5 fiascos of the Seattle World's Fair

Mar 20, 2012

By Knute Berger of Crosscut

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, it's time to remember some of the crimes and blunders that went along with it. Some even launched new industries.

The following is a short list of some fair-related fumbles. The story behind each fiasco has been shortened from the original article in Crosscut. For the complete details check out that article.

1. "Don't Gouge Me! I'm a Seattleite."

Housing turned out to be a source of major controversy before and during the fair. The first big dust-up came in the winter of '61-'62 when landlords of many apartment houses downtown, on Capitol and First Hills, and elsewhere began evicting tenants and jacking up room rates in anticipation of housing hordes of visitors during the fair.

2. Embezzlement at the Fair

 In August of '62, the manager of the Fish & Chips concession at the fair's Food Circus skipped town. His name was Dewey Bouck, and he was accused by King County prosecutor Charles O. Carroll of grand larceny for embezzling $28,400 in Fish & Chips receipts. Bouck was also involved in managing the fair's Indian Village. The Village was short of funds, employees weren't being paid. Angry, the Native Americans walked out and the Village shut down, resulting in the loss of a major cultural attraction.

3. The making of a strip club owner

The Seattle fair involved many of Seattle's most famous families, including one of the most notorious, the Colacurcios, headed by the late nightlife boss and Strippergate scandal figure Frank Colacurcio, Sr. In fact, the Seattle World's Fair was a seminal event in his career. The Seattle Times reported in 1981 that his attorney, William Helsell, said it was at the fair that Colacurcio realized "he had what it took to be a success in the nightclub business." That's a fair legacy you don't hear much about.

The Colacurcios, like other business people, wanted to capitalize on the fair. Frank's brother Bill had sought to get one of his pinball operations located next to the fairgrounds, but the city wanted to keep that scandal-plagued business at arm's length. But Frank, then 45 years old, managed and operated the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub at the fair, a Gay Nineties-themed establishment on Show Street where pretty waitresses served beer and wine and patrons watched dance acts and listened to music ranging from Calypso to jazz.

Trouble came in August when authorities discovered that four club dancers were minors, aged 15 to 17. Colacurcio was accused of knowingly employing the under-age girls and instructing them to get false ID's. He was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of minors, fined $500 and given a six-month suspended sentence.

More importantly, at the fair Frank Colacurcio met a man named James Ward who managed the food vending machines for Century Concessions. Ward became a well-know restaurateur (13 Coins, El Gaucho), but also a partner and front man for Colacurcio in numerous hotel and nightlife ventures – a fact that came out after Ward's sudden death and a subsequent Colacurcio tax evasion case revealed their dealings. Colacurcio brought go-go dancing to Seattle in the mid-1960s, later topless and strip clubs, with help from lessons and contacts gained at Century 21.

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4. Interbay parking boondoggle.

Seattle has long debated whether the city should be in the parking lot business. Before there was Pacific Place, there was Interbay. Fair organizers were concerned with handling the huge amount of expo traffic expected. What to do with all those cars? City and fair officials looked at using public property for off-site parking at multiple sites near the fairgrounds and as far afield as the Rainier Valley (near the I-90 tunnel) and Magnolia's Interbay. They even got approval from the state to use the not-yet-open I-5 freeway bridge over the ship canal as a parking lot, if needed. Buses would shuttle visitors to and from the fair. 

Century 21 built a massive lot on leased city property at Interbay with attendants, a visitor's center and enough space to park 5,000 cars per day. The fair spent at least $230,000 on it. The problem? It wasn't needed. More convenient private lots near the fairgrounds blossomed with thousands of spaces. An even bigger surprise: nearly twice as many people took Seattle public transit to the fair than anticipated. People changed behavior to avoid gridlock. On peak days, the Interbay lot averaged not 5,000 but only 70 cars! The expensive boondoggle was mothballed mid-way through the fair.

5. The Traveler's Village Mess.

Expo-Lodging started as a hospitality industry referral service matching Seattle visitors with vacancies. It was taken over by Century 21 and had trouble keeping everyone happy. One consequence of the hotel-room shortage that never materialized was that investors who banked on big numbers were left with empty rooms, especially those in outlying areas. The poster-child for this was Traveler's Village, a motel trailer park on the Eastside near Redmond.

Just the fair headed into summer, Traveler's Village abruptly closed in June. Some 1,400 reservation holders were suddenly without a place to stay, and $95,000 in advance payments were gone. Expo-Lodging scrambled to find places to stay for the displaced, and to arrange future lodging for those who were left high and dry.

These problems are not the stuff of nostalgia, but it's worth remembering that we've never been perfect and that every civic endeavor has its share of challenges and screw-ups, whatever the century.

For the complete version of this story, please go to Crosscut.