Frosty Fowler: Late local DJ stayed cool while Space Needle shook

Apr 17, 2019, 6:27 AM
Frosty Fowler...
Frosty Fowler broadcast for Radio KING from a studio atop the Space Needle, and was on the air during the April 29, 1965 earthquake (Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

Harold Louis “Frosty” Fowler couldn’t remember exactly which Connie Francis song was playing on the Radio KING turntable a few minutes before 8:30 a.m, on Thursday, April 29, 1965.

RELATED: Forgotten folk song joked about collapse of Space Needle

It might have been “Forget Domani.” Or, it could’ve been “For Mama.” But it probably wasn’t “Wishing It Was You.”

Fowler, who passed away last week at his Poulsbo home at age 96, can be forgiven for not remembering the tune from that long-ago morning, and there are no known recordings of his broadcast to be able to check.

Frosty Fowler — “Frosty” was an Army nickname of forgotten origins — had other things on his mind as he sat in his broadcasting booth on the observation deck of the Space Needle on that April day.

“I think it happened about 8:29 in the morning,” Fowler said in an interview back in 2016. “And it was very frightening. I could feel, and I could see the people responding on the Needle.”

What Fowler could feel — and what those people were responding to — was a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that put the 605-foot landmark from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair into serious, if not actually dangerous, motion.

“They hire a lot of young people to work in the kitchen and the elevators . . . and the [Space Needle visitors] were starting to run,” Fowler said. “And they didn’t know where they were running, or what they were doing.”

“All they knew [was that] they were scared,” Fowler said.

“Well,” Fowler admitted, “I was apprehensive myself.”

Frosty Fowler had a long career in broadcasting in the Northwest. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was the morning man for Radio KING in the days when the station, at 1090 on the AM dial, played what was called “middle of the road” or the “MOR” format.

This meant earnest, buttoned-down personalities like Frosty Fowler and Jim French, and mellow music from artists like Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra, plus news, weather and interviews with interesting people.

Fowler inaugurated the station’s daily 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Space Needle broadcasts in July 1963, and worked the morning shift there until early May 1966.

It was a solo operation for Frosty Fowler; he worked alone in the Space Needle, with all other radio station functions happening at the KING Broadcasting building on Dexter Avenue a few blocks north of Denny Way.

When he recalled the 1965 quake during an interview three years ago, time had somewhat dimmed Frosty Fowler’s memories of the specific details. But Fowler’s recollections of the feelings from that shaky morning hadn’t dimmed a bit.

As that Connie Francis record — whatever it was — spun, Fowler collected himself, and then went about his serious responsibilities as a broadcaster.

“I talked about [the earthquake on-air], and I got calls,” Fowler said. “People [on the observation level] would stop and look in the Space Needle [broadcast booth] window and look at me as I was broadcasting, and then they’d run away.”

News reports at the time don’t mention a panic atop the Space Needle during or after the quake, but Frosty Fowler remembered that people were certainly eager to get back down to ground level.

There were as many as 200 people on hand for a weekly KING TV broadcast of the local morning program “Telescope,” which happened to only broadcast from the Space Needle on Thursdays, which April 29, 1965 happened to be.

“They were trying to get on the elevators, and the elevators were full,” Fowler said, recalling that the structured continued to sway for at least a few minutes after the quake stopped. “People were wanting to get off the Space Needle, but I stayed the whole time.”

Frosty Fowler had a radio show to do.

“I reported on traffic, I reported on things that I saw and things maybe that I didn’t see, but I felt,” Fowler said. “Because … basically, I wondered, is the Space Needle gonna survive?”

Fowler, who graduated from what’s now Washington State University, worked in radio in Yakima and Spokane before getting a job at Radio KING in the late 1950s. It’s clear he loved broadcasting from the Space Needle, and loved doing daredevil stunts like climbing the tower atop the Needle (where a gas flame burned during the World’s Fair), or riding up the side of the structure in a window washer rig.

“It became a place of importance,” as the symbol of the city and a major attraction for locals and for tourists, Fowler noted.

“And also the weather, it was very obvious” to see what was coming, Fowler said. “And I could see in the distance all the way down to Shelton and Olympia, and I could see tugboats and freighters coming in, and passenger ships.”

The perspective afforded by the height, and the wonder and those feelings caused by the quake, made a deep and lasting impression on Fowler, as he surveyed the city and beyond from his unique radio studio that memorable morning.

“The whole experience … shook you right down to the core,” Fowler said. “I didn’t feel the earthquake was going to destroy the Space Needle, but we all have a little Space Needle in us. What I mean is, we have stability, and we have a feeling … whether it’s a car wreck or illness or whatever, and it shakes us up.”

“It was a while before I stabilized,” he added.

RELATED: Seattle’s ill-fated Stanley Cup run of 1919

Back down on ground level, the April 29, 1965 quake only lasted about 20 seconds, but it was blamed for seven deaths: Three people who died from falling debris, and four who died from heart attacks.

Radio KING remained in the Space Needle broadcast studio until May 1966; after that, KIRO Radio moved in, and remained there until 1974. Finally, KAYO did a six-month stint, with DJ Bobby Wooten actually living in an apartment adjacent to the broadcasting booth.

Frosty Fowler wasn’t the only local broadcaster to famously get caught on the air during an earthquake.

Dave Niehaus was broadcasting on KIRO 710 AM (and Mariners affiliates around the Northwest) when the Mariners were playing the Cleveland Indians in the Kingdome on May 2, 1996, when a 5.3 magnitude quake struck near Duvall. The Kingdome shook, and the game was suspended in the bottom of the seventh inning, with Cleveland up 6-3. The game was finished the next afternoon, with the Mariners losing 6-4.

And KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross was taking calls on his old 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. show on the morning of February 28, 2001, when the 6.5 magnitude Nisqually earthquake struck.

With the building audibly shaking, Ross described what he saw from KIRO’s Eastlake Avenue studios, including the still-standing Queen Anne Hill TV towers, downtown Seattle skyscrapers, and even the Space Needle.

As it turned out, KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross did pretty much everything Frosty Fowler had done on Radio KING during the quake nearly 36 years earlier.

Except maybe for playing a Connie Francis record.

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Frosty Fowler: Late local DJ stayed cool while Space Needle shook