The Tradition Begins
It all began as a plan to celebrate Seattle’s centennial in 1951-52. The festival was designed to attract tourists and stress marine events in keeping with Seattle’s boast as the “boating capital of the world.”
Prominent business leaders, (known as the Seattle Salts and later as Greater Seattle Inc.) recruited St. Paul Minnesota’s water carnival director Walter Van Camp to help produce a similar event here.
Van Camp would not wait for the centennial. He went to work in March planning a ten-day celebration for August 11-20, 1950. This included building the 5,000 seat Aqua Theater at Green Lake in a mere 75 days.
That first Seafair featured parades, boat races on Green Lake, amateur athletic events, royalty, community festivals like West Seattle Hi-Yu Days, Rainier District Pow-wow, Wallingford Pirate Days, the University District Kid’s Parade, and the Ballard Festival, and were highlighted by the nightly Aqua Follies performances. Seafair was deemed a success and the festival would grow the next summer with the addition of the unlimited hydroplane racing class on Lake Washington.
At 7 am on June 26th, 1950 Stanley Sayres set a record off of Lake Washington’s Sand Point in his boat with the unlikely name of Slo-mo-shun IV at a speed of 160.32 mph, a world record for the mile straight away. Sayres would take the Slo-mo to Detroit to compete for racing’s biggest prize, the Gold Cup. The boat would be piloted by Ted Jones and surprise the Detroiters with its easy victory on the Detroit River. This upset victory brought the famous Gold Cup west of Minneapolis for the first time since 1904. Seattle’s love affair with unlimited hydroplane racing had begun.
The 5,000 seat Aqua Theater on the southwest shores of Green Lake was home to a dazzling “swimusical” known as the Aqua Follies. Aqua Follies included a diving show with breathtaking high dives as well as comedy skits and diving. The Aqua Dears, 30 female synchronized swimmers, performed ballet in the water while the Aqua Darlings, 24 dancers presented the stage ballet. Performances at the Aqua Theater were produced and directed by Al Sheehan. The nightly shows, including moonlight matinees that started at 11:15 p.m., were the entertainment highlight of the world’s greatest water carnival. Bob Hope, Bert Parks and a number of Olympic divers were just some of the famous performers at this unique outdoor venue. The Aqua Follies played a significant role in the Seafair festival between 1950 and 1965.
Everyone loves a parade! The first Seafair Grande Parade, Saturday August 12, 1950, brought an estimated 250,000 spectators to downtown Seattle’s Second and Third Avenues, according to Seattle’s Chief of Police, George E. Eastman.
The parade was and still is a way for the communities in the area to join in the celebration and show off their heritage, diversity, and cultural uniqueness. The Saturday afternoon Grande Parade, would later give way to the Friday night Torchlight Parade with its brilliantly lighted floats and pageantry.
The Torchlight Parade would typically start at Fourth Avenue and Madison Street and end in front of thousands seated at the high school Memorial Stadium. The Evening spectacle would serve as the formal introduction of the Seafair Queen.
Seattle’s maritime festival would not be complete without the participation of the U.S. Military. The U.S. Navy and Seafair developed a special relationship during the first decade of working together. Thousands looked forward to the arrival of the magnificent ships in Elliot Bay giving civilians the opportunity to tour these vessels while giving the thousands of sailors an opportunity to take leave and join in Seattle’s summer celebration. The Navy still plays a significant role in Seafair today.
Seafair created a make-believe legend where King Neptune, Emperor of the Ocean and King Of All the Seas and his Royal Court would battle the villainous pirates for control of the city and its maritime festival. Victor E. Rabel, President of Star Machinery Company, was crowned King Neptune I at the Green Lake Aqua Theater Friday night August 11, 1950. The appropriately attired King Neptune I then opened the first Seafair festival Saturday afternoon as he stepped off the schooner Gracie S. at the foot of Washington Street. Seattle Mayor William F. Devin, welcomed the Seafair ruler and his party which included Seafair Prime Minister Ray L. Eckmann, a company of guards and 20 Seafair princesses who would contend for Seafair Queen.
That first Queen of the Seas would be named on August 16, 1950. Barbra Curtis representing VFW Post XX was bestowed the honor at the Civic Center that evening. King Neptune, his Prime Minister and the Seafair Queen were responsible for appearing at all major events greeting dignitaries and being spokespersons for the summertime celebration.
The Seafair pirates, formed from a group of young, active Press Club members known as the Ale and Quail Society, were an important part of Seafair from its inception. Loved by most feared by some, the pirates were always good for a prank or two during the festival and were led by the Davy Jones Don Clark, Sr. and the Captain Kidd Ralph Ryder in 1950.
The Queen of the Seas would be selected during an elaborate coronation ceremony just prior to the festival each summer as representatives from each community would vie for the honor and prizes that came with the crown. In the 1950s, Miss Seafair was selected on friendliness, poise, speaking ability, and wholesomeness. Miss Seafair along with King Neptune and the Royal Court, would represent Seattle and the Seafair festival as spokespersons not only during the ten-day celebration, but also during the year at festivals and events throughout the Northwest and the United States. Newspapers devoted extensive coverage to the Seafair royalty and would often have daily accounts of the Queen of the Sea’s activities. They were truly local celebrities.
As the fifties progressed, the battle for the coveted Gold Cup intensified. Seattle and Detroit continued to vie for the rights to host “the Kentucky Derby on water,” unlimited hydroplane racing’s premiere event. Elaborate point scoring systems often led to controversies where the Gold Cup winner was not declared for hours or even days after the completion of the final heat. Seattle was indeed the boating capital of the world, hosting the Gold Cup 1951 through 1955 and 1957 through 1959 during this decade. The lone Detroit victory in the 1950s was a controversial win by Detroit’s Gale V in 1955.
Many people were responsible for the creation and early success of Seafair. Most notably, the business leaders of Greater Seattle Inc., including its president George Gunn and vice-presidents R. C. “Torchy” Torrance, William Street and Erving Rable who combined in April of 1950 with the Seattle Salts led by Jerry Bryant and a committee that included Leo Weisfield, Emil G. Sick, R. J. Lamont and Henry Broderick. The selection of Walter Van Camp, Director of St. Paul’s Winter Carnival, ensured Seafair’s opportunity for success.