Century 21: Seattle's September Days with Elvis Presley, 1962

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 5/08/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9363
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Countless celebrities visited Seattle between April 21 and October 21, 1962, to attend the 1962 Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World's Fair). Among them were astronaut John Glenn (1921-2016) and cosmonaut Gherman Titov (1935-2000); famous Hollywood stars John Wayne (1907-1979), Walt Disney (1901-1966), and Jay "Dennis the Menace" North (b. 1951); politicians Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005), Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994); royalty Prince Phillip (1921), Shah of Iran (1919-1980), and Empress Farah (b. 1938); and old-school musicians Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985), Benny Goodman (1909-1986), Jack Teagarden (1905-1964), and Al Hirt (1922-1999). Although each received their share of media coverage and/or adulation from giddy fairgoers, none garnered the sustained media fanfare whipped up for Elvis Presley (1935-1977). During the week and a half -- September 5-15, 1962 -- that he was in town to work on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's feature-length $2.5-million musical It Happened at the World's Fair, crowds of fans gathered on the fairgrounds and also kept a vigil outside his downtown hotel. Although Seattle's mainstream media had never liked rock 'n' roll -- The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had both been editorializing and sniping at the music (and its fans) for years -- they and local television outlets covered his every move with breathless daily reports while the town's radio hyped endless Presley oldies. Even though Presley had, by 1962, long since passed his rockin' rebel peak -- he'd served in the army and was well into his Hollywood doldrums -- the establishment was still reluctant to accept him. Seattle Post-Intelligencer scribe Jack Jarvis bragged about how he initially went down to the film set with the full intent of writing a scathing review about The Side-Burned One, "and I was determined to cut him up into little pieces." Yet despite serious misgivings, the scribe quickly discovered that "I like the guy -- but will reserve judgment on his singing" (September 6, 1962). Regardless, for 10  consecutive days in September, 1962, Elvis Presley's presence rocked much of a thoroughly star-struck Seattle.

Making a Movie

Washington Governor Albert D. Rosellini (b. 1910) can be credited for supporting the idea of having a major film production company shoot a big-time movie on the fairgrounds. The initial announcement that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's production crew would come to town in May to begin work on a new Elvis Presley film to be titled Take Me To The Fair was made in the spring of 1962.

But the crew didn't arrive as announced: The star reportedly got bogged down in Los Angeles while shooting  his 11th flick, Girls, Girls, Girls. In mid-June 1962, MGM producer Ted Richmond explained to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Writers have been in Seattle recently, selecting locations and material, and we shall probably photograph backgrounds during August and bring Presley to Seattle the first week in September."  "While the Fair will be the background," Richmond added, "we also plan to include other facets of the Northwest -- the orchards, the logging camps -- in the picture which will be shot in color and CinemaScope" (June 12, 1962).

Seduced by the Northwest's beauteous rural backdrop, the Hollywood hacks proceeded to cobble together a typically weak Presley movie plotline, one that would posit him as a crop-dusting pilot who crashes his plane, improbably befriends the young niece (played by future First Lady of Hawaii Vicky Tiu) of a local Chinese farmer, and winds up taking her to the big 'ol fair in the city. Seemingly, the only Northwest stereotype left out were those lumbering loggers.

Elvis En Route

On the morning of Monday, September 3, 1962, Presley and his nine-man entourage left Los Angeles in a two-vehicle convoy heading north on Interstate 5. Tired after driving for nearly 24 hours straight, they passed by Portland, Oregon, entered old Highway 99 (the future Interstate 5 was not yet completed in Washington), and got rooms (No. 219 and 220) at the Columbia Inn Motel (today's Kalama River Inn at 602 North Frontage Road) in the tiny town of Kalama, Washington.

After sleeping  until about 6 p.m. on Tuesday September 4, Presley's posse had a very late breakfast and he then stepped outside to greet the several hundred young fans who'd gathered in the parking lot. Hours later, the convoy fired up and continued its final 137-mile trip up to Seattle.

September 5, 1962

At just past 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 5, 1962,  Presley's black Chrysler station wagon and large Dodge House Car pulled up to Seattle's Doric New Washington Hotel (1902 2nd Avenue), where about 300 teens had thronged for hours in hopes of glimpsing the star, who had not returned to town since a blistering performance at Sicks' Stadium (Rainier Avenue and McClelland Street) on his only national tour way back on September 1, 1957. Presley and his posse were ensconced in 14th-floor rooms -- a haven protected by six off-duty police officers -- where they would escape the milling crowds of fans after each day's filming was complete.

MGM planners had selected September 5, 1962, as the preferred date to begin shooting scenes on the fairgrounds for a very sensible reason: It was the opening day for Seattle-area public schools and the producers sought to limit the odds of screaming kids ruining their work. The Century 21 site would, of course, be packed with fairgoers, and MGM would necessarily block public access to various settings they'd selected for each day's shoot, but being disrupted by Elvis-infatuated fans was the last thing director Norman Taurog and his 100-person crew needed. Oh, well ... nice try.

Work on the movie began promptly at 9 a.m. this Monday morning with Presley arriving by black limousine at the fairgrounds' Monorail terminal where MGM had taken over one of the two trains – the Red Train -- as a setting. "A black curtain was stretched across one half and a huge camera was installed in front of it. Directors, assistant directors, dialog directors, make-up artists all scurried about ... . Extras hired for $10 a day milled around on the platform. 'I'll spend it all just on seeing the film,' one extra said" (Duncan).

As hundreds of gawkers gathered behind fences (and behind the 40 off-duty police officers hired by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker), the star busied himself rehearsing lines with a dialog coach, Jack Mintz, and getting his fingernails buffed. Then, when the cameras began rolling, he and Tiu took seats and, as one writer teased, "The train pulled out ... going the wrong way [heading downtown, away from the fair] to 'Take Me To The Fair.'" School days notwithstanding, a couple kids -- not hired as extras, but intent on being in the middle of things anyway -- were difficult to ignore. "Two girls, who appeared to be playing hooky, rode back and forth on the Blue Train. They shrieked every time they saw Presley's train whiz past." Which, given the number of retakes the director called for, were a lot of Monorail rides and shrieking: "We're going broke buying tickets," said one girl (Duncan).

September 6, 1962

On Thursday, September 6, Presley's scenes were scheduled to be shot in the fair's amusement park area, the Gayway. Although the Gayway was closed to the public during the shoot, many people paid admission to the fair that day in order see the star in action. "Some adore him. Others can't stand him. But Elvis Presley drew hundreds of loyal fans and curiosity seekers to the World's Fair's Gayway today [to watch Presley] film the next scene of his motion picture amid the noise and bright lights of the fun zone. Teen-agers giggled nervously. Grandmothers clicked their cameras. Little boys sneered. Presley did not say a word" (Patty, September 6, 1962).

Some of the extras hired for the scene may have gotten more than they bargained for. "In one scene Elvis and little Vicky Tiu walked through a part of the Gayway. Two rides were in operation, with extras on them. In the short time I watched, they ran through the scene five times and were still going when I left. The extras were beginning to look as if the prolonged ride was getting to them" (Jarvis, September 7, 1962). The final scene captured was that of Presley pretending to successfully win a large stuffed animal toy for Liu at the Lucky Strike coin pitch game.

At day's end Presley spent a good hour chucking football passes to his boys in a walled-off area between the new Seattle Opera House and the Stadium -- and the assembled press dutifully noted, "Occasionally, the singer's dark, way hair misbehaved. He grinned and combed it back into place with his throwing hand ... Tittering teen-agers peeked through, over and around fences as their hero sprinted to and fro with his shirttail flapping" (The Seattle Times, September 7, 1962). Some fans shared their excitement with The Seattle Times saying things like "He has a wonderful voice -- he quivers;" "Man, he's a doll. He's dreamy;" and "I think I'll faint when I see him. He has sex appeal and everything" (Patty, September 6, 1962).

Similar thoughts must have been what drove hundreds of other swooning fans to mob the poor New Washington Hotel, which saw crowds of teens arriving daily: "Several of the girls had schoolbooks under their arms. They had made beelines for the hotel as soon as school was out to spend the rest of the afternoon and much of the night maintaining an ecstatic vigil" (Dunsire, September 15, 1962).

September 7, 1962

By Friday, September 7, Northwest youths were making filming logistics rather more difficult for MGM, Presley, his security, and the fair itself. As The Seattle Times reported, “Through the glazed eyes of his teen-age fans, Elvis Presley blazed a glittering path like a glowing comet across the World’s Fair grounds ... . It was a stardust trail of swooning girls, stepped-on feet and harried policemen" (Moody).

As the star attempted to traverse the path from his dressing room to this day's film-set in the Fair's Electric Utilities Pavilion, he was nearly mobbed by fans. To get across the fairgrounds Presley had to ride through crowds of fairgoers in an open electricab vehicle. Although a security perimeter of sorts was attempted, "Girls laughingly assaulted the police who locked arms to keep the crowds from the singer.” One teen from Outlook, Washington, fainted after Presley reached out and touched her hand. A Seattle police sergeant named Dennis J. Haley picked the unconscious girl up and handed her off for first-aid treatment. But before receiving further help, she revived and ran off trailing the pack that was chasing Presley.

While cruising around in that electricab, as Haley informed The Seattle Times, an unidentified female fan wearing a Ballard Beavers sweatshirt raced past security and jumped in next to Presley. “She clasped her hand beneath her chin -- and then went cross-eyed as she looked at Presley. Every time she looked at him, she went cross-eyed” (Moody). Presley also drew worshipful fans when he stepped outside of the Federal Science Pavilion and handed an eternally grateful girl his can of soda pop.

That same day saw another fan get her dream-date of a lifetime. Sue Wouters, age 18, was the daughter of Betty Wouters, secretary to Albert Fisher, who was one of the fair's film and television VIP handlers. Thus it was that the Wouters went down to the fairgrounds to hang out on the periphery of the movie set where she happened to be spotted in the crowd by Presley who stepped over to say hello.  Soon after a bodyguard mentioned to her that the star wished to have her telephone number, and later that evening the bodyguard called to ask her out on Presley's behalf. She accepted, and a bit later a long black chauffeur-driven limousine rolled up to the Wouters family’s Capitol Hill home (1736 Belmont Avenue). She entered and was squired downtown to the hotel where she avoided the teenage mobs and joined Presley and his posse and a few other guests in his suite for an evening of playing records, drinking Cokes, and watching TV.

September 8, 1962

On Saturday, September 8, MGM continued filming Presley's scenes in various set locations. Meanwhile, another of Presley's co-stars, Joan O'Brien (b. 1936), arrived in town and spent the evening trying all the Gayway rides and then attending a Twisty Party dance somewhere in town.

O'Brien informed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that she was, in fact, a native Northwesterner: "Actually, this is a kind of return for me. I was born and went to school my first year in Port Orchard. It made more of an impression on me than any place I've lived since. It wasn't the town so much -- it was the wonderful woods and area all around it. I don't remember wanting to be a movie star but I suppose I did for I used to spend all my time in movie theaters. I started my career as a singer but I don't get much chance to sing anymore. I do hope to make some records soon though" (Voorhees).

Though she got her big break by appearing regularly on CBS-TV's The Bob Crosby Show, it was as an actress that O'Brien made her mark in movies like The Alamo, Operation Petticoat, and Handle With Care. Although Presley and O'Brien would, later in 1963, strike up a personal relationship, on this evening young Wouters again bypassed the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel and joined Presley for their second identical date.

September 9, 1962

Sunday September 9 served as a day off for the film's entire cast and production crew. Presley lay low, but O'Brien spent the day taking in a double-feature at a local movie theater.

Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued, and that evening Wouters joined Presley there again for their third date. It was also possibly this evening when Fisher, who was beginning to befriend Presley in the many hours they spent together on the fairground film sets, was invited to join the gathering at Presley's suite.

September 10, 1962

Rain canceled filming on Monday September 10, and Presley and company lay low. Perhaps it was best that they did. Visiting the fair as a tourist was the 315-pound New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt, who attracted handshakes and autograph requests from people who likely wished they'd been able to meet Presley instead. Booked downtown for shows at the Orpheum Theater (506 Stewart Street), Hirt the traditional jazzman was asked his opinions about modern music.

He wishfully believed -- like all jazzers seemingly did back then -- that there was "a strong surge toward the return of the big bands" ... 'Better music is coming back all the time. Even Elvis Presley is changing his material'" (The Seattle Times, September 11, 1962). Although it is true that Presley's music had lost its edge in recent times -- his earlier wild nature had been successfully tamed by the temptation of Hollywood fame -- only those who held rock 'n' roll in complete contempt could have seen that as a positive.

Later that evening Wouters joined Presley again for their fourth and final date. Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued.

September 11, 1962

On Tuesday September 11, Presley and co-star O’Brien (who was portraying a fair nurse that he met at the fair's first-aid station), were filmed near the Food Circus building and getting into a Pedicab. The film's producer, Ted Richmond, "had an anxious eye on the cloudy sky again today. 'I'm holding my breath at the rate of $6,000 an hour' [he] said with a frown" (The Seattle Times, September 11, 1962).

There was no doubt, however, but that, “The biggest attraction at the World’s Fair continues to be Elvis Presley, who may turn out to be the biggest boon to the sellers of camera film since the Space Needle was unveiled. Whenever the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer crew sets up its shop to film a scene with Presley, literally thousands flock to the spot (to be held back at a respectable distance by approximately 40 off-duty Seattle policemen) and the first thing they do is get their cameras at the ready. When Elvis appears, which is always some time after a great deal of rehearsal (with stand-ins) and adjustment of equipment, the noise of cameras whirring, clicking, snapping, flashing and other assorted noises runs a close second to the helicopter [ride] and Space Needle chimes” (Voorhees).

One of the greatest production challenges facing Richmond and his audio crew was audio pollution caused by the giant carillon that had been installed in the Space Needle. Its loud ringing of 538 bells clanged over 44 loudspeakers all across the fair's campus (and beyond) at regular intervals on a daily basis. Visitors delighted in watching the carilloneur, John Klein, performing on his instrument's console which was located in a glass-enclosed booth at the base of the Needle -- and some even purchased his Bells On Hi-Fi LP as a souvenir.

Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued.

September 12, 1962

It was while taking a midday break on Wednesday September 12 that the famously odd photograph was taken of Presley, Parker, and others with Governor Al Rosellini (1910-2011) -- and a large cold ham. They'd all met up at the downtown Monorail Terminal where the Memphis boys wanted to present Rosellini with a Tennessee ham purportedly shipped out here as a gift from Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted though, Rosellini seemed a bit "overwhelmed" and "bewildered" by the event.

When "Asked what he would do with the ham, the governor shrugged ... . After Rosellini and Presley had disposed of the ham award, both ventured to the roped off sidewalk to sign autographs for some of the singer's squealing fans, several hundred who had crowded around to watch filming of the movie ... . It was noted, as he was leaving, that the governor didn't have the ham. 'I sent it back to Olympia'" he replied (Dunsire, September 13, 1962).

Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued.

September 13, 1962

On the cloudy morning of Thursday September 13, Presley was nowhere to be seen and O'Brien reportedly was out suffering from a migraine. Colonel Parker, on the other hand, was spotted outside the fair's Administration Building organizing stacks of promotional photographs. He was quoted as saying “We’ve given out more than 12,000 photos of Elvis since last Saturday” (Jarvis, September 14, 1962). As rain began falling again, Parker scurried away, and the director decided to shoot some b-roll footage of John R. "Jackie" Souders' (d. 1968) 37-person Official World's Fair Band -- which had been organized specifically to march around the fairgrounds daily for Century 21's entire season.

This day the Band were to be filmed while marching westward from the NASA exhibit -- only the producers felt that the band needed to look bigger than it was. Thus, at least a few of Seattle's finest jazz musicians got sucked into the production at the last minute that day. Veteran bassist Bob Marshall and pianist Overton Berry were called to earn a day's union scale by donning a uniform and posing as members of the band. But marching bands don't easily accommodate large upright basses, or pianos, so the two were each assigned a tuba and told to get in the back and pretend to play. As Berry later recalled:

"What they were doing [that day] was: they were playing a soundtrack of the band, and you'd be there all day, and every once in a while Jackie would strike up the band and we would march just a little bit. Well, there was one scene where there was a set of stairs going up towards the Flag Pavilion and there was a rather large flower pot or something at the top. And, they had this scene where Elvis and his girlfriend are supposed to be sitting on this thing in the middle of this platform -- and the band is supposed to march up the stairs and split and go around them. Well, we're marching up there and Bob -- instead of splitting, he walks right into Elvis Presley. Well, of course, everybody runs out there trying to figure out if he's trying to hurt Elvis, or what! [laughter] And I said, 'Bob we were supposed to split up and go around him!' And Bob said 'Well, what the hell's the fool doing with his girlfriend in the middle of a marching band?!' I always loved that. And of course we shot the scene again and he got it right."

Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued.

September 14, 1962

Presley's final scenes were shot on Friday September 14, and the most notable news from the film set that day was that among the large crowd of gawkers assembled there was a 76-year-old tourist from California who had to be hospitalized after a small fairgrounds vehicle ran over her foot. Meanwhile, the teenage siege at the New Washington Hotel continued.

It was possibly this night when Fisher (and his date, a young fair press aide named Alice Brennan) were invited to join Presley and his entourage in going out to see a film. "We went to the movies," Fisher recalled, "to see Kid Galahad, an Elvis movie which had just been released. I guess Elvis had not seen it in its finished form and wanted to see it. I remember that he had his Memphis Mafia go in the theater in advance and they bought like the two back rows of the theater. The theater management helped make the arrangements." That venue was the historic Music Hall Theatre (706 Olive Way) -- located only blocks away from the New Washington Hotel, where the group still needed to escape the fans milling outside the hotel. "So, we pulled up in front in a plain, unmarked, car -- like a black station wagon or something – went in once the movie had started, and then we left just before the movie ended. So nobody knew that we were in there" (Interview). 

Making the connection with Presley really paid off for Albert Fisher: "After the fair Elvis brought me to Hollywood as a technical adviser for the movie and I spent a week out on the set at the MGM studios in Culver City. Basically it was just kind of a payback because we had become friends during that time" (Interview). That fortuitous experience ended up being a direct entrée into a lifelong Hollywood-based career for Fisher.

September 15, 1962

On the morning of Saturday September 15, Presley and his posse checked out of the New Washington Hotel -- probably to a great relief of the staff -- and their convoy headed back down Highway 99 toward Hollywood. Though many in Seattle were sad to have Presley depart, the hotel's frazzled desk clerk, Ms. Marle Hanley, had mixed feelings: "It was nice to have him come. But it will be nice to see him go" (Dunsire, September 15, 1962).

The following day Ms. Wouters confided the details about her four dates with Presley to The Seattle Times. He'd told her that, "'I would love to take you out,' but he couldn't because he would just get mobbed by the fans." On each of those nights she received a kiss from the star -- "There was nothing wrong about it. He was a perfect gentleman at all times." Admitting that "I'm all shook up," Wouters said that the whole affair did result in the loss of her steady boyfriend -- "But I don't care. Elvis was much more interesting" (Patty, September 16, 1962).

Elvis Happened

Take Me To The Fair would have been an oddly present or future-tense title for a movie about events that that had occurred six months in the past. Much more logical would be something along the lines of It Happened at the World's Fair -- which eventually became the name of Presley's film.

The movie premiered on April 3, 1963, in Los Angeles and opened nationally one week later -- and then an RCA Records album featuring 10 Presley songs was issued. The fact that both their releases were a full half-year after the fair closed partially explains why the two products were only marginally successful.

But, the main reason for that is that the movie had a hopelessly schlocky plot and the LP -- with clunkers like “Take Me To The Fair” and a whole array of additional substandard pop dreck -- merely spotlighted Presley's precipitous musical decline. Though the film and soundtrack album are rightfully obscure today, Seattle's recollections of those 10 days in September, 1962, remain as indelible memories for longtime locals.


"Elvis Presley 'Fair' Movie Still Planned," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 12, 1962, Second Section, p. 2; "Washington: Come to the Fair," Time Magazine, December 21, 1961 website accessed January 17, 2010 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,827192,00.html#ixzz0ct7Q8hE2); Alan Hanson, "Heartbreak Motel in Kalama: Elvis Slept Here in 1962," February, 2008 elvis-history-blog.com website accessed on February 25, 2010 (http://www.elvis-history-blog.com/elvis-slept-here.html); "'Twas Real 'Swing' Shift Vigil -- Fans Wait Until Wee Hours To Greet Elvis," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 5, 1962, p. 19; Don Duncan, "Taken To Fair: Presley Rides Red Train To and Fro," The Seattle Times, September 5, 1962, p. A; "Rock 'n' Roller Here For World's Fair Film," The Seattle Times, September 5, 1962, p. B; Jack Jarvis, "It's Elvis! He's Nice Guy, and He Sings, Too," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 6, 1962, p .6; Stanton H. Patty, "Cheers And Sneers," Presley 'Wows' Them at Fair," The Seattle Times September 6, 1962, p. A; "New Frontier? Presley, His Helpers, Play With Football," The Seattle Times, September 7, 1962, p. A; Jack Jarvis, "Extras Find Film Chore Extra Tedious," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 7, 1962, Second Section, p. 5; Dick Moody, "Girls Swoon, Go Cross-Eyed Over Presley," The Seattle Times, September 8, 1962, p. A; "Space Needle Scene: Glamorous Blonde in Presley Film Joins Singer at Fair," The Seattle Times, September 11, 1962, p. A; "'Typhoon Al' Tours Fair," The Seattle Times, September 11, 1962, p. A; "Stars Chat in Needle," The Seattle Times,, September 11, 1962, p. B; John Voorhees, "Elvis At The Fair -- Where He Is Are Girls, Girls -- And More Girls," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 12, 1962, p. 13; Charles Dunsire, "Elvis' Gift Of Gouged Ham Bewilders Gov. Rosellini," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 13, 1962, p. 7; Jack Jarvis, "Our Man At The Fair," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1962, p.8; Charles Dunsire, "Elvis! Female 'Siege' Keeps Hotel Staff Harried," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 15, 1962, p. 7; Stanton H. Patty, "All Shook Up: Pretty Seattle Blonde, 18, Has Four dates With Presley," The Seattle Times, September 16, 1962, p. A; Gordon Bowker, "ROCK!," Seattle Magazine, February 1970, p.19; Peter Blecha telephone interview with Overton Berry, February 3, 2010, and Albert Fisher March 11, 2010.

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