Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Memories of a World’s Fair

NewYorkWorld'sFairOne of the most memorable experiences of my childhood was attending the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.  I can still vividly see the great pavilions, futuristic exhibits and international restaurants.  I had the foresight of spending one dollar for the official guide, and that book occupies a place of honor in my bookcase.

The concept of a world’s fair stretches back 160 years to the international exposition at London’s Crystal Palace.  Since then, there have been many notable fairs, both in the U.S. and abroad.  The most recent was World Expo 2010 Shanghai, which closed three months ago.

Among the world’s fairs or expos in the United States have been the Centennial International Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876; A Century of Progress International Exposition at Chicago, 1933-1934; and the Century 21 Exposition at Seattle in 1962, which left as a legacy the landmark Space Needle.

But for most Americans interested in these grand events the most famous were the world’s fairs in New York in 1939-1940 and again in 1964-1965.  The first was on the eve of World War II but the theme was still hopeful, looking at “the world of tomorrow.”  The second was amid the Cold War, and had the theme of “Peace through Understanding.”

It has been almost a half-century since “my world’s fair.”  This fair seemed to embody all the excitement of the early 1960s as well as the society to come.  One of the prominent pavilions was that of IBM, complete with a distinctive large oval theater. You had the opportunity to use computers and ask scientific questions and receive printed answers.

The Equitable Life Assurance Company sponsored a massive covered pavilion which provided a running total of the U.S. population.  The guidebook advertisement had an image indicating a population of 196 million (as compared to today’s 312 million).

Some “Generals” were represented:  General Motors Futurama, General Electric Progressland and the General Cigar Hall of Magic.  You could jump in a convertible and travel through time, past and future, at Ford’s Magic Skyway.  And you could see Westinghouse’s time capsule which will be opened in 5,000 years!

You could take the Swiss Skyride, then dine at Switzerland’s Chalet Restaurant and, finally, go to the Bell Telephone pavilion and report back home on your international experience using a free telephone.

Despite all of these amazing sights, the most talked-about exhibit was Michelangelo’s 15th-century marble masterpiece Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion.  I can still remember looking at the glass-enclosed sculpture while riding on a moving sidewalk.

I wish that I could have seen the 1939-1940 world’s fair and compare it with the later New York fair.  Fortunately, I have some postcards and, yes, that official guidebook, too.  For those who have experienced either—or both—they have provided memories for a lifetime.  But, alas, it seems that they likewise represent the zenith of the genre.

World’s fairs have amazed people around the  globe since 1861.  Although their popularity may have diminished from the time of the great New York fairs, they have a rich history and also offer some valuable insights into the pride, hopes and aspirations of society.

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