Century 21 Exposition (1962): Performing Arts at the Fair

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/29/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9371

Seattle's Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World's Fair) was conceived to be the  major attraction of the decade, and with over 10 million tickets sold to both locals and visiting tourists from every corner of the globe, it proved to be exactly that. During the futuristically themed and science-oriented fair's six-month run from April 21, 1962, through October 21, 1962, those attendees enjoyed a broad range of attractions and entertainments, including more than 2,500 events produced by the fair management's Performing Arts Division. Headed by big-time New York talent booker Harold Shaw, that team's mission was "to be sure that each country that had a pavilion was represented in the cultural section so the lives of the people involved, and their countries, would be reflected, as well as scientific and technological achievement" (Century 21 Final Report, p. 7). The goal would be to have varying forms of performance art -- music, stage shows, and dancing -- presented daily in fairground venues including the Opera House, the Playhouse, the Arena, the Stadium, Show Street, the International Bandstand, the International Fountain, the Rose Garden, the Plaza of the States, and occasionally at the United Nations Pavilion, the Horiuchi Mural area, and the Space Needle.

Performing Arts Division

Although basic planning for the fair had already been ongoing for several years, it was in 1960 that management took the step of recruiting someone to lead the talent-booking effort. And that is how Harold Shaw -- the big-time New York-based classical-music booking agent and artist manager -- was imported in 1960 to take on the task. Shaw  had mentored under the master Sol Hurok (1888-1974), and Hurok would  steer numerous great acts to his protégé for the fair  The fair's Performing Arts Division -- with an assigned budget of $15 million -- was formalized on February 1, 1961, with Shaw as director.

Given Shaw's background and proclivities, it is no surprise that he was less than impressed by what he learned upon first arriving in Seattle. As Time magazine reported in 1961: "Although some local citizens attempted to impose their own ideas, the officials wisely brought in architects and entrepreneurs from all over the U.S. to plan the big show. 'When I came here a year ago,' says ...  Shaw ... 'the first response was, "Well, he's from New York. Watch him." They wanted local entertainment. The local Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Dancers from the local studios. The local Little Theater groups. I told them, "Look, this is supposed to be a world's fair, not a county fair. Grow up."' The result of such determination has set a high standard." That commitment to quality was seconded by the planning team's Promotion Manager, Bob Lyte, who wrote in a note to an industry figure in New York that "This is going to be a very high-toned affair."

In that quest, Shaw traveled to 43 different countries to scout out suitable talent -- and it ultimately came here from such far-flung locales as England, Germany, Norway, Romania, Russia, Spain, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Japan, China, Mexico, Jamaica, The Philippines, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Canada. With crushing deadlines looming, and at  his own hectic pace, Shaw soon assembled a team to assist with the daunting task of talent booking. The Performing Arts Division would, in July 1961, add Assisting Directors, Phillip Tippin and Harvey Shotz, and eventually a few additional staffers like Frederic B. Vogel, George McPherson, John H. Wilson, Harry Lowell, and John S. Stephan. Their efforts would be augmented by the Special Events Division team which included Louis V. Larson and C. David Hughbank.

The Gala Grand Opening

As Shaw and his team began scouting, reviewing, soliciting, and booking a wide range of acts that they believed would entertain both young and old, special attention was placed on acts that would mark the fair's opening day on Saturday April 21, 1962. Every performance venue on the campus would be jam-packed with activities.

The Rose Garden would hold the kick-off ceremonies which included a choral group and the Broadway singer John Raitt (1917-2005); the Arena would hold the Ice Follies; the Stadium would have Lipizzan Stallions; the Playhouse would feature the Ceylon National Dancers (and drummers); the Opera House would feature the All-City High School Band in the afternoon. In a total coup for the town Milton Katims (1909-2006) and the Seattle Symphony hosted a guest conductor, the famous Russian maestro Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), along with guest soloist, the hottest classical pianist of the age, Van Cliburn (1934-2013). 

World's Fair Opera House

The brand-new Opera House (225 Mercer Street) had been constructed within the shell of Seattle's old Civic Auditorium -- which New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg described as a "6,000 seat, flat-floored, unpleasant" space that had "held just about everything but bullfights." Now the hall was the 3,100 seat pride of the town's arts establishment. Thus, it made local news headlines when Stravinsky himself gave the nod of approval to the room's decor and acoustics. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra dedicated the Opera House on May 15 and 16 with a performance by legendary violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001). One month later, on the evening of May 24, the Opera House was graced with a performance by the esteemed maestro, Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Much of the rest of the fairgrounds were dedicated to general entertainments and even some -- on Show Street -- to lowbrow "adult" attractions, but the Opera House (along with the Playhouse) provided high-brow culture. Among the programs booked there were appearances by London's famous Old Vic Company (doing Shakespeare), England's D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the San Francisco Ballet, the New York City Center Ballet (with choreographer George Balanchine), and Milton Katims (1909-2006) and the Seattle Symphony's presentation of Verdi's "Aida" with choreography by Seattle great, Robert Joffrey (1930-1988).

More exotic fare included the Ukrainian State Dance Company, the Philippines' Bayanihan Dance Company, the Uday Shankar Dancers, the Norwegian Chorus and Dancers, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, the Romanian National Folk Ensemble and the Barbu Lautaru Orchestra of Bucharest, and China's Foo-Hsing Theater (youth opera). The Opera House also had shows by the U.S. Marine Corps Band, jazz with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (featuring Jane Powell, Vic Damone, and Jimmy McHugh); pop stars Maurice Chevalier, Peggy Lee, and Johnny Mathis with Henry Mancini's Orchestra; folk singers Theodore Bikel and Josh White; the First International Gospel Quartet show; the Barbershop Quartet Song Fest; comedy with Victor Borge, Comedie Francaise, and Nichols and May; Sci-Fi panelists Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury -- and even Dunninger the Mentalist. On the other hand, the local acts booked there amounted to just the Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Pacific Northwest and the High School Music Institute.

World's Fair Playhouse

This new 800-seat venue (201 Mercer Street) -- was praised by Schonberg for having admirable acoustic properties: "The auditorium, modern in design, and dignified in execution, does not appear to have a dead spot in it." The Playhouse was the fair's other home of respectable, or, as they used to say, "legitimate" theatrical presentations.

Among the acts to perform there in 1962 were the Juilliard String Quartet, the American String Quartet, Solisti De Zagreb (chamber music), the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden, the Bunraku Theater of Japan, the Ceylon National Dancers, the Virginia Tanner Dance Company, the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, the Pacific Ballet Company, Rene and his Continental Artists' Nutcracker Suite puppet show, The Fantasticks!, Seattle's Cirque Theater troupe, jazz pianist Erroll Garner, Roberto Iglesias's Spanish ballet, Celedonia Romero and The Fabulous Romeros (guitars), Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight show, and folkies Richard Dyer-Bennet and Joan Baez.

World's Fair Arena

This 5,500-seat venue began its life in 1928 as Seattle's old Civic Ice Arena and today exists as the Mercer Arena (4th Avenue and Mercer Street). During the fair it hosted many performers, including the famed orchestra of Benny Goodman -- who may have been the first (many followed) to famously complain about the hall's poor acoustics. Others that braved the echoes and acoustic dead-spots were Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Ricky Nelson, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.

On the other hand, there were a few events that actually made sense being presented in such a barn of a room: the Century 21 Horse Show, the Ringling Brothers and Shrine Circuses, the International Square Dance Rendezvous with Red Foley, Argyll Highlander Military Tattoo, Thai boxing, AAU Gymnastics Finals, Seattle Totems hockey, an NBA game, and Shipstad and Johnson's Ice Follies. Oh -- and the Seattle Youth Symphony and the Puget Sound Choral Directors Guild Choral Fest.

World's Fair Stadium

A centerpiece of the 12,000-seat Stadium's schedule was the It's the Water Ski Show. Tommy Barlett's International Water Ski Stars wowed crowds daily with a program whose name was a direct nod to their local sponsor, the Olympia Brewing Company, whose long-time ad slogan was "It's The Water." The 12-man, 8-woman Wisconsin-based troupe displayed their acrobatic skills in the Stadium's "aquadrome" -- a large 55-foot-long and four-foot-deep, ring-shaped (and nearly million-gallon) moat-like tank that circled the venue's central playing field -- during four or five free daily shows. The skiers -- sometimes with five of them stacked in pyramidal form, or other times with "Oly The Clown" goofing off -- were pulled around the pool by very fast boats, which made for a very popular show.  

The "Canadian Military Tattoo" also proved to be very popular. It was a spectacular two-hour military pageant presented by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's red-jacketed 18-man (and 36-horse) crew and their fellow 632 members of the Royal Canadian Army, Navy, and Air Force (including three pipe bands, the 100-man Royal Canadian Air Force Band, and three other military bands). One observer later described it as a "show that traced the history of Canada, from fur trade to modern days, through its military forces. There were brief dramatic cameos; uniformed soldiers and sailors marched in cadence; kilted bagpipers and a seemingly endless supply of fresh horses galloping in the closest thing to precision that man and beast are likely to attain" (Duncan, 64). With scores of drummers drumming and pipers piping -- not to mention swords flashing and rifles cracking -- this was by all accounts a dazzling show, one that was filmed and produced into a 40-minute movie that made its debut at the Science Pavilion's Little Science Theater on September 2, 1963.

Additional Stadium attractions included Vancouver B.C.'s Electric Ladies Glee Club; the Nile Temple Shriners Pageant; the Elks Club Flag Day Program; Circus Berlin; the Mexican Motorcyclistas De Transito police squad; the Argyle Regimental Band; Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Western Show; the Rev. Billy Graham; Hanna-Barbera's kiddie heroes Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and Baba Looey; the Wenatchee Youth Circus; a Unicycle and Band act; and the Baton Twirling Contest. Plus innumerable high school bands.

Show Street

Then there was the infamous Show Street -- a catchall area of the fairgrounds where a variety of smaller venues arranged in a U-shaped complex (at the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and Mercer Street where today's KCTS-TV station is based) would present a variety attractions. Some are long forgotten -- like 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).

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.'"

Local Talents

Although the Performing Arts crew's initial focus was clearly placed on booking imported acts, by mid-1961 Fred Vogel had been designated as point-person for rounding up locally based talents. Over the months, he sent out reams of letters that fell into two basics categories, those that responded in the negative to unsolicited offers by locals to attend and perform and the opposite, those that expressed an interest in perhaps having them perform. But the latter were seemingly identical in their terse clarity about one point: that there would be no financial recompense for any local act's performance, travel expenses, or hotel accommodations.

The parameters of music the team was interested in were also somewhat narrow along the musical spectrum. In July 1961, he wrote a note to the editor of New York-based Cadence magazine that stated: "As you can see, we are planning a program that would include bands, drum and bugle corps and various organizations from schools, colleges, and representative musical groups throughout the world." Thus -- as if booking talent for a podunk "county fair" -- the Northwest wound up being represented at Century 21 by such good-spirited folks as Seattle's renowned Thunderbird Drum & Bugle Corps, the Greater Seattle Youth For Christ, Inc.'s Teen World Singers, the Filipino Youth Activities of Seattle, Inc.'s Princesa Drill Team and Cumbanchero Percussioneers, W. D. Blackstone's 22-student Ambassadors band, the Longview Drum & Bugle Corps, the King County Sheriff's Posse (motto: "Silver Saddles on Golden Horses"), Spokane's Silver Spurs Teen-Age Western Dancing Group, the V.F.W Motorcycle Stunt & Drill Team, and High School bands from all 39 counties. Oh -- and possibly Seattle's fabulous Fink Family Handbell Ringers -- although schedule conflicts may have precluded their involvement.


The day after resigning his position with the fair on September 1, 1962, Harold Shaw spoke with Louis R. Guzzo at The Seattle Times to share some thoughts -- and to and slap back at those who had scorned his "$27,000 salary and expenses incurred in trips to Europe and Asia to find talent." The notoriously inaccurate Guzzo (who has never had any sympathy for Seattle's non-classical musicians, and probably had no inkling about their legitimate gripes) went on to assert, instead, that:

"Shaw has been criticized for bringing in too much 'highbrow' talent, for playing down popular entertainment and for not booking more companies from the East and abroad. He answered all criticisms with: 'Please remember I was hired only a year before the fair began. Other department heads had been on the job long before. Booking international talent is no overnight matter. If I had had two years or more to prepare a World's Fair program, it would have been twice as good. ... It's been a wonderful, educational experience here, but I don't believe I will ever try it again. Too hectic."


"Washington: Come to the Fair," Time Magazine, December 21, 1961, Time.com website accessed January 17, 2010 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,827192,00.html#ixzz0ct7Q8hE2); Stanton H. Patty, "'Girls of Galaxy' Booked for Fair," The Seattle Times November 21, 1961, p. 12; Bob Lyte to to Harry Harrison,  New York, January 22, 1962, Century 21 Exposition Performing Arts Division Visiting Musical Groups, Box 264, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch; Al Anderson to Century 21 planners, April 5, 1962, Century 21 Exposition Performing Arts Division Visiting Musical Groups, Box 264, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch; Leslie E. Martin to Harold Shaw, June 14, 1961, Century 21 Exposition Performing Arts Division Visiting Musical Groups, Box 264, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch; "Six Months of the World's Greatest," World's Fair supplement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 1, 1962, p. 2-8; "Glamour: New Opera House," Seattle Daily Times, April 19, 1962, p.13; "Opening Night Gala," The Seattle Times April 21, 1962; Paul Kessler, letter of complaint to C-21 management, May 1962, "Show Street -- Girls of the Galaxy" folder, Ewen Dingwall Accession No.  420, 420-2, 420-3, Box 8, University of Washington libraries Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Harold C. Schonberg, Seattle's New Cultural Role," Seattle Post-Intelligencer Pictorial Review, June 10, 1962, p. 6; John Voorhees, Dream Comes True: 'Aida' Opens At Opera House," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 18, 1962, p. 1.
Note: The date and circumstance of the dedication of the Opera House were corrected on March 26, 2012.

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