Century 21 -- The 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Part 2

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 4/19/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2291
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To many, there never was a fair to compare to the Seattle World's Fair, or Century 21. Between April 21 and October 21, 1962, close to 10 million people visited the fair to climb the Space Needle, ride the Monorail, see the exhibits, take in a show, and enjoy the food, fun, and festivities. Maybe one of these people was you.

Countdown to the Future

The gates to the Century 21 Exposition opened at 11 a.m. on April 21, 1962. First through the portals was Chicago musician Al Carter, who had tried to be the first through the gates at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair but was beaten to the punch "by a woman." Luckily for Al this time, he didn't choose to enter through Century 21's West Gate. Someone lost the West Gate key, and it opened 22 minutes late.

Throngs of people made their way to Memorial Stadium for the opening ceremonies, which began before noon. During speeches by Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges, U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011), Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011), and fair president Joe Gandy (1904-1971), all eyes were on the electronic countdown machine on the stage. President Dwight Eisenhower had started the machine more than two years before to count the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the fair officially began, and it was now approaching zero.

Actor and comedian Danny Kaye (1913-1987) read the fair's credo, followed by opera diva Mary Costa singing the national anthem. Broadway star John Raitt (father of musician Bonnie Raitt) sang "Meet Me at the Needle." A 21-gun salute was fired with a 334-year-old cannon recovered from the Swedish warship Vasa. Gandy pointed to the clock, which now read 000:00:00:00.

At that moment, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), on Easter holiday in Florida, pressed a telegraph key to start the fair. The key, festooned with gold nuggets, was the same key that President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) had used to open the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. This time, instead of a simple coast-to-coast electronic signal, the key triggered a radio telescope in Maine, which picked up an impulse from a star 10,000 light years away. This impulse was directed towards the fairgrounds to start the festivities. The future had arrived.

The Space Needle Carillon clanged its 538 bells over 44 loudspeakers, 2,000 balloons with "See You In Seattle" written on them were released high into the air. Water-skiers gaily circled a course set up within the stadium, while aerialists rode a motorcycle on top of a cable running between the stadium and the Space Needle. Aerial bombs burst, raining tiny flags down upon the attendees, and 10 Air Force F-102s roared overhead. By this time, the mist from the morning overcast burned off, and the sun broke through. It was a beautiful day in Seattle.

What Should We See First?

There was much to see and do at the fair. Many visitors' first taste was a ride on the Monorail, which whisked people to and from downtown Seattle. The ride took only 95 seconds, but at 50 cents a pop (35 cents for children), it was not to be missed. The Space Needle was another must-see.

Arriving at the fair, a visitor's choices were many. Children were attracted to the Science Pavilion, or the Gayway, a space-oriented amusement zone with rides such as the Meteor, the Space Whirl, the Trip to Mars, or the perennial favorite, The Wild Mouse. Parents wanted to see the industrial and foreign exhibits, and Dad most likely wanted to sneak off to the girlie shows on Show Street. Meals were eaten at the Food Circus (housed in the old Armory Building) or a special meal could be eaten on top of the Space Needle.

Highlights of the Fair

The Fair had five themed areas:

  • The World of Science: Science exhibits surrounded the "space gothic" arches that towered over the southern section of the fairgrounds. The most popular attraction here was Boeing's Spacearium, which took up to 750 visitors on an imaginary 10-minute excursion to the outer galaxies.
  • The World of Tomorrow: Housed in the Washington State Coliseum, this exhibit gave a glimpse of what the future might hold. Up to 100 visitors could ride the Bubbleator (a large, glass, globe) up into a honeycomb of cubes that foretold the future. The House of Tomorrow might include disposable dishes, automatic windows, and changeable color schemes. Gyrocopters might zip and whiz you to the Office of Tomorrow, which might have miniature micro-mail, machines to transmit correspondence, and machines that communicated with each other. You might even have a 24-hour workweek, with an astronomical salary of $12,000 a year!
  • The World of Commerce and Industry: The largest and most diverse of the five themed areas included exhibits from countries such as Canada, India, Japan, China, Sweden, France, and the United Arab Republic, among others. Domestic exhibitors included IBM, Standard Oil, General Electric, and the Ford Motor Company.
  • The World of Art: Sixty-one museums from around the world loaned masterpieces by such artists as Michelangelo, Titian, Renoir, Rembrandt, and Homer. Art of the Ancient East and Northwest Coast Indian Art were also on display.
  • The World of Entertainment: Located on the northern perimeter of the fairgrounds, this section presented everything from ballet to boxing, from jazz to drama, from baton twirling to tiddlywinks.

Show Street was the "adult entertainment" section of the fair, tucked into the northeastern part of the fairgrounds. Here, cultural aficionados could take in Gracie Hansen's Paradise International, a Las Vegas-style floor show, or Sid and Marty Krofft's "Les Poupees de Paris," an adults-only puppet show. For the less cultured, there was "Girls of the Galaxy," where young women posed naked for visitors with cameras. One had to be fast to catch this show -- fair officials shut it down almost immediately.

Of course, no visit to Century 21 would be complete without a visit to the top of the Needle, possibly for dinner in the revolving restaurant. A ride up the elevator cost only one dollar, and dinners averaged $7.50, including a cocktail. Many visitors to Seattle went home with photographs snapped from the observation deck, showing a glorious sunset over Puget Sound.

The Stars Come Out

The fair captivated visitors for six months, and attracted more celebrities than Seattle had ever seen before. Some of the many stars who gave performances in Seattle that summer included Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Victor Borge, the New York City Ballet, Mike Nichols & Elaine May, Lawrence Welk, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Johnny Mathis, Maurice Chevalier, and the incredibly popular Canadian Tattoo, a precision drill team of soldiers, sailors, bagpipers, and horsemen.

Strolling the grounds, one might have run into someone famous. Among the well-known visitors who came to see the fair were John Wayne, Jack Lemmon, Bobby Kennedy along with his wife Ethel and their children, Lyndon Johnson, Carl Reiner, Carol Channing, George Burns, polio-vaccine developer Jonas Salk, Olympic gold medallist Rafer Johnson, Walt Disney, Richard Nixon, and Lassie.

The Soviet Union did not have an exhibit at the fair, but Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov (the second man to orbit the Earth) did come to sightsee. Surrounded by a phalanx of KGB agents, the 5 foot-4-inch tall spaceman was barely visible to the crowds as he toured the grounds. Still, many peeked and peered through arms and torsos, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

Not to be bested, the United States sent its own astronaut to the fair -- Lt. Col. John Glenn, along with Friendship 7, his Project Mercury space capsule. Youngsters tailed Glenn everywhere he went, looking up at the American hero in awe and excitement. Still, Titov and Glenn were no match for celebrity-spotters as far as two other men were concerned.

The Prince and The King

Possibly the most charming celebrity to visit the fair was Prince Philip (1921-2021) of England. Flying his own plane from Kamloops, British Columbia, he became the first British royal to step foot in Seattle. He and his entourage were a sight to behold. Accompanying the dashing prince were a Scotland Yard officer, dressed in tweed and smoking a curved-stem pipe, and the duke's valet, immaculately dressed in black.

The prince loved the fair, joking and laughing (politely, of course) throughout his visit. Upon seeing rambunctious lads darting in and around the International Fountain, the prince noted, "You always have trouble with small boys. I have one myself." He was referring of course to Prince Charles.

When he left the fair, Prince Philip only had one complaint. The color of the Space Needle reminded him of "the protective paint used on bridges." Others must have agreed: A few years later, the Needle was repainted.

The prince charmed the fairgoers who caught a glimpse of him, but it took a king to knock off their socks. Elvis Presley came to town to make the film It Happened at the World's Fair. Using the fair as a backdrop for an Elvis movie was actually the brainchild of Governor Albert D. Rosellini, who suggested the idea to studio execs at MGM. They liked the concept, and soon enough The King showed up, turning heads and causing girls to shriek everywhere he went.

Filming began on the first day of school, so hordes of teenagers would not interfere with production. Nevertheless, as director Norman Tourog filmed Elvis aboard one of the monorail trains, two young girls rode the other train back and forth, screaming every time they spotted their heartthrob.

One lucky young lady visiting the fair was 18-year-old Sue Wouthers. Noticed by Presley, she was contacted by one of his bodyguards, who asked her if she'd like to go on a date with Elvis. What a question! She went out with him four times. She later told the press that he was very polite, and they, along with his bodyguards, "watched television, played records, and drank cokes." She allowed Elvis to kiss her, though, which didn't please her regular boyfriend, once he found out.

Committed to the Annals of History

The fair was fun for all and fair for everybody, but all good things must come to an end. On October 21, 1962, 124,479 visitors arrived at the fairgrounds, 13,000 of whom had tickets for the closing ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. President John F. Kennedy was supposed to be there, but aides had called his regrets two days earlier, saying that he had a heavy cold. In actuality, as would be revealed, he was deep into the beginnings of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At sunset, the World's Fair Band, led by Jackie Souders, entered the stadium. Following that, a Seattle Police drill team performed maneuvers. Then came a parade of bands made up of 1,500 musicians from every high school in the city.

The national anthem was sung by Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Munsel. Dignitaries gave speeches, followed by more music. Then Munsel sang "And This is My Beloved," while young people who had worked at the fair ringed the stadium. As spotlights shone down on them, the ticket sellers, busboys, concessionaires, janitors, and cooks rushed onto the field and joined hands.

Fireworks lit up the skies. The bands played as one, performing the finale of Tchaikovsky 's 1812 Overture, with the cannon from the Vasa booming along with them. At the close of the ceremony, fair president Joe Gandy strode to the microphone flanked by Mayor Clinton and Governor Rosellini. The crowd went silent as Gandy's voice echoed through the stadium: "I hereby officially commit the Seattle World's Fair to history." With that he rapped a gavel on the rostrum once, and it was over. Almost.

Souders' band softly began playing "Auld Lang Syne" and Munsel began to sing. Quietly, the audience joined in, but increasing in volume. Soon the song boomed throughout the stadium as emotions ran high. When the song ended, the stadium lights were doused and the crowd went silent. Finally, the lights came back on, and fairgoers left for the last time, with tears streaming down their cheeks.

To this day, the Space Needle and the Monorail entice visitors to Seattle, but many of the exhibit buildings have been torn down. The Coliseum, now called Climate Pledge Arena, and the Food Circus are still around, as is the Science Pavilion, renamed the Pacific Science Center. The grounds are now called Seattle Center, but the fair is no more.

During its six-month lifespan, close to 10 million people visited Century 21. Many of them returned home with wondrous stories to last them for the rest of their lives.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


Don Duncan, Meet Me At The Center (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 1992), 54-57, 62-65, 68-71, 75-77, 82-84; Additional information from the Official Guide Book: Seattle World's Fair 1962 (Seattle: Acme Publications, Incorporated, 1962). Note: This essay was updated on April 9, 2021. 

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