‘Underwatergate’ scandal put Ivar’s in hot chowder in 2009

Nov 3, 2022, 11:20 AM | Updated: Nov 4, 2022, 11:09 am
A screen grab from a video produced by Ivar's shows a billboard which was purported to have been placed underwater by Ivar Haglund in the 1950s; the billboard was actually from a clever 2009 publicity stunt. (Ivar's)

It was the summer of 2009. An exciting undersea mystery unexpectedly came to the surface off of Alki Point in West Seattle.

The mystery unfolded through a series of YouTube videos. Expertly shot footage showed grizzled undersea explorers diving in Puget Sound to locate and ultimately bring to the surface eerie-looking and barnacle-encrusted 1950s-era billboards advertising Ivar’s restaurants in Seattle.

Press materials from the restaurant chain’s PR machine claimed that Ivar Haglund, the late founder of the restaurant chain bearing his name, had imagined a future where submarines carrying passengers would traverse local waters like undersea versions of ferryboats. Ivar’s underwater billboards, so the story went, were meant to reach these future travelers and maybe generate some free publicity during the Eisenhower administration.

To understand the instant appeal of this not-so-ancient mystery, you have to understand Ivar Haglund, who died in 1985.

Beloved local historian and photographer Paul Dorpat says Ivar Haglund was, “perhaps the greatest self-promoter in the history of this city.” Dorpat explains that to attract people to his waterfront aquarium back in the 1930s, or later on to sell more fish & chips and clam chowder, Ivar never met a publicity stunt he didn’t like.

Among the more memorable Ivar stunts was putting a harbor seal in a pram for a visit to Santa Claus at the old Frederick & Nelson department store, and visiting the site of a huge syrup spill along the railroad tracks to spoon up the sweet goo and dump it on a plate of steaming pancakes.

Throughout the summer and into the fall of 2009, excitement over the underwater billboard mystery was built and built. Locals gushed at Ivar’s far-sighted mid-century genius. It seemed like almost everybody felt a sense of unique Northwest pride at the revealing from the depths of this ancient brand-building wackiness.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, when in early November 2009 Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan came clean. The videos, the billboards, and the whole fabulous story were all fakes.

“We blocked out all the shots, hired the producer, they worked and planned and met with the divers, met with the captains, got sun angles, looked at tides, looked at everything,” Donegan told KING 5’s Jim Dever as part of a special segment on Evening Magazine.

Almost immediately, there was something about the degree to which the publicity stunt had succeeded that made it feel more like a cruel hoax than just good fun.

Caught up in the scandal — let’s call it “Underwatergate” (which is a name I made up in 2015, by the way) — was that same beloved local historian Paul Dorpat mentioned above.

Dorpat had been working on a book about Ivar Haglund for years (at last check, he still is). As something of an “of-fish-al” historian for the restaurant, Dorpat had helped promote the underwater billboards as something genuine, vouching for what turned out to be specious documents he claimed to have found in the “Ivarchives” (again, I made up that name in 2015, too).

As shockwaves of embarrassment reverberated around Seattle’s history, retail seafood and journalism communities, management at the Seattle Times, where Dorpat had published his popular “Now & Then” column since the 1980s, expressed disappointment at Dorpat’s role in the hoax, and even briefly contemplated deep-sixing “Now & Then.”

A contrite Dorpat – well, as contrite as a guy like Dorpat can be – apologized for his role in the caper and professed a love for the good-natured spirit of Ivar and of the billboards of Underwatergate. Fortunately, the Seattle Times and everybody else –including a future radio historian – kept clam, and “Now & Then” and Dorpat were restored to their rightful places in the newspaper, and in the various communities that had been hoodwinked by the hoax.

As the months and then years passed, Dorpat and Ivar’s were completely forgiven. It was all just chowder over the dam.

However, by the autumn of 2015, when contacted by KIRO Newsradio for a look back at the scandal, Paul Dorpat was singing a very different tune. We’ll get to that tune in a moment. He was also telling a very different story.

Six years after the billboards and the murky story first emerged from the depths, Dorpat said that the revealing of the so-called hoax was something of a hoax itself. “There’s been a conspiracy to keep it quiet,” Dorpat told KIRO Newsradio in 2015. “But it’s time to confess to these things. I’ve just had my 77th birthday. It’s time to give up on trying to put up fronts. It’s time to tell the truth,” he said.

The billboards, the preeminent historian said in 2015 with an almost straight face, were real.

“When you talk about the blow-up with the Seattle Times or wherever all of that was a whimsy to me because I knew the real truth,” Dorpat continued. “This wasn’t a hoax. Those were the real things. They were down there,” he said.

According to Paul Dorpat, the company that owns Ivar’s risked losing the whole restaurant empire if authorities figured out that their founder had actually placed billboards on the floor of Puget Sound in the 1950s without having the correct environmental permits. “They’re still down there,” Dorpat said, “but they had to be covered up.”

Dorpat isn’t the only one telling this version of the story as if it were what had really happened. As recently as 2015, on an official City of Seattle plaque at the now demolished Waterfront Park, read by tens of thousands of tourists every year, the “billboards are real” story was told in black and white, right next to stories of other local icons, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. There was no mention of what this reporter has been hoping since 2015 will come to be known as “Underwatergate.”

As for the actual “new” tune that Dorpat was singing on that autumn afternoon in 2015, he said it’s called “The Atomic Passenger Submarine, The Princess Angeline.” Dorpat claims it was written by Ivar Haglund back in the 1950s to celebrate the future of submarine travel, and in tribute to Chief Seattle’s daughter Angeline.

Part of the song goes like this:

“The tickets are taken at the center of the Sound,

At the bottom, you can hear clams whispering year-round.

Whispering clams how happy thy voice, making our appetite jump and rejoice!”

So, then, to paraphrase a once-popular sci-fi television program, when it comes to Ivar’s billboards of Underwatergate, the truth is down there.

Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this story was originally published in 2015.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

Feliks Banel

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‘Underwatergate’ scandal put Ivar’s in hot chowder in 2009