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Millions of people stood in line for hours to see the three-dimensional theater in the Chrysler Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair 1939-’40. Eager viewers donned cardboard glasses to see stop motion animation set to bouncy music, of real car parts magically flying around in the air, seemingly right in front of the dazzled audience, before neatly assembling themselves into a Chrysler sedan. It was one of the biggest hits of the future-oriented fair. In fact, it was so popular that unlike most other fair exhibitors, who discreetly cut back their budgets for the 1940 “repeat” edition, Chrysler more than doubled down, reshooting their short 3D film in full color.
The Fair opened before war broke out in Europe; by the time it closed, it was clear to most Americans that the magic of the future was going to have to wait a few years. But arrive it did, with highways, cars, suburbs, nylon stockings, and television. And by the dawn of the Fifties, stereoscopic movies, slides, and comic books were ready to join them, in a brief, spectacular, three-dimensional false dawn. That wave lasted only three years, 1952 through 1954, but to this day, whenever a more modern movie like Back to the Future (1985) wants to evoke the pop culture of the Fifties, the designers have someone don a pair of 3D eyeglasses.