The beloved SeaFair has been a part of the city’s cultural fabric for six decades!
A History of Seafair
It all began as a plan to celebrate Seattle’s centennial in 1951-52. The Seattle area was without major league sports teams or the Seattle Center. Thirsty for national recognition and attention, Seafair was designed to attract tourists and showcase marine events in keeping with Seattle’s boast as the “boating capital of the world.”
Prominent Seattle business leaders recruited St. Paul, Minnesota’s Winter Carnival director Walter Van Camp to help produce a similar summertime event in the Emerald City. Van Camp could not wait for the centennial. He went to work in March, planning a ten-day celebration for August 11 – 20, 1950. This included building the 5,500 seat Aqua Theater at Green Lake in a mere 75 days.
That first Seafair featured parades, boat races on Green Lake, amateur athletic events, royalty, and a number of community festivals. Seafair was deemed a success, and the festival would grow the next summer with the addition of unlimited hydroplane racing’s Gold Cup race on Lake Washington.
Seattle’s Seafair festival – with boat races, community parades, royalty, and stage shows – has been a part of the city’s cultural fabric for six decades.
It started in the post-World War II boom years, when the region was riding high on a strong economy and high hopes for the future. The first Seafair took place in 1950, with help from Walter Van Camp, who Seattle civic leaders had lured away from a successful winter festival in Minnesota.
One of the main attractions of the first 10-day Seafair festival was the Green Lake Aqua Theater, which was constructed in a rush during the summer of 1950.
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Aqua Theater stage shows were a Seafair attraction for nearly two decades, and the venue played host to a diverse range of 20th-century performers. Bob Hope entertained an overflow crowd there in 1962; Led Zeppelin opened for Three Dog Night in 1969; the Grateful Dead played the Aqua Theater less than a week after Woodstock.
During Seafair, the theater was used most by the Aqua Follies, a group of women who performed synchronized stage and swimming shows. The Aqua Follies remained a part of Seafair until 1965.
The theater diving towers were removed in 1970, and most of the rest of the theater was demolished in 1979. But, a portion of the distinctive concrete grandstands remains, and the site is now part of the Green Lake Small Craft Center.
It’s been said that the hydroplane racing boat called Slo-Mo Shun IV invented summer in Seattle. In 1950, Sayres and the Slo-Mo captured the Gold Cup at Detroit — the hydroplane equivalent of winning the Super Bowl. That brought the race out West for the first time since 1904, and started the tradition of hydroplane races in Seattle.
A Seafair Queen was crowned from 1950 to 1971 before the title was changed to Miss Seafair, and this tradition continues today.
During the early years, Seafair organizers created a story in which King Neptune and his Royal Court battled pirates to control the city and the festival. A local business leader would be chosen each year to play the role of King Neptune, and for years, pirates in Elliott Bay would burn boats said to belong to the king.
After the 1962 World’s Fair put Seattle on the map, celebrities doing shows here often took part in Seafair. In 1963, Bob Hope was bussed by Seafair Queen Arlene Hinderlie and served as Honorary Grand Marshal for the Torchlight Parade.
Countering the scary Seafair Pirates are the Seafair Clowns. The clowns originated with the Seattle University Graduates Club and have been a part of Seafair for more than five decades.
The Milk Carton Derby continues on Green Lake, and the Blue Angels – a popular Navy Flight Demonstration Squad – have wowed crowds for most years since 1972.
As it enters its 71st year, Seafair is a multi-week festival featuring over 30 sanctioned events that reach more than two million people. It’s about building community, creating memories, and providing affordable fun. The festival remains the fabric of our community and is made possible with the help of nearly 3,000 volunteers.
Known and loved as an unofficial Seattle holiday, Seafair Weekend Festival is one of the largest boating events, airshows, and festivals all rolled into one. Along the shores of Lake Washington, fans experience the roar of the US Navy’s Blue Angels headlining the Boeing Seafair Airshow and the world’s fastest racing boats competing for the HomeStreet Bank Cup. In addition, you’ll discover local food, music, wakeboarding, cars, and more, bringing people together each summer for this uniquely Seattle event.
We’ll miss you in 2020, but look forward to welcoming you in 2021