I have been fascinated with the idea of the World’s Fair ever since my parents read a children’s book to me long ago about the invention of the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. This excitement only increased when I recently read Devil in the White City about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. So when visiting Spokane, site of the 1974 World’s Fair (referred to as Expo ’74), I had to meet some people responsible for pulling it off. Visit Spokane was wonderful enough to set up this interview with Mike Kobluk and Kevin Twohig.
The Royal Tour: Thank you so much for meeting with me! Let’s start with Mike. Can you introduce yourself and your role in 1974?
Mike Kobluk: I’m Mike Kobluk, and in 1974 I was the Director of Performing and Visual Arts for the World’s Fair, for Expo ’74. I had worked for the Fair for two years before that. What you probably don’t know about the World’s Fair is that right here where we are sitting [in the Convention Center built for the Fair] there were two levels of railroad that ran right down what is now called Spokane Falls Boulevard. So two levels of railroad and two railroad stations, and across the river there was a series of marshaling yards, a motel. There was a laundry on Canada Island. And all of that was kind of deteriorating. So some of our city fathers decided that they had to do something to revitalize downtown. The first thing they did was to commission a report from a company called Ebasco. This was in 1958, and it cost $150,000.
TRT: That’s a lot of money back then.
MK: It is a whole pile of money. But they knew they needed help. So they convinced a whole group of downtown businesses to put up the money. The report took 18 months, but when complete it highlighted that blight was a huge problem, and that Spokane was not going to improve without some major changes. Spokane Unlimited was this group of people who were trying to revitalize downtown. But they knew they couldn’t do it alone, and that they needed to hire someone who had done this sort of thing before. So they found a man with a great name, King Cole. So King Cole came up from California to see if this was something he wanted to become involved in. What cemented it is kind of funny. There was a local hotel, and it had a room up on top, a lounge called the King Cole Room, and it had been called that forever.
TRT: Haha. Good luck turning down people who name things after you before you even come up!
MK: It had a neon sign, and was really a nice restaurant. So the Spokane Unlimited people took him up there for dinner, and he thought they had invented this place just for him, so that did it, and he was on board. They had a lot of ideas of what to do. At first, they thought of doing a two week county fair underneath those tracks. But the Ebasco report said the railroad tracks had to go so that Spokane could find the river again, and develop a downtown park, and ask the railroads to leave 100 years early.
TRT: So were the railroads relocated? There are current tracks a bit south. Were those in existence back then?
MK: Yes, those were all there, and Great Northern had even another set of tracks through town as well.
TRT: So removing the tracks didn’t mean the trains couldn’t come through.
Kevin Twohig: No, but you’d need a new train station, new warehouses, and everything like that. It isn’t just the tracks themselves.
TRT: Ok, so you have this report that says you need to move the tracks, find the river, and build a park to revitalize downtown. Who is sitting in a room and suggests that the best way to do this is to host a World’s Fair? It doesn’t seem like the first solution that would present itself.
MK: I think it must have been King Cole.
TRT: Kevin, let’s turn to you for a moment. What was your role in 1974?
KT: I was a production coordinator for the Fair. So I handled the professional attractions and the “national days,” where each country that participated was given an opportunity to showcase itself. Most of them took advantage of that, and so the entire Fair was themed to that country for a day. They would feature their artists and music, and all sorts of things. But mostly I took care of all of the entertainment here and in the Coliseum. Spokane didn’t have an active entertainment scene before this. We had a local symphony, and still do, but there wasn’t a big touring industry here. We didn’t have the facilities.
MK: The symphony played in movie theatres.
KT: Exactly. But Mike and the Fair changed all that. He brought these world-class acts to Spokane, and there were ripple effects from that that can still be felt today. Now we have truly amazing arenas and facilities, and everyone comes through here. But it all started with Mike in 1974, and it was incredibly fun to be part of that.
TRT: That’s really exciting. The Fair seems like one of those defining moments, where everyone involved was changed simply by being part of it.
MK: There is another great story. Rod Lindsay, who was the chair of Spokane Unlimited, decided to go to Chicago to ask the railroads to consider moving and, since Spokane had no money for it, to fund it themselves. So his secretary called the guy in Chicago who was the head of one of the major train operators and said that Mr. Lindsay would like to meet. The head of the train company thought it was John Lindsay, the mayor of New York, so he agreed to take the meeting and set aside a whole hour. So in comes this guy and his friends from Spokane, but he had already set the time aside, so he meets with Rod and Spokane Unlimited, and lo and behold, it ends with the railroads agreeing to move. But without that little snafu, it may never have happened.
TRT: And without the railroads moving, the Fair never comes off.
MK: After this meeting, within just a few months, the railroads decided to move, at their own expense.
TRT: Were the railroads given any sponsorship at the Fair for that gesture?
KT: They were given a whole lot of thank yous, but that is it.
MK: Everyone really appreciated it. And now the World’s Fair could really happen. Others stepped up as well. The State of Washington built what was called the Opera House at that point, and put $7.5 million into it. Kevin is now doing $23 million of improvements into it. And they built this part, the Convention Center, for another $4 million. And there was a wonderful picture that came out around then. On the [Great Northern] Clocktower out there, which is the only thing remaining from the railroads, they had a sign saying “458 Days to Grand Opening.” And the next day it would read 457, and so on. And they hadn’t even started to tear anything down yet! 458 days was when they finally started to take down these two levels of railroad, two stations, and everything else around.
TRT: And the bid to host had already been accepted before any of this was done?
MK: Yes. Spokane had to get permission from the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris, as well, and that was going on at the same time we were asking the railroads to relocate. Fortunately, these things did come together, right around the same time. But with less than two years, much less, until opening! They had to get rid of all this stuff, and build all the infrastructure for the Fair – all temporary buildings, though the US Pavilion is still up today despite being a six-month planned structure.
TRT: I guess it was well built! So here we are, less than two years from the opening, and Spokane chooses a theme of environmentalism for the Fair. Spokane is a city built on railroads, mining, and timber. How did this come about, especially in the 1970s, well before environmentalism was a popular movement? And how has this theme impacted what Spokane is today?
MK: The Fair changed everything. With the creation of Riverfront Park and the Fairgrounds, we also revitalized the river. There was a bit of controversy, though, when the theme was suggested, but what an example it provided! Spokane, just to host the Fair, got rid of major pollutants.
KT: It’s fair to say that most of us didn’t know what environmentalism was back then. So there was a huge education effort put on by the Fair. There were many Native American exhibits where the local tribes were able to truly showcase themselves as the first real environmentalists. They were one of the focal points of the US Pavilion, and they talked about why the environment, and its protection, was important. For most of us, it was the first time we had ever heard that stuff. Today, Spokane has one of the cleanest rivers in the country, and it has been a decades long process getting it that way – and keeping it. But it’s so important, because the Spokane River feeds from Lake Coeur D’Alene, which is fed by all the streams in Idaho mining country, all the way to the Columbia and then to the Pacific Ocean. I think it’s a pretty amazing story, what Spokane has done to clean up the river.
TRT: Do you feel the Fair was the jumping point for this movement?
KT: It was a massive jump start.
MK: In our department, the theme was called “Man and His Environment.” We wrote letters to nearly every major city in the country, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, inviting them to send us examples of their culture. We felt that even a small city sending its choral group was showing us a bit of their environment. We were surprised at some of the reaction we got, though. For example, after we had been working hard with our local symphony here in Spokane to open the Fair with major guest artists and a special piece that had been written specifically for the World’s Fair, I got a note from the mayor of Los Angeles who said that they would like to send, at their expense, the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta to conduct, but only if they could open the World’s Fair. So that caused a little hassle.
KT: Multiple openings takes care of that!
MK: Exactly. The solution we found was to open the Opera House on May 1 with the Spokane Symphony and all the guests, the governor, and all that hoopla. And then on May 3, Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic opened the World’s Fair itself. As an aside, Danny Kaye came up with Zubin Mehta on the private plane they had chartered, so once we let the officials know that he was here, he had to go on stage with President Nixon and King Cole to open the Fair.
TRT: I love Danny Kaye! The Court Jester still makes me laugh every time I see it.
MK: And then soon after we heard from Salt Lake City. They wanted to send their symphony orchestra as well, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, again at their own expense. All these letters we sent really paid off, and I think the theme of “Man and His Environment” helped. We had 1200 groups from cities all across the country, come here and give more than 4500 free performances in 180 days.
(Editor’s note: my jaw is about on the floor at this point. The scale of this is hard to comprehend.)
MK: And all we could offer them was free access to the site, and only on the day or days they were actually performing.
TRT: And all of these people came at their own expense? Amazing. And you also had a number of countries participate, right?
(Editor’s note: the smiles at this point on both Mike and Kevin’s faces are truly ear-to-ear, thinking back on all of this. My own is pretty wide as well.)
KT: The Soviet Union sent us dancers for a week. And the Soviet Pavilion was right across from the Opera House, with USSR in huge letters for the entire run of the Fair.
MK: All of these countries truly sent their best, most famous cultural acts and attractions.
KT: It was insanity trying to keep up with it all. With so many events, you’re just constantly running from one thing to the next. It was fun!
TRT: And this was pre Excel spreadsheets. How did you keep track?
KT: Yeah, somehow we did it, and kept track.
MK: Once they arrived here, we (the Expo) had the responsibility of their local arrangements. So 120 dancers showed up during the prime season, totally unexpectedly, and there were no hotel rooms anywhere. Where do you put 120 people, and people who mattered? So we came up with the idea to drive them by bus to Liberty Lake, which is about 30 minutes away, and putting them up in RVs. They loved it!
TRT: And it really goes with the theme, being out in the environment! So can you talk to me about some of the permanent exhibits at the Fair? Are there any that stand out to you?
KT: The US Pavilion was the biggest draw, with its Native American theme.
MK: Yes, as well as the Folklife Festival, also focusing on Native American culture, specifically from this part of the country. The Smithsonian Institute was initially going to be involved, but they pulled out because they didn’t think there was enough folk life in the Pacific Northwest. I guess we proved that wrong. But also in this building, the State of Washington had a film called “About Time.” It told the history of the state through the ages, and how it developed environmentally. The Russian exhibit was 40,000 square feet of just incredible artifacts.
KT: Dioramas, just whatever they thought they should bring. To me, it was disconnected, but it was all fascinating. Each section didn’t go with the next, but all were interesting. One of my favorite exhibits was Australia, since in the 70s we didn’t know much about them, and the people were just so special. They sent a guy playing a didgeridoo, which is as fun to say as it was to hear.
TRT: And then of course the gondola was built to show off Spokane Falls.
KT: There was a sky ride as well, so there were a couple of ways to get up high and get over the Fairgrounds and the Falls. And ever since, there has been talk about putting more of these features back into Spokane. But those things are hard to fund.
TRT: Spokane is a city under 300,000 people. How many people attended?
KT: The whole county was under 300,000 back then.
MK: 5.5 million people came through, but many had season tickets. My kids and wife came at least 3-4 times a week, since it was ever changing. And the concept was meant for that, so that whenever you walked around a corner, you’d find something new. A clown, a magician, a German oompah band, or whatever.
KT: It was everything you could imagine. From rock to classical symphony, and everything in between. The thing I will never forget is when so many events ran together that I just forgot to sleep. It didn’t even occur to me to go home. You just go from event to event to event and all of a sudden you realize wow, I’ve been at work for three days. We were all so young, and it was just a great time of life.
MK: And so many things weren’t even in formal settings. There was a jumping skiprope act, and they were good, and we had to find a place for them.
KT: And someone had to figure out where the band would go without disturbing other acts. There were so many moving parts, but it was just a blast.
TRT: So here we are, 40-plus years after the Fair. What is its legacy?
KT: There are a lot of answers to that. Certainly, we are an extremely environmentally-conscious area, and that is owed to the Fair. We went from mining, timber, and railroads to being focused on sustainable agriculture. We are one of the largest producers of wheat, for instance. That change all started with the Fair. That’s just one change. Obviously, Riverfront Park is THE major tourist attraction here, and is one of the most vibrant city parks in the world.
MK: But more than that, Spokane ended up as a huge cultural center, too, with these incredible venues built for the Fair, but kept up and occupied ever since. We have even expanded those facilities to have more events here, and encourage more people to come to Spokane. Native culture was also celebrated more due to the Fair, with places like the Northwest Museum [of Arts and Culture] revitalized. There are so many artifacts that they can’t show it all.
KT: I think it is fair to say that Expo ’74 changed the way Spokane thought about itself. We went from thinking of ourselves as just a small mining town to, “Hey, we just hosted a World’s Fair. What else can we do?” Look at what Spokane is now, with these amazing venues and convention facilities, world-class hotels, and the Fairgrounds, the downtown, that is the center of it all.
TRT: I love that! The two of you have obviously been such an integral part of Spokane over the last several decades. What are your favorite parts of living here and being part of this city?
KT: This is a place where you want to go outside every day of the year. I might just walk along the river over lunch, or stroll downtown, but there is always something to do downtown.
MK: This is a great place for family, and to raise children. And everything is so close. It is only twelve minutes for me to get downtown from my home, and that is normal. In so many other places, that just isn’t possible, to be so close to downtown and so close to nature. Education and health-wise, this is an amazing place to be, as well.
KT: Spokane is also so geographically separate. We are 270 miles from Seattle, and I don’t even know how far in the other direction before you get to something you can call a city. So we are a banking center, a retail center, a center for healthcare, all those things have had to develop here. We routinely sell 50% of our Broadway tickets to people who live more than 100 miles away, because we are the closest major city to them.
TRT: So my last question. From two Spokane experts, why should people want to come here to visit?
KT: If you want to see a place that really values the outdoors, this is the place for you. But more than that, I will tell you that Spokane values warmth and friendship. You will make new friends here, I can guarantee that. You walk down the street, and people will say hello to you.
MK: Within a 50 mile radius of Spokane there are more than 50 lakes. These are all so wonderful to explore, and your new friend might have a lake place you can visit. And they are all unique and amazing. There is great fishing here. Float the river.
KT: My sons are skiers, and there is so much amazing skiing around here, but the snow tends to stay in the mountains so it doesn’t mess up your time in town.
TRT: Any final thoughts on Spokane? Or anything we missed?
KT: I am just so proud of what Spokane has become over the last 40 years.
TRT: You have every right to be. I have been here about 24 hours so far, and this place is just fantastic. Thank you both for sitting down with me, and for sharing both your stories and your community!
If you enjoyed this insider glimpse into Spokane, please check out the rest of our Royal Tour interviews here.