Poking fun at Seattle fair, forgotten folk song joked about collapse of Space Needle

Apr 21, 2016, 7:36 AM | Updated: Aug 27, 2019, 10:12 am
Mike & Maggie’s 1962 recording of Chris Todd’s “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day When The Needle Hi...
Mike & Maggie’s 1962 recording of Chris Todd’s “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day When The Needle Hit The Ground,” with the target of its satire visible in the distance through the center hole. (Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

After April 21, 1962, Seattle would officially never be the same again. On that Saturday 54 years ago, the Century 21 World’s Fair got underway at noon on the sprawling civic campus that would later become Seattle Center.

It was a heady time. During the six-month run of the fair, nearly 10 million people went through the turnstiles, the city and region were pumped up with a sense of accomplishment and can-do spirit that nowadays is sometimes hard to imagine, and the Space Needle was well on its way to becoming the region’s futuristic symbol.

Amidst all the boosterism that spring and summer of 1962 as the city sought to make a name for itself, a young singing duo known as Mike & Maggie were making a name for themselves by poking fun at the fair with a little ditty called “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day When The Needle Hit The Ground.”

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“Maggie” is Maggie Savage. She’s in her seventies now and says the song tells a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale about a tragic accident involving the iconic 1962 World’s Fair tower.

“It’s about people going to the top of the Space Needle, and you know you have a telescope to look at the sky and see the stars at night, but here is this story about this fellow who’s flipping his telescope around, and he sees this young girl in the window with the lights on in her apartment, and the curtain’s open and she doesn’t have a stitch on,” Savage said.

“That fellow says, ‘oh wow look at this,’ and all of the men go to one side of the Needle and, lo and behold, the Needle sways a little, and then it goes to the ground. It cuts the viaduct in half and lands in the bay,” Savage said.

Mike Moloso on banjo and Maggie Savage Moloso on guitar were the in-house entertainment at a former basement speakeasy-turned-bistro in Pioneer Square called 92 Yesler. During the fair, Pioneer Square experienced what was described by The Seattle Times as a “Skid Road renaissance,” with nightclubs and coffeehouses springing up in previously vacant storefronts.

Mike & Maggie were from Seattle. They had formed their duo while attending Whitman College in Walla Walla and were reminiscent of the national folk craze in the late 1950s that launched the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, and other big acts.

After graduating, they married and spent time performing together in Arizona. They declined multiple offers to bolster their career and relocate to Los Angeles but moved back to Seattle to help open 92 Yesler in December 1961.

It wasn’t too long after that when their close friend, Chris Todd, wrote the words to “Mighty Day” (inspired by a song on a 1961 album by the Chad Mitchell Trio about the Galveston flood) and then not too long after that when Mike & Maggie debuted the Needle version of the song at 92 Yesler. “Mighty Day” caught on quickly. The duo taped the song live at 92 Yesler and then had 45rpm records pressed that they sold at the club and also sent around to local radio stations.

Legendary Seattle DJ Pat O’Day says that “Mighty Day” was one of two World’s Fair songs that were played regularly on KJR in 1962 when O’Day was program director. The other, O’Day says, was “See You In Seattle” by Joy & The Boys.

Maggie Savage says that “Mighty Day” was very popular on the radio and for the nightly crowds at 92 Yesler. She also says that the song’s popularity on the radio seemed to end rather abruptly sometime during the summer.

“The radio stations all went nuts for it, and they were [playing it] every hour on the hour, and it was lovely. I mean, it was really grand that they were doing this,” Savage said. “Then, all of a sudden it stopped happening. I got a hold of Pat O’Day and I said ‘Pat, what happened? Who did what to stop this from happening?’ And he said, ‘Maggie, I don’t know anything about that at all.’ I thought, ‘yeah, sure,’” Savage said, with a hearty laugh.

Savage has long believed that World’s Fair officials grew weary of the song and asked local radio stations to stop playing it, but she’s never been able to prove it.

“Not true,” said Pat O’Day, about fair officials telling KJR to stop playing “Mighty Day.” “At least my radio station was not told that,” O’Day said.

Of course, 54 years on, World’s Fair officials are getting scarcer and scarcer these days. A quick check with Louie Larsen, who was in charge of advance ticket sales and special events at the fair, and Albert Fisher, who coordinated radio, TV and film productions at the fair, found that neither man remembered “Mighty Day,” let alone any attempt to quash it. Further research into this part of the story might now be impossible.

“Mighty Day” songwriter Chris Todd says he personally never got any pushback about “Mighty Day.” In fact, Todd says, the opposite was true.

One night during the fair, he was watching Mike & Maggie perform at 92 Yesler.

“These two people introduced themselves to me while Mike & Maggie were about to start singing it, saying they were the owners of the Space Needle. They thought it was funny,” Todd said. “Though I do remember one reviewer said the song had all the charm of Parkinson’s disease, but that’s as bad a thing as I ever heard said about it.”

Todd explains that he meant no ill will toward the World’s Fair or the Space Needle with the song. In the early 1960s, Todd says he lived in a house on 14th Avenue on Capitol Hill and had a decent view of the Needle as it was constructed.

“I could see the Space Needle being built from my window, and I just made fun of it. That was my sole intent,” Todd said. “I thought it was a perfectly legitimate private enterprise. And I’m glad the fair came to town. I had a lot of fun at the fair and a lot of other people did, too. [The song] was just a lampoon and a joke,” he said.

Todd also wrote a song poking fun at the short length of the Monorail route and the constant long lines of people waiting to ride it. The song, “Talkin’ Monorail,” includes the lyric “And there’s a line at the other end waiting to go back, I’d say about as long as the Monorail’s track.”

For many years, there was some confusion about who actually wrote “Mighty Day.” Savage had assumed that Mike Moloso and Chris Todd had collaborated on the composition, but says she only recently learned that it was actually a solo effort by Todd.

Chris Todd, who nowadays teaches at Shoreline Community College, is gracious but unequivocal.

“I wrote it,” he said while acknowledging that Mike Moloso did make one critical modification to the lyrics.

“There was one change that Mike made. The way I wrote it was ‘to make money for Century 21.’ And Mike wasn’t sure that Century 21 [the organization producing the World’s Fair] wasn’t going to sue us for using their name, so he called it ‘that big deal 21,’” Todd said.

For Todd, being credited for writing the song isn’t about the money.

“Nobody ever made any money off of it. Oh, they might have sold $50 worth of records but no, nobody ever made any money off it,” Todd said.

Toward the end of the fair, Mike Moloso began playing with the band Three Shaggy Gorillas Minus One Buffalo Fish, while Maggie took care of their growing family. While on tour, Mike began to struggle with mental illness; he came home to Seattle and was institutionalized and gave up music for long stretches. He ultimately died of a heart attack at age 35.

Maggie Savage embarked on a solo career to support the couple’s two young children and was long a mainstay of local coffeehouses as well as the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center. “Mighty Day” was often in her repertoire, and her a cappella rendition of the song was well received at a Folklife celebration in 2003. Nowadays, Savage lives on Shaw Island and teaches songwriting workshops.

Learning recently from a neighbor during a ferry ride that the song had been posted on YouTube spurred Savage to file formal copyright documents with the Library of Congress. She’s glad to finally know the truth about Chris Todd’s role as the sole songwriter and views the song as a “gift” from Todd to her and her late husband.

Maggie Savage also knows what she would do if the Space Needle actually did have a “mighty day” and collapse.

“I’d write a song,” Savage said, laughing. “But I kinda doubt that it’s gonna fall over.”

Here are the complete lyrics to “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day When The Needle Hit The Ground,” as written by Chris Todd and performed by Mike & Maggie.

Well Seattle built a Needle just to have a little fun
And to make a little money for that big deal 21

Now way up on that Needle there’s a restaurant going round
Yes, and tourists come from everywhere to see the people on the ground

Wasn’t that a mighty day? Wasn’t that a mighty day?
Wasn’t that a might day, great God that evening, when the Needle hit the ground?

One night a gentleman of renown was looking at the sky
And he chanced to train his telescope on a window lit nearby

And in that window standing there was a maid so fair
But for the hair upon her head that maid so fair was bare

Well he shouted his discovery about this fair young lass
Yes, and all the menfolk crowded round just to see that lady’s . . .

Well their eyes were on that window and their weight all gathered there
When someone chanced to notice they were sailing through the air

Well they crashed across the fairgrounds with such a gruesome sound
And the coliseum went tumbling and the mess was all around

Well the restaurant kept rolling right on down Denny Way
It cut the viaduct in half and it landed in the bay

Wasn’t that a mighty day? Wasn’t that a mighty day?
Wasn’t that a mighty day, Great God, that evening, when the Needle hit the ground?

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Poking fun at Seattle fair, forgotten folk song joked about collapse of Space Needle