saturday night dances on July 28, 1962.
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On Saturday evening, July 28, 1962, Seattle's Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World's Fair) launches a teenage dance series which kicks off at 8:00 p.m. at the International Plaza's new bandstand with a few words of introduction by KVI radio disc jockey, Buddy Webber. This is an appropriate arrangement given that Webber -- of the many local people who had grumbled about the fair's general focus on adult tastes and children's interests (and with minimal activities geared towards teens and other fans of rock 'n' roll or rhythm-&-blues) -- has been the most effective campaigner for a policy change. His proposed solution? Free outdoor teen-dances every Saturday night!
The fair management's Performing Arts Division -- as led by New York City's classical music impresario, Harold Shaw -- had been booking talent from around the globe for more than a year when Century 21 opened on April 21, 1962, but its focus had been on importing entertainers here rather than creating employment opportunities for local professional or semi-pro acts. In addition, that team booked artists that they figured were major marquee draws: Igor Stravinsky, Lawrence Welk, Maurice Chevalier, and Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. Their initial plans outlined very little programming for teenagers or rock 'n' roll fans at the six-month long Fair -- even the "Twist Night" on May 10 at the World's Fair Arena with the Count Basie Orchestra (and KAYO radio's Jeff Mitchell as MC and that station's Bob Dean as one judge) was desperately thrown together at the last minute.
What they had no interest in was popular Northwest bands and anything of a rock 'n' roll or rhythm and blues nature. Luckily another department – the Special Events Division led by Louis V. Larsen (and an assistant, C. David Hughbanks) – picked up some of Shaw's slack. Apparently realizing the big-beat void in the fair's entertainment calendar, somehow contact was made with Seattle's veteran concert promoter, Leonard Russell, the man who'd long brought the top touring rockin' R&B acts into old downtown rooms like the Orpheum Theater (506 Stewart Street), Eagles Auditorium (7th Avenue and Union Street), or Palomar Theater (1300 3rd Avenue). Ensuing discussions resulted in the Fair freeing up a few Arena dates and Russell then succeeded in producing shows there in 1962 by such stars as Fats Domino, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and Ricky Nelson.
But those few Arena dances weren't enough to placate fans of rock 'n' roll and that's when Webber's idea gained traction. His lobbying finally -- fully half-way into the fair season -- resulted in the Special Events crew's sudden introduction of a new feature: regular Saturday night "Dancing Under the Stars" events from 9 p.m. until midnight at the outdoor International Bandstand -- a venue whose belated opening event (on the Fourth of July) had featured the Official World's Fair Band and a Los Angeles-based vocal group, the Seisho Four.
A search through back issues of Seattle's major metropolitan newspapers from July 1962 failed to surface any print ads for the new outdoor dances. However, a local media veteran, Leonard J. Hansen, was brought in to help make things click. He knew that the main pipeline to Northwest teens was AM radio and it was no difficult trick to seduce various popular DJs (and TV personalities) into participating -- and simultaneously promoting the dance series big "Kickoff Ceremony."
Among those who quickly confirmed their involvement were Pat O'Day and Dick Curtis (KJR), Ray Court and Jerry Holzinger (KING), Les Williams (KOL), Glen Brooks (KTNT), Preston Price (KOMO-TV), Stan Johnson (KTVW-TV), and Don Riley (KIRO-TV). Each of these men hyped the upcoming dance with all their might -- and they also played up the fact that the beautiful TV star and pop singer Connie Stevens would be attending.
"Dancing Under the Stars"
On July 28, Webber served as MC for the test dance -- one that opened with the Guadalajara Mariachi Band, and featured walk-ons by all those DJ's and TV talking heads. The only no-show was Stevens who pled illness from her Hollywood home. The peak of the evening was the 9:00 p.m. to midnight dance fueled by the Burien-based teen-R&B combo, Merrilee and the Statics. Discovered just across the street while performing at Link Manners' short-lived Peppermint Lounge West (222 5th Avenue), the Statics had already been enjoying a career boost that same month when their Bolo Records 45, “Hey Mrs. Jones,” broke out as a radio hit on KZAM.
And they were lucky in many ways: the band contained excellent musicians; their singer, Merrilee Gunst, was as cute and effervescent a Northwest girl as anyone had ever seen (indeed she would go on to national stardom -- as Merrilee Rush -- with her 1968 radio hit, "Angel Of The Morning"); and, as a group, the Statics projected a winsome aura. At least most fans thought so -- yet only days after that gig a complaint was registered. On July 31, the fair's Assistant Vice President, Willis Camp, sent an inter-office memo to Louis V. Larsen, informing that: "My son, Robert, who attended the teenage dance Saturday night, picked up on some reactions concerning the orchestra ... the kids were concerned by the Elvis Presley air that was conveyed by the uniforms worn and the band's 'greasy appearance.'"
Another Saturday Night
As word spread about the dance several other better-established bands made efforts to get in on the action by sending in letters of introduction to the fair's talent bookers. Indeed, even Seattle's musician's union helpfully offered up a list of teenage bands "from Musicians' Local 76 who are fully prepared and competent to handle your proposed Saturday night dances for the younger set" (Newman). That list of popular combos included the Viceroys, Frantics, Dynamics, Galaxies, Regents, Watchmen, Continentals, Counts, Pulsations, El Caminos, Sharps, and the Rogues -- any of which would have been an awesome addition to the fair, but it remains unclear which bands performed over the next few Saturdays.
What is known is that the crowds of attendees were increasing -- and within them were a growing number of beered-up troublemakers. On Monday August 20, 1962, Lieutenant Dave W. Jessup penned a memo to his Seattle Police Department supervisor, Captain L. J. La Pointe, expressing serious alarm over the dance series. He wrote:
"The teenage dances are slowing degenerating into a teen age orgy. Each week there has been an increasing amount of juvenile vandalism, drinking, and disorderly conduct. Sgt. Frank Moore reports that every Saturday he receives numerous complaints from people living around the fair area regarding the excessive noise. This last week was by far the worst. ... There is quite a bit of drinking among the kids. They leave signs of their difficulties such as pools of vomit, etc. around the fair grounds ... . There is more than adequate evidence that a large number of these youngsters are going to the African Exhibit to urinate rather than using the proper facilities. ... One young couple was removed from the African Exhibit last night as they were preparing to indulge in sexual inter-course. It has been my experience that this form of public entertainment tends to get progressively better or progressively worse depending on the degree of control that can be exercised, type of music involved and type of crowd attracted to this entertainment. There is no doubt in my mind that we are moving in the direction of a very roudy [sic] assemblage. ... I strongly recommend that these dances be discontinued immediately."
Bands Not from Birdland?
Various steps were taken to increase security -- "This week it took almost the total police personnel assigned to C-21" -- and the dances continued (Jessup). One of the remaining issues was the nature of the bands being hired (and the type of kids they drew).
Most interesting, then, is the second list of potential bands, as provided by Willis Camp for consideration on July 31. It included the Dynamics, along with the interesting side-notation, "Birdland" -- the name of an African American oriented dancehall (2203 E Madison Street) that the racially mixed band gigged at on occasion.
Such thoughts of the planners in booking what they considered to be appropriate bands for the fair in general -- and the Saturday Night Dances in particular -- is noteworthy. Especially when we consider a subsequent (August 28) memo from Camp documenting the police department's evolving views on the ongoing dance series:
"Lt. Jessup was very pleased with the reports he received from his security people following the dance last Saturday night ... . Will you be sure that the selection of the orchestra is one which minimizes the attraction of 'birdland' customers" (Lyte).
With their stated goal of presenting a classy "high-toned affair," fair management had produced the dances reluctantly -- and almost certainly felt the same way about the presence of those reportedly rowdy Birdland types.
Leonard J. Hansen "Saturday Night Dance Kickoff Ceremony" itinerary memo, undated, Century 21 Exposition, Performing Arts Division, Special Events and Groups; Visiting Musical Groups, Box 261, Folder VIII-4-240, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Bob Lyte, letter to Harry Harrison (New York), January 22, 1962, Century 21 Exposition, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; L. H. Newman, letter to Louis V. Larsen, July 27, 1962, Century 21 Exposition, Special Events Division, General Subject Files; Special Events, Box 272, Folder IX-1-25: Saturday Night Teenage Dances, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Willis Camp, memo to Louis V. Larsen, July 31, 1962, Century 21 Exposition, Special Events Division, General Subject Files; Special Events, Box 272, Folder IX-1-25: Saturday Night Teenage Dances, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Willis Camp, memo to Louis V. Larsen, August 22, 1962, Century 21 Exposition, Special Events Division, General Subject Files; Special Events, Box 272, Folder IX-1-25: Saturday Night Teenage Dances, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Lt. D. W. Jessup memo to Capt. L. J. La Pointe, August 20, 1962, Accession 420-001, Box 5, Ewen C. Dingwall, Operations and Services Correspondence, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Willis Camp, memo to C. David Hughbanks, August 28, 1962, Century 21 Exposition, Special Events Division, General Subject Files; Special Events, Box 272, Folder IX-1-25: Saturday Night Teenage Dances, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Branch; Merrilee Rush, email to Peter Blecha, February 19, 2010, copy in author's possession.
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The Statics, with Tiny Tony (left) and Merrilee Rush, n.d.
Courtesy Merrilee Rush
Century 21 teen dance featuring The Statics, Seattle, 1962
Courtesy Merrilee Rush