Abe Lincoln was there. So were the “Flintstones.” Michelangelo’s “Pieta” paid an exclusive visit. And, the enormous inhabitants of Sinclair’s “Dinoland” bid folks a toothy welcome.
During the summers of 1964 and ’65, a gee-whillikers wonderland welcomed one and all to Flushing Meadows Park, a former New York garbage dump. This was the place to be. . . a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience “the world of tomorrow—today!”
This was the New York World’s Fair. And I was there, too.
In the official “Fair Guidebook”, event president Robert Moses noted, “the Fair aims to be universal, to have something for everyone.” That it did, which is why it retains its significance 55 years after the fact.
Mid-century modern was the overriding architectural style. Space-age futurism, in the form of spheres, spires, and swooping, sweeping, building facades, resulted in a design environment just right for the atomic generation. New and more adaptable construction materials, such as Fiberglas and stainless steel, meant that anything that could be imagined could be built. Here was a place where the “Jetsons” would be right at home. (In fact, in some Fair advertising materials, they were.)
Now, about my own World’s Fair connection: in 1965, I was chosen for the “Boy Scout Service Corps”. Our job: staffing the Fair’s Boy Scout Pavilion. Our attire: old-fashioned “campaign” hats, and, over our regular khaki uniforms, “must-wear-at-all-times” red nylon jackets. (Since this was summertime, many a sweltering Fair day was in store.)
We were each assigned specific Pavilion duties. Mine: demonstrating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on “Resusci-Annie”. Remember her? This lifelike plastic dummy had a full-sized head crowned with wispy blonde hair, and a realistic torso. When resuscitation was performed correctly, “Annie’s” chest would miraculously rise and fall. But, since “Annie” had to fold up in a suitcase when not in use, the rest of her was much less realistic. Her legs, just ski pants stuffed with cotton batting, had a habit of flopping about the display table. Plus, “Annie’s” rubbery lips had to be wiped thoroughly with rubbing alcohol after each use, playing havoc with teenage complexions.
However, time away from “Annie” was magical. My Fair notebook indicates that, over the summer, “Don saw 41 exhibits.” Among the favorites: General Motors’ “Futurama;” GE’s “Skydome;” the Kodak “Moondeck;” the Vatican Pavilion, with its awe-inspiring “Pieta” sculpture; the Illinois Pavilion with a walking, talking Abe Lincoln (Disney’s first use of that technology); U.S. Rubber’s 80-foot Ferris Wheel in the shape of a gigantic tire; and, of course, the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion, featuring the debut of Disney’s “It’s A Small World.” During our “Small World” mini-cruise past multi-national singing and cavorting puppets, the boat ground to a halt. We stayed as we were for about half an hour--but those happy puppets kept on singing. I still have “It’s A Small World” committed to memory. (Well, at least the chorus with the Swiss yodeler.)
The emphasis of almost every Fair exhibit was on, as General Motors put it, “things yet to come.” Every day at the Fair, there was something new to see. . .something new to explore. I think I owe much of my fascination with learning more about the unknown to my scouting stint at the New York World’s Fair.
Today, World’s Fairs in U.S. locales are just a distant memory; there hasn’t been one held on our shores since the 1980s. Nowadays, visitors are lured to such exotic Fair sites as Korea and Shanghai. Those in search of domestic dazzlement need travel no further than Disney World (a current home of audio-animatronic Abe, and those persistent “Small World” singing puppets.)
But for two brief summers during the 1960s, a real World’s Fair, right here in our own backyard, enthralled, entertained, and educated crowds from around the globe. It was the New York World’s Fair, with its gee-whiz, gosh-almighty visions of the future. And wasn’t that future wonderful?
Indeed it was. Scout’s honor.
Reference materials courtesy of Jan McKelvie; Andy Kaufman (www.worldsfairauction.com); Gary Holmes; Bill Cotter, and Michael Alonge.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. He eventually made it to Eagle Scout. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org