Memorable fiascos of Seattle's 1962 world's fair

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, it's time to remember some of the crimes and blunders that went along with it. Some even launched new industries.

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Century 21, Seattle 1962

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, it's time to remember some of the crimes and blunders that went along with it. Some even launched new industries.

Writing about the 1962 world's fair, it's tempting to focus, as I often have, on Seattle as the little engine that could. Century 21 was an unlikely success and a turning point that helped shape the modern city. But the organizers of 50 years ago were human. The fair was not without controversy or its share of fiascos. We look back in envy at what was accomplished, but there were lawsuits, crimes, and blunders that set officials scrambling to make good and cover their butts.

The following is a short list of some fair-related fumbles. They're not untypical of those experienced by any city that hosts an expo or Olympics. 

Interbay Parking Boondoggle. Seattle has long debated whether the city should be in the parking lot business. Before there was Pacific Place, there was Interbay. Fair organizers were concerned with handling the huge amount of expo traffic expected. What to do with all those cars? City and fair officials looked at using public property for off-site parking at multiple sites near the fairgrounds and as far afield as the Rainier Valley (near the I-90 tunnel) and Magnolia's Interbay. They even got approval from the state to use the not-yet-open I-5 freeway bridge over the ship canal as a parking lot, if needed. Buses would shuttle visitors to and from the fair. 

Century 21 built a massive lot on leased city property at Interbay with attendants, a visitor's center and enough space to park 5,000 cars per day. The fair spent at least $230,000 on it. The problem? It wasn't needed. More convenient private lots near the fairgrounds blossomed with thousands of spaces. An even bigger surprise: nearly twice as many people took Seattle public transit to the fair than anticipated. People changed behavior to avoid gridlock. On peak days, the Interbay lot averaged not 5,000 but only 70 cars! The expensive boondoggle was mothballed mid-way through the fair.

Embezzlement at the Fair. In August of '62, the manager of the Fish & Chips concession at the fair's Food Circus skipped town. His name was Dewey Bouck, and he was accused by King County prosecutor Charles O. Carroll of grand larceny for embezzling $28,400 in Fish & Chips receipts. Bouck was also involved in managing the fair's Indian Village. The Village was short of funds, employees weren't being paid. Angry, the Native Americans walked out and the Village shut down, resulting in the loss of a major cultural attraction (some of them set up a new, alternative Village at a restaurant in Federal Way).

Bouck was accused of writing bad checks on the Village's account. He eventually returned to town and surrendered, and pled guilty to misappropriating the funds. He claimed he had taken the Fish & Chips receipts to prop-up losses at the Indian Village. In 1963, he was given a 15-year suspended sentence on condition he pay restitution of $50,000.

The Colacurcios, of course. The Seattle fair involved many of Seattle's most famous families, including one of the most notorious, the Colacurcios, headed by the late nightlife boss and Strippergate scandal figure Frank Colacurcio, Sr. In fact, the Seattle World's Fair was a seminal event in his career. The Seattle Times reported in 1981 that his attorney, William Helsell, said it was at the fair that Colacurcio realized "he had what it took to be a success in the nightclub business." That's a fair legacy you don't hear much about.

The Colacurcios, like other business people, wanted to capitalize on the fair. Frank's brother Bill had sought to get one of his pinball operations located next to the fairgrounds, but the city wanted to keep that scandal-plagued business at arm's length. But Frank, then 45 years old, managed and operated the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub at the fair, a Gay Nineties-themed establishment on Show Street where pretty waitresses served beer and wine and patrons watched dance acts and listened to music ranging from Calypso to jazz. Trouble came in August when authorities discovered that four club dancers were minors, aged 15 to 17. Colacurcio was accused of knowingly employing the under-age girls and instructing them to get false ID's. He was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of minors, fined $500 and given a six-month suspended sentence.

More importantly, at the fair Frank Colacurcio met a man named James Ward who managed the food vending machines for Century Concessions. Ward became a well-known restaurateur (13 Coins, El Gaucho), but also a partner and front man for Colacurcio in numerous hotel and nightlife ventures — a fact that came out after Ward's sudden death and a subsequent Colacurcio tax evasion case revealed their dealings. Colacurcio brought go-go dancing to Seattle in the mid-1960s, later topless and strip clubs, with help from lessons and contacts gained at Century 21.

"Don't Gouge Me! I'm a Seattleite." Housing turned out to be a source of major controversy before and during the fair. The first big dust-up came in the winter of '61-'62 when landlords of many apartment houses downtown, on Capitol and First Hills, and elsewhere began evicting tenants and jacking up room rates in anticipation of housing hordes of visitors during the fair.

That fall the city council had passed a law allowing apartment owners to switch from monthly to short-term daily rentals, essentially turning a huge chunk of the city's apartment stock into motel rooms. These so called "transient housing privileges" were designed for the period of the fair. Some tenants saw rents jumped from $85 per month to $300 per month. Hundreds of current tenants were evicted en masse, and the new monthly rates were untenable for many more. Thousands were "coerced" to pay higher rates or vacate.

There was a huge outcry and charges of price-gouging as now homeless young moms with kids, the elderly, pensioners and the disabled became symbols of a city where expo greed was running amok. One landlord was hung in effigy. It was bad publicity for the fair. KOMO-TV captured some of the outrage with footage of a public hearing where Mayor Gordon Clinton, pleading for civility, was booed. There were protests, and tenants created the Seattle Renters' Association. Buttons sprouted that read, "Don't Gouge Me! I'm a Seattleite." 

The state legislature began an investigation and there were calls for the special session to put in price controls. The city council retreated and Mayor Clinton responded by pushing to repeal the ordinance. He called the behavior of the landlords "unconscionable." The apartment owners objected to rolling back the new rule because they believed they were doing exactly what Century 21's housing coordinating group, Expo-Lodging, wanted, which was to make up for an anticipated shortage of hotel and motel rooms. That was precisely the intention of the relaxed regulations.

Still, the city council pronounced itself shocked by the mass evictions, and passed a revised ordinance limiting the apartment conversions to new or vacant units only. King County also took the step to ban blanket evictions. Expo-Lodging then took up the task of trying to find homes for the evicted residents.

Later, Willis Camp, a Century 21 assistant vice president and head of Expo-Lodging, acknowledged that the fair had exaggerated the need for fair housing. "It was like mass hypnosis," he said. The community panicked. As it turned out, fair attendance did exceed expectations, but many fair guests simply stayed with friends and family, three cruise ships were docked in Elliott Bay to help accommodate visitors, and serious hotel room shortages never materialized. Still, while tourists were traipsing through the "Home of the Immediate Future" at the fair, some Seattleites had lost their homes in the actual present.

The Traveler's Village Mess. Expo-Lodging started as a hospitality industry referral service matching Seattle visitors with vacancies. It was taken over by Century 21 and had trouble keeping everyone happy. It was sometimes slow to process a large volume of accommodation requests, and it sometimes goofed. An example: one family was referred to a motel in Bremerton when rooms right next to the fair were available. Some hotels and motels complained they weren't getting their fair share of referrals. Motel owners on Highway 99 also griped that Expo-Lodging had created the impression that it had a monopoly on rooms in Seattle (it did not) and gave the idea that there was little or no lodging available. As a result, they said, many regular customers stayed away.

One consequence of the shortage that never materialized was that investors who banked on big numbers were left with empty rooms, especially those in outlying areas. The poster-child for this was Traveler's Village, a motel trailer park on the Eastside near Redmond. It was financed by a Yakima-based developer. Ads for it promised "Country Club Living" in a new "mobile apartment." The trailers were set up like a mini-housing development with neat rows of mobile homes surrounded by trees. A shuttle took visitors to the fair.

Just as the fair headed into summer, Traveler's Village abruptly closed in June. Some 1,400 reservation holders were suddenly without a place to stay, and $95,000 in advance payments were gone. Expo-Lodging scrambled to find places to stay for the displaced, and to arrange future lodging for those who were left high and dry.

Traveler's Village filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Expo-Lodging claiming the Village had been built on assurances they would get a large number of bookings. Expo-Lodging countered that the Village did not deliver all that it promised. The so-called "country club" lacked amenities — a planned restaurant and beauty shop never materialized. More importantly, Expo-Lodging insisted it had never guaranteed bookings and that this was a case of supply exceeding demand.

Faced with a large number of guests unexpectedly stiffed at the opening of the fair's crucial summer stretch, officials decided to take definitive action. The good news was that the fair was going to be in the black. The board decided to cover the $95,000 to reimburse the Village's guests. That was on top of $20,000 they'd already paid to house stranded fair visitors who arrived in town before the Traveler's Village closure was announced. Century 21 hoped to recover some of that through the Village's bankruptcy proceedings. Covering these unexpected costs paid off in one respect: the fair avoided getting a black eye at critical moment.

These problems are not the stuff of nostalgia, but it's worth remembering that we've never been perfect and that every civic endeavor has its share of challenges and screw-ups, whatever the century.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.