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World's Fair schedule, 1962. Photo courtesy of Albert Fisher.

World's Fair schedule, 1962. Photo courtesy of Albert Fisher.


World's Fair Raises Profile Of Seattle Music Scene

Harriet Baskas

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. It was dubbed Century 21 and the theme was the Space Age. But the exposition brought cultural amusements of all kinds, from art to theater to opera. Big name musical acts came from around the world to perform and their presence raised the profile of local musicians as well.

In the first of a four–part series produced in collaboration with Jack Straw Productions and KUOW, Harriet Baskas looks at the role music played in Seattle's Space Age World's Fair.


Sound: World's Fair music.

Songs like this were beckoning visitors to Seattle's 1962 World's Fair long before any attractions were booked or exhibit halls built. Songwriters were quick to jump on the Century 21 bandwagon, but fair organizers worried that booking talent for the fair would be a challenge. In 1962, Seattle was still thought of as unsophisticated town somewhere way out west.

Louis Larson: "Sir Thomas Beacham was the director of Seattle Symphony at one point and when he left he referred to Seattle as a cultural dustbin."

Louis Larson was the fair's director of advance ticket sales and special events. He said that cultural dustbin remark not only stung, it stuck.

So organizers vowed to invite only top–notch talent to the fair. Paula Becker wrote a book about Seattle's World's Fair with Alan Stein. She says the solution was hiring a well–connected booker — from back east.

Paula Becker: "The gentleman in charge of performing arts was a man named Harold Shaw. He was a New Yorker. He had worked for Sol Hurak who was a major booking manager, a famous impresario. So he had access to people who were not normally coming to Seattle and he booked those events like crazy."

Those events ranged from ballets from New York and San Francisco to a week of Shakespeare plays performed by London's Old Vic Theater. Seattle's Book–It Theater created a modern–day production celebrating Century 21. This scene set in the opera house built for the fair introduces the first of a parade of celebrities who came to town.

The audience rose when guest conductor Igor Stravinsky walked up to the podium. The 79–year–old maestro, considered by many to be one of the greatest influences in 20th century music, was the star of the evening. Stravinsky led the orchestra in a variety of works, most notably a performance of his own "Firebird Suite."

Throughout the fair's six–month run, music filled most every corner of the fairgrounds. A 528–bell carillon rang out daily recitals. The official band, a 37–piece marching band, toured the fairgrounds several times each day. And there were concerts featuring everyone from Nat King Cole to Benny Goodman and Joan Baez. Peter Blecha is a historian for He counted 3,000 performances in all. And some glaring local omissions.

Peter Blecha: "A local band here in Seattle, had the number one hit that season, 'Louis Louie' was the Wailers from Tacoma. They didn't get a gig. At that time, the top rock and roll band, instrumental band in the world, meaning the Ventures from Tacoma, they were around."

Although fair bookers passed over local bands in favor of well–known, national acts, Blecha says outside the fairgrounds the local music scene was experiencing a renaissance.

There was an upsurge in night club attendance in town because all the tourists were here. So some local musicians had the best work of their life because of a full season of five, six, seven nights a week, standing–room–only crowds until 2:00 in the morning. There are musician that will tell you that was a heyday for playing for big crowds in this town.

Overton Berry: "What you had was this flowering of venues, of places for various musicians to work."

Noted Seattle jazz musician Overton Berry was 26 during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. With a friend, he ran the House of Entertainment, a club near Pioneer Square that became one of the popular late night hang–outs for musicians in town for the fair.

Berry: "In almost every place, I don't care if it was a small bar or a restaurant, wanted some music there. How can you compete with the fair and the places around the fair that have music and have entertainment if you don't have any entertainment? It helped it blossom more."

The 1962 World's Fair not only helped the Seattle music scene blossom, it seeded arts and culture citywide. And, Berry and others will tell you, it plucked Seattle out of that cultural dustbin.

I'm Harriet Baskas.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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