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12.15.11: Handling the VIP Herd

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

During the World's Fair in 1962, the Needle was a magnet for celebrities and VIP's. But what was a VIP?

They included ambassadors, dignitaries, scientists, and corporate executives and their accompanying entourages. They included media, musicians and Hollywood stars, friends and family of the influential, and people connected to the fair and its pavilions. The Needle was the centerpiece of the fair, and everyone wanted a trip to the top.

That presented some problems. The VIPs had to get in and out of the Needle quickly, and couldn't be expected to wait in long lines for a trip to the Observation Deck or a meal in the Eye of the Needle. Yet the Needle was also a privately run operation: they needed to be accountable to the public and keep them happy. If VIPs filled the restaurant seats, the public could get crowded out.

Memos and letters between Century 21 staff and the Needle operators show that early on, there was sometimes tension: too many people wanted VIP treatment, and fair officials wanted flexibility and certainty when they escort their guests up the crowded Needle. The Needle had a no-reservation system. With the sole exception of reservations for a single, 8 am seating for breakfast*, it was first come, first serve.

A system of reservations and alloted times for VIP's was established to ease access and predictability. In May, 1962, Al Rochester, Executive Director of the World's Fair Commission, said in a memo to Eddie Carlson, chair of the commission and the man who helped dream up the Needle, saying that an elevator would be reserved at 9:30 and 11:30 am and 4:40 and 9:30 pm for VIPs. In practice, things were much more flexible.

Discretion was important because no one wanted to anger the public stuck in line with sometimes an hour or two wait by allowing VIP groups to jump ahead. Rochester wrote, "The elevator which they will use is the service elevator on the East side of the Needle. The entrance is on the basement level so that the people standing in line will not know of the precedence given the visitors."

A look at World's Fair records hints at the huge number and variety of the VIPs that had to be accommodated. A tiny sampling of Needle VIPs from early July, 1962 includes a delegation from the Nigerian Parliament, Venezuelan and Japanese labor leaders, representatives from Japan, Pakistan, Brazil, Alaska, Pennsylvania, 25 cast of the Roy Rogers show (including cowboy Roy himself), 14 boxers from Thailand, a group from Volkswagen, singer Johnny Mathis, columnist Emmett Watson, officers from the Chilean Army, a group from the American Legion, and America's Junior Miss. Mix in judges, generals, publishers, CEOs, and politicians and you have an inkling of how a world's fair becomes a kind of global crossroads.

*Breakfast at the Needle came as a package deal; reservations had to be made in person at the Olympic Hotel, or in advance by mail. The cost was $6, and included your $2 admission to the fair, your $1 for the elevator trip to the top, and $3 for a set breakfast menu at 8 am. Limit was 200 people. Called the "Horizon Breakfast," it included berries and cream, sweet rolls, scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, Virginia pork patties, hash browns and a beverage. That should have set you up well for a day of wandering the fair's 74 acres.

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