Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Fair…and Unfair

 

This is a story of two world’s fairs, held 25 years apart. The early fair, the one my parents went to as kids, is still justly remembered with fondness and respect, one last good time before World War II. The later one, the space-age fair that my wife and I went to as kids, was also a dazzling, Disneyland-sized tribute to modern progress. It was held in the same place, by many of the same people: companies and designers who created the first one. But this new fair, “our” fair, was scorned by fashionable critics.

Then and forever since, the few writers who mention the New York World’s Fair 1964/65 saw it as ugly and unimaginative if not outright tacky, shallow corporate hucksterism. In the quaint language of the day, the fair was a distraction from pollution, prejudice, and poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine said something typical that seemed clueless and unintentionally funny even at the time. It still sticks with me: “Only the people who went to it liked it.” I’m one of them.

I usually write about technology intersecting show business. This post is about one very un-usual, very costly form of specialized moving image storytelling, the world’s fair or theme park exhibit ride. It’s a unique kind of show you actually move through, part inspiration, part entertainment, part advertising–or propaganda. It’s a popular art form that was essentially invented in America to look beyond those Depression blues. Its spirit lives on even today at Epcot Center and in every Disney park.

Flashback, all the way back to April 30, 1939. “I Have Seen the Future.” That’s what it said on a display pin you were handed when you stepped off the seated ride conveyor, at the end of General Motors’ spectacular Futurama exhibit at the 1939-’40 New York World’s Fair. Its dazzling moving diorama views of mile-high skyscrapers and 20-lane, 100-mile-an-hour superhighways made it by far the fair’s most popular pavilion. America’s future was looking far brighter than it did when the World’s Fair was first proposed in 1935, in the Gotham City-like depths of the Great Depression.

The Futurama badge you pinned to your lapel was a boldly colored design on enameled metal, New Deal stark and mythic looking. Working-class families were almost all Democrats, suspicious of Wall Street, and recently scarred by hard times. Yet they flocked to see the pride and self-flattery of rich corporations at the zenith of their power, spending bundles to create ten-minute visions of the future so elaborate that you can sit down and spend ten minutes riding through them. And Futurama, a word trademarked by General Motors, was where it all started.

When the NYWF opened, Germany’s conquests were still nearly bloodless, something that would change, and soon. But as the public swarmed through the gates on that last day of April 1939, there was still plenty of hope that it would indeed be the beginning of a bright new day.

Another seated conveyor “ride” at the 1939-’40 fair was called Democracity, the fair’s own giant light-and-sound diorama of city life in a rationally planned future. This exhibit took place inside a giant ball, half of the iconic Trylon and Perisphere theme center known to every viewer of the 1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” In the diorama, each quadrant of the town had to re-paint their buildings to match the neighborhood’s voted-on color scheme. Democracity would have been democracy at its pushiest.

The pre-war fair wasn’t all rides, of course. It marked the public debut of nylon stockings, fax machines, new forms of plastic, robots, and television.

Some pavilions had a sense of fun, like NCR’s building that was shaped like a giant cash register, whose numbers displayed a running tally of the day’s attendance. There were exhibits of passenger trains and of milking machines. Foreign pavilions competed to attract visitors with free food and entertainment.

There was also a lakeside Amusement Area, with more traditional fairground entertainment, games of “chance,” carny barkers, and sideshows, including “artistic” poses by topless women. It doesn’t fit our clean image of 1939, but it happened.

Then, world war, and a world transformed. In the prosperous ’50s, with America effectively on top of the world, New York’s power circles wanted another round. Everyone was in on it: Democrats of Brooklyn’s Tammany Hall and the outer borough construction unions; patrician Republicans who ran Manhattan’s banks and real estate. Everyone could make a buck off another world’s fair. Political power broker Robert Moses, the unelected king of New York, accepted the job of making it happen. The date, 1964, was chosen as the 300th anniversary of Dutch New Amsterdam becoming British New York.

After toying with impractical schemes like a glass dome a mile in diameter, the city settled on the simplest, cheapest solution, of re-using the street plan of the ’39-’40 fairgrounds. The Kennedy administration was fully on board. Like the earlier fair, the flashiest parts would be presented by major corporations like General Electric, AT&T, IBM, DuPont, Bell Telephone, and the car companies.

The international clearinghouse for world’s fairs had already okayed Seattle’s Space Needle world’s fair of 1962, and was in the process of approving Montreal. They turned down New York. They’d turned down New York in the 30s, too, but this time they made it stick. Most major countries like Britain, France, and Germany didn’t participate. To save face, the fair allowed privately owned unofficial fake “pavilions” that were no more than a fast-food stand and a souvenir shop. A definite mistake, though not a killer one.

In a late stage of design, the USSR and its satellites changed course and withdrew. In a fit of spite, Moses—that’s Robert Moses—gave their land to God; he made their pavilion real estate available to religious groups, just this legal side of free of charge. Not everyone loved the flashy Vatican pavilion, but my family did. The Billy Graham Evangelical Organization had a great exhibit. For years to come, I was the only Catholic kid in the neighborhood who subscribed to the Hour of Decision newsletter (as well probably being the only one with a copy of the album to 1964’s biggest Broadway hit, Fiddler on the Roof). An Anglican writer complained good-naturedly that the various denominations of the Protestant and Orthodox pavilions looked like a bunch of Allegheny Airlines check-in counters. It should be admitted that the ’64-’65 fair was a bit on the churchy side, but it accurately reflected the attitudes of the country at that time, a reality that irritated the hell out of critics.

Progressives were increasingly distrustful of technology, and seemed to have no interest in automobiles, computers, suburban living, video telephones, or space travel.

In 1964 and 1965, the GM Futurama’s exciting ten-minute trip into the future was once again the most popular exhibit at the fair. Seated riders glided past lifelike scenes of lunar colonies, arctic weather control stations, and underwater scenic hotels. The so-called pin that ride attendants handed you was made of injected plastic, and its symbol was just an atomic abstraction of the space age. A sign of changing times and styles.

People in 1939 wore hats, and men often wore a jacket and tie even in summer heat. By contrast, a glance at color photos of the 1964 crowds doesn’t look that strange to us today. People are dressed for comfort, as we do today, though for the ladies, slacks and not-very-short shorts were still outnumbered by dresses and skirts. It was a world of families, not singles. The crowds of ’64, the civil rights era, were more racially integrated than 1939’s, as ours are today.

Some of the differences between then and even just a few years later don’t show up readily in photos. What we think of as the ’60s had barely started. There was no women’s movement to speak of. The only new freedom for women touted at the fair was the kind that modern appliances and wash and wear fabrics could convey. The world of 1964 wasn’t thinking much about gay rights or the environment, not yet, anyway. The Vietnam war hadn’t inflamed the country; that came later. There was no graffiti, and very little crime at the fair. As far as we know, the smell of marijuana was never detected wafting through its nighttime streets. All of this would change quickly, even by the time of the New York fair’s gifted, conceited younger sibling, Montreal’s much-loved expo67.

More than a half-century on, I still think that most, not all later criticisms of the fair were snobbish sour grapes. The ’39 fair also had its share of tacky, and ’64 had plenty to be proud of. It hosted the Pope and the Beatles, among 51 million other people. It inspired artists from Andy Warhol to Stanley Kubrick. If its fascination for outer space now seems a little naïve, it appears to be coming back into style. The IBM pavilion’s computers-are-your-friends creativity was smartly ahead of its time, and so were the telecommunications forecasts of one of the fair’s other great ride pavilions, Bell System/AT&T.

Walt Disney, whose theme park rides owed much to the earlier fair, designed no fewer than four exhibits, three of which were retained afterward for use in Disneyland: the Illinois pavilion (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Pepsi-Cola (It’s a Small World), GE Carousel of Progress (It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow) and the biggest of the four, Ford Motor Company’s own ride through history, one-upping GM by having the passengers seated in actual Ford cars, propelled from below with small electric motors.

The top attraction remained the General Motors Futurama. There’s a saying in show business, “Give the people what they want and they’ll show up for it.” That’s why two generations of people waited in hour-long lines to see what amounted to a slow ride around an ingeniously detailed, three-block-long model train layout, while contemplating America’s future. What Futurama gave us in the crowd was buoyant technological optimism.

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 47 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Arahant Member

    • #1
    • May 21, 2020, at 1:25 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Yeah, I know, wrong year.

    • #2
    • May 21, 2020, at 1:26 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    At least Seattle was the first to get a monorail out of it. 

    • #3
    • May 21, 2020, at 1:34 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey: here’s a saying in show business, “Give the people what they want and they’ll show up for it”.

    Despite abysmal ratings, “Batwoman” has lost its star and is pressing on with Season 2 without her.

    Insist you know what people want and keep doling it out until the money runs out.

    • #4
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:55 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Judge Mental Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: here’s a saying in show business, “Give the people what they want and they’ll show up for it”.

    Despite abysmal ratings, “Batwoman” has lost its star and is pressing on with Season 2 without her.

    Insist you know what people want and keep doling it out until the money runs out.

    Don’t worry, they plan to hire an LGBTQ replacement. Because that’s the most important part of casting.

    • #5
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:57 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Don’t worry, they plan to hire an LGBTQ replacement. Because that’s the most important part of casting.

    A guy who thinks he’s a woman, no doubt.

    • #6
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:59 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I wonder how many of the people sporting the “I Have Seen the Future” badges knew who Lincoln Steffens was?

    • #7
    • May 21, 2020, at 4:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. tigerlily Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    At least Seattle was the first to get a monorail out of it.

    The 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia had a monorail, although, as far as I know, it didn’t outlast the exhibition.

     

     

     

    • #8
    • May 21, 2020, at 6:48 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    At least Seattle was the first to get a monorail out of it.

    The 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia had a monorail, although, as far as I know, it didn’t outlast the exhibition.

     

     

    Oh yeah? The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago wanted something to compete with that tower that Eiffel had put up. They made a public announcement soliciting ideas.

    Some nut proposed a great big wheel that would … umm … pick people up and bring them right back again.

    “That’s nuts!” the organizers exclaimed. It turned out that there really weren’t any better ideas though, so …

     

    … they asked Ferris to explain his wheel again.

     

    • #9
    • May 21, 2020, at 7:05 AM PDT
    • 13 likes
  10. James Lileks Contributor

    Great post. I love the 39-40 Fair and have a not-inconsiderable site about the event. (It’s a few years old; many updates coming next year.) Nothing would ever look like that again, since nothing ages as poorly as the future. 

    The 1964 Fair’s aesthetic wasn’t as unified or stylish; it was all over the road, but I appreciate the spirit behind it. I have a site about it, here.

    There’s something haunting about looking at the grounds now on Google satellite view, knowing what went on there, and how it’s all ghosts now, aside from the Unisphere, the New York State building, and a few others. 

    • #10
    • May 21, 2020, at 9:28 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  11. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    We held a Globalist Fair in 2020 and all China sent was this damn virus…

    • #11
    • May 21, 2020, at 9:33 AM PDT
    • 13 likes
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    I wonder how many of the people sporting the “I Have Seen the Future” badges knew who Lincoln Steffens was?

    I thought of mentioning Steffens, because in ’39 some people did remember the connection. But I figured, eh, Linc’s a bring-down. 

    • #12
    • May 21, 2020, at 10:18 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    As was true in Montreal, spending on the New York fair was merely the visible part of a lucrative stack of public works. The ’39 fair was coordinated with the opening of the George Washington bridge several years earlier, the Whitestone bridge, North Beach airport (later La Guardia) and the Grand Central Parkway. That was Robert Moses’ doing. In ’64, the fair provided a deadline and an excuse for the Verrazano-Narrows bridge to Staten Island, a massive expansion of Idlewild airport (later JFK), the Throgs Neck bridge, the Van Wyck and Clearview Expressways, and a little arena called Shea Stadium. 

    And in Montreal, it coincided with a new subway system, the most modern looking in the world in that era. 

    • #13
    • May 21, 2020, at 10:27 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor

    As always, a great post down memory lane.

    I few up in SoCal, and went to Disneyland many times over the years. I was fascinated by the Monsanto ride–didn’t it take us into the center of the atom? I just remember the slow moving trams we traveled in, and this pulsing light and sound. When I was young, I loved it! I still found it fascinating as an adult. And it was long before Disneyland became hyper-commercialized. I stopped going when you had to walk through a gift shop at the end of every ride. Gross.

    • #14
    • May 21, 2020, at 11:27 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Doug Watt Moderator

    EJHill (View Comment):

    We held a Globalist Fair in 2020 and all China sent was this damn virus…

    Instead of getting a T-shirt all I got was a lousy facemask.

     

    • #15
    • May 21, 2020, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    As the fair ended, the NYWF corporation offered the fairgrounds to Disney as a permanent sweetheart lease, and he briefly considered taking over the management of the park, making it a semi-franchise. But Walt was already in the early stages of buying and preparing land for Project Florida–Walt Disney World, and there were other complications. Northeastern weather would have made a NY Disneyland a seven-months-of-the-year business, and the existing pavilions, which technically reverted to the fair corporation, were built under a special temporary construction code. 

    NYC had a brief-lived theme park, Freedomland, which ironically was killed off by competition from the fair. 

    • #16
    • May 21, 2020, at 11:53 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I never made the connection before, but the spirit of those optimistic future-minded fairs lives on in annual conventions today like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

    Whereas South-By-Southwest and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) are industry specific, CES showcases anything and everything technological that might interest individual consumers. For days, people gather to gape at concept cars, refridgerators, toys, robots, personal computers, and much else. 

    Around such trade shows, recreational activities are inevitably provided to cash in on the enthusiasm. For blocks around the conventions, billboard-size advertisements cover the sides of buildings and large statues are erected in honor of popular themes. 

    James might be familiar enough with CES, E3, PAX, and such to know if the comparison is apt.

    • #17
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:25 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Hang On Member
    Hang On Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My mother went to the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York and loved it. It was the only World’s Fair I know of that was held in two cities simultaneously – there was also one in San Francisco. She didn’t go to that one.

    I went to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York and attended both years. I certainly remember the GM exhibition which you mentioned in your post. But I think I remember being even more impressed by the Kodak 360-degree exhibition. That was just the coolest thing. I also loved the globe and the fountain symbol.

    You mentioned all the religious exhibitions. I remember the Vatican one and I remember Billy Graham’s. But the one that struck me most was the reproduction of the Mormon Tabernacle Temple. And the music as well.

    The other thing I remember from the fair was riding on a ski lift type thing through the park and not being very comfortable at all. Heights.

    I had cousins living in Queens at the time, they were around the same age as my brother and me, so we got to be really good friends. We attended the fair together for about a week each of the years.

    As for Seattle World’s Fair, my next-door neighbor was part of the design team for the Space Needle. I never figured a way to smuggle myself aboard when they flew out to Seattle for the Fair.

    And I also went to the Montreal Fair in 1967. What I remember was going to the Soviet exhibit. When you walked in you were met by a large bank of Soviet televisions and about 20% were working. I commented out loud, great exhibition of Soviet technology. One of the greeters (KGB, I’m sure), didn’t pick up on the sarcasm and was very proud – yes, indeed it was, he said.

    • #18
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:34 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  19. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hypothesis: In 1939 the a world fair felt like a tonic for a weary nation coming out of the Depression. In 1964 a world fair felt more like a triumphant nation spiking the ball in the end zone, especially considering how the nations most ravaged by WWII didn’t participate.

    • #19
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:53 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hang On (View Comment):
    And I also went to the Montreal Fair in 1972. What I remember was going to the Soviet exhibit. When you walked in you were met by a large bank of Soviet televisions and about 20% were working. I commented out loud, great exhibition of Soviet technology. One of the greeters (KGB, I’m sure), didn’t pick up on the sarcasm and was very proud – yes, indeed it was, he said.

    Quibble: The Montreal fair was in 1967.

    • #20
    • May 21, 2020, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hang On (View Comment):

    My mother went to the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York and loved it. It was the only World’s Fair I know of that was held in two cities simultaneously – there was also one in San Francisco. She didn’t go to that one.

    I went to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York and attended both years. I certainly remember the GM exhibition which you mentioned in your post. But I think I remember being even more impressed by the Kodak 360-degree exhibition. That was just the coolest thing. I also loved the globe and the fountain symbol.

    You mentioned all the religious exhibitions. I remember the Vatican one and I remember Billy Graham’s. But the one that struck me most was the reproduction of the Mormon Tabernacle Temple. And the music as well.

    The other thing I remember from the fair was riding on a ski lift type thing through the park and not being very comfortable at all. Heights.

    I had cousins living in Queens at the time, they were around the same age as my brother and me, so we got to be really good friends. We attended the fair together for about a week each of the years.

    As for Seattle World’s Fair, my next-door neighbor was part of the design team for the Space Needle. I never figured a way to smuggle myself aboard when they flew out to Seattle for the Fair.

    And I also went to the Montreal Fair in 1972. What I remember was going to the Soviet exhibit. When you walked in you were met by a large bank of Soviet televisions and about 20% were working. I commented out loud, great exhibition of Soviet technology. One of the greeters (KGB, I’m sure), didn’t pick up on the sarcasm and was very proud – yes, indeed it was, he said.

    Montreal built (most of) its exhibition to last. Since it followed international rules, it was a one season only fair (yet another rule NY ran afoul of, both times). After that, you could attend what was renamed as Man and his World. Still dazzling. I have to admit, “real” foreign pavilions make a big, big difference. Expo took place late enough in the 60s to have had some of modern design’s more garish excesses toned down, in roughly the way that a ’67 Camaro is classier looking than a 1959 Chevy. 

     

    • #21
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Hang On Member
    Hang On Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Quibble: The Montreal fair was in 1967.

    Yeah, I reread it and corrected.

    • #22
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:05 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    I never made the connection before, but the spirit of those optimistic future-minded fairs lives on in annual conventions today like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

    Whereas South-By-Southwest and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) are industry specific, CES showcases anything and everything technological that might interest individual consumers. For days, people gather to gape at concept cars, refridgerators, toys, robots, personal computers, and much else.

    Around such trade shows, recreational activities are inevitably provided to cash in on the enthusiasm. For blocks around the conventions, billboard-size advertisements cover the sides of buildings and large statues are erected in honor of popular themes.

    James might be familiar enough with CES, E3, PAX, and such to know if the comparison is apt.

    For three years, I was co-director of Cinetex, a Las Vegas film festival and trade market sponsored by Sheldon Adelson. This isn’t as odd as it sounds; Shelly made his dough from the Interface Group, where he created COMDEX, once upon a time the premier trade show of the computer industry. He figured that if he conquered Silicon Valley, Hollywood couldn’t be too tough. But it was. 

    • #23
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:07 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Montreal built (most of) its exhibition to last.

    Um, most of the facilities started to deteriorate almost immediately, and all of Notre Dame Island was closed to convert it into facilities for the 1976 Olympics.

    Really, the only bits that remain are the La Ronde amusement park, the frame of Buckminster Fuller’s dome (the outer covering was destroyed in a fire), and the Habitat apartment building.

    However, it’s true that the islands that were created to host the fair were built to last, as they continue to serve as parkland.

    • #24
    • May 21, 2020, at 3:32 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member