Essays — October 18, 2012 14:03 — 8 Comments

What Happened At The World’s Fair: Elvis And The Future In Seattle – Jim Demetre

In the realm of music, Elvis Presley is an iconic American figure who became, before his death in 1977 at age 42, as close to a messiah as one could get in our deeply religious and celebrity-obsessed country. On film, however, the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi always portrayed scrappy, backcountry upstarts on the make. And while Elvis may have been the King of Rock & Roll, in Hollywood his status was more that of a beleaguered, indentured serf than of cinematic royalty. 

After enlisting and serving in the U.S. Army for two years, Elvis, under the guidance of his notorious, long-serving manager Colonel Tom Parker, signed a contract with MGM Studios to star in a series of movies that would each include soundtracks of original songs.

Elvis had proven an adept leading man in the 1958 film King Creole, but the movies he would make in the years between leaving the army in 1960 and his television comeback performance in 1968 were – with the exception of 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, where he was paired with a charismatic equal in the person of Ann-Margret – forgettable fluff. The songs strung across their thin plots, hopelessly sappy and formulaic numbers, made Elvis appear increasingly irrelevant in an era defined by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and later, psychedelia.

One movie seldom discussed by Elvis scholars or by music and film critics is 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair, which was set at Seattle’s 1962 Century 21 Exposition World’s Fair. While the newly constructed Seattle Center was for Elvis just a backdrop for another hastily produced low-budget movie (much of it filmed on Hollywood back lots), for Seattle it was a seminal event in its short civic history.

Before television or the Internet, World’s Fairs were major events that defined eras. Their role was three-fold: they conceived of a future through the emerging technologies of the day, they cast the host city as its epicenter, and they presented the world and its history as its contextual backdrop.

Perhaps the most famous in U.S. history was the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the new world. The city, in what was then still referred to by visitor Henry Adams as the “Northwest,” was the geographical center of the era’s industrial innovation. A bewildered Adams, the aging diplomat and great-grandson and grandson, respectively, of the second and sixth U.S. presidents, described exhibits that included newly designed trains, dynamos, explosives, steam engines, electric batteries, and even the telephone. The most astonishing sight for the millions of fairgoers was the White City, named not only for its stucco neoclassical architecture but for the electricity that illuminated its streets and buildings. As became the case with future World’s Fairs, nations from around the globe were invited to construct elaborate exhibits that would showcase both their cultural traditions and unique role in the development of the future. Like a proto-League of Nations, they even sent ‘delegates’ who would perform official and ceremonial duties. The Chicago Fair would leave its mark on American entertainment as well, inspiring Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum and influencing the work of the yet-unborn Walt Disney, whose father was employed as a construction worker at the site.

But the weary Adams, a relic of an old Revolutionary War era order that had grown to view capitalism and industrial expansion with suspicion and alarm, could not envision what the future had in store for America or its people. In his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, he wrote, in his off-putting third person voice:

Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving. Adams answered, for one, that he did not know, but he would try to find out. On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard Hunt’s architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that, possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start here. 

Sixty-nine years later, a burgeoning new Seattle opened the doors of its Century 21 Exposition with the same lofty objectives as Chicago in 1893. At “America’s First Space Age World’s Fair” the solar system would take on a new meaning for the human race, however; one which was not merely allegorical. After the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite in 1957, the Cold War had led to the space race in which the United States sought to follow the U.S.S.R. in exploring and holding sway over the vast, unknown territory that existed beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Much of the Fair would concern itself with the science, technology and industry of space travel and its potential impact on our daily lives. The largest exhibit was the future World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki-designed United States Science Pavilion (Now the home of the Pacific Science Center), followed by that of NASA, the government’s four year-old space agency. During the course of the Fair, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov would visit, as would U.S. astronaut John Glenn and the Friendship 7, the space capsule in which Glenn had orbited the earth that February.

Seattle in 1962 was in the process of transforming itself from a remote port city on the West Coast to a global city state that would lead the world into the next century. It was the home of aerospace giant Boeing and other companies hard at work creating the technology for the coming space era. The Century 21 Exposition had its celebrated World of Tomorrow exhibit, complete with its fondly remembered plastic Bubbleator, the futuristic high-speed, mass transit Monorail that would take visitors to the fairground from downtown (but never beyond), and, most notable of all – the 600 foot tall Space Needle. A giant orange disc resembling a flying saucer mounted upon a trio of fluted steel pillars (complete with four spacepod-like elevators), it housed a rotating restaurant of dubious culinary distinction, but suggested a future of space travel that would include luxury dining and other forms of bourgeois recreation. The tower was the centerpiece of the World’s Fair but immediately became the iconic symbol of Seattle itself.

A total of eighty-four counties hosted exhibits at the Fair just as the United States was reaching its superpower zenith. As Seattle sought its place as a major world city during this period of U.S. geopolitical dominance, the combined assembly of international exhibitors became a manifestation of the Pax Americana that existed at the very height of the Cold War.

But what of Elvis and his little remembered 1962 visit to Seattle? No one may ever describe It Happened at the World’s Fair as a first rate movie, but watching it today we are struck by its significance, much as we are struck by the significance of Henry Adams’s words about Chicago in 1893. Like Adams, Elvis represented an older, more traditional America forced to confront its own newfound power and responsibility. But while the elite Adams reacted to the future with fear and trepidation, Mike Edwards, the agrarian Elvis character, stumbles upon it by accident and ultimately comes to embrace it.

Presley was by 1962 one of American’s biggest celebrities, and along with Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, one of the most groundbreaking recording artists in its history. His fusion of white Southern hill country music with various forms of black popular and religious song, from R&B to gospel, had radically altered American popular culture just a few years before. And whether or not he had actually combined black and white music or simply demonstrated that their segregation was something arbitrary and imposed, he was a controversial figure. When he first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, at the height of the Civil Rights era, many white Americans found him too black; others too Southern.

Much is made of the subtext of race in rock and roll, but for America, Elvis represented an integration of North and South as much as black and white. Since Reconstruction, much of the United States had continued to view the old Confederacy with unease and even contempt. This began to change with the implementation of New Deal federal government projects in the South and the enlistment of Southern men into the armed forces during World War II. While Elvis reminded many post-war Americans of their own rural heritage, for many ex-G.I.s he was familiar as the country boy they had served alongside at Pearl Harbor or Normandy.

In It Happened at the World’s Fair, Elvis was once again cast as just such a person. Mike Edwards is a struggling cropduster pilot in a place that looks like the Kent Valley who dreams of someday starting his own airline. His partner, Danny Burke (Gary Lockwood), is an inveterate gambler who keeps losing their earnings at card games that result in dangerous, knock-down brawls. After Danny loses all their savings and the two men are unable to pay off their debts, the kindly local sheriff confiscates Bessie, their beloved aging aircraft, giving them twelve days to buy it back before auctioning it off to the highest bidder.

If Danny’s judgment is compromised by his addiction to gambling, Mike, improbably dressed throughout the movie as either a Flying Ace or Dean Martin-like lounge singer, can’t resist the many beautiful women he encounters. As Danny is losing at cards, Mike’s attempt to seduce a young woman comes to an abrupt end when her parents return home unexpectedly and her angry father fires his hunting rifle. The two decide to head to Seattle, where Danny hopes to score big and Mike looks to find some action of his own.

Danny and Mike are not depicted as wastrels or degenerates. They are portrayed as vital, if typical, American males. In fact, Danny’s penchant for risky games of chance and Mike’s unflagging libido are the embodiment of qualities essential to the American character. Their respective impulses are necessary not only for driving the plot of the movie but for driving the nation forward and ultimately into outer space. And through his experiences in Seattle, Mike comes to act in ways that prove he’s capable of manifesting his nation’s moral character and progressive ideals.

Having no money, Mike and Danny hitchhike to Seattle, where the World’s Fair is currently underway. They are picked up by farmer Walter Ling along a bucolic country road. Content to ride in the bed of his truck along with Ling’s precocious seven year-old niece, Sue-Lin, Mike serenades her on a ukulele. It was rare to see Asian Americans playing ordinary people in a 1963 Hollywood movie. Even then, Seattle was seen as an ethnically diverse city, as much a part of a larger Pacific Rim culture and economy as the United States itself. Equally unusual is the pairing of a major movie star – not to mention one of Presley’s stature – with a seven year-old child in what were basically the lead roles. And it is Elvis’s easy chemistry with his young co-star Vicky Tiu that provides the movie with its most compelling scenes.

In an action guaranteed to shock the contemporary viewer, Uncle Walter leaves Sue-Lin with Mike at the fairgrounds as he presumably heads to the Public Market to sell his produce. With Danny off setting up the big game and getting in touch with his organized crime contacts, Mike and Sue-Lin spend the day together eating Belgian waffles and going on the rides. Mike’s acceptance of responsibility for Sue-Lin may represent America’s welcoming attitude towards immigrants in the post-war era or may even be an acknowledgement of the country’s new role as a benefactor and protector of the many allied nations that exhibited at Century 21’s International Pavilion.

Although Mike finds himself drawn to numerous female figures who cross his path in Seattle, he becomes truly smitten only after casting his eyes upon leggy, blonde nurse Diane Warren (Joan O’Brien) at the Fair’s infirmary, where he has taken the now grumpy and sugar overdosed Sue-Lin. Serious about her work and determined to pursue a career in the nascent field of space medicine, Nurse Warren rebuffs his persistent, clownish advances. But what is important is that Mike has chosen to court a modern, independent working woman who at first has no use for him rather than pursue the more pliant or old-fashion ladies readily available to him.

As the plot progresses, Sue-Lin finds herself abandoned by Uncle Walter and makes her way to Mike and Danny, who have moved into a less than Space Age trailer park called the Century 21 Estates. Danny runs a nightly card game there, trying to bilk the older residents of their savings. Without Mike’s knowledge, he signs the two of them up for a dangerous Canadian fur smuggling operation. Mike looks after Sue-Lin while searching for Uncle Walter and making more embarrassing attempts to woo Nurse Warren. A crisis ensues when the Department of Child Welfare comes to take Sue-Lin away from her pair of surrogate bachelor dads. There is a chase through the Space Pavilion fountain, a sleepy twilight ride on the Monorail, and a romantic dinner at the Space Needle. Sue-Lin is reunited with Uncle Walter after he recovers from a spell of amnesia and Nurse Warren, deeply touched by Mike’s paternal caring for Sue-Lin, eventually returns his affection.

At the end of the movie, Mike leaves his cropduster behind and, with Diane’s encouragement, applies for a job in the Space Program. He has been transformed from a rural American of the past to a soon-to-be space traveling American of the future. The onetime skirt-chasing hillbilly has fallen for a modern, self-respecting career woman. While at the Fair, he has proven his virtue, compassion and humanity by taking care of a lost child of a different race and ethnicity.

The futuristic vision of Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition would be realized seven years after its close with NASA’s Apollo 11 Mission and Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the surface of the moon. But the unified, coherent world it imagined, the one in which Elvis’s character Mike Edwards would chose to live in It Happened at the World’s Fair, was already falling apart by the time the movie was released. During the last week of the Fair, President Kennedy had to cancel his visit to Seattle to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The following year, he would be assassinated in Dallas. And the position of the United States as the so-called Leader of the Free World would be forever damaged as a result of its growing military involvement in Vietnam. But our nation – and Seattle in particular – would be defined by a commitment to science, education and the development of new technology in the decades that followed.

It Happened at the World’s Fair may have been a decidedly innocent B movie cranked out by a major studio, but in spite of its modest artistic aspirations, it embodies – if by default – a forward thinking, pragmatic vision of the United States. It is a United States where optimism and belief in the future are rooted in social mobility, the granting of women’s rights, the acceptance of immigrants and racial minorities, and an economic and cultural integration of both North and South and urban and rural regions. Both the real Elvis and, to a greater extent, his World’s Fair character Mike Edwards personify this phenomenon.

Those watching It Happened at the World’s Fair in 1963 would likely not have anticipated the subsequent backlash against the values it espoused. The re-emergence of Christian fundamentalism and Creationism, along with the rise of regressive anti-tax initiatives and climate change denial, was a wholesale rejection of the bright future it promised. In the still conservative South and elsewhere, the Mike Edwardses of our nation have often been too eager to abandon the promise of new spaceships for the familiarity of old cropdusters, even if one of them – a certain Elvis-like William Jefferson Clinton of Hope, Arkansas – would be elected president thirty years after the movie was filmed and the Century 21 Exposition closed its gates.


Jim Demetre is a Seattle-based writer and arts critic. He was the publisher and editor of the online art magazine Artdish, the print art journal Aorta, and was the publication manager of Reflex, the Northwest Forum on the Visual Arts. His reviews have appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Stranger, and the Seattle Weekly.


  1. Thank you for sharing this article, Jim. It’s a very salient reminder of what resonates for many of us when we remember Elvis, the World’s Fair, and the movie in which the two merged. While not a great film, it is nevertheless a valuable cultural marker, which you have successfully clarified in your article. More awesome writing from you!

  2. Lyall Bush says:

    “White Southern hill country music” is such a good and evocative phrase: the last three words have a musical bump that Elvis, 1961 Elvis, anyway, would have admired.

  3. Tim Detweiler says:

    I always enjoy when a writer uses something overlooked but familiar to talk about the bigger issues that they embody. The history of the Northwest in particular is full of these kind of under appreciated events. Nicely done Jim.

  4. sandi kurtz says:

    I have actually seen “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” and you’ve really put it in its context very deftly here. It’s easy to look at it as a hokey souvenir of the period, rather like a Space Needle salt and pepper set — you’ve managed to get past the simple analogy to something more substantial.

  5. Glenn H says:

    Recently, I downloaded a copy of It Happened At The World’s Fair on TiVo, and that lead me to inquire about the filming of the movie. That is how I found your article. This was an excellent piece of writing. The detail and knowledge of this writer and his observation were interesting and spot on.

    Thank you,

  6. Bryan Styble says:

    I’ve seen this film four times by now, yet its cultural significance–beyond that of being yet another vehicle for the uber dead celebrity Presley–had always eluded me. (I watched it multiple times because it featured the Seattle World’s Fair, an event I had unsuccessfully lobbied my folks to take the family to on vacation from our St. Louis home, plus the fact that I would during 2005-2008 broadcast over KIRO/Seattle in the shadow of the Space Needle.) This remarkable piece–including that fascinating Henry Adams passage–proves some quality artistic efforts are so subtle that even repeated exposures fail to make their impact felt, at least without the aid of sterling journalism to highlight what the experiencer missed on his own.

    BRYAN STYBLE/Florida

  7. Ralph Becker says:

    Century 21 also celebrated the modern city, at a time when the move to the suburbs had begun.

  8. Robert Felten says:

    I moved to the Seattle Eastside 4 years ago, but have never been to the Space Needle. I’m too afraid of all the homeless people, guns, shootings, violence, COVID, etc. It’s a far cry from 1962 when people wore suits and ties to events like the World’s Fair.

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