Fifty years ago Sunday, the Seattle World’s Fair came to an end. For six months nearly 10 million people visited the Century 21 Exposition. The Space-Age themed fair left behind many memories and a lot of memorabilia. In the final part of our series on the Seattle World’s fair, produced with Jack Straw Productions, Harriet Baskas looks at some of the stories behind the souvenirs.
Ten million people attended the Seattle World’s Fair over the course of its six month run. Jean Roth was one of them and she was there on opening day: April 21, 1962.
That day was also Roth’s 18th birthday and she and some friends thought it would be great to be the first through the turnstiles.
“We were going to make a day of it and I think we got up and took the bus at 3:30 in the morning and stood waiting at the north gate to get in,” said Roth. “We hoped to be the first but we didn’t make it. Someone else made it and beat us in the fairgrounds, but we made a gallant attempt.”
Roth visited the fair 30 times that summer, but on that first day she and her friends headed to the amusement area – called the Gayway - where she won a turquoise blue stuffed poodle that was almost 3 feet tall. “I won it at the coin toss right at the beginning of the fair and had to carry the darn thing through the entire day and take it home carrying it on the bus,” said Roth.
Giant stuffed animals like this were so popular at the fair that a toy-check was set up at the base of the Space Needle to make room in the elevators for people. Century 21 coffee cups, ashtrays, pens and other fair souvenirs were smaller and easier to carry. Historylink staff historians Paula Becker and Alan Stein wrote a book about the World’s Fair and they’ve seen it all.
“A lot of women have little pieces of jewelry. For example there was a charm bracelet. There were high end versions of it. And it had a little space needle or a little science pavilion hanging from it,” said Becker.
“Inside the food circus was Paul Bunyan’s birthday cake. This 30-foot-tall fruit cake. You could actually buy slices of that as souvenirs and we have people who come to our talks that still have those slices,” said Stein.
Many former fair employees still have their ID badges. And millions of visitors still have their official fair programs and the photos snapped onsite. Jean Roth gave her big blue dog to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry for safe keeping. But she still holds onto the souvenir she got when she was an extra in the Elvis Presley movie filmed on the World’s Fair grounds. “I wasn’t screaming at him. I didn’t faint and he was very nice and so he signed my pay stub,” she said.
Roth keeps that stub in a safety deposit box. But Paula Jones keeps her fair souvenir in plain sight. She was six in October 1962 when her family visited the fair for the second time. And she was the lucky 9 millionth person to pass through the turnstiles.
“They put the sign around me. Kind of neon green that said 9 million,” said Jones. “And they handed me a dozen roses and I was introduced to some dignitaries.” She was then asked to make a speech. “I kept thinking I needed to say something. And all I could think was to say 'hello' very quietly and meekly and then the audience sang like for she’s a jolly good fellow I believe,” said Jones.
In addition to the roses, Jones got a big stuffed purple dog, a transistor radio and $250. And she could also go on all the rides at the fair for free - and skip the lines – just as long as she wore that neon green, 2-foot-long sign. Jones is now a 5th grade teacher and keeps the sign in her classroom, above the math wall. And while that was a big souvenir for a small kid, Historylink’s Paula Becker says the city of Seattle got the biggest souvenir of all: the Seattle Center and its grounds.
Becker says the organizers called the fair a civic center disguised as a World’s Fair. And they were intent on leaving this souvenir behind. “It’s a complicated, difficult, interesting, challenging souvenir that we’re still turning over and over in our community hands and figuring out what we want to do with it and how we want to use it,” she said.
Our series was produced in collaboration with Jack Straw Productions with funding support from 4 Culture. Special thanks to our engineer Tom Stiles and our editor Jim Gates.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio