WORLD'S FAIRS gave us the Eiffel
Tower and the Space Needle, the Ford Mustang and the Ferris Wheel,
Sally Rand's fan dance, steak sauce and giant steam engines.
They gave us a reason to celebrate the present and look forward
to the future. And they gave us memories.
Our personal memories of
world's fairs are as much a snapshot of a certain time in our
lives as they are specific recollections of the exhibits we saw.
For a lot of us, a world's fair was also a rite of passage -
our first trip to a major city, a honeymoon, the first vacation
we took on our own. Whether our memories are entirely accurate
or not probably doesn't even matter. What does matter is that
we have them, and thus we share a common denominator with the
rest of our generation.
Historians look back on
world's fairs and judge them within a larger context, deciding
which ones were important and which ones were not. We ordinary
folks use a simpler standard. For most of us, the best world's
fair ever held will always be the first one we attended. For
my brother and I, that means the fair that opened at Flushing
Meadow during April school vacation in 1964, when he was twelve
and I was fourteen.
From our first sighting
of the Unisphere through the windshield of the family Mercury
as we trundled along the Van Wyck Expressway, it was clear that
this time our parents had chosen a vacation with potential. Spreading
before us was a dazzling panorama of promise and possibility
unlike anything we had ever seen. Everything was modern and magical
and larger than life. Pavilions soared skyward in strange futuristic
shapes. Pop Art was everywhere - a ten-story rocket, an eighty-foot
car, a giant rubber tire turned into a ferris wheel.
It was all incredible and
it was all ours. For two whole days, armed with piggybank proceeds
and official guide books, we were on our own to travel wherever
curiosity carried us - through an amazing world of color and
space exploration and exotic foreign lands.
We stuck our heads into
plastic spheres at Clairol to see how we'd look in Jackie Kennedy
bouffants or frosted flips, played with IBM Selectrics at the
Typewriter Bar, and with touch-tone phones at the Bell Pavilion.
At Parker Pen we filled out questionnaires and were matched -
by computer! - with pen pals. At DuPont, actors in go-go boots,
Oleg Cassini outfits and hats trimmed in giant molecules sang
and danced and introduced us to dripless paint and the Happy
We took pictures on the
lunar landscape roof at Eastman Kodak, sampled peanut soup in
the tree house restaurant at the African pavilion, and waited
in a long, boring line to ride a moving sidewalk past Michelangelo's
Pieta. And we ate as many Bel-Gem waffles as funds and fortitude
At General Motors' Futurama
we were transported to a time when tourists would board atomic
submarine trains for jaunts under the ice of Antarctica or drive
their Aqua-Scooters to undersea hotels. Heady stuff for two kids
within spitting distance of their first drivers' licenses.
We walked from Albany to
Buffalo on the giant map at the New York State pavilion and argued
about how we'd spend the million dollars on the money tree at
American Express. At Festival of Gas we fantasized about the
Norge Dishmaker ending our nightly dishwashing duties forever
- by turning dirty plastic dinner dishes into brand new plates
in time for breakfast.
And who could ever forget
that epitome of fallout shelters, the Underground Home? A subterranean
ranch house that promised us freedom from pollution and radiation,
it boasted a glamorous round bed, backlit mural "landscaping"
and a patio complete with chaise lounges and a barbecue grill.
Since we had spent weeks
during the Cuban missile crisis diving under our school desks
in practice air raid drills, the idea of living underground didn't
seem all that far-fetched (or entirely undesirable, to my shallow
fourteen year-old mind, especially if a round bed was part of
Like most Americans in
1964, we were fascinated with space. We had grown up with Sputnik
and watched, in breathless amazement on a classroom TV as Alan
Shepard took his fifteen-minute Mercury flight in 1961. Our vocabularies
were filled with words like Telstar and splashdown, and NASA
was becoming as familiar as The Ed Sullivan Show. We drank Tang,
wondered how astronauts went to the bathroom, and tried to imagine
life at zero gravity. The world's fair was a spectacular showcase
of this new era, a cornucopia of command modules and booster
rockets, space stations and moon domes - and it gave us our first
ever opportunity to see it all up close.
Of all the innovations
on display, though, our hands-down favorite was Audio-Animatronics,
a Walt Disney-designed invention that produced incredibly life-like
electronic figures who seemed to move and speak just like real
people. Several pavilions used them, but the best, as far as
we were concerned, was the G.E. Carousel of Progress.
There, in theater seats
that traveled around a center stage, we watched an entire audio-animatronics
family move through history, from the days of drudgery before
electricity right up to an ultramodern life of leisure in their
all-electric home. So mesmerized were we that today, over thirty
years later, we can both still hum the exhibit's theme song on
For us, THE world's fair
will always be 1964. Looking back, it still seems magical - even
though the great big beautiful tomorrow of G.E.'s theme song
didn't turn out quite as well as predicted. Who knew back then
that the Happy Plastics Family would end up worrying about overflowing
landfills, school violence and cholesterol?
Personally, I hope they
fared better. I like to think they're still out there somewhere,
maybe in the Talking Formica House, firing up their Dishmaker
and eating lots of Bel-Gem waffles.