In the 1970s, it seemed to some cynical observers that the only legacy of the 1962 Century 21 Seattle World’s Fair were all those colorful commemorative drinking glasses that were a fixture at every garage sale back then. It was as if the incredible fairgrounds that had been renamed Seattle Center had not yet lived up to their potential to host a mind-numbing variety of cultural, artistic, sporting, commercial and civic pursuits.
In the intervening decades, Seattle Center, while sometimes seeming to have lost its way, has lived up to this potential, and the fairgrounds remain a living, breathing, daily celebration of the singular event from which they were birthed. Even so, it’s sometimes worth taking the celebration up a notch, as several local organizations have been preparing to do for the last few years, to mark a half-century since Seattle officially looked to the future.
For the rest of the not-so-history-obsessed population, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair gets unofficially under way with the premiere this Saturday, March 24 at 7 pm of a new KCTS-9 documentary about that long-ago, though still ever-so-with-us, event.
If the history of the fair could be told in a Tweet, it would go something like “Big Party, Belgian Waffles, Elvis, Monorail, Space Needle,” and all of these iconic elements find their way into the one-hour film by John Gordon Hill, called "When Seattle Invented The Future."
One danger in attempting to tell the history of something that remains as present as the Seattle World’s Fair is a tendency to gloss over the fundamental givens, particularly those realities that starkly divide Seattle’s history into the period Before The Fair and the period After The Fair. Hill avoids this danger with a decent amount of context pre and post, and he avoids the corollary peril of going too deep into the minutiae beneath the surface of just about every element of the fair. Really, there are a dozen documentaries yet to be made from this material.
The new film includes rarely scene archival footage — some of it in glorious color as well as not-so-glorious Kodachrome home movie stock — plus a number of interviews conducted for the fair’s 25th anniversary back in 1987. Among the new interviewees are Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Sr. and Crosscut’s Knute Berger, lately writer-in-residence at the Space Needle. Berger provides the short and long view, having attended the fair as a child and spent many years thinking and writing about its impact. And (snarky aside) he seems to be one of the few speakers in the film who doesn’t claim a role in designing the space age obelisk. Success, as they say, has a thousand fathers.
And speaking of the success of the Space Needle, bear in mind that the profiles and shorthand backstories of big cities — how they are viewed by others around the world — often come down to iconic images. Sometimes these iconic images are from negative events that no one but a few malcontents spawned. Just look at Dallas and the JFK assassination, Oklahoma City and the bombing of the federal building, or even New Orleans and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
I don’t think any of us who live here can fully appreciate how much the Space Needle, by far the most visible legacy of the fair, positively represents Seattle to the rest of the world. Without the “image inoculation” the Needle has provided us for 50 years, Seattle might be thought of as the city where WTO protestors of 1999 got roughed up and tear gassed, or as stomping grounds for DB Cooper and serial killers.
Those colorful commemorative Century 21 glasses are nowadays a little more expensive than they were in the 1970s, but if yours never sold, retrieve one from the garage, fill with the beverage of your choice, and settle in for a well-spent hour this Saturday night looking back at looking forward.