Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The 1964 World's Fair

Last night Long Island's channel LIW ran some wonderful footage of the 1964-65 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows. The fair, orchestrated by city planner and builder Robert Moses, was a huge deal for New York City, although we nearly didn't get it. The Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), headquartered in Paris, was the body that sanctioned world's fairs. They had approved other sites for the next fair, and New York was not on the list. Moses, undaunted, journeyed to Paris to seek official approval for the New York Fair. When the BIE balked at New York's bid, Moses, used to having his way, angered the BIE delegates by taking his case to the press, publicly stating his disdain for their organization. The BIE retaliated by formally requesting its member nations not to participate in the New York Fair. The BIE decision was nearly a disaster for the fair. The absence of Canada, Australia most of the major European nations and the Soviet Union, all members of the BIE, tarnished the image of the fair, but we pressed on. Leave it to a nervy New Yorker to cut the line.

I made many visits to the fair to see the exhibits. What surprised me as the LIW documentary unfolded is how little I remembered. I generally remember things from the distant past better than I do things from the near past. The event was a major marketing opportunity for corporate giants like IBM, Bell Telephone Ford, and Mobile Oil who featured futuristic-themed attractions built around their products. There were also cultural exhibits from those countries who did participate, rides, restaurants, and of course the focal point of the fair, the Unisphere, which still stands in Queens today. It reminded me of Epcot Center in Disneyworld, and in fact a lot of Disney's amazing animatronic figures like those used in the Hall of Presidents and It's a Small World exhibits at Epcot were first developed for the 1964 World's Fair.

The biggest draw at the fair was Michaelangelo's incredible sculpture, The Pieta which was viewed by millions. People lined up for hours to get a look at one of the artist's finest works. Back then you were allowed to get up close for a glimpse at Michelangelo's interpretation of the Pieta, which was far different from those previously created by other artists, as he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman. A copy was transported beforehand to ensure that the statue could be conveyed without being damaged. Sadly, in 1972 in Italy, a mentally disturbed geologist attacked the sculpture with a geologist's hammer. After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter's, just to the right of the entrance, and is now protected by a bullet-proof glass panel.

Other popular exhibits included that of the IBM Corporation, where a giant five hundred-seat grandstand was pushed by hydraulic rams high up into a rooftop theater. There, a nine-screen film showed the workings of computer logic. The Bell System hosted a 15-minute ride in moving armchairs depicting the history of communications in dioramas and film. Other Bell exhibits included the picture phone (to go on sale at the time of the fair) as well as a demonstration of the computer modem. DuPont presented a musical review called "The Wonderful World of Chemistry." The Sinclair Oil Corporation sponsored Dinoland, featuring life-size replicas of nine different dinosaurs, including the corporation's signature brontosaurus. An informal poll of youngsters under eight years of age who attended the fair indicated that they overwhelmingly considered Dinoland to be the "coolest" exhibit at the fair.

One of the fair's major shortcomings was the absence of a real midway area. The fair's organizers were opposed, on principle, to the honky-tonk atmosphere engendered by midways, and what amusements the fair actually had ended up being largely dull. The Meadow Lake Amusement Area wasn't easily accessible, and officials objected to shows there being advertised. Furthermore, although the Amusement Area was supposed to remain open for 4 hours after the exhibits closed at 10 p.m., the Fair presented a fountain-and-fireworks show every night at 9 p.m. at the Pool of Industry. Fairgoers would see this show and then leave the fair rather than head over to the Amusement Area; one was hard pressed to see anyone on the fairgrounds by midnight.

Almost all of the people interviewed by LIW talked fondly about their memories of the fair. They especially recalled a treat which could be had for a dollar, The Belgian Waffle. These delights were sold in a recreation of a medieval Belgian village, which proved very popular with fairgoers. A combination of waffle, strawberries and whipped cream, Belgian Waffles are credited to a couple in Brussels, Belgium—Maurice Vermersch and his wife. On one of my many visits to the fair, I must have enjoyed at least one, but I just have no recollection of it. (Highly unusual for me to forget anything connected with food.)

There seems to have been a pullback from the kind of spectacular world fairs we knew. I guess in today's anxious climate, security issues would be a deal breaker. Too bad...our children and grandchildren should have the privilege of experiencing them as we did, even if I can't remember it.


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The Whiner said...

I always remember seeing that big silver globe as we went to Grandma and Grandpa Pantaleno's house. The world's fair must have been something.

Jim Pantaleno said...

It was and I spent a lot of time there, but the memories faded. Better book me a suite at Shady Pines.