Today is the 92nd birthday of Gracie Hansen: exactly what Seattle needed. She famously said “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.” Take that to heart.
The irrepressible and brash Gracie Hansen — best remembered for presenting shapely showgirls in her glamorous Las Vegas-style burlesque nightclub at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World’s Fair) in 1962 — was a most improbable individual to fulfill that role. She was a divorced, backwoods gal, with poor health, a garishly frumpy style, and no detectable musical skill. Yet she won friends easily. Fondly described once by Seattle Times veteran reporter Don Duncan as “short, stout, big-busted,” by Seattle magazine as “short-necked and dumpy, the despair of dress designers,” and by Northwest historian Murray Morgan (1916-2000) as “short, raucous and witty” — the woman’s charm was largely based on that latter attribute. The easily underestimated but extremely well-read Hansen was also a nonstop font of homespun quips, sly double-entendre jokes, and ribald witticisms. Her Paradise International Club on the fairgrounds packed in crowds — in good part because of Hansen’s knack for generating newspaper headlines in the mildly scandalized town — while rumors of police raids, lawsuits, and Hansen’s own background as a Madam (untrue), kept gossips chattering endlessly. It was all a publicity agent’s dream come true — just as it was the Cinderella moment of Gracie Hansen’s difficult life — one that saw her move on to hosting another club in Portland, where she eventually launched a humorous campaign for mayor and later one for Governor of Oregon.
Quiet Desperation in Morton
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on August 21, 1922, Gracie Diana’s Sicilian father, Sam Diana, moved his family to Longview, Washington, where he opened a barbershop. After his death in 1930, she and her mother moved into an apartment above the Columbia Movie Theatre and young Gracie fell in love with Hollywood movies. After about eight years her mother married George Barner and they moved to Centralia where he was mayor. It was there that the ambitious Gracie converted her family garage into a theater and began producing shows with her new neighborhood pals. After high school, her mother refused to let her follow her dream of studying acting in New York City, and so Gracie eloped with a logger named Leo Hansen. They moved to the tiny rough-and-tumble logging town of Morton and in 1948 adopted a boy named Sam.
Her new hometown was a less than inspiring spot to live. It was a lonely place — one that Hansen talked about years later in an interview with Bellingham’s KVOS-TV, where she quoted no less than Henry David Thoreau in recalling that “I once read where ‘the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’ — and until you’ve lived in a little town like this you’ll never know what desperation can be. Everybody is searching for something to do. And I think that’s how I became involved … of course I’ve always been a frustrated ham, and loved to do anything connected with shows — when I was a child I wanted to be a movie star” (KVOS).
A string of jobs as a waitress, cook, and bank clerk didn’t satisfy Hansen’s thespian urge and neither did the dozens of community groups she joined. But then in 1953 she masterminded what became the town’s annual variety show presentation, the Morton Follies. Produced as a fundraising benefit for the local Parent-Teachers-Association (PTA), she organized and staged the two-hour show, which was humorously credited with this line: “Written, Borrowed, Stolen, Directed, and Produced by Gracie Hansen.” It was “a typical variety show using all the home talent. Most of the time we had a hundred people in the cast. Everybody’s got a little bit of ham in them! And geez those people would just get up there and give the most terrific performances. They were wonderful. We had a chorus line: we had ten of the young housewives (I think one time we figured out that they had about 26 children between them). I would get a dancing teacher to teach them how to dance and they worked real hard and they were terrific” (KVOS).
Morton Liquor Agency
Hansen suffered a divorce and also acquired the license to operate Morton’s liquor shop — which probably was a relatively thriving business in a boom-and-bust timber town whose economy fluctuated, as she admitted, “like the weather.” But alcohol also seems to have played a role in the demise of her role with the Follies. Word is that in time the shows began to get edgier, but Hansen attributed that to booze-fueled improvisation by amateur cast members rather than to her own scripting: “Some of these people would get carried away [laughter]! They’d say ‘Gee whiz Gracie, I’ve gotta have a little bit of fortification before I can get up there and make a fool of myself.’ And I sometimes wished I was clever enough to write some of the things they came up with — but some of the things were just too adult for the PTA. [laughter] and so we kinda just stopped it” (KVOS).
Seattle magazine noted that the 1959 show was to be the last: “As the years progressed … the dialog became racier and racier; when finally one logger, attired as Queen for a Day, hiked up his skirt and showed he had nothing on underneath but his boots, church groups closed down the show” (Halpin). And, even years later, one Morton resident (schoolteacher Geneva Partridge) confessed that “Opinion of Gracie is divided. Some are against her” (Dunsire).
Hansen counted only one person in Morton as a real friend. She got sick, endured several bank-busting medical operations, and while healing grew extremely bored and depressed just moping around her house. “You see, I used to work all winter on them. This was my project for the winter. And then that winter I had nothing to do and was very ill, and very broke, and feeling very sorry for myself. And I had this friend who came over and gave me this pep talk: ‘Gee look what you did with the Morton Follies. Why don’t you go up to the Seattle World’s Fair?’ Of course, I thought she was absolutely right!’ (KVOS). That advice from her friend Esther Lester really got her to thinking about a new future.
Showgirls vs. Science
By the late 1950s there was already plenty of news coverage of the massive planning efforts and construction projects that would ultimately result in the Century 21 World’s Fair. And that got Hansen to thinking that maybe there would be opportunities for her there. Her first step was to jump into her battered old Buick and drive up to the fair’s planning offices up in the old Civic Auditorium. She arrived in the big city with high hopes, plenty of confidence and “Morton mud on my shoes. They were very amused [laughter]. And I just went in cold and said I wanted to put on a show. You see everybody has a mission in life and I decided that my mission must be to save the fair from Science. Well they were very amused and said ‘Well Miss Hansen don’t you call us, we’ll call you'” (KVOS).
Hansen returned to Morton and mailed off a few letters to Seattle and Olympia still seeking to gauge any possible interest in having her produce an expanded version of her naughty little Follies show. In April 1960, Al Rochester (1895-1985), Executive Director for the Century 21 Commission, sent her a letter (mailed to the liquor store in Morton), which stated that an “Administrative Assistant to the Governor [Albert D. Rosellini], wrote me that you had some interest in participation of some kind … . Would you be so good as to drop me a line and outline in some detail what you thoughts are on the matter. Then I shall be very pleased to follow through in any way possible.” At the bottom of that still-surviving letter are clues to Rochester’s thoughts: inscribed in ink pen there are these handwritten notes: “Appointment 4-14-60 11:00 am ‘Girlie’ Show — I told her it was too soon …” (Rochester letter to Hansen, April 11, 1960).
Next Stop: Seattle
Hansen made the decision to head where the action was and, after finding a job at Seattle’s United Savings and Loan Associates, she moved here. “Then I made up this list … of all the people I’d ever heard of in Seattle who had money. And I began checking them off. I would go and call on them on my lunch, or after work, or on Saturdays, and I would give them this pitch: ‘Have you ever been to a World’s Fair, or know anyone who has? And, if so, what do you remember?’ ‘Cause you know what they all remember: Little Egypt, Sally Rand, Billie Rose and some of those things. And no one can tell you about an exhibit they saw any place! So I formulated my pet theory that: Science will never replace sex or cotton candy” (KVOS).
One of those wealthy folks, Robert Chinn (625 S Jackson Street) — her boss at the bank and a gentleman quite prominent within the town’s Chinese community — agreed to help. In an hour-and-a-half on the telephone, he rounded up 18 friends who each invested $5,000 in Hansen’s dream to produce a big-time show at the fair. Of course, when the ecstatic would-be showbiz entrepreneur ran back to the fair’s offices, they didn’t believe her until they laid eyes on a bankbook showing the $90,000 she’d raised. “So, of course,” she recalled, “then they were very interested in talking about this” (KVOS).
Sedate Seattle vs. the Censor Board
Meanwhile, as planning for the fair progressed in Seattle, there were conflicting notions about what hosting such a huge cosmopolitan event might mean to the community. Seattle’s raucous past as an 1850s frontier village — a Wild West town that featured rowdy dancehalls and liquor bars, box theaters (in which male patrons fraternized in small rooms with female employees behind curtains), and houses of ill-repute like the infamous one supposedly operated by Madam Damnable — was a history many upstanding members of the community would like to have forgotten by the 1950s. And they sure didn’t want the fair to revive any of that wildness.
On the other hand, some interested parties figured that the town — soon to be sizzling under the glare of international media and the entertainment needs of worldly tourists — really ought to consider installing an “adult-entertainment” component to the fair’s offerings. It was in 1961, according Murray Morgan, that “State Senator Reuben Knoblauch [d. 1992] complained to the World’s Fair [C]ommission that too much emphasis and space was being devoted to an art exhibit which he said would not draw the crowds that high class entertainment or a skin show would attract. State Representative Len Sawyer, a member of the Commission, agreed and added that a cadaver in a medical exhibit in Canada was outdrawing an art exhibit” (Morgan). So, Hansen’s “pet theory” obviously had other adherents. And, though the fair would boast plenty of high-brow culture (as well as a generalized futuristic high-tech science ambiance), plans were now underway to also accommodate more base attractions. Although the fair wouldn’t be able to boast of having a morbid cadaver on display, there would ultimately be opportunities to view “heavenly bodies” (Official Guide Book p. 112).
Initially the fair contracted with Hansen to produce her show in a venue on the Boulevards of the World strip. As general planning progressed though, they discussed relocating her still-unnamed showplace to a discreet area underneath the north stadium stands — a zone they imagined might be marketed as Sin Alley.
Meanwhile, Hansen forged ahead by getting professional assistance — and she reached for the stars. “Being the frustrated ham that I am,” Hansen admitted, “I always read Variety and the show business papers, and I knew that there were two big names in the business that did first-class shows: Don Arden and Barry Ashton. And so I made a trip to Las Vegas and Los Angeles [in the summer of 1961] and I talked to Don Arden and Barry Ashton” (KVOS). At the time Arden was committed to producing the famous Lido Shows in Paris and at the Stardust in Vegas, but Ashton was interested in possibly serving as choreographer.
On November 3, 1961, The Seattle Times published an item showing Hansen with Ashton and his partner reviewing blueprints for a World’s Fair “Theater-Cafe.” Interesting, then, that documents from the fair’s internal archives seemingly reveal that the exact nature of Hansen’s participation still wasn’t fully nailed down. A November 15 letter from George K. Whitney (the fair’s Director of Concessions and Amusements) shows him touching base with San Francisco’s Hotsy Totsy Club, in which he states a desire to see someone bring in a “theater-restaurant night club similar in scope and program” to that city’s Bimbo’s 365 Club (which Ashton staged). It is mentioned that prime space is available, that Ashton has been hired, and even suggests that the program “would be the hit of Show Street.” The stipulation was that, with the time-clock ticking away towards a Grand Opening in April, the Hotsy Totsy folks needed to make an immediate decision. Intriguingly, on the November 16, The Seattle Times reported that just one day prior, Hansen had delivered a $90,000 check to the fair as an “advance guarantee against receipts.” And with that, it appears Hansen’s involvement — on Show Street — was locked in.
From there things must have fallen into place at a rapid pace: A month later, on December 21, 1961, Time magazine reported that, yes, worry not, “the fair will have its undraped girls, in a ‘Las Vegas-type revue’ to be produced by one Gracie Hansen, an entrepreneuse who promises ‘a daring show with some nudity, but all in good taste.'” And that would take place within Show Street — the titillation zone of the fair located at the northeast corner of the grounds (where today’s KCTS-TV station is based). That same day saw a groundbreaking ceremony on the construction site — one in which Hansen (wearing a feathered hat) began charming the media saying: “This is my dream some true. I’m just a country girl from Morton. Very naive. Why, I didn’t know there were press agents until a few months ago.” Then, using a “gold-plated” shovel to turn a load of “diamonds,” she said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend — but I’ll never knock rubies, emeralds or pearls” (The Seattle Times, December 21, 1961).
Show Street was a U-shaped complex of buildings, each containing a distinct “Adults Only” attraction — including the Polynesian Playhouse, the Diamond Horseshoe (and its Gay Nineties theme), the Galaxy (and its Girls of the Galaxy show), the Le Petit Theatre (and its naughty puppet show), and Backstage U.S.A. (and its risqué “Peep” show). Some of these offerings, ranging “from bad to indifferent, were organized to slop up the lascivious overflow” of people who arrived too late to get tickets to the highest profile feature of all. And that was Hansen’s mildly controversial Paradise International restaurant-theater which survived official scrutiny only because the “Seattle Censor Board was persuaded to raise its eyes to the heavens while the girls bared their breasts” (Morgan).
A Night In Paradise
On the fair’s opening night of April 21, 1962, Hansen’s plush, 700-seat Paradise International drew large crowds. Advance publicity of the controversial sort helped, but so too did the building’s attention-grabbing exterior neon sign: it was designed like an apple with a missing bite — an unmistakable visual allusion to traditional biblical notions of original sin. Or as Hansen pitched it to The Seattle Times in December 1961: “The apple tree in Paradise will be our symbol.” Although a certain segment of Seattleites was mildly scandalized, the Seattle Censor Board miraculously gave it the nod — possibly because, as Hansen would helpfully inform: Even though “‘some of our showgirls are nude from the waist up. It’s not thrust upon you. In fact, sometimes you have to look for them in there. And, as yet, no one has objected and found it distasteful, so I guess it’s a matter of presentation” (KVOS).
Hansen began each “A Night In Paradise” show — as staged by Ashton and supported by a pit-band led by Seattle’s aging 1920s bandleader, John R. “Jackie” Souders (d. 1968) — with a pure jolt of Mae West-like red-hot-mama irreverence, greeting her audience with a shout-out (that had actually been a trademark of West’s stylistic predecessor, Texas Guinan): “Hi-ya, Suckers!” After some joking around Hansen even sang a tune or two in her own endearing manner — which was “like a poor man’s Sophie Tucker, belting out red-hot chestnuts and always getting the biggest hand of the evening”.
Than, after that aural assault, the real action began — although as one scribe noted years later: “It was a ‘Vegas-style’ show that by today’s standards would probably look like a Daughters of the American Revolution luncheon but was then the ultimate in slap-and-tickle sophistication” (Palmer). True, those four floor-shows per night offered — to employ an old, old joke — two main points of interest: the bevy of buxom beauties (who sang and paraded their admirable physiques) and their over-the-top, and occasionally topless, costumes (all made in Hollywood by Lloyd Lambert) in ridiculous productions like the “Women of Mars.”
Before long, the fair’s Performing Arts Director, Harold Shaw, stated that a few underperforming Show Street attractions needed to be overhauled from “stem to stern.” The problem, surprise surprise, was that he felt that they were not yet “spicy enough.” He lamented how “I could make that street hop if I had a free hand for two weeks.” What the place was lacking was “showmanship” and more nudity: “There isn’t a show worth doing unless it is keeping the censors busy. The censors would have to be on roller skates to keep up with me … . I don’t say I have all the answers but I am willing to help if they ask me” (The Seattle Times, June 6, 1962).
All this helpfulness only sparked the inevitable backlash from social conservatives, and even moderate politicians who also made known their objections to Hansen’s Paradise International and the other questionable Show Street venues. Longtime reporter Don Duncan noted that St. Matthews Catholic Church in Northeast Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood mailed in a letter of complaint which stated that “Such Pagan displays will show the world what they already suspect — that Americans are amoral, materialistic, sex-conscious, pleasure-seeking people. What an impression!” It was also reported that a Mr. H. H. Hill had written about his concerns that “Century 21 is becoming primarily a bawdy show or is it to be a science fair citizens were taxed to support” (The Seattle Times, June 27, 1962).
It didn’t help matters when the Shaw announced plans to introduce regular Monday “father-and-son” nights at Hansen’s shows — which had initially been advertised as a “break for dear old dad.” A week later, the fair’s great advocate, Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011), weighed in. In a letter written to a local Lutheran minister, he admitted that he was shocked by the idea. Rosellini’s office asserted that they’d already received 1,200 letters from an outraged public — and he informed the fair that they ought “to assure a more adequate regard for morality” (The Seattle Times June 27, 1962). That same piece from The Seattle Times informed that the fair’s manager, Ewen C. Dingwall (1913-1996), responded by noting that “every activity on Show Street must be approved by either the State Liquor Control Board or the Seattle Board of Theater Supervisors” (known informally as the Seattle Censor Board), and that “No activity is tolerated by us which does not have the approval of both agencies.”
Amid the simmering furor, the dads-and-lads concept apparently faded away but Shaw got in a parting shot by saying: “It’s time we shed our false puritanical morals and commence to beautify the human being — and make him beautiful as God created him.” Then, perhaps stretching things just a bit too far, Shaw told another newspaper that even more nudity at the fair would “be a boost for President Kennedy’s physical fitness plan. Americans don’t have beautiful bodies. The best way to stimulate beautiful bodies is to see them” (Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 28, 1962).
In hindsight, Morgan reckoned that, business-wise, the Show Street had been a disappointing mixed bag: “the puppets made a mint … and some of the other attractions were around for the last hurrah. But throughout the fair, Show Street was a financial embarrassment, in such trouble that not even well-publicized, carefully rehearsed trouble with the police could produce a profit” (Murray Morgan).
Initially Hansen had been delightfully glib about her club’s chances at success, telling reporters that “We may go broke, but we’ll never be flat-busted” (Halpin). Truth be told, although Hansen’s Paradise did manage, in the end, to pay off all its debts, its original investors remained rather bitter about not making a profit — and Hansen herself moved on with an empty savings account. But George Whitney may have been correct when — before the fair even opened — he predicted that “There is no question that when Century 21 has passed in limbo, the main feature to be remembered will be Gracie Hansen’s Paradise International” (The Seattle Times, December 21, 1961). Well, that, and maybe the Space Needle and Monorail…
Part of Hansen’s secret for success was her state of self-awareness. As Seattle magazine once reported: “She has no illusions about the quality of her voice. ‘I have no voice at all,’ she rasps in a whisky bass that sounds like a fire roaring in a wood stove. ‘But if I don’t sing good — at least I sing loud” (Halpin, p. 36). And it wasn’t only her voice that was loud — so was her wardrobe. To start with, there were the absurd “thick false eyelashes, wigs, and enormous finger rings” (Duncan, 1985). Then too, the mink stoles, outrageous hats, and “richly brocaded velvet dresses” whose “outlandish ruffles would shame Liberace” (Halpin, p. 36).
Considering that Hansen also whirled around town in her (borrowed) gold-plated Buick — she instantly become “the most talked about woman in Seattle.” Indeed, “Gracie’s transformation into a siren was a remarkable example of mind over matter” — but she accomplished that with a combination of old-fashioned moxie, drive, and a heart of gold (Halpin, p. 36). All things considered, Hansen proved to be exactly what Century 21 needed — she “added just the right touch of humor and earthiness to Seattle’s science-oriented fair” (Duncan, 1985).
The 20th annual Logger’s Jubilee festival in little ol’ Morton welcomed Hansen back in a triumphal return appearance as their fair’s Homecoming Queen. On August 12, 1962, she, as Grand Marshal, rode on the back seat of an open convertible car in their parade down the town’s Main Street. One newspaper account of that day’s activities noted that her earlier showbiz activities there had made her “the talk of the town. Not all of the talk complimentary” (Charles Dunsire).
She arrived like a big city star in a chartered bus accompanied by “Show Street personalities, and a retinue of newsmen, photographers and press agents. Also aboard to keep things lively were a guitarist and clarinetist.” Hansen wore a silver sequined dress — one that “contrasted with the other elements of the parade, which included a long line of fully loaded logging trucks” (Charles Dunsire). But that didn’t stop fair officials from awarding Hansen with the, presumably coveted, golden ax.
A Heart of Gold
Then in 1977 it was discovered that for the past two years Hansen had been volunteering anonymously at Portland’s Volunteers of America senior center, serving meals to the elderly. Hansen told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that she labored there as a way of “working off a guilt complex. I feel guilty about all the things I didn’t do for my parents when they were alive.”
Those who knew Hansen were not surprised by this news — Hansen had long before entertained patients at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital while dressed in a Santa Claus costume, and she also gave inspirational talks to most any community group that tendered an invitation to speak. Also in 1977 Hansen announced that she and her husband were selling their home and moving to Seattle where she wanted to “spice up the campaign” that the Paradise International’s former head of security — City Councilman Wayne Larkin — was launching in a run for mayor (Evans).
Say Goodnight, Gracie
Long plagued with poor health — she had been diagnosed as a diabetic in the mid-1950s — Hansen (who was last based in North Hollywood) endured at least six medical operations for various circulatory problems, and had a leg amputated in 1980. Then, finally, on January 9, 1985, Hansen died in Los Angeles after a last round of surgery. It was two full decades after she’d made her initial big splash in Seattle, but that news of her passing still merited front-page coverage in The Seattle Times.
The town still had a soft spot for the hick from the sticks who defied all odds to become an outrageous glamour icon — and one who never forgot where she came from. The ever-humble Hansen once freely admitted to that newspaper that Century 21 had been a career highlight: it was the “Cinderella point in my life … . I came barreling in from Morton and my whole life changed. I’ve been enjoying it ever since” (The Seattle Times, January 11, 1985) — and way back in 1966 she shared this inspirational thought with Seattle magazine: “I was fat and 40 and I came out of the hills and I made it. My message is this: if I could, who the hell can’t?”