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