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World's Fair

Posted February 26th, 2011 at 09:24 AM by chas

“Over whose golden roof shall float, beneath thy banner, Freedom.”
--Walt Whitman, poem on the New York Crystal Palace
1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations

“Welcome to the World of Tomorrow.”
--Matt Groening, Futurama
(Series named after an exhibit in the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs)

The third World’s Fair held here in New York City, in 1964-65, was the most stupendous thing I’d ever seen, as a 13 year old. In 1964, living so close to the Flushing Meadow site in my Old Neighborhood of Bayside, Queens, I went 11 times--with family, with friends, with a school trip, and even with my little sister. I remember that last local trip because some good people held the subway door open and encouraged us when I wasn’t sure if I should get out or not at the right stop. Across the way was the huge new Shea Stadium, where my pal Marty G. was one of the first generation of boy hot dog vendors. (He didn’t so much want the money; he was there to see the games). Oddly enough, we moved between the Fair’s first and second seasons, so I went one more time, to make it an even dozen, from our new house out in Bohemia, Suffolk County, Long Island—where I was beginning a very different life, which would become my own World of Tomorrow.

You can be ironic about such grandiose exhibitions proclaiming a bright future, but they have inspired thousands, even when they came just before, respectively, The Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam. But they showed off the newest technologies that could help make a good life, if we were wise enough to use them that way, and paved the way for greatness and the consciousness of future years. In 1853 it was the first passenger safety elevator by Otis, soon to be actually installed for public use. Imagine! In 1939 it was the first regular television broadcast made to hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of sets across the City by NBC, air conditioning, Nycon 1: the first Science Fiction Convention, and the Life Saver Parachute Jump ride, still standing although no longer operational, at Coney Island today. Its too expensive to fix, but no one’s ever had the heart to tear it down.

The trick to getting into the major exhibits, which had lines that went on forever, (I waited on most of them) was to get in when the gate opened in the morning, and hit one first each visit, before the long lines formed. At the General Motors Futurama, you took a ride on a moving belt of seats to view a miniature City of the Future. At the General Electric Carousel of Progress, Walt Disney pioneered the use of ‘audio animatronic’ mannequins in period households showing the technological progress made in each era. On the Ford Skyway you rode in actual new cars (or at least the chassis) fixed on tracks on the People Mover. (These exhibits were later commemorated in the animated movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm). By the way, they were introducing the new Ford Mustang here, much later to become the only car I ever owned—a red fastback with a fake gearshift (really only an automatic gear changer). At the Bell Telephone Systems pavilion, you rode in individual vertical open capsule cars, with their built in speakers giving the narration about communications progress. I recall other exhibits, including a (simulated) Picture Phone. At IBM, you sat in a 500 seat grandstand, which rose up on huge hydraulic pumps into a gray egg shaped dome, where you saw a movie about interactive computers. All this for the very first time, ever…

At the 1939 “Trylon and Perisphere” Fair, over 40 nations had exhibited, some staff becoming exiled in the US when their countries were overrun by Hitler! At this 1964 Fair, the oversight committee had chosen to ignore the guidelines of the European Bureau of International Exhibitions. Although I didn’t know it at the time, all of the major European nations were therefore boycotting the fair, and only small countries were present. So instead of major national shows, I had a Belgian Waffle (waffle, strawberries, and whipped cream), and saw another Disney Dummy of Lincoln give speeches in the Illinois state exhibit. Actually, he was quite well done, and eerily effective. Would actual robots be next on the horizon?

Small golf cart like taxis by Greyhound beeped their horns as they drove by along the streets which held no other vehicular traffic. Their horns gave forth with their corporate ad line musically (“Go Greyhound; and leave the driving to us.”). Even without words, it got to be rather repetitive. Sinclair Oil had a clever dinosaur park with life sized animals (not animated). DuPont showed its film “The World of Chemistry.” Even Traveler’s Insurance had a film. In a comedic contrast, Heinz had a modest stage show, including a filmed appearance by that lovable ad creature for Starkist: Charlie the Tuna. Sharing the same name, I’ve heard “Sorry, Charlie,” the commercial tag line said to the disappointed fish, my whole life. Maybe that’s why I spell it the English way, ‘Charley.’ Why would a fish want to be canned, anyhow? Using animal mascots for their corresponding food products never made much sense, except for Elsie the Cow (present in person at the 1939 Borden’s pavilion). Heintz also gave out a plastic pickle pin. In their show, they also had a pretty girl who pretended to be a mannequin, standing frozen until ‘magically’ summoned to life by the host, who was a large jolly fellow who wore a cook’s white apron and high hat. Remember, he was representing all 57 Varieties (of Heinz pickles). Come to think of it, that was one of my favorite shows at the Fair! The modest blend of old traditional theatre techniques with modern tech in a small modest setting was ultimately my particular gem. Hooray for Heintz!

More goofy but wonderful stuff included a Royal Tire Ferris wheel, which was of course a giant tire. The Coca Cola carillon chimed out the time. Copters took off and landed at the flat topped Heliport--now a caterer’s restaurant where I’ve had dinner as an adult as ‘Terrace On The Park.’ We saw a water ballet and water sports show while sitting in the sea arena. Like nearby La Guardia Airport (named for the famous NYC Mayor who was a member of the 1939 Fair Committee), the site is just off the bay. The New York City pavilion show featured a miniature city years before the current New York Experience show. The New York State exhibit had a giant state map, with the famous two observation towers rising above; shown memorably n the films Men In Black and more recently in Ironman 2.

The US Space Park is still there too, with its tall rockets, used by NASA to put the early astronauts into orbit. At the United States pavilion, a 15 minute movie ride showed off the hopes of President Johnson’s Great Society (John F. Kennedy had laid the cornerstone, but was no longer with us). As one of the 51 million attendees, I took in all this great entertainment under the Fair’s theme “Peace Through Understanding.” Disney helped out at the Pepsi-Cola pavilion too. You may have seen that show, which is still running today. It’s a Small World, After All.

The huge silver steel Unisphere, symbol of that fair, is still there in the park in Queens (by U.S. Steel), surrounded by plantings and, in season, flower beds. And the world it suggests gets smaller every year. Back then, I would be leaving the safety of The Old Neighborhood, where I was a reasonably comfortable kid, into my existential teenage years, in an alien environment where I was isolated in the suburbs by my lack of a car, and at the start, lack of a license. I’d go from being part of a regular kid’s gang to having just two friends, who were also ‘outcasts.’ I keep up my driver’s license today, although it’s been years since I sat behind the wheel. Even though I don’t need a car in New York City--I’m back in Brooklyn today, where I’ve been ever since graduate school—I wouldn’t want to be unable to reach out to whatever community I’m in, like I was back then. The world may not be fair, but all the world’s a stage, indeed.
Total Comments 2


This is a long post.
Posted February 26th, 2011 at 05:07 PM by
flameslayer93's Avatar
This is a long post.
Captain Obvious has finally returned!!
Posted February 26th, 2011 at 06:23 PM by flameslayer93 flameslayer93 is offline
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