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Wednesday, August 20, 2008 - Page updated at 03:10 PM

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At 100 years, Pike Place Market holds fast to its character

Seattle Times staff reporter

Let's get on with The Show.

The curtain is raised at 7:30 in the morning, revealing the Manzo Brothers produce stall, which has been a top performer for half of Pike Place Market's 100-year history.

The choreography begins — green beans lined up individually in an interconnected pattern, creating the visual effect of a blanket woven on a loom.

A small fake lizard guards a sign placed on top of the beans: "Don't even think about disturbing the display," followed by the requisite "Thanks."

On a stage rich with color and eccentricity, Pike Place Market is Seattle's longest-running production, its story unraveling through many cultures and generations of Seattle families.

So how are the reviews?

"Fruits and vegetables, they are like works of art — contemporary sculpture, as it were," says Anne MacMillan, a camera-toting tourist from Tampa, Fla.

"It makes you smile knowing the effort taken to make them look so attractive."

Three mornings a week, Jodi Culton spends between 20 and 25 minutes designing the green-bean display, bean by ever-lovin' bean. Manzo Brothers' manager and stylist, she thinks the display resembles freshly cut wet hair after a comb has been pulled through it.

"I don't know if I consider this art," she says. "I consider it from the vegetables' point of view. They want to look as good as they can. Doesn't everyone?"

Shiny side up

Culton refers to the presentations that tempt tourists from Florida to Finland as ... The Show:

A wide-mouthed, sharp-toothed monkfish, buried up to its gills in crushed ice, greeting visitors at Pike Place Fish Co.

Rows of freshly cut flowers, fantastically arranged in bouquets that sell at bargain prices.

And the hands-off produce displays, exquisite enough to model for a still-life painting but three-dimensional and constantly changing.

Red cherries from California — first of the season; no grazing, please — are separated from Pink Lady apples by a single row of green limes.

"You want to make the cherries pop out, and a line of green will do that," Culton says. "That's 'The Show.' That's what I'm talking about. We understand color, contrast and texture."

The Show of Granny Smiths carries an "Applanche" warning. "Pull one of those babies out and the whole thing goes down," says Coco Vaughan, a Manzo Brothers hawker.

Each apple in The Show is turned so that its shiny side is exposed. "They are just like people," Culton says. "They have their good side."

Culton has worked for Manzo Brothers 16 years, starting before her 21st birthday.

She learned how to display from her boss, Mario Manzo, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Dan Manzo, who modeled his technique after his competitor in the adjoining stall, Shun Iwasaki.

Shun also taught Mario, and Jodi also learned from Dan.

This all would make patriarch Sosio Manzo blush, headstrong though he was.

"Born on a lettuce crate"

Ninety-eight years ago, he began the Manzo family legacy at Pike Place that also includes Sosio's, another produce stand run by a different grandson.

Raised in a family that grew chestnuts in an orchard, Sosio Manzo emigrated from southern Italy in 1907 when he was 17. He farmed in the South Park neighborhood and brought vegetables to sell at Pike Place via horse and wagon in 1909, two years after the Market was launched.

The fourth of Sosio Manzo's five children, Dan Manzo's earliest memories are of his mother, Lillian, selling vegetables at the Market as his father delivered produce to grocery stores in the South End.

"I tell people I was born on a lettuce crate at the Public Market," Dan Manzo says. "Mom had to be there, and someone had to take care of me, so I was there by her side."

But Dan had his fill of Pike Place Market by the time he was 18. "I grew up there," he says. "I missed a lot of my childhood because of that, and I resented it. While I was working, other kids were playing."

While his parents continued to sell at the Market, Dan married and moved to Everett, where he and his wife ran a hotel.

In the fall of 1957, Sosio Manzo, along with his younger son, Fred, rented one of the high stalls in the Market's main arcade to run a produce stand. Around the same time, Dan and his wife had gotten their fill of running a hotel.

In January 1958, Dan moved back to Seattle, and his brother Fred gave him a call. Dad supposedly wasn't feeling well and Fred needed Dan's hand in running the new stand. Dan showed up to help, and never left until he retired a couple of years ago.

"All of a sudden, my brother and I were business partners and Dad was off to the side," Dan Manzo said.

Was it Sosio's scheme all along to get his oldest son back in the produce business? To this day, Dan isn't sure. Sosio Manzo died at age 83.

Friends and competitors

Business at Pike Place wasn't great in the 1960s as the Market's infrastructure was falling apart. Competition among produce vendors was fierce.

The Manzo Brothers competed most closely against Shun Iwasaki, who rented the adjoining high stall that had a coveted corner spot. Iwasaki was a master of the display.

"He was so good at what he did and I just copied and tried to do better," Dan Manzo says.

Iwasaki displayed his cherries row by row, hiding the stems so just the fruit showed. Then he would take a half-dozen or so of the fattest, blackest cherries he could find and lay them atop the display so they would stand out — and make the fruit look irresistible.

Iwasaki came over from Japan when he was 18 and worked in the sawmills in Enumclaw. After his parents joined him in Seattle, the family sold produce downtown but lost their business when they were interned during World War II. After the war, Iwasaki rented the stall at Pike Place.

"My father was just a typical Asian immigrant who didn't speak English very well but through hard work and labor was able to raise a family and send his children to college," says son George Iwasaki, a retired professor.

Shun Iwasaki had no formal artistic training but always had a knack for it, drawing Disney characters on large pieces of butcher paper for his grandchildren.

As Iwasaki was earning a reputation as a designer extraordinaire, the two Manzo brothers were struggling to make a living out of a single stall.

So they tried to run Iwasaki out of business by undercutting his prices. "We outhustled him and we drove him crazy," Dan Manzo recalls. "We were competitive but we were still friends."

The Manzos eventually bought out Iwasaki and later hired him to help with displays and selling at their stalls.

When French chef Julia Child visited the Market in 1974, she marveled over Iwasaki's colorful displays, saying she had never seen such a beautiful presentation of produce in all of her travels. "My dad's displays looked like a bouquet of flowers," George Iwasaki says.

Shun Iwasaki died six years ago at age 95.

The next generation

Dan Manzo, now 79, lives in Burien and has not been back to Pike Place Market since retiring in January 2005.

That's when he turned the business over to son Mario, who has his own way of doing things, which aren't necessarily the way Dan would do them. Dan doesn't want to show up and hold his tongue or, worse, open his mouth with unwanted or unwarranted advice.

But his presence remains part of The Show.

To the admiring tourist taking photos and fawning over how the produce display is so beautiful, he would have said: "Lady, if you want to keep it that way, next time bring a shopping bag and leave your camera at home!"

And then there's the protégé, Jodi Culton, explaining the technique of displaying radishes. It's always greens down.

"Like Dan would say, 'We're selling the radishes, not the greens.' "

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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