There are two ways to visit the Space Needle: one as a casual observer, mooning over views of Elliott Bay, exploring the checkerboard of Belltown rooftops, and thinking to yourself: Huh. 99 looks really small from up here.
The other—and probably the best possible way—is in the company of writer and Seattle history buff Knute Berger. Give him half an hour and your mouth will soon be gaping in dumb shock as he describes from memory the 78th bizarre moment of history that happened in the very carpeted vestibule in which you are standing. “Bill Cosby did what?”
We’ll come back to that.
The Seattle mag edit team made a special date to meet Berger at the Needle last week. We decided to take advantage of our partnership with the Space Needle—ahem—I mean, we decided we should celebrate all of Berger’s great work in our February issue, which is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Space Needle and the World’s Fair.
It will be replaced on newsstands soon by our March issue, but you can still read Berger’s essay “Back to the Future,” a great overview of how the Needle and the World’s Fair came to be, on our website, complete with Berger’s memories as an 8 year-old cub scout witnessing the Needle being erected.
And you’ll get an even bigger dose of Space Needle history when Berger’s new book comes out this spring. The Space Needle: Spirit of Seattle is what he was working on while enjoying his unique status as the Space Needle’s writer-in-residence in 2011.
Throughout last year, he got to roost up there on the observation deck a few days per week at a special desk reserved just for him. He interviewed fascinating people who have found their way into the Needle’s history in very random ways, talked to visitors about random artifacts he felt like playing show-and-tell with—or just enjoyed the “Godlike” perspective that Masterpiece Theatre’s Alistair Cooke said the Space Needle gives to visitors.
Berger is back on the ground floor with the rest of us these days; the book is finally done (save a few outstanding fact-checks about fantastically weird details I shouldn’t give away). To celebrate his achievement, we coaxed the Needle’s communications team into whisking us up in the elevator for a celebratory photo op. It was their cracker-jack thinking that saw us cracking open a bottle of bubbly for a proper toast while we were there.
It’s good to have friends in (literally) high places.
It was an unusually sunny day, so after finishing our champagne we took our time circling the observation deck. And we let Knute Berger be our guide.
Sporting an enviable custom-made jacket embellished with original Seattle Rainiers logos and, of course, the emblem of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Berger recounted for us some of the most memorable encounters he had while sitting at his little desk up here, which, on a clear day, has to have the best combined view of Mount Rainier, Elliott Bay and downtown you can get from one window.
He’s had his ear talked off by curmudgeons complaining about bad visibility; he’s interviewed Frosty Fowler, a popular morning radio host in the 1960s who broadcasted straight from the top of the Needle and for a brief time, while recovering after a car accident, was replaced on his show by the then up-and-coming comedian Bill Cosby.
He’s met a man who helped work on the infamous film It Happened at the World’s Fair, starring Elvis Presley. He learned that to get one key shot, the film crew had to ride up to the top with the elevator doors removed!
He’s even talked with a man who helped build the Space Needle, clambering out there on the beams with no safety harnesses or nets.
Berger’s favorite memories from his VIP days at the Needle? Getting to ride up in the elevator once unaccompanied (typically, an operator rides with you and cracks a required number of bad one-liners). Also: climbing up through a hatch and out onto the roof of the Space Needle. The closest most of us will ever get to that kind of experience on the Needle is watching the recently released movie Chronicle, in which a Volkswagen Beetle is hurled from the top.
It’s fun listening to Berger reveal his intimate knowledge of the Space Needle’s anatomy: which offices don’t have windows; why its freight elevator has the best view going up; and strangest of all: why an accumulation of human hair has to be occasionally sheared from the edges of the roof. Gross!
But even more fun beneath all this trivia is the nostalgia you uncover when spending time with Berger. Reading his columns or listening to him talk feels like digging up a part of Seattle that was long ago paved over.
I can’t wait for the book to come out so I can accompany Berger on a complete excavation of this strange—and strangely wonderful—monument of Seattle’s ultimately young history. I wish I could hear it all from him firsthand, of course, but I understand he only has so much time to hang out with the likes of us freeloading elevator admission dodgers.
He’s got to get to work on the next book, which he hinted is already underway.
Knute Berger is Seattle magazine’s editor-at-large. He has written his Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine since 2007. Read it on the back page of the magazine every month. He is also a regular contributor at Crosscut.
This post has been updated since its original publication.