Seafair -- Beginnings

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 7/08/1999
  • Essay 1470
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Seafair, the gala annual Seattle-King County water festival, began in August 1950 and continues to this day. The festival erupts all over King County and has included hydroplane speed competitions, lifeboat races, steamboat races, tug boat tugs-of-war, waterskiing competitions, swimming meets, musical performances, high diving, underwater dancing, parades, parties, and joyous nightly boogying all over town. Additional events have been a Mardi Gras in the Central Area, an elaborate dragon parade in the International District, the historic Aqua Follies at Green Lake (which ran every summer from 1950 to the late 1960s), Scottish Highland Games, a ritual boat burning, and coronations of water kings and water queens, among numerous other elaborate entertainments.

Parades and Pistol Shots

The first Seafair took place from August 11 to 20, 1950. Hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed more than 100 events throughout King County. The events ranged from a 25-mile bicycle race around Lake Sammamish to a decorated-boat parade on Lake Washington with 350 participating boats. Spectators witnessed a Police Pistol Contest at 106th Ave S and East Marginal Way, a steamboat race on Elliott Bay, a Coast Guard lifeboat race, also on Elliott Bay, a "husband calling" contest at Seward Park, and an operetta called "The Desert Song" at Volunteer Park attended by 10,000.

Seattle's Potlatch

Seattleites called their first annual summer festival "Potlatch" because of the mistaken belief that Northwest Indians had held potlatches on the site. Seattle's Potlatch ran from 1911 to 1914 and then revived from 1934 until 1941. World War II put an end to this festival. After the war there was talk of reestablishing the summer celebration, but it didn't happen until 1950.

In 1948, the Snoqualmie District of the Washington Federation of Garden Clubs successfully lobbied the Seattle City Council to adopt "City of Flowers" as an official nickname for Seattle. The following year, the week of May 1-7, 1949, was proclaimed City of Flowers Week. A flower show was held, a queen was crowned, and the week was capped by a parade. On a rainy Sunday morning, more than 80,000 attended the parade through downtown Seattle.

Sometime after the parade, Ralph Grossman, a restaurant owner, and Howard MacGowan, U.S. Collector of Customs and a public relations man, came up with the idea of holding a summer festival with a maritime theme. They took the idea around to other Seattle business people. It caught on.

Seattle Salts

After some initial organizing and fund raising in late September 1949, they announced that Seattle would have a water festival during the summer of 1950. They formed an organizing committee of 24 members, called the Seattle Salts. Members included labor leader Dave Beck, jewelry store owner Leo Weisfield, Emil Sick who owned the Rainier Brewing Company and the Seattle Rainiers baseball team, and shipbuilder Horace W. McCurdy.

The Seattle Salts heard such good reports about a winter festival held in Minnesota, the St. Paul Winter Carnival, that they not only used it as a model but offered its director, Walter Van Camp, a position to run the Seattle festival. Van Camp accepted but he could not begin work until March 15, 1950.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Salts raised money and considered possible events. The ideas included a tugboat tug-of-war contest, a mass fly-in of seaplanes, a mock invasion of Ballard, and an underwater canasta tournament in the Hiram M. Chittenden Ballard Locks. Of these ideas, only the fly-in on Lake Washington actually came to pass in the first Seafair.

Before Van Camp arrived, Guy Williams was hired to run the organization. He had a background in publicity, theater promotion, and ticket sales. One of his first tasks was to come up with a name for the festival. He thought of many names but none took hold. It fell to his 11-year-old son Mark to come up with a name. One day Mark said, "Dad, Why don't you call it Sea Fair?" Seafair it was.

After Van Camp arrived in Seattle in mid-March, the planning progressed rapidly. That was a good thing: The dates for Seafair were set for August 11-20, 1950. On March 24, Van Camp asked for 10,000 volunteers to help with the festivities. One hundred and eleven separate committees were created that worked on nearly every event -- square dancing at the Trianon Ballroom, the badminton tournament, the contract bridge contest, the "largest clambake in the world." Van Camp created various royal personages to preside over each major event. One committee designed and stitched their royal attire.

The Aqua Theater

The centerpiece of Seafair's first year was the Aqua Follies at Green Lake. The plan was that a group that performed a "swimusical revue" would be brought in from St Paul. Established in 1940, the "Aquadears and Aquadivers" would perform for the first time outside of St. Paul with a water ballet, trick and comic dives from two four-story-high towers, and a stage show with singing and dancing. For this, a water theater was required. On May 15, 1950, after considering many locations, Greater Seattle, Inc. (formerly Seattle Salts) decided to lobby the Seattle City Council to build a 5,000-seat concrete "Aqua Theater" on the south shore of Green Lake. Three days later they successfully lobbied the Seattle Park Board to approve its being built in a city park. On June 1, the Seattle City Council agreed to finance it and approved the plan unanimously.

Construction started June 5 using two 70-man shifts a day. Nine weeks later, on August 7, just four days before Seafair was to start, the 5,200 seat Aqua Theater was finished with no cost overruns.

While the Aqua Theater was under construction, 60,000 plastic Seafair Skipper Pins were offered for sale at $1.00 each to raise money. Organizers and volunteers attended to thousands of details.

Let the Fun Begin

Just before noon on August 11, 1950, Seafair became a reality. The first event was the two day National Water Ski Championships on Green Lake.

That evening, starting at 8:45, the Aqua Follies with a cast of 125 held their first performance in the sold-out Aqua Theater. One review proclaimed that "The dive and dance show under the stars is a hit" (The Seattle Times, August 13, 1950, p. 1). Bruce Harlin, 1948 springboard champion, Jimmy Paterson, a master acrobatic diver, and Elbert Root, an Olympic Games champion, high-dived off diving boards affixed to 40-foot-high towers. The Aqua Dears, with a cast of as many as 24 at one time, performed their aquatic dance in the "pool" (actually part of Green Lake). During Seafair, nearly every Aqua Follies show sold out. By the time of the 12th and final performance on August 20, more than 59,000 people had attended.

Long Live the King!

On the first night of Seafair, the King, Rex I of Seafair, Founder, Realm of Neptune, was crowned. After the coronation, King Neptune ruled over the festivities. In his mortal form, he was known as businessman Victor E. Rabel.

For 10 days events continued nonstop. More than 5,000 attended the Fourth International Scottish Highland Games at the West Seattle Stadium to watch 200 participants from the northwest and Canada compete. They participated in the Highland Fling, caber toss (a 100-pound log shaped like a baseball bat), bagpipes, of course, and dozens of other events.

In downtown Seattle, more than 150,000 spectators witnessed an enormous parade, perhaps the largest nonmilitary parade the city had ever seen. At The Trianon Ballroom in Belltown, people danced the night away. On one night they moved to the sounds of the Rainy City Jazz Band, on another they hopped to the commands of a square dance caller.

At White Center Stadium, the Phoenix Queens played the Seattle Epicures for the World Championship Girls Softball. In the University District, along University Way and Brooklyn Avenue, the Kiddies' Doll and Pet Parade took one half hour to pass any given point.

Other community events were incorporated into Seafair. Thirty thousand people attended the 17th Annual Rainier District Powwow in Seward Park. There was a baby beauty contest, foldboat races, a fireworks display.

In Redmond, Seafair went at full tilt with the its 8th Annual Redmond Bicycle Derby Day featuring a parade, a tug of war, and a baseball game.

Her Majesty the Queen of the Seas

On August 16, 1950, at the Civic Auditorium, 20 Seafair princesses vied to be crowned the Queen of the Seas. Barbara Curtis, age 18, sponsored by Seattle Post No 1 American Legion Lives, was chosen as Queen, She described the moments just before she was crowned:

"When we went up on the stage of the Civic Auditorium, my heart was pounding so, I was sure the audience could see it. When the king's counsellor walked right past me - well, I thought: That's over; that's the end of me. I looked away, trying to keep my disappointment from showing. Then there was a hush, and I glanced around, and he was holding his arm out to me! I was the queen! I shook so hard the flowers almost fell out of my bouquet, and, going toward the throne, I was deathly afraid I'd tangle my feet in my gown and fall flat. I was so flustered I forgot to smile. But it was all wonderful!" (The Seattle Times, August 17, 1950, p. 8).

In plebeian life, Her Majesty lived with her aunt Mrs. Ray Solie at 2602 W. Crockett St. in Queen Anne and worked in an apparel store.

The Ship Burning

On the penultimate day of the festival, an old 170-foot- long ship was towed from Lake Union and anchored in Elliott Bay. It was the steamship Bellingham, built in 1891. The Bellingham had served as the first vessel of the Alaska Steamship Company that plied between Seattle and Alaska during the Klondke Gold Rush. It spent many subsequent years moving freight around Puget Sound.

At Seafair, King Neptune's flags flew from the ship's mast and six life-like dummies, the crew, were on deck. The ship's cargo included colored smoke bombs, fireworks, explosives, and 250 gallons of fuel oil. At the appropriate moment three men associated with the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society embarked, set the ship on fire, and immediately disembarked. "Within seconds, the decks and cabins of the maritime relic were blazing and sending smoke high into the sunny sky. The flames touched off firecrackers, powder charges and red and yellow flares" (The Seattle Times, August 20, 1950, p. 1).

The fire was glorious but soon the fireboat Duwamish, close at hand, directed waterpumps at the Bellingham and doused the flames. That evening, the Bellingham was towed to a point off Alki Point and sunk. Burning the ship at Seafair became a tradition that lasted into the 1960s, when there were no more ships left to burn.


"Seafair," Typescript, n.d., Seattle Public Library (Call No. 394.26979/Seafair/1961), Chapter I, p. 9-10, 13; Chapter II, pp. 1-2, 5; Chapter III, p. 5; Chapter IV, p. 4; Chapter V, p. 2-6; Chapter VI, p. 1-2, 8-10; Chapter VI, p 3; The Seattle Times, daily reports, August 11-21, 1950; Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest Magazine, August 3, 1980, p. 10; Seattle Weekly August 10-16, 1983, p. 25.
Note: This essay was updated on April 30, 2005.

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