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When the world came to town: At the 1962 World’s Fair, Louis Larsen escorted astronauts, Kennedys, and the King of Rock
KINGSTON — Louis Larsen of Kingston may be nearly 90, but he can recall with crystal clarity details from his extraordinary job 50 years ago.
Without much prompting, he remembers greeting John Glenn, the first man to orbit Earth. And singer Nat King Cole. And the other King — Elvis Presley.
As director of special events for the 1962 Seattle’s World Fair, he has been recounting his story to promote “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy,” in bookstores now. It was Larsen’s responsibility to ensure themed, special events scattered around the fairgrounds ran smoothly, such as Girl Scout Day or events at the Hawaii Pavilion. But he often gave tours to visiting dignitaries and celebrities.
“There wasn’t time to be nervous,” he said. “You just moved from one event to the other.”
Events like British Week, when Prince Phillip of Great Britain swung by on the tail end of his Canadian tour.
“He was a stuffed shirt ... No sense of humor,” Larsen said. At the end of the prince’s tour, Larsen said he asked His Highness to say a little something.
“What do I look like, a trained seal?” the prince asked.
Larsen’s other guests were more enjoyable. He said his favorite guest was Rafer Johnson, the Olympic decathlon champion. Larsen said all the children at the fair recognized him, and Johnson never turned anyone away.
Glenn, Cole, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, preacher Billy Graham and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were also “very pleasant” people to talk with — Kennedy was especially fun when he was with his children.
Larsen also lent his face to promotions with Sandra the orangutan. As the fair was space- and science-themed, fair organizers wanted a chimp named Enos to attend from Florida — the first monkey to satellite Earth in space.
As a part of the promotion, Larsen handed Sandra tickets to “send” to Enos.
“She ate half the tickets I gave her,” Larsen laughed.
Many of Larsen’s memories and priceless photographs from his work on the Seattle World’s Fair are in “The Future Remembered,” which commemorates the fair’s 50th anniversary next year. From April 21 to Oct. 21, 1962, Seattle saw 10 million visitors.
At a time when we didn’t have Wikipedia or Google telling us the history of world culture, World Fair expositions provided an interactive exhibit for national businesses to showcase their products, and countries to parade their personalities.
Larsen was born Sept. 23, 1924 in Ballard to Danish immigrant parents. He began his studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, but never finished, and began working for the American Automobile Association as a sales manager. He and his wife, Dolores, married in 1948, and they moved to Omaha, Neb., for a year.
Back in Seattle he was between jobs when a friend recommended he stop by the fairgrounds. Larsen was hired as an assistant director of exhibit sales in 1960, asking major corporations to participate in the fair and telling them about Seattle.
“At that time, Seattle was a small city ... Tucked away in a corner of the U.S.,” Larsen said. The fair “exposed” the rest of the world to the Pacific Northwest, and like most cities that host a fair exposition, gave Seattle a population “growth spurt.”
Organizers chose the fair site because it had already been marked for a civic center. That became one aspect of what made the Seattle World’s Fair unique — it is one of the only cities to keep its fair infrastructure. Besides the famous Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center, Washington State Coliseum (now KeyArena) and all that is now in the Seattle Center area were originally built to hold the fair’s numerous exhibits. The fair also used the Civic Auditorium, later the Opera House and now McCaw Hall.
The diversity of events in a close area was beneficial to fairgoers and continues today.
“You might have a hockey going on at the Coliseum, and a performance of ‘Carmen’ at the Opera House and you might have a high school football game going on in the stadium,” Larsen said. “We’re building a great civic center but we’re disguised it as world’s fair.”
The fair’s board members often dipped into their own pockets to fund the fair, according to the book’s authors, Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein. That is another part of what made the fair great, Larsen said.
“The men who put together the fair were dedicated individuals. Really, 99 percent had no opportunity to make a dime from the fair,” he said.
But the fair did make a dime, one of the only fairs of its era to do so, Becker and Stein write. Buildings were funded by city and state bonds, as well as federal funding, and Larsen — in one of his many hats as director of advanced tickets — said the $10 million in tickets sold before the fair opened “paid off the underwriters.”
After the fair closed, Larsen stayed close to home. He became director of marketing for Seattle Center for 10 years, then worked as the director of foreign and domestic exhibit ales at the Spokane World’s Fair in 1974. He returned to Seattle to work for 14 years as executive vice president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which puts on the Seattle Boat Show.
Larsen had property in Hansville for 40 years, recently sold, and he and his wife moved to Kingston 20 years ago to “get out of the big city.” After his very active working life, he takes it easy now, but is a member of the Sons of Norway.
Having seen the Space Age in its prime, growing up in the home city of Boeing, Larsen is expectantly enthusiastic about the future. He said young people should get excited about alternative energy businesses, but shared two simple, yet important concepts to keep in mind: Like what you are do for a living, and to be happy where you live.