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10.27.11: The Highest Bidder

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

From time to time, History shows up at the Space Needle ticket booth.

For instance, recently this Lifetime Elevator Pass to the Needle was used (and honored). It was issued to the James G. Murphy Family in 1974. The Needle doesn't issue Lifetime Passes anymore, and this was the first. It is even labeled Card No.1.

It turns out, it belongs to the family that owns and operates the James G. Murphy auction company in Kenmore, WA. Of all the folks-- famous or not--who have visited the Needle in the last 49 years, why did they rate a permanent free ride?

Well, it wasn't exactly free. James G. Murphy is an auctioneer and used to handle the PONCHO auctions. In 1974, the Space Needle donated a lifetime pass to help raise money for the arts. Some of the Needle's owners, Bagley Wright, Howard S. Wright, and Ned Skinner, were all arts supporters. Howard Wright had helped found PONCHO in 1962, year of the world's fair, and over the years the Needle has donated various things to the organization, including a day's proceeds from the elevator operation.

At the '74 auction, Murphy himself bid on and bought the pass. Since he was handling the gavel, he asked his wife Norma to raise the bid paddle at $500. She raised her eyebrows at spending so much, but did it anyway, he says.

The pass was issued with the family's picture on the brass pass. Bagley Wright, president of Pentagram, signed it. The text on the back of the pass reads that it "entitles each and any of [the family members] (and those guest who accompany them) to unlimited Space Needle elevator use during hours of operation, at no cost. This card is not transferable and must be presented personally by one of the Murphy family."

Non-transferable. Shucks.

James G. Murphy says he has gotten his money's worth. He and his family have used the pass a lot over the years. The family still uses it. It especially came in handy, he says, during the 1990s when he was president of the National Auctioneers Association. "The Needle is really something," he says.

Murphy says he knows of at least one other Needle pass that was auctioned off by PONCHO the following year, but it's not shiny metal like his, rather blue plastic, and the bidder paid about twice as much for it. Still, a bargain, if not a shiny showpiece.

Murphy also played a role in a major Needle transition. In 1981, plans were made to completely refurbish the revolving restaurant as the Westin Hotel chain's operating lease expired on the approach of the Needle's 20th anniversary in 1982. Everything in the restaurant-- chairs, dishes, stoves, even a hurdy gurdy--was sold off in a sky- high auction in October of 1981. The auctioneer: James G. Murphy.

Seems like the pass makes the Murphy family the highest bidders in town.

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