When Seattle 'invented' the future
A new documentary on the Seattle World's Fair is worth watching not only for a look back at the fads and fashions of the '60s, but for a reminder of the "can-do" attitude that shaped the city and its region, writes guest columnist Alex Alben.
Special to The Times
Check it out"The 1962 World's Fair: When Seattle Invented the Future," begins airing at 7 p.m. Saturday on KCTS, Channel 9.
A NEW documentary about the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, "When Seattle Invented the Future," will begin airing Saturday on KCTS (Channel 9). The program is worth seeing, not only for the nostalgic look at the fashions and fads of the early 1960s, but because it represents a marker of America's optimistic vision of the future at the dawn of the space race.
One can't watch the highly entertaining scenes of Seattleites devouring "exotic" Belgian waffles and riding the Bubbleator without also reflecting that our cultural attitudes toward the future have changed dramatically in the past 50 years, both as a nation and as a city. Competing with Moscow and New York for the rights to a World's Fair, city leaders Al Rochester, Ewen Dingwall, Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy had catapulted Seattle to the world stage.
Paul Allen emerges as one of the pivotal interviewees, not only because he fondly recalls childhood memories of visiting the fair, but because he remarks that when a kid eyed the newfangled monorail, Space Needle and science exhibits, she or he was instilled with a sense that anything was "within your grasp." The future was there. We just needed to invent it.
In this vein, a direct line can be drawn from the "can do" zeitgeist of the fair to the creation of Microsoft, Amazon and their progeny, many of whom have revitalized the South Lake Union neighborhood, which flanks the old site of the World's Fair.
The program gives the viewer a tour of the frivolity of the events surrounding the six-month exhibition — including Gracie Hansen's racy nightclub and genuine Elvis sightings in concert with his 1963 film, "It Happened at the World's Fair." The tune "Meet Me in Seattle at the Fair" sticks in one's mind, especially with the endearing lyric, "If you want to kiss me, kiss me there ... "
President John F. Kennedy formally opened the fair with a long-distance telephone link and was scheduled to make closing remarks in late October to note its achievements.
Kennedy is a useful frame for the spirit of 1962, capturing both the fear of the space competition with the Soviet Union that had begun with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, but also evincing confidence that Americans could pull together to tackle any challenge.
While the Russians beat us both in the first manned spaceflight and the first orbital manned flight, visits to the fair by both cosmonaut Gherman Titov and by Mercury astronaut John Glenn symbolized the tightening of the technology race that America would later win with implications for the global balance of power. The fact that Kennedy had to tend to the Cuban Missile Crisis in lieu of making ceremonial closing remarks underscores the real-world currents underneath the aspirations on display in Seattle.
One can't help but emerge from watching this kind of program without thinking about how much has changed since the generation that forged the public-private partnership to build the Space Needle and Seattle Center and attract 10 million visitors and exhibitors from around the world to our city.
Today we seem to get bogged down over financing bike lanes and raising funds to repair our crumbling sea wall. Our love of "process" drags projects along for years. When we dream of a new arena, we quickly become enamored with a billionaire hedge-fund manager who holds out the hope that we can recapture the glory of being a professional basketball city once again.
The generation of business and political leaders of the early 1960s appears to have been cut of a different cloth than today's civic leadership, which operates in a climate of mistrust of government and short-term-profit-oriented companies. The investment made by Bill and Melinda Gates stands out as an exception to this trend, as their new foundation buildings next to Seattle Center signify that Seattle will be a world leader in global philanthropy for decades to come.
But it is time for other prominent local companies to invest more visibly in our city and to contribute to its art and cultural institutions, not only for the benefit of employees and their families, but for all of us who live in a community that once "dreamed big."Alex Alben has worked in broadcast journalism and the high-tech industry. He is writing a book about digital culture.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org