Under the Space Needle: Seattleites Share Stories of Seattle Center, Pt. 1

photo by Brittney Bollay

Since its construction in 1962 for the World’s Fair, Seattle Center has been the site for many memorable music moments. With music festivals like Bumbershoot and Folklife, and venues like Key Arena and the Vera Project, some amazing bands have traveled through this local landmark… and when KEXP moves into our new home there, we’re excited to become part of its musical history!

Tonight, KEXP hosts our first event at our new home with All In: The Rally for KEXP’s New Home from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the Northwest Rooms. Join us for a live performance from The Cave Singers, with a beer garden, and remarks from John Richards of The Morning Show.

As KEXP embarks on this next chapter of Seattle Center music history, we asked DJs, staff, and local music scene luminaries to share some of their own personal memories of seeing music at this historical spot.


When I first moved to Seattle, I saw that the Violent Femmes were playing Seattle Center at something called “Bumbershoot”. I wasn’t sure how to get there, or where it was, but heard that’s where the Space Needle was so I just aimed for that. I had worn their debut cassette down to a nub, but it still played in my ’68 Mustang I had brought over from Spokane (that would soon die in the streets of my new home). I popped in the tape and headed down. Well, it turns out, this Bumbershoot was a festival! So, simply pulling up and parking wasn’t going to happen. I drove up Queen Anne and tried to park that beast legally (I didn’t, I had a ticket when I got back, totally worth it). I then RAN to the Seattle Center, as I was late, bought a ticket, and ran for their performance. I can’t remember which building it was in, but I pushed through the crowd, pulled myself on to the stage, and jumped into the crowd! Then, I rode the hands until they deposited me back to security as “Blister in the Sun” was playing. Security was cool and led me and others out the side door… well good news, you could just walk around to the back and do it again. So, a bunch of us just kept going like an assembly line and high-fiving security as I said “See you in a few!” until we were worn out. It was awesome. I spent the rest of the day exploring the grounds and the festival. It was a perfect time, even though it took me hours to find my car, and I was so broke I couldn’t pay the ticket!
– John Richards, KEXP’s Associate Program Director & Morning Show Host/Producer

At Bumbershoot 1999, I saw 10,000 people in the Key Arena do the electric slide together to Cibo Matto playing “Know Your Chicken”. It felt like the entire building was moving side to side. That was pretty memorable.
– Tomo Nakayama

[Here’s] me with Mark Pickerel (Screaming Trees, Neko Case, Mark Pickerel & His Praying Hands) holding his baby daughter. Young Hazel is modeling a baby blanket I’d just knitted for her. We’re all waiting for Neko Case to hit the main stage in Memorial Stadium at Bumbershoot 2004 and probably yammering about Bob Dylan (who’d be up later).
– Kurt B. Reighley (aka DJ El Toro), KEXP’s Development Communications Manager & On-Air Host

Even though I was only four at the time, I do have a faint recollection of the boats doing some kind of formations/display where the Memorial Stadium is now. I also remember my father taking us all over to look at the nuts (nuts and bolts) that had to be manufactured for the Space Needle… he had something to do with that part of the construction and we had a set of blueprints for the Space Needle kicking our around our house for years. We all had little floppy 45 RPM records with the Worlds Fair Theme song on it – “Meet me in Seattle At the Fair” and another one with Mr. Here “From Way Out There” (Don Yates original pseudonym).
– Leon Berman, host of Shake the Shack on KEXP

[Regarding The U-Men setting fire to the Mural Amphitheater pond in 1985 at Bumbershoot] We didn’t know if it was going to work. It was around the time the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught on fire. I think that kind-of gave us an idea. In order to test out this theory of how it would work, we filled up my bathtub on 16th Avenue in Capitol Hill with water, and poured lighter fluid in and threw a match. It caught the curtains on fire. The fire department showed up and they were mystified. They asked, “How did this happen?” and I shrugged and said, “I don’t know!”

The fire burned very fast. What happened was, we poured about a gallon of lighter fluid onto the surface of the pond in front of Mural Amphitheater. John Bigley, the singer, came out with a broom doused in gasoline, and he was waving it around like a torch. He was dancing around during the finale. As we were pouring what looked like booze into the pond, people were lunging forward and John was dancing with his torch. I panicked briefly, because obviously, I knew what was going to happen. The broom got about 5 feet from the pond, and exploded. It was pretty great. The flames were huge.

The fire came underneath the stage and was billowing smoke, but the stage itself was never on fire. The stage was hot, and the soundman was screaming at me, thinking his equipment was on fire. I could see the Fire Marshals coming, and I was literally throwing the band’s equipment into the van. When the Fire Marshals arrived, they thought it had been an electrical fire. All they knew was there was a fire, and there was water everywhere. I sent the band off in the van, and I went running the other way. But I got away, and the band got away. We were never prosecuted, but for years afterwards, Bumbershoot would drain the pond. And now they’ve just paved over it.

I didn’t realize until years later what an impact that had. I was reading an interview with Mark Arm of Mudhoney in 1993, and they asked him what his favorite show was that he ever saw, and he said that one!
– Larry Reid, The U-Men manager, and current Manager/Curator of the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery (read more about this event in the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm)

courtesy of the Seattle Center archives

I saw Nirvana play a show when they were touring for Nevermind at the Seattle Center when I was around 13 or 14 years old and it was life changing… I was crowd surfing for most of the show. I remember having just moved to Seattle from Texas, and had never even been to many concerts (except a Def Leppard concert my dad took me to when I was 10 in Dallas. HA!)

Another crazy memory was seeing Sunny Day Real Estate play at Bumbershoot and having my head smashed against a rail by some guy who was crowd surfing behind me — good times…

I never thought at the time that I would end up playing there myself! My favorite two shows I’ve done in Seattle Center were Bumbershoot in 2006, and playing an outdoor KEXP benefit with Amos Lee.
– Rocky Votolato

In the beginning at the EMP, they would have concerts that were filmed for VH1 and they were super cheap, like $5, so we went and saw Heart (or some version of Heart) and they were doing their thing, and the filming was going on and after a song the “director” gets on stage and tells the crowd that we didn’t cheer appropriately and so we were going to have to cheer again for the camera so they could edit that part in. And this being Seattle, people we like, “Uh, no” and the second cheer was way less enthusiastic. Heart was good though – we have a signed photo of Heart in the Annual Giving office, you know.
– Gwen Colwell, KEXP’s Assistant Director of Development for Annual Giving

courtesy of the Seattle Center archives

Saw [Elvis] at the Coliseum in the ’70s, and he was beautiful. He recorded his 36 sides in Memphis where I cut “Angel of the Morning” and his conductor/arranger, Joe Guercio, had put together my show for Vegas. That’s my Elvis connection other than having “dined” at Leonard’s Bar-B-Q in Memphis where Elvis frequented.

I was with Tiny Tony and the Statics during the fair and we played the dance at the Flag Pavilion. We also played at The Peppermint Lounge West across the street where the McDonald’s is now. It was really popular.

As Merrilee and The Turnabouts, we later played the Coliseum for KJR’s Teen Fairs and car shows and NW bands Rock n’ Roll Shows. We also played great teen dances and car shows at Exhibition Hall and years later, Bumbershoot. The Fair brought us wonderful venues for use over the years.
– Merrilee Rush

During Bumbershoot, I was at the NW Court Stage watching Roy Harper when I spotted some Prada shoes next to me. I wondered who would wear Prada shoes to Bumbershoot. Looked up, and it was Kim Gordon.
– Rischel Granquist, KEXP’s Manager of Administrative Services

Posse // photo by Greg Stonebraker

Oh man, do I ever have a fond/embarrassing memory. It was when we played a show at the Mural Amphitheater that KEXP was hosting. It was part of the Concerts at the Mural series, and we were opening for Brad. I was super excited to play because Brad was a pre-teen jam of mine.

Shortly after showing up to the mural, I realized I had forgotten — of all things — my guitar. The guys really laid into me, and I was already feeling really nervous and flustered because we were playing with BRAD of all bands. Next thing I know, Stone Gossard’s guitar tech comes up to me and is like, “Here, play this really nice, super expensive gold-top Les Paul that belongs to Stone.” So, I got to soundcheck with Stone Gossard’s guitar.

When we finally did take the stage, and I had my guitar back by then, Paul’s pedal board died and we proceeded to play one of our most shaky (bad) sets to date. But in the end it didn’t really matter, because I got to play Stone Gossard’s guitar!
– Sacha Maxim, Posse

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