Conversations at KCTS 9/Albert Fisher

Conversations: Albert Fisher
  • Conversations at KCTS 9

Albert Fisher

Join Albert Fisher, the former Director of Television and Motion Pictures for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, as he shares his memories of President Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and much more. He was just 20 years old when he got the job which changed his life.

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About the Episode

We recall Seattle World's Fair memories with Albert Fisher, the former Director of Television and Motion Pictures for the 1962 World's Fair. Fisher was just 20 years old when he got the job which changed his life. He shares his memories of President Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and much more.

Related:
KCTS 9 Documentary "When Seattle Invented the Future: The 1962 World's Fair"

Enrique Cerna:
Al Fisher, welcome to Conversations.

Albert Fisher:
Thank you.

Enrique:
It is so good to have you here. And the chance to talk about Seattle World's Fair memories. Because you were there from the beginning.

Albert:
I was. And you know, this is kind of a déja vu for me to be sitting in the studio. Because we're sitting in the exact location where in 1962, the Gracey Hanson night in paradise stage was located. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
I didn't know that. I didn't know that.

Albert:
Yeah. Physically, this is exactly where it was.

Enrique:
Wow. Well, we should rename this place. Maybe rename this studio in her honor.

Albert:
Those show girls.

Enrique:
Yes, yes. Boy, was she something else.

Albert:
A real character.

Enrique:
Right. And many that you met along the way. Let's go back here. 50 years now since the fair opened and that six month run here that put Seattle on the map. You were a very young man. Tell me how you came from New Orleans, your hometown, to Seattle.

Albert:
Well, I had been working at a television station in New Orleans, WWL TV, and the promotion manager at that station was a fella by the name of bob light, who came to Seattle to head up marketing for the world's fair. And I maintained a friendship with him. And he called me up in early 1962 on a Friday morning at the station. And he said, Al, we need someone to head up television for the world's fair, would you be interested? As a 20 year old, at least I had the foresight then to recognize that this was not only a once in a lifetime opportunity but an opportunity that would change my life. So I immediately said yes. And he said, well, the only problem is you have to be here on Monday morning to start work. I said, I'll be there tonight. And I hung up the phone, quit my job, went home, packed, and that afternoon was on a flight to Seattle.

Enrique:
So you were 20 years old. Like I said, you were born and raised in New Orleans.

Albert:
Yes.

Enrique:
You were already working in television then.

Albert:
Yeah. I started when I was 16 in television on camera and producing and directing as well.

Enrique:
What was it about coming to Seattle and the opportunity to work on this world's fair? Because there was so much of it that was, it was so unpredictable.

Albert:
Well, that in its own nature was something that happened to me. When I accepted the job and came here, I had no concept of what I would be doing, what was expected of me, or of the opportunities that would open up for me and the incredible range of amazing people that I would encounter, from every walk of life, from science and industry and the arts and motion pictures and television.

Enrique:
So when you got here, and you'd never been to Seattle, which had to have been a great culture change coming from a place like New Orleans.

Albert:
Actually, when I flew here on that flight, it was my first jet airplane flight. It was my first time seeing an ocean, it was my first time seeing mountains, my first time seeing snow. All within a period of a few hours.

Enrique:
Wow! Wow. And what did you think?

Albert:
I was blown away.

Enrique:
Yeah?

Albert:
Sure. How can you not be?

Enrique:
Was there any trepidation on your part or fear that, hmm, what am I getting into here?

Albert:
No. Fortunately, I was so young that I had nothing to be fearful of. I just didn't know what was expected of me. And the very first thing when I got here, they said, we're planning on the opening day ceremonies, so we would like you to handle one aspect of the ceremonies. I said, whatever you want me to do. They said, well, president Kennedy was going to be at the fair, but now, he can't be here. So we've arranged for him to do a transmission from Florida and press the gold telegraph key that was used in 1909, Alaska Yukon Pacific fair, and send a signal up to andover plane to the telescope, and it will arrive at the fair in 1962 and light up the fairgrounds. They said we want you to coordinate that. So it was one of those things. I said fine. I didn't know what that meant. So I had to deal with people at the White House and making sure that the lines were set up and everything else. And if you ever see a photograph of the speaker's platform on opening day with all the dignitaries, in the far corner of the platform there, you will see me on the telephone coordinating everything down to Florida. And then during that period of time, while I'm doing that, I'm talking to the guys down at the White House, and the guys are saying, what's the fair like, and what are the crowds? For me, a 20 year old kid, I was so excited, and I was just going on and on about how exciting it is. And the size of the crowds and the different pavilions and the space needle, and the science center, and everything. And we're just chatting away, like you and I are right now, and then finally, I looked at my watch, I said, well, it's about a minute to go. Is the president standing by? And so this guy that I had been talking to for about 5 minutes says, this is the president. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
You never got a clue from the accent?

Albert:
No. I was so excited, I wasn't paying attention to the accent or anything. But then all of a sudden, when he says, "this is the president," the only thing that went through my head is, well, I can't tell the president of the United States when to start talking. And I got totally tongue tied. And about 30 seconds went by with me not saying anything. And then finally, Kennedy says to me, isn't it about time that I should start? And I just stammered out, yes, Mr., president. [stuttering] And it started off without a hitch.

Enrique:
And really, that was like one of many stories and many encounters that you had with the famous and not so famous as well along the way.

Albert:
Yes.

Enrique:
A 20 year old guy and doing all of this. And many ways, you were also at the forefront of television is still in its infancy.

Albert:
Oh, it was. When I started in television, it was black and white, it was live, it was pre-video tape, pre-color, and pre-satellite. And one of the things that I considered one of the most important things that happened at the Seattle world's fair in '62 is in July of '62, the bell telephone system or bell labs had launched the telestar satellite, which is the world's first satellite to do transmissions from space, from one country to another. And the very first satellite transmission that ever happened in the history of the world was from the United States to Europe. And it was done live. And it originated from five cities in the United States. And Seattle was one of those cities.

Enrique:
Really?

Albert:
And I was privileged to be able to coordinate that whole transmission from the fair.

Enrique:
And what was it that they were transmitting?

Albert:
Well, from the Seattle fair, they showed Belgium waffles, they showed some Hawaiian dancers in the science area, they showed the revolving restaurant on top of the space needle, the existence of the fair, the covers, two covers in life magazine, and one in national geographic. The movie that we did on the fairgrounds with Elvis. The telestar transmission, those kind of things, really put Seattle on the map.

Enrique:
The space needle. What did it mean? Because to me, it's the ultimate icon, it has become the symbol of the city I think globally.

Albert:
Symbol of the city. And certainly in 1962, it was the symbol of the fair. When I came here, I mean the very first thing that stood out in my mind was coming to the fairgrounds and all of a sudden looking up and seeing that magnificent space needle.

Enrique:
Is it still a work in progress at that time or was it finished?

Albert:
It was pretty much finished by that time. I remember going up the first trip that I had in the needle was to go up with Walter Cronkite when he came out here before the fair had opened.

Enrique:
You got to meet, um, Edward R. Murrow, famous journalist. And also, you also injured yourself during the time that you were with him. Tell me about that.

Albert:
I did. Coming from a television background, even though I was so young, to meet one of the true icons of the industry, Edward Murrow, who was so famous during his coverage of World War II, and at that time, he had been appointed by president Kennedy as the head of the United States information agency. And he came to the fair. And I took him to a couple of the exhibits. And I particularly wanted to take him to the United States science pavilion, since he was involved, a member of the U.S. government. And so I walked him over to the science exhibit, and there was a back entrance where you could take V.I.P.s, so they wouldn't be in the line, you know, getting in ahead of the line and aggravate people and saying, I've been waiting in line for a half hour, and this guy is walking in ahead of me. So we take him up through the back. And there was a little chain fence that was maybe about four inches off the ground, it was just a sign that said "private." And this was Kennedy's era of physical fitness and everything. And I'm a robust 20 year old kid. And I figure, well, I'll just leap over that chain. And I didn't, I caught my foot on the chain, I fell down and landed on both of my elbows. And Edward R. Murrow came over and said, let me help you up, and he grabbed me. And both of my elbows had been fractured and I passed out. And that's the last time I ever saw Edward R. Murrow.

Enrique:
Oh my gosh. That's interesting. You showed me a picture of yourself with Billy Graham. I guess it was the guy in charge of public relations.

Albert:
Yeah, wonderful guy.

Enrique:
And very well known locally. And making sure that the fair got the publicity that it did around the world. But he introduced you to Billy Graham. And you had your arms in slings at that time.

Albert:
I know. I was saying to Billy Graham, heal me, heal me. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
Let's talk about Elvis. You had a great adventure, great time with him. How did you end up meeting him? Tell me about the circumstances. And tell me about the relationship the two of you had working together.

Albert:
Well, my job was to make sure that everything they did on the fairgrounds for the making of the movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" for MGM, that it was set up, anything that they needed, special power, security, of course, when Elvis was here. And that job actually started about six weeks before Elvis arrived. They had the second unit coming out here to shoot what they call B roll. And we were going all over the fairgrounds shooting other shots and everything and coordinated that. And that put me in direct touch with Preston Amus, who was the art director, and Joseph Ruttenburger, a five time award winning cinematographer, and I became very good friends with them during that period of time. And they said, tomorrow, Elvis is arriving, and it's going to be very different from what it's been up until now. And I assumed that it would be, of course. And I knew who Elvis was, of course, I wasn't a big Elvis fan. And I figured, well, here comes one of the biggest rock 'n roll stars in the world, you know, and it's probably going to be, you know, he's going to be very lofty and stuff. And I got to tell you, when I met him, he blew me away. The man was such a gentleman. He was so polite, so courteous, to me. I mean by that time, it was in early September, and I had turned 21 by then. But I was a 21 year old kid. And he started calling me Mr. Fisher. And I said, please, this is Elvis Presley, you know, the king. Don't call me Mr. Fisher. And he said, okay, I'll call you Albert if you call me Elvis.

Enrique:
Oh, wow.

Albert:
And that just set the tone for a really comfortable working relationship with him that then evolved into just hanging out between shots together. And then that led to going back to his hotel with him a few times and actually even going out on double dates with him.

Enrique:
A double date with Elvis.

Albert:
Yeah. It's not quite what... What I would have thought it would be. I was dating a young girl who was one of the press agents at the fair named Alice Brennan, who was from Scotland. And so I told her, would you like to go out on a double date with Elvis? And in her Scottish accent, oh, ow, that would be nice. We went to the hotel. And Elvis said, you know, I think we'll go to the movies tonight. Well, all right. That seems a little strange, but you know, that's fine. And we went down and we got into no big fancy limousines or anything, it was just black station wagons. And we got into it and drove to this movie theater in downtown Seattle. And Elvis' entourage as they called them, the Memphis mafia, these guys that were his body guards and took care of all his needs, they handled the money and everything else. They had gone to the movie theater in advance and bought out the last three rows of the theater. So we pulled up and we went in once the movie started. And in the dark. And then we left just before the movie ended. So we never saw the beginning or the end of the movie. But we go in, and what is the movie? It's an Elvis Presley movie called "kid gallahad." He was a boxer, yeah. And it turns out I found out years later that Elvis never went to his movies. But he had not seen even the rushes or anything on this film. And it had just been released. So we went and saw it. And if you ask me today, what kid gallawhat is about, I have no idea. Because I was sitting next to Elvis Presley watching on the screen Elvis Presley. It was really bizarre.

Enrique:
You did something really smart, you always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, you photographed everything, all the encounters, all the people that you met, the famous folks, but you also used the footage, in that you shot 8 millimeter film, and you had Elvis as well as all of these other celebrities that came to the fair.

Albert:
Yeah. Every major celebrity and every major event that happened at the fair, I documented on 8 millimeter motion picture film and on color photographs. I guess it was just, I wasn't thinking about 50 years hence that there would be a value to it. But it was just an innate sense with me that this was an important event and you have a camera and still camera and movie camera, you should record this. And I did it just for myself. And it's been something that I've kept to look at from time to time, and then as the anniversary approached, I thought, well, gee, you know, this might really be something that would be valuable to the people at the Seattle Center and to the people of Seattle itself. And so I was able to make all of that footage available to KCTS for the documentary.

Enrique:
Right, the documentary when "Seattle Invented the Future."

Albert:
Right.

Enrique:
And we thank you for that very, very much. Because it gave us this real feel for what '62 was like but that behind the scenes of Elvis and all of these other celebrities that were there. Was it Roy Rogers and Dale Evans even shot some footage.

Albert:
Yeah, that was their special for ABC that we did.

Enrique:
And others that came here.

Albert:
Yeah, the telestar broadcast. I shot stuff with that.

Enrique:
And Robert Kennedy when he arrived too?

Albert:
Kennedy at lake stevenson, Lynden Johnson. Vladimir Titov, the Russian Cosmonaut. John Glenn, which was a major event. And also, when Glenn was here, they were doing a thing called the conference on outer space. And they had besides Glenn and Titov here, they had all these test pilots from the science and space program. And part of my home movies is one of these test pilots, who wasn't even in the astronaut program or anything, and his name was Neil Armstrong. Not too many people even know that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, came here to the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

Enrique:
I didn't know that. I was 9 years old when I came here. And actually, the one thing that I always remember from the fair was the bubblator. And the guy that was the narrator, who freaked me out, because it was so ominous, you know.

Albert:
Very serious, yeah.

Enrique:
Let's talk about what the fair really meant, and even all these years later. Because obviously, it changed your life. You went on to have a very successful career in television and doing television productions. You went on to, you actually bought the Ted Mack amateur hour. You did so many things in this business. Did the world's fair and what you experienced here, was it a launching pad for you?

Albert:
Well, actually, from the world's fair itself, from the Seattle fair, I walked away from this fair at age 21 with three job offers.

Enrique:
Wow.

Albert:
And I wound up taking all three of them at various stages in the early part of my career. The first was Ted mack and the original amateur hour, which was the precursor to American idol today. And I became the talent scout and associate producer of that show, and as you said, wound up buying all the rights to that show. Then there was a show called "candid camera," which was an iconic television show, hosted by Allen Funt. And we did some shooting on the fairgrounds and Funt said, you know, if you come to New York, come and produce for me. And I did a number of segments that I produced for them, two of them were two of the most famous segments ever on candid camera. One is an automobile that had no engine. And the other one was a talking mailbox.

Enrique:
Yes, I remember that, yeah.

Albert:
Yeah. And then the third, which really was one of the most important and rewarding jobs of my life was the Merv Griffin show. Merv Griffin came to the Seattle fair in 1962, he was the host of a show on NBC called "Play or Hunch." And he came here as the summer interim host of the tonight show. Jack Parr had just left the show, but Johnny Carson had not begun yet in '62. So Merv was hosting that summer. And ABC said go off to Seattle and spend a day at the world's fair and film it, and we'll put it on the tonight show. So I took him around the fairgrounds. Well, the reality is I never heard of the guy. I had no idea who he was. [LAUGHTER] And every place we went, we go to different pavilions, and I'd say, I'd like you to meet Marv Griffith, because I didn't know his name. [LAUGHTER] And that evening, at the end of the evening, we went to the space needle and had dinner. And while we were having dinner at the revolving restaurant, a lady comes over to get his autograph, and she has an 8 by 10 official glossy of Merv from "Play or Hunch." And printed on the bottom, it said, Merv Griffin, host of NBC's "Play or Hunch," and I see the name at the bottom, and I said, oh, what have I done? And I leaned over to him, I'm so embarrassed, I've been calling you by the wrong name. And he said, Al, please, don't be embarrassed, it was the most fun we've ever had. We just didn't have the heart to tell you. And he said, if you ever come to New York, look me up. Well, about three weeks later, they announce on NBC that tonight, they're going to have Merv Griffin is going to show his highlights of the world's fair. So he introduces it saying what he great time he had at the Seattle World's Fair. And he said, so, here's the highlights of our trip to the fair. So you see a shot of Merv walking in and looking up at the space needle. And they cut to me saying, I'd like you to meet Marv Griffith. And then he walks into the science pavilion, I'd like you to meet Marv Griffith, and it was a running gag through the whole thing. And then I met him later in 1962 in New York, and we became best of friends. And I wound up working for him for many, many years.

Enrique:
You actually also worked at the New York World's Fair.

Albert:
I did. In 1964, I was one of the producers on the opening night special for NBC. And then immediately went to work for the fair itself. And did the same job. I handled television for the world's fair in '64.

Enrique:
Which one did you like better, Seattle or New York?

Albert:
Well, it's almost apples and oranges. The Seattle fair was small, compact, and had heart. The New York fair was huge and corporate. So they were very, very different in the scope, the size, the concept of what their intentions were. The thing that makes me lean towards Seattle more than anything though is the legacy that was left behind. The New York fair, there's a few buildings that were left there, but basically, that whole area in queens and flushing, that whole New York is just a shell of what it was during the fair. But here in Seattle, this was not only all the great buildings that still remain from the world's fair, but now, all of the additions that had been put onto the same footprint where the fair was, that has turned this into an incredible artistic area for not just Seattle but for the whole Pacific Northwest.

Enrique:
Al Fisher. Great memories. Thank you so much. You know, and thank you for shooting all of those photos and video of all of the celebrities. Because you gave us something to hold on to and to celebrate all these years later, 50 years later. It's been great.

Albert:
Well, it sure has been great for me. And I truly love Seattle. It's a city that will forever remain in my heart.

Enrique:
Well, thank you.

Albert:
Thank you, Enrique.

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