Bumbershoot's Formative Years (1971-1979)

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 9/01/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10027
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"Festival 71" was the first of what would become an annual music and arts festival at Seattle Center that became known as "Bumbershoot" starting in 1973. In this People's History, Seattle historian (and founding member of HistoryLink.org) Paul Dorpat recalls that first gathering and sketches the now-famous festival's growth in subsequent years.

Festival 71

By an estimate inflated, perhaps, with euphoria, more than 125,000 people -- roughly one Bellevue plus one Walla Walla -- gathered at the Seattle Center on August 13-15, 1971, for Festival '71. This assembly was scored with little more promotion than a cardboard poster screened in yellow and magenta showing a closed fist -- thumb pointing to the sky -- and announcing ambitiously, "Fun for Everyone." In hindsight we may see a folded umbrella in that ascending thumb. A Cockney bumbershoot.

The new festival might have been named for the city's new chief executive. Returning home from a conference of mayors in New York City, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) carried with him the example of his host John Lindsey's Mayor's Arts Festival. As Uhlman recalls, his progressive urges were excited to "keep the human spirit going" in Seattle with a similar event. The city was then sinking into its Boeing Depression. And it was broke.

The new mayor appointed his friend Irving Clark Jr. to chair a Mayor's Festival Committee. Clark -- a liberal pioneer of Seattle's talk radio who, as Uhlman describes him, "harangued anybody to the right of Carly Simon" -- was effective. A June 7th announcement described a "people-oriented" (inexpensive) program that would use nearly all of Seattle Center for the first time since the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair. The Committee thought that, perhaps, 40,000 might attend. They got little press.

Everything But Bumbershoot

The small wad of 25,000 "possibles" unlocked from the Center's embrace included $5,000 for Seattle's guardian angel of the avant-garde. With "more money than I could imagine," Anne Focke filled the Flag Plaza Pavilion with laser beams and light shows, computer drawings, the monumental inflatable soft-sculptures of the Land Truth Company, and an electronic jam session. "Free Expression Art," the newspapers call it. Add dance, theater, folk music, visual arts exhibits, the boulevard of crafts, car and body painting, and add, if you want, Dixy Lee Ray's early opening of the Kwakiutl ceremonial house at the Science Center, and the mayor's festival reached the critical mass of attractions that both released our "human spirit" and confounded definition. For inspecting pundits, Seattle's first summer arts festival was a "populist grab-bag," a "smorgasbord of experiences," a "multimedia extravaganza," a "big box of gift chocolates," the "metropolitan telephone book." But not yet, a Bumbershoot.

One member of the Center staff called it a "Seattle Woodstock," and certainly rock-n-roll helped swell the multitudes at Seattle Center to the largest since the World's Fair. Only nine years separated them, but the crowds of Century 21 and those of Festival '71 would have seemed strange to one another. The sixties intervened. Beginning in 1968 with the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, the greatest expression of this creative turmoil in the three years preceding Festival '71 were the popular music festivals -- five of them --which were prudently held out of town -- yet within an hour of Seattle -- and in natural open theaters where temporary stages could be raised or lowered in a day.

A Legal Release for Rambunctious Delights

By 1971, the somewhat anarchistic (throwers of bashes not bombs) experiments like these "new American communities" were either censored or outlawed. The rock, blues, and folk played on the festival's Kaleidoscope Stage at the Center's Mural Amphitheater was, in part, a legal release for these rambunctious delights.

Although it surely rocked, the mayor's first arts festival also twanged. Festival '71's only out-of-town headliner was a country singer named Sheb Wooley. He was the second choice after one-half of the first choice -- Jethro of the 40-year-old country comedy act Homer and Jethro -- suddenly died. Add an amateur motorcycle race in the Coliseum, a demonstration of logging techniques, and a Hot Pants contest -- won by Miss Norene Gilbert of Burien -- and this was a "metropolitan phone book!"

Festival '72 dropped the country but added 50,000 celebrants. The festival also got its second symbol when the thumbs-up fist of '71 was gloved for Claus Oldenburg's pastel impression of a colossal water faucet flooding Lake Union from its base on the western slope of Capitol Hill. The second festival also marked the oracular arrival of Louise Lovely, Norman Langill, and the One Reel Vaudeville Show. In 1980, One Reel began producing Bumbershoot -- and still does.

A Name Both Fitting and Peculiar

The umbrella first opened on the festival in 1973, and it had considerably more to cover -- five days and 200,000 visitors. Anne Focke, now the festival's producer, was determined to give this three-year-old a name both fitting and peculiar. But her choice -- Bumbershoot -- had its detractors. Following the festival, a majority of the city's Arts Commissioners recommended that the name be folded. Instead, it has repeatedly opened into Bumber-themes including Bumberballs, Bumberzoos, Bumbernationals, and the BumberChronicles which you are here reading.

The '73 Bumbershoot featured a few national jazz acts, Cal Tjader, Joe Venuti, John Handy, but its 1000 volunteers were busier with the local exhibits and performances, including the first appearance of Clair Colquitt's festival contraption. The eight-foot high propeller-powered Quintcycle with five wheels and three umbrellas was driven to the opening ceremonies by Art Bumbershoot. After introducing three television weathermen who promised no rain for the duration, Wes Uhlman opened a trick umbrella that dropped tinsel on his head. The Mayor so enjoyed the surprise that he repeated it over and over again, finally breaking the bumbershoot. It then began to drizzle.

Wes Uhlman was back in 1974 accompanied by an estimated 325,000 others for a Bumbershoot that swelled to 10 days. The opening ceremonies featured a brass-led "Renaissance Processional" from downtown to the center, and council person Phylis Lamphere was part of the pomp -- in clown's costume. Actually, most of the city council was there reading stories to children or, as one reporter described the Mayor's role, running the Lost Child Center. And with nearly a third of a million attending, there were a few lost and frightened children including some notable critics who, as if in pursuit of a neglectful parent, were still searching for a theme in this marvelous phone book of a festival.

With its expansion to 11 days in 1975, indications of Bumbershoot's eternal tensions -- regarding its taste, its size, its audacity, the arts it emphasized, its fun or seriousness -- were included in a program guide big enough to deflect the rain -- which again fell on opening Friday. Here was a populist festival big enough to hold both the diversity and felt contradictions of its participants. A newsclip from The Seattle Times reads, "Members of the Society of Military Widows who plan to attend the Bumbershoot Festival Sunday at the Seattle Center are asked to meet at the main entrance to the Food Circus Building at 2 p.m." At that time Patchwork, a local group that the guide describes as "on the jazzy side," was finishing its set a rock's throw away at the Mural Amphitheater. And a half-hour later the widow's society might have welcomed blues-rocker Dan Bono and his organ to the same stage beneath Horiuchi's wide mosaic.

On loan from the Park Department, John Chambless was the festival's producer in its biggest year. As director of Sky River in 1968, the erstwhile UW history/philosophy instructor was asked (inevitably) to compare the festivals. His response was unexpected -- curious even. Sky River, the philosopher claimed, yearned to be a Bumbershoot, but couldn't because it was staged in a pasture.

Throughout its 11 days, Bumbershoot '75 yearned to be solvent, selling posters, buttons, and T-shirts, and pleading for donations on stage and radio. That it came up $18,000 short triggered a councilmanic retreat and broadcast a message heard every Labor Day until 1980.

In 1975, Chambless claimed that 75 percent of the festival's resources were spent on local talent. In 1976 it was nearly 100 percent. Through the late 1970s, Bumbershoot went into a fiscal and provincial withdrawal. Cut to two weekends, the 1976 festival gave little note to the nation's bicentennial, an event for which in 1970 the Mayor's Festival Committee had projected a kind of suitor for the arts festival they hoped to nurture. Instead, the bicentennial merely hung on the 1976 festival like a medal from a forgotten campaign.

In 1977, Bumbershoot was restrained to Labor Day weekend when the sun is often merely a star of hope. It did rain in 1977 and again in 1978. As a talisman, T. R. Uthco brought out their 50-foot tall balloon version of Oldenburg's faucet, this time accompanied by a monumental "OFF." A squall prevented inflation.

In 1977, Literary Arts coordinator Carol Orlock reached science fiction writer Isaac Asimov at his home in New York and asked him to read at Bumbershoot. "Is that Seattle, Washington?" Asimov asked. Then gave his answer: "I'm sorry, then, but I won't come because I absolutely refuse to fly." The experience shook Orlock's faith in interstellar travel.

Two years later a "local poet and punk singer" chosen through the Literary Arts performance competitions complained on stage of the high fees paid national writers like Marge Piercy compared to her own measly $50. It was an experience to shake one's faith in the market. Comes the admission fee.

Beginning in 1980, $2.50 was required of anyone entering the festival who couldn't claim the hardships of youth or age. From then until now the producer's plea, "give us the cash to buy 'headliners' and we will surround them with local talent" has winged international artists to Seattle Center on Labor Day Weekend.

No Choice But to Take the Plunge

Also in 1980, Bumbershoot got its new producer -- One Reel -- and a new mayor willing to jump from a helicopter -- or seem to -- to promote the festival on television. An airborne Charles Royer announced that there was, really, "no choice" to taking the plunge into a "grown-up arts festival." To the relief of city and Center accountants, the strategy worked. After a Free Friday, Saturday and Sunday paid the bills and "Monday was pure profit." Emmylou Harris, Chuck Berry, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Etta James, Clifton Chenier, Eugene Fodor and his Stradivarius were the "headliners." For regional relevance the Volcano Gallery exhibited Mount St. Helens art and One Reel joined the local explosion with their farce "Lava It or Leave It." And in this year of the eruption Bumbershoot also featured the festival's first -- and, so far, only -- uncasing when a performance artist following the projection of her film "Get Yours Hands Off Me," disrobed. One viewer objected to "nudity without warning." Other performers were more sensitive. Comedian Martin Mull included in his contract the stipulation that "any midget present at the performance shall be escorted by operator to a front-row position so that the stage can be easily seen."

The new formula of crowds-from-stars for a "sumptuous meal of the arts" worked so well through the early 1980s that Bumbershoot became the "one bright spot" in Seattle Center's generally dusky situation. While strolling the grounds during Bumbershoot '83, City Treasurer Lloyd Hara revealed to a reporter his hopes that the festival would show a profit of at least $250,000 for the city after expenses, because the Center could use a "cash transfusion." The 1984 Bumbershoot featured 200 Performers, 1,800 volunteers, a $650,000 budget, and made a profit. One Reel's success was, however, ironic and lead to their sudden dismissal by a Seattle Center staff anxious to take control of this milk cow. Comes the "Bumberwars" of 1985.

The Bumbershoot Advisory Commission (formed in 1974) was especially disturbed that the Center had bypassed its advice to retain the experienced One Reel and hired instead a local promoter, most of whose considerable experience was with rock-n-roll, not the arts. Ceramic Artist and committee member Joyce Moty, who argued that it was "like hiring a landscape artist to design a jail," (not such a bad idea), actually meant that it was like hiring a jailer to design a park. As it developed through a series of open City Council hearings, the Center's choice didn't have much of a chance. Its decision was reversed, and with help from the festival's volunteer advisors, One Reel went on to produce another decade of Bumbershoots.

Sampling the festival in the 10 years since the Bumberwars -- Fats Domino, Rumors of the Big Wave, the Grand Kabuki Theater, Uncle Bonsai, Roy Orbison, Miles Davis, Bumberdrum I, II, III and IV, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Jerry Seinfeld, Mamie Van Doren (in person with "Untamed Youth" her 1950s camp feature about outlaw Protestant bikers and kidnapped teenage chain gangs sharing a single Southern prison camp stage), The Roches, Jim Page, Robert Cray, Don Wilsun, Alexander Cockburn, Shawn Wong, Art Blakey, Taj Mahal, the Saint Petersburg Ballet, Legos and the Lost Kid Center -- there have been hundreds of headliners and local hits, but not always profits.

Especially in 1994, the cockney umbrella failed to either charm the sun or fill the festival's pot. The result was losses that made John Chambless's $18,000 in 1975 seem like the 16 cents per Bumbershooter it then was. This time the recoiling politicians set the festival free, and Bumbershoot '95 was again produced for us by One Reel, and guided by mayoral appointees and members from the old Bumbershoot Commission. Bumbershoot continues to pack itself with art and performances from bumper to bumper within the vehicle of Seattle Center.

Whatever its organization, during the Labor Day weekend, Seattle Center is still the best place to press through crowds and make palpable a celebrating human spirit.

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