IT'S A SMALL WORLD

It doesn't seem like world fairs exist anymore, but when I looked the

topic up, it seems there were a few in the 21st Century, but they were largely

for corporate connections and not the mass culture glimpses into the

future that had been around for 150 years. Certainly, the world fairs of

my youth are a thing of the past.

When I was a kid, my mom often talked about attending the exhibits of the first New

York World's Fair that took place in Flushing Meadow, Queens in 1939-1940. I used to

have a program from that fair; it may still be in a box somewhere. The fair's theme was

"Dawn of a New Day" and emblematic of its message were the Trylon and Perisphere,

the futuristic structures at the center of the fairgrounds.

I'm not sure what magazine I read in school when I was eight or nine, but it was the

equivalent of Scholastic Scope. I remember reading about the Seattle World's Fair

in 1962 and the really cool Space Needle that soon became the iconic image for

that city in the Northwest. It made me very excited about the New York World's

Fair scheduled to open in Queens in 1964. I went to the fair on four different

occasions, at least once on a school bus with my classmates as I recall. You could

not have possibly visited all the amazing exhibitions in a single go-round. Just look

at a map of just part of the fairgrounds:

You can see that all states had venues promoting commerce and industry and innovation

within their own borders. Most major countries also showed off elements of their

culture or their latest inventions. Almost all significant business corporations created

amazing shows to promote their brands: General Electric, Disney, General Motors, Ford, IBM,

DuPont, Kodak, and many, many others. At the center of the park sat the Unisphere, the

symbol of this fair. It still stands today, adjacent to the US Tennis Center.

GENERAL MOTORS "FUTURAMA"

I'll share my memories of a few of the places I visited. The one I wanted to see the most

was the General Motors Futurama exhibit. It was a time when we all thought the future was

upon us--that soon there would be flying cars and we'd swallow a pill for our entire meal!

You would get in a car on a conveyor belt (after a really long wait on line) and

be transported through vista after vista of futuristic life. You could see big-

wheeled rovers crossing the sands of Mars, or bustling US cities with

controlled highways and towering apartment complexes, or undersea living

pods with personal submarines. Here is a video from that exhibit:

It was certainly a future that made me very excited about the rest of my life! Instead,

I get global climate change, pandemics, and Kanye West. Futurama forgot to mention

that.

ROYAL TIRES

A simple idea--let's make a Ferris Wheel that looks like a rotating tire to promote our

product! Genius.

VATICAN EXHIBITION

The Pope really outdid himself. John XXIII gave permission to move Michelangelo's

Pieta to NYC for the fair. Designers created a blue backdrop with a panoply of soft

lights to highlight the beauty of the sculpture. It was the talk of New York.

AMF MONORAIL

We were all sure we had entered the future when we rode the monorail. I

fully expected that we would someday be transported from city to city in this

way (at least until we could beam ourselves across time and space!).

WALT DISNEY/UNICEF/GENERAL ELECTRIC/FORD

Disney's influence globally was unmatched in the early '60s. The geniuses at Disney

actually had a hand in four different exhibits. Most famous was Disney's own venue,

with the theme "It's a Small World After All". You would wait on another long line and then

get in a boat that would propel you slowly through the waters as you passed dioramas

of cultures across the globe. The show, with its animatronic characters, was so popular

that it has become a mainstay at all the Disney parks around the world. And everybody

joined in to sing the title song. It was the hallmark of the United Nations' promotion of

UNICEF, the new organization to help the less fortunate among us.

Walt also contributed the Carousel of Progress as part of the GE Pavilion. It was reportedly his

personal favorite. Disney then took the success of this exhibit and added it to Disney Land

and all the future Disney theme parks. Walt's wizards also contributed an animatronic Abraham

Lincoln to the Illinois Pavilion. He chatted with a folksy style to thousands of rapt visitors.

Here's a clip of Walt promoting the revelatory animatronic production run by early computer systems:

Ford Motors contacted Disney to create their pavilion as well! Instead of riding in boats, visitors

toured the exhibition in brand-new Ford motor cars--including the just released model that has

since become the iconic American car--the Mustang! On your excursion, known as the "Magic

Skyway", you drove past cave men and dinosaurs as well as a city of the future! At least some of this

exhibit would form the basis for EPCOT.

The theme of the 1964-65 World's Fair was "Peace Through Understanding". The vibe was

Space Age. It seemed, in America at least, that anything was possible through science and

invention. The architecture was Mid-century Modern--now thought of as retro--but back then

as futuristic as the picture phones on display in the Bell exhibition. There were dozens of kiosks

where one could try the cuisine of a particular country--Belgian waffles anyone? Americans

saw actual computers--and their capabilities--for the very first time! You could ride a tram across

the park (although how you would get back to your parents was another thing) or take a

monorail around its perimeter. There was even a Space Park, celebrating America's entry into

the Space Age and its new heroes--the Original 7 Astronauts.

This was Baby Boomer America at its most optimistic and maybe more than a little naive. The

enthusiasm that was evident at America's first famous World's Fair--in Chicago in 1893--had

been carried forward into the 20th Century in a vibrant way. Americans thought of their

country as the center of a world that was its oyster--we would promote peace and harmony and

progress for all. The Unisphere was emblematic of that global ambition.