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Originally published Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 12:02 AM

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KCTS documentary illuminates 'forgotten' 1909 World's Fair

Director John Forsen and his collaborators have done a marvelous job of bringing the 1909 World's Fair in Seattle to life, even as they distill its history into the hourlong time span of their documentary.

Seattle Times arts writer

On TV

'Seattle's Forgotten World's Fair'

Narrated by Tom Skerritt, written by Christina Ruddy, directed by John Forsen, 7 and 9 tonight, KCTS 9.

Tonight in Prime Time

"It was the closest they would ever get to travel to Athens or Paris or New York or Rome. For them, it was the experience of a lifetime."

"They" are the Seattleites of 1909. And the speaker is Lorraine C. McConaghy, a historian at the Museum of History & Industry, one of several incisive commentators in a documentary airing tonight about the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

The A-Y-P already has been the subject of numerous exhibits around town, as well as two beautifully produced books: "Picturing the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: The Photographs of Frank H. Nowell," by Nicolette Bromberg; and "Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington's First World's Fair," by HistoryLink.org's Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker.

You might think: Enough is enough. But director John Forsen and his collaborators — including Stein and Becker — have done a marvelous job of bringing the fair to life, even as they distill its history into an hourlong time span. (Note: Tonight's broadcasts of "Seattle's Forgotten World's Fair" last two hours because KCTS is using it as an on-the-air fundraiser.)

Initially conceived as a 10th-anniversary celebration of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, the A-Y-P was delayed until 1909, a two-year lag that allowed for better planning and, by chance, a more prosperous economy that made it a popular success.

It was a source of tremendous civic pride, with Seattleites from every walk of life contributing to both its financing and organization.

The fair took place on the new University of Washington campus — then just "five buildings and a forest" — which was redesigned and landscaped by the Olmsted brothers to produce the UW campus plan we know today.

Covering 250 acres, the A-Y-P boasted 80 buildings, mostly temporary structures of elaborate neoclassical design. It attracted more than 3 million visitors.

I thought I'd seen almost all the images there were to see, but Forsen's film is full of surprises, including tantalizing film clips of Cascade Falls and other fairground sites.

It also highlights the A-Y-P's role in furthering women's right to vote, jump-starting the automobile age and promoting the latest in air travel (a dirigible that, alas, couldn't stay airborne).

If the educational exhibits were a bit like having the Smithsonian Institution come to your door, the carnivalesque Pay Streak was pure infotainment. It had humans on exhibit — most notoriously, an Igorrote village in which a hill tribe from the Philippines went about their business in traditional dress (not much more than loincloths).

There was also a baby-incubator exhibit and even a baby raffle, although no one claimed the "winning" ticket.

As McConaghy sums up: "A hundred years ago is a hundred years ago, and it seems very familiar in some ways. But it's a very strange place — very strange indeed."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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