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Bubbleator was Seattle’s original sphere of influence

LISTEN: Bubbleator was Seattle’s original sphere of influence

Before Amazon gets all the credit for its snazzy new spheres opening downtown this week, let’s pause a moment to remember Seattle’s original spherical greenhouse.

Of course, this was the Bubbleator, a 19-foot diameter spherical Plexiglas elevator that wasn’t built as a greenhouse, but was instead used in what’s now KeyArena during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

KeyArena was called the Washington State Coliseum during the fair, and the main central portion of the building — where they later had concerts and where the Sonics played — was filled with a multi-level, multimedia exhibit called “The World of Tomorrow.” The theme of the 1962 fair was “Century 21,” and much of the fair, and especially the exhibit, was all about the future.

“The World of Tomorrow” began with a trip in the Bubbleator, which was built at a cost of roughly $65,000 in 1962, or more than half a million dollars now. Design for the entire exhibit was by the New York firm Donald Deskey Associates, with lead architect Paul John Grayson.

A local firm called Seattle Bronze assembled the aluminum frame of the Bubbleator at their shop just a few blocks west of the fairgrounds, while Plastic Products Company made the clear panels, and the local office of Montgomery Elevator built and installed the mechanical lift portions.

In the Coliseum, the Bubbleator was operated by a guy in a sparkly and futuristic (yet also elfish) silver and green outfit who sat in a stainless steel captain’s chair/podium where controls for the doors and lift were located. Like Space Age clockwork, every two minutes and 40 seconds, the Bubbleator carried 100 people up 28 feet to the top of the World of Tomorrow exhibit.

On that 28-foot ride to the top, the sparkly Bubbleator operator delivered some introductory patter to precede the 21-minute experience that lay ahead in the World of Tomorrow.

“Please step to the rear of the sphere, we can only accommodate a hundred of you . . . a century at a time,” went the scripted remarks. “First floor! Threats and thresholds, frustrations and fulfillments, challenges, and opportunities. First floor! Step off into the future, please!”

After the 100 guests exited the Bubbleator, they walked slowly down a circular ramp, looking at exhibits about the future that promised things such as cordless phones, video phones, and flying cars (oh well, two outta three ain’t bad). Their progress through the exhibit and down the ramp was controlled by a series of automated lights, audio recordings, and colorful projections.

It’s estimated that something like 2.5 million visitors to the World of Tomorrow exhibit rode the Bubbleator (and heard that corny patter) during the six months of the fair in 1962.

When the fair ended its successful run on October 21, 1962, many thought the Bubbleator’s career was over, too.

But, as the Coliseum was being converted to an event venue, it was front-page news in November 1962 when the State of Washington sold the Bubbleator to the City of Seattle for $5,100 to install in the old Food Circus, the 1939 building now known as the Armory.

An instant hit

On June 7, 1963 when the newly-christened Seattle Center reopened after a post-fair remodeling, the Bubbleator was an instant hit, shuttling passengers between three levels and serving as something of a free amusement park ride. The patter and the exhibit were all gone, of course, but the operator chair remained.

Old newspaper clippings show the Bubbleator becoming a centerpiece of sorts during the years right after the fair, with Santa Claus posing for photos with children; holiday season organ concerts from inside the distinctive lift; and annual installation of decorations to transform the sphere into a pumpkin at Halloween and a snowman at Christmas.

In spite of all the goodwill and popularity throughout the 1960s, the aging Bubbleator wasn’t without its challenges, and plans to update and upgrade the Food Circus eventually called for its removal. The city’s first attempt to pop the Bubbleator in 1973 was scuttled because of public outcry. Then, for most of the summer of 1975, a hydraulic leak in the Bubbleator’s hidden yet critical elevator mechanism forced the shutdown of the popular attraction.

Finally, the Food Circus remodelers got their way, and the Bubbleator bubbleated its final passengers on Wednesday, October 1, 1980. A mail-in surplus auction drew no bidders, so the former icon was donated to Children’s Hospital, apparently for use in some kind of playground that was to be constructed.

But those plans fell through.

Not long after, perhaps on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fair, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer staffer named Gene Achziger was sent by columnist (and later City Councilmember) Jean Godden on a mission to find the Bubbleator.

Gene Achziger is the hero of this convoluted story. He found the Bubbleator, or at least the spherical part of it. It was completely disassembled and was nothing more than a pile of Plexiglas and aluminum sitting in a warehouse on the north side of Lake Union. A contractor working for Children’s Hospital was storing it and looking to get rid of it.

Gene was from Tacoma, and he’d never even ridden the Bubbleator during the fair or in the Food Circus. When the contractor showed it to him, he didn’t even really know what it was. But for some reason, he ended up buying the Bubbleator from the contractor for $1,000.

Why would a 30-year old newspaper guy buy the Bubbleator?

“In the process of researching it, I realized that it was, you know, an icon,” Achziger said a few days ago, standing inside the Bubbleator, his voice oddly modulated by the spherical interior. “[It was] craziness. It was there, it looked like, ‘Hey this could be interesting,’ it is a piece of history.”

But Gene Achziger didn’t just buy the Bubbleator and keep it as a pile of Plexiglas and aluminum. First, he moved it from the Lake Union warehouse to his parents’ residence in University Place. There it sat for many months, the sun filtering through the clear panels and scorching mom and dad’s grass into odd, unnatural patterns.

Then, Gene Achziger proceeded to build the Bubbleator onto (and into) the front of his house near Redondo Beach in Des Moines. The Seattle World’s Fair “elevator to the future” became a greenhouse for orchids, citrus, and tomatoes.

As you might imagine, Gene’s neighbors in Redondo had a variety of reactions.

“Some of the neighbors, they’re kind of polite,” Achziger said. “They said, ‘Hmmm, that’s different.’”

Others were more, shall we say, vocal.

“The people directly across the street, their daughter actually was a student at Western [in Bellingham] and she had not been home during the time that I was erecting it,” Achziger said. “And she came home, slammed on her brakes in the middle of the road, got out and started screaming, ‘It’s the Bubbleator! It’s the Bubbleator.’”

Gene Achziger wonders if his Bubbleator inspired the Amazon spheres; an anonymous source there says no. But this doesn’t matter to Gene Achziger. As he sees it, when it comes to what Amazon has created, the similarities to the Bubbleator could be a result of subconscious inspiration, or maybe just coincidence.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, a lot of longtime locals certainly see the similarities between the Amazon spheres — maybe they detect Bubbleator DNA — and what now sits in Gene’s front yard.

Meanwhile, other pieces of the Bubbleator’s past are scattered around the region. That operator’s chair was rescued by MOHAI in 2005, and at least a few private collectors of World’s Fair memorabilia have futuristic sparkly uniforms tucked away with good old-fashioned mothballs. Gene Achziger even speculates that portions of the original Bubbleator elevator equipment may still remain under the floor in the Armory.

And back in that front yard in Redondo, Achziger is 65 now and thinking about his future, as well as that of the Bubbleator, the iconic, one-of-a-kind piece of Seattle history he rescued more than 30 years ago.

Where will it be 50 years from now?

“As far as I know, it’s still gonna be here,” Achziger said, his head scanning the interior of his treasured piece of local architecture.

“It’s built into the house, so if it was to move, I’ve got a big hole to fill,” he said. “I think a lot of the community is used to it being here, so I would probably get as much flak for moving it as they did in Seattle.”

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