It Happened at the World's Fair
December 12, 2011 5:50 PM   Subscribe

Century 21 Calling - Dreamily retro footage of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, AKA the Century 21 Exposition, including a visit to the Bell Systems pavilion. A slice of space age science propaganda, the fair gave Seattle some of its most enduring landmarks in the form of the Space Needle and the Alweg Monorail, and, of course, brought Elvis to town.
posted by Artw (35 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Countess Elena at 5:52 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

In the future, everyone will wear gold blazers.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:53 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Previously: The Gayway
posted by Artw at 5:53 PM on December 12, 2011

I'm going to go back to my DRINKING AND PILL POPPING.
posted by The Whelk at 5:56 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

No wonder Sputnik happened - It's juvies like you who are letting the side down in against THE COMMIES.
posted by Artw at 6:01 PM on December 12, 2011

MST3K version
posted by Artw at 6:16 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well, I'm glad to know the future has CONSTANT ORGAN MUSIC!
posted by dirigibleman at 6:16 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Their lack of reverence for Science! clearly marks them as fifth columnists.
posted by Artw at 6:19 PM on December 12, 2011

"Isn't it great there's only white people here?"
posted by hippybear at 6:22 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

OMG Golly Gumdrops! A real Asian!
posted by delmoi at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2011

Dead raccoon of tomorrow.
posted by dr_dank at 6:45 PM on December 12, 2011

Yeah, yeah, it's easy to snark and snipe, but I'd give just about anything to visit that era, or hell, even live there. I'm envious of their endless optimism and their complete, total, utter lack of irony. And I like their sense of design. So there.
posted by KHAAAN! at 6:49 PM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

My mom went to this when she was 7. At the time she thought it was amazing. She started to dislike it a great deal when I was 7 and made her tell me about it over and over again.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:00 PM on December 12, 2011

Century 21 Calling

At first I thought this was about the lower Manhattan discount emporium, but lo, it is EVEN BETTER!
posted by exogenous at 7:25 PM on December 12, 2011

Okay, I've got to ask. Does anybody know exactly what went on at the Century 21 Expo peep show?
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:34 PM on December 12, 2011

Watching the first link, I feel like this must have been self-consciously retro even in 1962. The exaggerated emotion, sweeping music, classic fair scenes - they sort of replicate the tropes in 40s movies like State Fair.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's fun to see how much is recognizable today.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:03 PM on December 12, 2011

"Isn't it great there's only white people here?"

Except for the people that are exhibits.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on December 12, 2011

What will I do with all those seconds I'm saving by not rotary dialing?!
posted by Miko at 8:06 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's an amusing (if exhaustive) article about the frenzy and controversy surrounding the search for an "Official 1962 World's Fair Song"
posted by ShutterBun at 8:07 PM on December 12, 2011

Watching the first link, I feel like this must have been self-consciously retro even in 1962. The exaggerated emotion, sweeping music, classic fair scenes - they sort of replicate the tropes in 40s movies like State Fair.

It's actually closer to the kind of special subject shorts which are common on TCM between movies. Typically hosted/produced/written by Robert Benchley. So yeah, it's probably retro for the times, although in a context which most older viewers (who are likely the ones the film is trying to court -- selling new telephone service to older generations is an old practice) will feel comfortable with.
posted by hippybear at 8:24 PM on December 12, 2011

That makes some sense. It's definitely not as modern a sensibility as most media from the late 50s/early 60s, so there's either conscious wit or pandering to an older audience going on. What comes through loud and clear in this material, though I am less aware of it in older coverage/promotion of older Expos and World's Fairs, is the aspect of this endeavor that is basically a giant commercial for trade and technology.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on December 12, 2011

Well, it's actually a giant commercial for Ma Bell. Or this particular film is, anyway.
posted by hippybear at 8:39 PM on December 12, 2011

posted by The Whelk at 8:41 PM on December 12, 2011

Snark about Bell commercialism aside, I thought it was interesting that things like call waiting did not show up as a commercial service in our homes (in St Louis anyway) until the 80s.

Strangely, an unexpected reaction is that I got a little upset my parents did not take us to the 82 Fair in Knoxville given that it was so close.
posted by cgk at 9:38 PM on December 12, 2011

I just remember going there to see the King Tut exhibition in around 1979. Got a great t-shirt!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:39 PM on December 12, 2011

As a Seattleite, I can't watch this without thinking, "That's gone, that's gone, wow, Belltown was flat before the condos came, that's gone, that's gone, there's the Fun Forest, it's gone, that's gone...."
posted by dw at 9:46 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live next to the Space Needle, the Monorail and what buildings that are left from the Seattle World's Fair and it's really weird and surreal, and not just in a Gernsback Continuum kind of way. Like living inside a chunk of an odd, antique theme park mixed with a gritty chunk of living city, rich and poor. It's sort of a concentrated microcosm or pastiche of contrasts and relevant social and political issues related to the Cold War and current events.

As many have noted - the future hasn't fared so well. It's been 50 years since 1962. Half a century. The Space Needle has never been more "Gee, that's shorter than I thought" and the Monorail never more than a glorified flying bus. This future of consumer freedom and choice has never been so tarnished. These World's Fairs and exhibitions - then as is now - have historically little more than advertising and revenue schemes, hawking the mundane like new cars to the hedonistic like peepshows to the fantastic and impossible if not outright ill-advised like nuclear powered cars.

I do love Seattle and I am mocking and dissecting some of it's most notable icons. And, sure, the wonder of having a shiny streamlined genuine 1962-vintage flying autobus whirring Jetson's-like by overhead right outside your door is... neat. Interesting. Quirky. Unique. I heard it whir by just a moment ago. Every 6-10 minutes or so one whirs by around the corner, and it mainly sounds like an electric bus at high speed on a smooth road or freeway without the noise of any other vehicles - rubber on concrete, wind noise, faint rattle of extruded aluminum.

I still get startled by it sometimes when I'm crossing the street and it catches my reflexes by surprise, because it's rather quiet, then suddenly there's tire noises and something much larger than a bus hurtling in my general direction at 40-60 mph even though I have the signal to cross the street and... oh, right, it's 15-20 feet overhead. It doesn't help that people driving the street beneath are often confused by the concrete pylons and spider's web of one-way streets and the inability to change lanes between pylons. I cross and jaywalk the streets around the Monorail quite readily, but only do it with extreme caution under the Monorail tracks due to palpable driver confusion and visibility issues with navigating the road.

And when it's warm I sun myself on my "front lawn" at the International Fountain at the heart of Seattle Center, enjoying the excellent sound track selection and the drama of the programmed fountain. That part has aged well, and the water and volcano theme is pleasing and artistic - another contrast. I walk through what used to be the fairgrounds for exercise and distraction whether sun, rain, fog or snow simply because it's relatively open space. I've seen the gardens, the sculptures, the wading pools, the nooks and crannies. I appreciate the skate park. I lurk it's grounds during events like Folklife and partake in what culture it does offer.

But some of these artifacts are possibly the world's largest pieces of embarrassing and awkward kitsch fueled by the nostalgia of an endless American Dream that never actually existed - without great cost. They deserve mocking and cynicism, and not just for getting the future wrong. (They'll survive, I'm sure, and the locals mock them, too.)

The Atomic Age that birthed the Space Needle and Monorail lost it's, err, luminosity and sexiness a long, long time ago. It's really difficult to look at them and not see them as artifacts of the plastic fantastic life that the post WW2 parents of the Baby Boomers lived. My grandparents - and then my parents - and then us. The hubris of electricity too cheap to meter, better living through chemistry, the disposable life, aerosol cheese in a can - a limitless earth to develop and exploit. Which left us with a whole host of long-discussed greater problems posed by this shiny new consumer driven ultra-industrial and ultra-modern future. Did anyone ever keep up with The Joneses? Is the best defense really offense?

It's salient that the Monorail flies over real poverty and connects two places (and only two places with no stops in between) that are arguably all about commerce - a tourist attraction and shopping mall. There are no stops in between. The stations at either end are private commercial property. It flies over/past/through a gentrifying neighborhood called Belltown that contains mixed income and rent controlled housing, a social services office, several aid and rescue missions, a community psychiatric office and dispensary. And what appears to be about several hundred to a thousand people or more within a half-mile radius who are regularly sleeping outdoors in wet and/or freezing weather, and within a brisk walk to the south of the historical birthplace of the term "Skid Road/Row".

Beneath the Needle and Monorail track at Denny and 5th there's a tiny plaza called Tilikum Place, where a statue of Chief Seattle stands.

By the historical record he is remembered as "Chief of the Suquamish, a firm friend of the whites, for him the City of Seattle, was named by it's founders" - but there's not a small amount of controversy and hearsay about that, too, and exactly how the European settlers of Seattle finally came about ostensible ownership of the land, and the founding of Seattle as a city. As these things go in many American cities and our Aboriginal populations, the entire truth of the story may never be known. But here for there seems to be the remarkable texture and color of a properly thorough historical white-washing.

And having seen how First Nations peoples are ill-treated even today in my own neighborhood (John T. Williams was shot just up the road by SPD, for a recent well known example) and how a disproportionate number are homeless and displaced, and between these contrasts of Space and Atomic Age and indigenous displacement and frontier exploitation and development - it's really difficult to not see these things as they are.

With an objective eye towards history and reality "Isn't it great there's only white people here?" is rather the understatement. I don't know if the MST3K cast and crew even knows how understated it is. The so-called optimism and naivety of that era isn't such a thing at all - it was willful ignorance.

Apologies for the cynical downer of a derail or channeling a much lesser Vonnegut, and no offense or argument intended toward the fine and well done and informative post at all - but I've been thinking about this a lot as I've lived here. I can see my old brick apartment building and its siblings in these videos. I see these aging futuristic artifacts nearly every day, and live some of the grittiness that exists beneath them - and often it's weirder and more hallucinatory than Disneyland. The area that I live in is a very strange set of contrasts and dramatic historical interest. Beneath the shiny chrome streamlined surfaces of the bucolic, frighteningly naive Atomic Age symbols lies a greater darkness and violence.
posted by loquacious at 10:09 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Okay, I've got to ask. Does anybody know exactly what went on at the Century 21 Expo peep show?

well, about what you'd expect, except the ladies are all realtors.

or um... so i've heard.
posted by fetamelter at 3:29 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is some good background about the fair and its organizers. Reading about the shows and entertainment program is kind of crazy - what a strange little pop culture eddy the early 60s were.
...the short-lived Indian Village with Native American dancing, the Cellier de Pigalle wine bar (featuring Seattle's Italio-lounge crooner, Gil Conte), the Diamond Horseshoe (Gay Nineties-themed bar, that somehow ended up featuring a Jamaican musical act), and the short-lived Flor de Mexico restaurant (which was quickly replaced by the Sleeping Buddha coffee shop with its folk music).
On the other hand, I should be careful, because if you were to judge our pop culture of today by the offerings at the state fair, it would not give you an accurate picture.

Does anybody know exactly what went on at the Century 21 Expo peep show?

The link gives a glimpse. And may I be the first to say, Sid and Marty Krofft? Really?
Far better recalled in Century 21 legend and lore were the other few attractions -- those titillating shows that were marketed as "NEW! DIFFERENT! ADULTS ONLY!" -- a designation that brought official scrutiny from the Seattle Board of Theater Supervisors (aka the "Seattle Censor Board") and a resultant avalanche of publicity. The rooms in question included the locally produced Girls of the Galaxy show that offered the opportunity for customers to take "pin-up" photographs of naked young ladies "with their own cameras or rented ones" (The Seattle Times, November 21, 1961). Within days the problem-plagued venue was briefly shut down by fair manager Ewen C. Dingwall (1913-1996) after an incident that saw nearly nude women joining the barker outside. After receiving complaints -- one fairgoer wrote that “In 30 years of going to “adult” shows, I have never seen a worse show. 1. Dirty building. 2. Poor sound. 3. Poor seating. 4. Last, but not least, the show itself 'stunk'” (Kessler) -- the Galaxy was closed again in mid-May and finally booted on August 29th.

There was also the 300-seat LePetit Theater's risqué puppet farce, "Les Poupées de Paris," which was deemed edgy enough to require an emergency script rewrite at the censor's insistence. The brother team behind the show, Sid and Marty Krofft, would, nevertheless, go on to great success doing kiddie-TV work with Hanna-Barbera's Banana Splits show, and later producing the H.R. Pufnstuf series. Then there was the Backstage U.S.A.'s Peep show which was run by Tacoma's John and Ralph Matlack -- and choreographed by LeRoy Prinz who'd made a name for himself working on Hollywood blockbuster films like South Pacific and The Ten Commandments. The Seattle Times enthusiastically noted (on April 20th) that Peep would feature "eighteen (count 'em) curvaceous girls display[ing] their various talents" in a show whose iffy premise was that of giving attendees a peek into the behind-the-scenes world of a Broadway spectacular -- including a wide-eyed glimpse into the "fabulous dressing rooms" of the dozens of half-clad performers at whom visitors were invited to "Look as Long as you Wish!" (Official Guide Book, p. 112).

Lastly, was the biggest of the bunch, Gracie Hansen's Paradise International -- a publicity magnet of a 700-seat dinner-theater / nightclub which mounted four shows nightly (except on Sunday) -- each featuring singing, comedy routines, 18 topless showgirls, and Hansen's own ribald vaudeville-inspired cabaret shtick. As Time magazine reported, yes, worry not: "the fair will have its undraped girls, in a 'Las Vegas-type revue' to be produced by one Gracie Hansen, an entrepreneuse who promises 'a daring show with some nudity, but all in good taste.'"
posted by Miko at 5:24 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

More Poupées de Paris. Why not throw in some Phil Silvers freestyle?

That's some hot stuff, right there.
posted by Miko at 5:31 AM on December 13, 2011

Sid and Marty Kroft! There's a FPP in there somewhere, if more material can be found. I don't suppose there would be any visual record of the performances though.
posted by JHarris at 5:50 AM on December 13, 2011

Anyone else weirded out by the bit where the monorail DOESN'T go through a multicolor Frank Gehry blob?
posted by Artw at 10:07 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Snark about Bell commercialism aside, I thought it was interesting that things like call waiting did not show up as a commercial service in our homes (in St Louis anyway) until the 80s.

Kinda makes you wonder what other futuristic technology they might be keeping from us these days, eh? *cough*JETPACK*cough*
posted by ShutterBun at 3:57 AM on December 18, 2011

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