Saturday, November 6, 2010

All's Fair

In the summer of 1962 I returned to Seattle after two years of college at Northwestern University (outside Chicago), and I came back just in time to experience the recently opened World's Fair, called Century 21. My parents and sisters and I all did the rounds, riding the Monorail and the Sky thing that carried you across the Fair grounds, wandering through the filigreed Science Pavilion, and taking the amazing glass-booth elevator up to the top of the grand, ultra-futuristic Space Needle.

I soon affiliated with the UW chapter of the fraternity I'd joined at Northwestern, and one of the first "brothers" I met was the son of the Fair's great champion and conceiver of the Needle, hotels executive Edward "Eddie" Carlson. With some time on my hands before classes resumed, I was able to frequent the Fair several times; I remember attending a concert by jovial Jazz pianist Erroll Garner, flirting with a couple of showgirls though I was still too young to get into the Las Vegas-styled show itself, and marvelling at a performance of Beckett's great play Waiting for Godot--in '62 still a new phenomenon as part of the broader conceptual "Theater of the Absurd."

... Which leads indirectly to the fine sunny day I spent viewing some of the on-location filming for Elvis's fair-to-middlin' (or maybe Fair-to-Midway) movie It Happened at the World's Fair. I'd been living in the Deep South during Presley's Sun Records days, and I remained a serious fan. So I hung out in the crowd of onlookers watching exterior scenes being shot at the base of the Needle and entrance to the Monorail. Elvis was in fine shape, youthfully handsome, playing to the crowd occasionally and clowning around with the cute little Chinese girl who was his co-star. A few hours were needed to get every angle and shadow and action just right, but we all stuck it out--some possibly hoping to be spotted in the crowd and hired as extras. (One young woman did become his local date for a time.) It was my first experience of the mix of excitement and boredom that accompanies every film shoot, from local advertisements to Hollywood blockbusters. But when the movie was released, I could see the magic at work too, even in a minor piece like It Happened. The Fair and the Jet City both looked wonderful thanks in part to that magic.

And when the Fair closed at the end of its run, it turned out that I wasn't finished with what had begun there. I settled up on Queen Anne Hill after college, and the wonderful Seattle Center (created on the World's Fair site from surviving buildings)--its central Fountain area and Center House and the Fun Forest--became one of my kids' favorite playgrounds. Over the ensuing decades I attended literally hundreds of plays and concerts (rock, Jazz, and Classical), opera and ballet performances, Bumbershoot and Folklife festivals, sports events and collector book and record shows at the Center. I also worked for a time as writer for the architecture firm, John Graham and Company, that had designed and built and, at the time, still owned the Space Needle.

Then in the late Eighties I was out of work for several months and my wife Sandra (at the time working for the Seattle Center Foundation) persuaded me to volunteer my services during the effort to raise bond money to refurbish the Center; this led in turn to some weeks of paid employment, and then an invitation to join the Foundation board as the resident writer/editor. My main task became overseeing and doing research and fact-checking and some minor editing on the detailed recap of the Fair and Center that newspaperman Don Duncan was writing for the 30th anniversary of the Fair; the final title choice was Meet Me at the Center, playing off Judy Garland's famous song about St. Louis. (In another naming matter, I convinced the Center honchos that the proposed Jimi Hendrix Experience museum would be more compelling if named "Experience Hendrix" instead; when that proposal died, the replacement became "Experience Music Project," and I like to think I had an unseen hand in that choice.)

After that, I took over a bookstore in the busy Pike Place Market and then eventually moved to Vashon Island, so my longtime Center connections mostly ended... except... these days my son Glenn provides the manufacturing and production oversight of specialty items for sports teams and business groups and even family gatherings--from a dozen pieces to a hundred thousand, from office picnic t-shirts to complex gewgaws for the Mariners and Microsoft and George Lucas--and he recently supplied the Center with several of its upcoming 50th anniversary mementos and revived souvenirs, including lookalike replicas of the etched drinking glasses sold back during Century 21.

So when you honor the proud history of Seattle Center, or toast the half-century celebration remembering the 1962 World's Fair, there'll be a little bit of Leimbacher there too.

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