‘The Boat Show, The Boat Show, The Big Seattle Boat Show!’ marks 75 years
The Seattle Boat Show is back in person this year after going online in 2021 – which means it has returned just in time to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This year’s show opens Feb. 4 at Lumen Field Event Center and Bell Harbor Marina on the Seattle waterfront.
According to the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), boating is an $8 billion industry in Washington, so the Boat Show is a big deal economically and otherwise. It’s also an annual event that’s been a big part of Seattle culture since not long after the end of World War II.
It all goes back to 1947, and NMTA president and CEO George Harris says the very first Seattle Boat Show back then – held in a big tent by the Ship Canal near Lake Union – grew out of an unrelated lobbying effort aimed at the state Legislature.
“Originally, there were 11 businesses right here at North Lake Union on the Ship Canal that came together,” Harris told KIRO Newsradio. “There was a proposed tax down in Olympia that they disagreed with. So they initially came together to address that taxation issue. And then shortly after that, they had the idea of putting the tent on the Ship Canal at Montlake and had the first-ever Seattle Boat Show in 1947.”
The show moved indoors in 1948 to the Armory (aka the Food Circus and the Centerhouse) at what’s now Seattle Center. Then, in 1963, the show moved to the nearly-new Coliseum (built for the 1962 World’s Fair and now known as Climate Pledge Arena); in the 1970s, the show moved to the Kingdome, where it became one of the biggest boat shows in the country.
It was that move to the Dome that inspired Louis Larsen, one of George Harris’ predecessors at NMTA, to commission the “Big Seattle Boat Show” jingle that arguably ranks alongside “One day only at the Bon Marché” and “Do the Puyallup” as among the region’s most enduring earworms.
“It’s one of those things you don’t know whether it’s going to work or not,” Larsen told KIRO Newsradio about the jingle, which he says was created by the advertising agency Gerber/Myers Wolfe and Kilgore. “But it took off and it’s pretty fun.”
Before and after that jingle, and at all of its locations – including Lumen Field, where it moved after the Kingdome was demolished and where it’s been held for more than 20 years – NMTA’s George Harris says one important thing hasn’t changed.
“I like to call it the spirit of boating here in the Northwest,” Harris said. “It’s really intense, and I think it’s more intense in this region than other parts of the country. The type of boating we do here, the fact that we can do it year round compared to some of the other northern latitudes.”
“People really love their boats and like to be around boats,” he added.
Jack Wolfe went to the very first show under the big tent in 1947. He’s in his 80s now and retired, but his company, Associated Boat Transport, has had the responsibility for decades to safely move all the big boats in and out of all the various venues over the years.
Wolfe said the advantage with moving the show to the Kingdome was that the giant concrete multipurpose stadium was huge, which meant room for displaying more than a dozen big sailboats with tall masts. But until the masts were set up – when they were just lying on the ground – they made getting around the Kingdome pretty difficult for the people doing the set-up, and interfered with some, shall we say, “alternative modes” of transportation that Wolfe tried for getting around inside the spacious Dome.
“We were always moving those things [the masts] and trying to keep them out of the way, which made it very difficult to use any kind of contraption to get around that big building,” Wolfe told KIRO Newsradio. “I tried bicycles and go-karts and all kinds of things to try and get around, but the problem was I’d have to get off the bike and walk 100 feet over to what’s going on and then get sidetracked by something else, and it was hard.”
“That was a big building,” Wolfe recalled, and plenty of people came to the Boat Show that year just to get a closer look at the multipurpose facility that was home, in those years, to the Seahawks, the Mariners, the Supersonics, the Sounders – and the occasional tractor pull or Led Zeppelin or Paul McCartney concert.
Along with the boats of all sizes, NMTA and Boat Show exhibitors have for decades offered workshops and other opportunities for learning about navigation, boating safety, or the latest dazzling boating accessories – along with the occasional Sea Gals fashion show, of course.
Louis Larsen, who famously was in charge of special events during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, says one of the biggest attractions when he was running the Boat Show was having a diver jump from up near the ceiling of the Coliseum or the Kingdome into a tiny pool of water on the floor below.
“We used Captain America Jones, and he would dive in a pool of rattlesnakes first and then piranhas, and of course, nobody’s ever been bit by a rattlesnake that was swimming underwater,” Larsen said. “But it was fun to watch him dive, and we’d have him there for the 10 days of the show.”
Larsen has always brought a certain amount of razzle-dazzle and show biz to the projects he’s been involved with since the days of the World’s Fair. One year at the Boat Show, he was particularly impressed by Captain America Jones’ similar commitment to entertaining the audience and to doing the show, no matter what.
“I think it was the first Saturday night” of the show when Jones made one of his dives, Larsen said. “He was down [in the pool] a little too long, and he came up and his chest was just ripped to shreds. And he turns to me as he’s going out with the guys from Medic One, and he says, ‘Boy, that ought to bring ‘em in tomorrow night!’”
Louis Larsen is 97. He, too, attended the first Seattle Boat Show in 1947. He’s seen a lot of history around here over the years, and made a lot of big, historic things happen, too.
Why, then, in a pandemic, and an age where so much retail has already moved online even before that, does Louis Larsen think the Boat Show remains such a popular draw?
“Seattle’s for dreamers,” Larsen said. “Everybody dreams of having a boat.”
“That was beauty of the Kingdome,” Larsen continued. “They’d go up and then sit in the stands, and they’d look down there and – maybe they [already] had an 18-foot SmokerCraft, and they could say, ‘Boy, I’d like to have that 24-foot Bayliner or Uniflite, or one of those,’ and they’d sit there and they’d think about it.”
Those Seattle dreamers also can be pretty fortunate when it comes to boating weather around here, says Louis Larsen.
“Boating is really year-round in Puget Sound,” Larsen said. “Like today — today, there’s no wind blowing. It’s not hot, but you can go out on the water in Puget Sound.”
Or, you could go to the Seattle Boat Show. The 2022 75th anniversary edition opens Friday, Feb. 4, at Lumen Field and Bell Harbor Marina, and runs through Saturday, Feb. 12.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.