Half Century Ago:
1964/65 New York World's Fair
(5/14) Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1964, the World's
Fair opened in New York City. It looked forward to a world where
technology solved all of man's problems, wants and needs. Perhaps
its goals were a bit optimistic, but it was fun, anyway.
There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining
at the end of every day. - There's a Great, Big
Beautiful Tomorrow, - Richard M. Sherman &Robert B. Sherman
I first visited the fair in 1964 as a six-year-old
boy. For members of the baby-boomer generation, if you were lucky
enough to be taken to this international exposition, I think it
had an impact on how you viewed the world for much of your early
life. For me, the song from the GE exhibit, There's a Great,Big
Beautiful Tomorrow, for right or wrong, encapsulated the spirit
of the entire exhibition.
There's a great big, beautiful tomorrow and
it's just a dream away!
In this case the dream belonged to New York's "master
builder," Robert Moses. Moses was involved in the 1939-1940 New
York World's Fair and when he was approached by a group of businessmen
about doing a sequel 25 years later, he looked at it as an opportunity
to complete his vision of converting a garbage dump/tidal marsh
into Flushing Meadows Park. Part of this area had been the site
of the earlier fair, but financial problems had stopped Moses
from completing the conversion back in '39. A new fair, located
in the same place, would give him a second chance.
The fair was controversial from the beginning. In
order to break even on the cost, the organizers knew they would
need around 70 million people to visit the exposition. To get
this many visitors would mean that the fair would have to run
for two six-month seasons instead of the usual one. The organizers
also realized that they would need to charge site rental fees
to the foreign exhibitors instead of giving them the space for
Belgium village at the fair. This was one of the countries
that did have representation despite the dustup with the
BIE. (Photo by Roger Wollstadt licensed
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Unfortunately, these needs were in direct conflict
with the Bureau of International Expositions' (BIE) rules. The
BIE, headquartered in Paris, was the international organization
that sanctioned world's fairs. Further complicating any approval
was another rule stating that no nation could host more than one
international exposition per decade and a world's fair had already
been approved for Seattle in 1962.
Moses traveled to Paris and tried to persuade the
BIE for an exception, but didn't get it. It was quite possible
to hold the fair without BIE approval (the 39/40 Fair hadn't had
it), but this almost guaranteed that none of the BIE member nations
However, Moses and the organizers got around this
by contacting trade and tourism organizations in those countries
whose governments wouldn't sponsor a pavilion. They managed to
get representation of some sort from a number of countries including
Spain, Indonesia, Belgium, France, Sweden, Taiwan, Jordan, Sierra
Leone, Guinea, and Egypt. There were some gaping holes in international
participation, however, including the nations of Great Britain,
Germany (though West Berlin had a pavilion), Canada and the Soviet
The lack of international government participation,
I suspect, had the effect of increasing the impact that business
and industry exhibitors had on the fair, making it more of a commercial
exposition. However, I have to admit that to my six-year-old mind
this was not a problem. I found that the best and glitziest exhibits
at the fair seemed to be from corporations.
As I mentioned before, the theme song of the General
Electric exhibit pretty much represented the whole fair to me.
GE's contribution was called the Carousel of Progress.
It was a round building where multiple sets of seats rotated around
a number of stationary stages at the structure's core. As the
audience was carried from stage to stage (to the tune of the theme
song), they were shown how technical progress had bettered life
in American homes starting at the beginning of the 20th century
and running through some post 60's future. Technical innovations
such as the refrigerator and air conditionerwere highlighted.
giant model of the city from the New York City pavillion
still lives at the Queens Museum of Art. (Photo
by OptimumPx licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Perhaps the most interesting technical innovation
on display at the Carousel of Progress was the cast of the show:
Walt Disney's Audio-Animatronics robots. This was one of the first
chances for the public to see Walt's synthetic actors and it was
certainly the thing that stuck in my young mind. They could do
show after 15-minute-show with no lunch breaks or sick days.
The Carousel of Progress was one of the exhibits
that survived the end of the fair. It was moved to Disneyland
and later Disney World. For this reason, probably more people
remember this remnant of the fair than almost anything else (though
the final segment had to be updated from time to time to avoid
the future from looking like the past). From various visits to
Disney parks over the years, the show is still fresh in my mind.
Even today I can still sing the lyrics to the There's a Great
Big Beautiful Tomorrow, without looking them up.
GE wasn't the only corporation that turned to Disney
for help with a pavilion. Ford's exhibit had visitors climb into
a train of Ford convertibles called the Magic Skyway. (This
used the same mechanics, I understand, as the "People Mover" that
would be later employed in Disneyland's Tomorrowland ). Riders
were taken past a moving diorama that included dinosaurs and a
"City of Tomorrow" complete with bubble-domed buildings.
Post fair, the dinos also went to Disneyland and could be seen
from the steam railway near Main Street USA.
The state of Illinois also used Audio-Animatronics
in their "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" show. Disney built a
robotic version of the 16th president that gave a ten-minute talk,
cobbled together from the real President's writings and speeches.
Unisphere and flags of the nations - Courtesy
The Lincoln robot was extremely impressive and everybody
who attended the fair remembered seeing it. This is ironic as
it almost didn't appear at the exposition. The figure had been
built as part of a history show planned for Disneyland. When Robert
Moses visited the Disney workshops prior to the fair in regards
to seeing the progress on GE's show, he was also shown Mr. Lincoln.
He was so amazed by it that he knew he wanted it at the fair,
so he went looking for a sponsor. He tried the federal government
and Pepsi with no luck. Finally, he took his idea to the state
of Illinois and convinced them to do a "Land of Lincoln" exhibit.
It took some steep discounts and monetary supplements from the
fair to get the state to agree to this as Lincoln's rental was
beyond the Illinois budget, but in the end Moses finally got the
mechanical President to his exposition.
After the fair was over, Lincoln finally made it
to Disneyland. Later, a duplicate was created for Disney World
where he still appears today with audio-animatronic figures of
all the presidents.
Even though Pepsi didn't host Lincoln, they did
get Disney to do a show for them. This was the famous, or perhaps
infamous, It's a Small World. Visitors were placed in boats
which floated through a 15-minute ride surrounded by child-sized
robotic figures outfitted in garb from all around the world. As
visitors watched, they sang the theme song while dancing their
The Pepsi show was the last project Disney took
on for the fair. The idea started with former company President
Alfred Steele's wife, the actress Joan Crawford. She had a personal
connection with Walt and asked him to take on the project. The
company had only eleven months to put together the show which
Pepsi envisoned as a "Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children."
At first the concept was that as the boats passed through each
country, its respective national anthem would be heard. Because
the total area of the ride was so cramped, however, this resulted
in a cacophony of noise, so Walt got the Sherman Brothers (who
were also responsible for There's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow)
to compose a simple, upbeat, song that could be sung as a round
in different languages.
The song, It's a Small World, has taken a
beating over the years as being extremely repetitive and overly
cheery, but by some estimates is the single most-performed and
translated piece of music on Earth. The exhibit, which was renamed
from "Children of the World" to match the title of the song, was
moved to Disneyland after the fair. Later it was duplicated for
Disney World in Florida as well as the Disney Parks in Paris,
Tokyo, and Hong Kong. A sixth installation is now being constructed
for Disney's Resort in Shanghai.
The space park
at night, just outside the Hall of Science. The Manhattan
skyline can be seen in the distance. (NASA)
You might think from the above list that everything
cool at the fair was built by Disney. This, of course, was not
the case. One of the most interesting installations that I can
recall from the fair was from business giant IBM. Their theater
was in the form of a huge, slightly-squashed egg suspended on
pylons high in the air and covered with the IBM logo. The audience
would climb into rows of sharply-sloping seats (dubbed "the people
wall") then the entire wall was pushed by hydraulic rams up into
the base of the egg. Inside a film entitled Think (I can't
really remember what the show was about, just how it was presented)
was shown on 22 screens of various sizes. In the area under the
egg were various smaller displays presenting short demonstrations
of computer logic or mathematics. One that sticks in my mind involved
a Sherlock Holmes puppet who at the end opened his coat to reveal
that he was actually a computer.
Another popular exhibit was hosted by the city of
New York itself. Inside this pavilion was a gigantic model allowing
visitors to take an imaginary helicopter ride around the metropolis
without really leaving the ground. The building, which had originally
been built for the 1939 World's Fair, still survives today as
the Queens Museum of Art. The giant model, the Panorama of
New York, is still on display and has been updated with changes
to the city since the fair. This year the museum is also exhibiting
some 900 vintage fair souvenirs recently brought out of storage
for the anniversary.
The Hall of Science was another favorite
of mine. Outside the cathedral-like building was a space park
loaded with huge rockets pointing into the sky. Inside there were
several exhibits, but the highlight was a presentation by Martin-Marietta
where two full-sized spacecraft of the future rendezvoused over
the audience's heads. The Hall of Science survived the fair and
today is a hands-on science and technology center.
Perhaps one of the best exhibits in the fair didn't
look forward into the future, but back into the past. At Sinclair's
Dinoland you could see nine full-sized, fiberglass, moving
dinosaurs in a park-like setting. The biggest was a Brontosaurus
(that today might more correctly be called an Apatosaurus,
but that's another story) 27 feet
high and 70 feet in length. The Brontosaurus was the Sinclair
company's symbol. Under his feet was a visitor center housing
a 45-foot-long display showing a timeline of the earth's prehistory,
complete with "erupting volcanoes, flashing lightening and bubbling
Perhaps the coolest thing about the Sinclair exhibit
was a set of vending machines (apparently marketed under the name
Mold-A-Rama) that would make you a model of one of the
dinosaurs. You would drop in a couple quarters and watch two halves
of a metal mold close. Then the machine would blow hot wax into
the mold for a few seconds, then cool it. The mold would then
open and an arm would push the figure, still warm and smelling
of the wax, out through a trap door and into your hands. My brother
and I procured seven of the beasts to take home with us (unfortunately
my poor T-Rex took a beating when my second grade teacher left
it on the radiator overnight after a show and tell).
The dinosaurs toured the country after the fair.
Eventually they were split up and went to different museums across
the United States where some of them still are still located today.
Though there isn't room for me to reminisce about
every exhibit at the fair, I should mention a few of the landmarks
that really stick in people's minds. The only thing my wife can
remember of the fair (she was 4 or 5 when she attended) was the
U.S. Royal Tire exhibit: an 80-foot-high giant tire. The tire
also served as the Fair's ferris wheel and could carry 96 people
around its edge in giant buckets. After the fair, the tire was
shipped to company headquarters near Detroit, and with the ride
mechanism removed, still overlooks Interstate 94 near the airport.
One of the more striking buildings was the Tower
of Light, a pavilion put together by a group of public electric
utilities. Its exterior walls consisted of 600 aluminum prisms.
At night its walls were illuminated in different colors. There
was also a 12 billion-candlepower searchlight which pointed straight
up. Inside visitors rode a turntable through several theaters
(sort of like the GE exhibit, except that you had to stand) where
the wonders of electricity were presented.
It would be hard to talk about landmarks at the
fair without mentioning its center piece: the Unisphere. The Unisphere
was a 140 foot-high, stainless steel globe of the world that sat
at the center of the exhibition and was dedicated to the fair's
theme of "Peace through Understanding." It still stands in the
middle of Flushing Meadows Park and occasionally, I understand,
they switch on the fountains that surround it. Even if you've
never been to New York, its image is probaby familiar to you from
the 1997 film Men in Black where in the final sequence
a crashing flying saucer knocks the globe down.
Financially the fair was considered a failure. Attracting
51 million visitors instead of the needed 70 million, it barely
was able to keep its gates open until its scheduled October 17,
1965, closing date. Perhaps, though, it's a little unfair to view
the fair as a success only if it made money. My gut feeling was
that it brought a sense of wonder to thousands, if not millions,
of kids and I'm not sure you can put a price on that.
postcard, a collectable from the fair, features the giant
Did those predictions that science would solve all
our problems come true? Well, not exactly. The videophone was
demonstrated at the fair, but that never made it into production.
The fair had a monorail as its transportation
system of the future, but few of those are around in 2014. In
the intervening years we've learned that technology isn't a panacea,
but a two-edged sword that must be wielded carefully. For every
wonder, like the internet, you can get a mess like the Fukushima
nuclear meltdown if you aren't prudent.
The twenty-fifth and now fiftieth anniversarys'
of the fair have passed with no mention of the possibility of
another World's Fair in New York. In fact, there has not been
a World Exposition hosted in the United States since 1984 when
the Louisiana World Exposition turned out to be a dismal failure.
Even the 1982 fair ("Knoxville International Energy
Exposition") which did turn a small profit was a disappointment
to many. I attended with friends and it was only a poor shadow
of what had been done in New York.
One place you can go to today to get a feeling of
what that NYC's grand exposition was like is in Orlando, Florida.
When Walt Disney first conceived of his Experimental Prototype
Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), he actually wanted to build a utopian
city. After his death, however, the company decided that without
his guidance such a grandiose undertaking was ill-advised. Instead,
the company took the lessons it had learned from the fair in New
York and applied them in making EPCOT and created a very successful,
permanent, world's fair.
Perhaps these temporary expositions are simply not
practical in our modern world. The BIE rule requiring the fair
not run for more than six months seems to limit such exhibits
to being either small or financially unsustainable. Other more
specialized conventions and trade shows, like CES and even Comic-com,
maybe stealing some of their thunder. Perhaps world's fairs, which
were often supposed to be a vision of the future, are now a thing
of the past.
western edge of the fair that included Ford, U.S Royal Tires,
Hall of Science and the Sinclair Dinosaurs. Photo
courtesy David at gorillasdontblog.blogspot.com
For more information on the exhibits and history
of the NYC World's Fair visit: http://nywf64.com/
Copyright Lee Krystek
2014. All Rights Reserved.