Remembering the Tower of Light ... an essay by Gary Holmes


Gary (center) in his Arlington Hat poses with friend (left) and brother (right) before a trip to the Fair.

Gary Holmes off to the Fair

I was completely enchanted by the New York World's Fair; even today it conjures up hundreds of happy memories and thoughts.

One remembrance still sending a "thrill shiver" up my spine is of the Tower of Light. Actually, two shivers; one for the building itself and another for the show inside. During the day the Tower of Light was interesting enough to look at, its muted aluminum prisms catching, if not exactly glistening in, the sunlight. However at night this strange and eye-catching building truly came into its own turning into a wonderland of color, images and light! With the bright white "tower" of light emanating from the center of the building the hundreds of panels of the prisms were transformed into an ever-changing mosaic of moving color lit by hundreds of special multi-color spotlights. Even the best of pictures cannot do justice to the effect these waves of light had; each panel sometimes having its own color (or two) only to have another color fade in to replace it; and then another and another.

And the different experiences to be had simply by changing one's point of view! The "prisms" were all equilateral triangles, so that if you were to look at the light show on one set of panels you could see a whole different show and display of lights just by looking at the panels that were angled 60 degrees from the first set. For me this was a most magical show, one that never ceased to enchant me. Now imagine expanding that view to include the "rotating lights" of the GE building and the multi-colored fountains of the Pool of Industry during the 9 P.M. fireworks display overhead! The IBM egg, the white Bell building and the Traveler's red umbrella in the background. Wow!

And then there was the show inside. I don't remember much of the 1964 version having only gone on it once. But I adored the 1965 version, which was quite different from the '64 show in content, at least. First, a few things I do remember about the '64 version: It was called "The Enjoyment of Electricity" and starred "Uncle Ben" Franklin, Sam the Eagle and a young man and woman who appeared only on film. Ben and Sam took the couple on a tour of the benefits of electricity. The sets were amazing. There were a lot of bright songs, but no Reddy Kilowatt -- at least as a co-star of the show. And at least the one time I rode on the show (the first month of the Fair), there were no seats and everyone stood. I was this little kid and remember being very annoyed that I could not see the whole show!

And then came the '65 version, "Holiday With Light," which jettisoned the 1964 script, all of the 1964 songs and the filmed man and woman; keeping Sam the Eagle (who became a totally mute observer) and most of the sets (many only slightly revamped). Additions included Reddy Kilowatt as co-star and a new script, concept and songs that made for a very bright, fun and fast-moving show using various holidays to demonstrate the benefits of electricity.

This Tower of Light show always began for me with the gently sloping moving ramp ride up to the second floor of the building where we would wait outside for the doors to open to let us onto the "ring" that took us through the show. This front entrance way to the building was done in clear glass panels and silver support columns and above it you could see the intense light shooting up and lighting the prisms that lined the inner courtyard. It made a very intense white light that complimented the wonderful light show that happened on all the outer panes. Curtains covered the glass on the inside of the entrance way. The doors that opened had curtains on a track that pulled back. Once through the doors you stepped directly onto the "ring" that carried the audience through the show.

I would often try to get as close to the front as I could because if I listened very intently I could hear snippets of the introductory scene of the show through the glass and curtain entrance way. This heightened my anticipation and I can remember my heart quickening even before the doors opened for me ... um, I mean ... opened for the entire audience (even though I was just a kid who had to pay and wait in line like everyone else, it was my Fair - even if nobody else was aware of that fact).

Before describing the show, a bit about its layout. "Holiday With Light" was set up much the same as the more famous "Carousel of Progress," Walt Disney's presentation for General Electric at the Fair. The audience rode on a huge ring, or turntable, that had in its first chamber a short introduction, then rotated clockwise stopping in several consecutive chambers to tell its story, with a final short scene from which the audience disembarked.

The scenes in both shows segued with a theme song. GE had "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," while Tower of Light's was "Holiday With Light."

LISTEN to "Holiday With Light!"

One difference between GE and Tower of Light: GE's show had fixed seat theater seating and everything happened behind a proscenium with the audience riding on a turntable that moved on the outside of the building facing the center of the ring. The Tower of Light's turntable went through the middle of the building with the show taking place on both sides of the ring, and also overhead; hence the presence of swivel seats. For the 1965 version there were probably 40 to 50 seats in each section of the turntable.

And while both GE and Tower of Light shows were basically extolling the virtues of electricity as the key to progress, the shows couldn't have been more different. The qualities and features of the classic "Carousel of Progress" can still be seen, of course, at Walt Disney World and are well known. But "Holiday With Light" was an all out musical revue and was one of the brightest, in many senses, and most "pop" oriented of the Fair's shows. And that's what I loved about it!

As the attendants opened the glass doors and curtains to let us into the show, I would scramble to a seat -- it made no difference where as the seating allowed everything to be easily seen. The bright theme song, "Holiday With Light," would be playing as we entered. In short order the attendants would close the curtains and doors, the music would die down and our attention was directed toward the inner part of the ring which was curtained off as well. After a short bit of banter these curtains opened to reveal "Uncle Ben" Franklin and Reddy Kilowatt standing in front of another curtain and otherwise very plainly appointed set. At some point in this intro, however, the curtains behind them pulled back to show us the huge Xenon lights that created the "tower" of light that shot up from the center of the building every evening -- a hint of what we were about to experience.

The two main characters, "Uncle Ben" Franklin and Reddy Kilowatt were definitely "pop art" creations and set the style for the rest of the show's design which was fanciful, bright and, at times, extremely stylized and cartoon-ish. Uncle Ben was made of molded plastic and fiberglass with a body and head of frosted white and made to look like two light bulbs. The eyes and mouth lit up and the interiors of the head and body were lit as well. Ben's coat and hat were made of see-through blue plastic, with plaster feet, wire-rimmed glasses and with gold, blue and red tape trimming on the coat and hat.

A close-up of Ben, now a part of Gary's personal collection
Gary's Ben (closeup)

Reddy Kilowatt was done as a three dimensional figure made of those famous red bolts of electricity. The figure's face was somewhat rounded and, if I remember correctly, did move an eyebrow or two and had a mouth and eyes that lit up. Ben, like Reddy, "talked" by means of three sets of lights that would blink on and off in various combinations, as programmed, to make it look as if the mouth was moving. And the characters did move, albeit only slightly, such as raising or lowering an arm or turning the head right to left (no audio-animatronics here!)

Ben and Reddy appeared in every scene. Reddy did plenty of singing whereas Ben didn't sing at all. Reddy was joined by a "chorus" of very festooned "birds" called the "Kilowatt Birds" which always appeared in a large group and sang most of the "big" numbers. The birds did not have any individual movement but were on pipes or some contraption and would lean forward or backward "en masse" on occasion and were quite bright, possibly with lights woven through their bodies.

But on to the show. As the intro scene ended with Reddy welcoming us to join him and Ben the "Holiday With Light" theme song played, the chamber went dark and the turntable started moving us into the second chamber which was already totally dark as we entered. From the darkness, Ben spoke about how nothing existed without power. Then, magically, the whole room exploded with sights, lights and action. The one set piece I remember best from this scene is the hot air balloon that Ben and Reddy were in. It looked like - what else - a light bulb with a bright canopy over the bulb and lights around all the edges, with a bright gold or brass colored balloon bucket for Ben and Reddy to stand in.

And action there was! And dozens of angled prisms (lit from above and behind), and a lit-from-inside globe, and ribbons of moving light representing electricity. It seemed as if every part of the the chamber was moving or had some lighting effect making something seem to move. Some film or slides were a part of it as well. This scene was a Musical Intro to the rest of the show with the characters singing about the seven holidays we were about to see. It was all so eye-filling and the music was so upbeat and catchy that the couple of minutes spent in this chamber flashed by. The scene ended with a big burst of light leaving the chamber in complete darkness, thus preparing the scene for the next group to ride in on the turntable.

We then moved into the third chamber which was the New Year's Eve Scene. On the outer ring stage was Ben (a small version, as I recall, perhaps in the hot air balloon) only briefly seen and wondering where Reddy was. Attention shifted to the area above the divider to the next chamber where Reddy, in a hard hat and on a pole, was fixing the power lines. Reddy went right into a song about power, with assistance from the Kilowatt Birds. As they sang the chamber came alive with tall spiraling and slightly conical motors and turbines. Very large copper wire sculptures lit up as well. With great fanfare the scene shifted to the inner ring where Uncle Ben was dressed as Father Time with a fake white beard and a scythe in hand and Reddy as "Baby New Year." I don't remember if Reddy was in a diaper, but he did wear a sash. The scene was done in a very bright, almost pinkish-red with lots of bright Happy New Year decorations, signs and, of course, lights.

This, incidentally, is the Ben I was tremendously fortunate to have given to me by the exhibitor at the end of the Fair [see the Legacies section of]. My Ben did come with the beard, which I keep separately, but the scythe is only evidenced by the hole in Ben's left hand through which it was wired. And he did, as with most of the Bens in the show, move his head right and left. There were Bens that moved their arms or slightly turned, but my Ben wasn't required to do more than turn his head and talk.

Gary's Ben: a gift to him from the Tower of Light at the close of the Fair
Gary's Ben

This second part of the scene was calmer, though bright, with less action and a lot of music and song. The creators did make sure that there was some light effect or movement in every scene.The mirror ball effect was used in this part of the show. I remember this chamber was the one where there was sufficiently little going on action-wise that I got to look at the building itself. While the inside of the ring usually had floor to ceiling sets or cycloramas or curtains, the sets on the outside portion of the ring would incorporate the building itself so that the inner sides of the angled "prism" panels could be seen and were often painted or used themselves for lighting effects. The occasional use of the outer contours of the building for the show itself was a good design choice that added to the interest in the show.

In the fourth chamber the first sight was of Ben next to a large old wood radio and he either was standing on a porch or was in a chair. Reddy was there, as well, and explained to Ben about Labor Day and, of course, the importance of electricity. In this first part of the scene some films or slides were briefly used demonstrating some of the electrical production methods. Reddy then directed attention to the outer ring where machines and turbines with stylized transmission towers and wires galore put on a grand show as Reddy and the Kilowatt Birds sang about the benefits of, yes, electricity! (Well, it WAS an industrial exhibit and in many ways the electric companies were patting themselves on the back. But it was truly done with entertainment as the primary goal. Years ago, I read an article by Alfred Stern, creator of the Tower of Light show in which he discussed his desire to entertain first and slip the "plugs" in without interfering with the fun. Much of the philosophy was evident in this scene. We got a small snippet about "magneto-hydro-dynamics" and then this huge scene with a hundred moving parts and a bright song!)

The fifth chamber started with a scene left over from the previous year that had nothing to do with holidays. But even though it didn't exactly fit, it was most enjoyable. It is the Farm Scene with Ben sitting on the porch of a somewhat Victorian-type house muttering about some farm chores that need doing. Above the house was a stylized and bright sun with clouds and a backdrop of a farm field setting. Reddy picked right up on Ben's comments pointing out that modern farms were benefiting from electricity, leading to a fun song where the farm animals and Reddy sang about all the great things happening on the farm because of progress. The animals were stylized and cartoon-ish but not bright and mod-ish like Ben, Reddy and the Kilowatt Birds. They were more like 3-D versions of cartoon characters and involved such fun scenes as a cow in a "beauty parlor" setting and hens batting their eyes as they watched an incubator from their coop. Also pigs dressed up in straw hats, if I recall correctly.

At the end of the farm song, the scene shifted to a house setting on the other side of the ring. Here Reddy and the Kilowatt Birds sang of all the wonderful appliances electricity afforded mother on Mother's Day. As in the General Electric "Carousel of Progress," when each appliance was sung about, the lights went up on that item and it opened its door or "showed itself off" in some fashion. The Mother's Day Scene was rather straight-forward and not as fun as the Farm Scene. But the constant movement of attention from one thing to the next made it go along quickly enough.

And then on to the sixth chamber! During the first part of the scene Reddy sang a song about Father's Day. It was done on a stage setting a'la Radio City Music Hall with multiple arches and latticed lights above and around the stage and with Ben accompanying Reddy on the piano. (In the 1964 version I remember Ben did a piano solo on the same set.) There was little physical action to this scene except for a couple of "double-takes" by Ben during the song -- one of the many clever touches by the designers to "humanize" these figures. Attention shifted to the outer ring where Reddy and the Kilowatt Birds sang a "Happy Birthday" song to everyone. Once again the scene was very bright and ornamental and filled with lighting effects. No spinning turbines here, but lots of shifting and movement between various members of the chorus.

In the seventh chamber the audience was treated to a most spectacular fake fireworks display. This was the Fourth of July Scene which started with Ben and Reddy on a bandstand located on the inside of the turntable. Reddy made a short speech introducing Ben who then "stepped forward" and gave a short, patriotic speech (all attempts to plug electricity were dropped here). Once done speaking Ben said "Happy Birthday, America" and the rest of the scene was given over to a light and fireworks display that used lights, fiber optics, slides, film, music and who knows what else to absolutely dazzle the audience. At times it seemed as if the entire chamber was filled with fireworks. All that was missing was the smell of burnt gunpowder! In the many times I saw the show I only once took my gaze away from the effects that covered the ceiling and the outer rim to look at Ben and Reddy. It was a tremendous addition to the scene to find them not "turned off" and and awaiting the next sequence but, rather, still actively part of the scene, watching the show and Ben gesturing (even though all eyes were and should have been on the fireworks display). The scene ended with a huge burst of fireworks and color that left me (at least) always almost breathless.

In the eighth and final chamber was a Christmas Scene unlike any other I'd ever seen before. Above us towered the outside ring. Reddy and Ben, dressed in Santa and elf accessories, were in a sleigh with beautifully stylized reindeer. And throughout the huge chamber was a forest of enormous, long finial-type Christmas ornaments, some of which either had slides or actual scenes in their centers. And we were treated to another explosion of lights laced all through the chamber! Add to this a burst of rousing holiday music as the audience rode in and you've got a perfect ending to a great show.

It's not so much that anything happened in this last scene (there were no songs or production numbers). But the setting was gorgeous. It was a short scene with Ben and Reddy thanking the audience and then playing us out with the "Holiday With Light" theme song. The audience exited down a ramp that went from the right side of the outer ring and curved to the left underneath the chamber taking one to the exhibits on the ground floor. I loved this final scene so much -- it was a truly magical visual display done up to literally "knock one's visual socks off." I would often stand about three quarters of the way down the ramp and, totally entranced, look at it as long as possible before I had to go. At times the attendants, perhaps sensing my inner thrill, would let me stay and watch the scene again as the next audience rode in on the turntable.

The remainder of the building consisted of first floor exhibits on the benefits of electricity. These exhibits were always just a blur to me as I was always too excited by the main show. None of these "grownup" exhibits held any interest for me anyway. I would race through them stopping only to look at through the viewing glass at the huge searchlights that made the "tower" of light. You didn't see all of them because they were at different levels, most of them being at ground level. The lights directed all their intensity straight up so it was possible to look at them without being blinded. There were about twelve of them and were put on these pedestals of varying height -- each pedestal looked like a modernistic candle holder. The ground beneath them was done in white stone. It was strictly a "stop -- 'Oooh, look at that! Wow!" -- move on" deal.

The only other thing I remember about the ground floor displays is that you could fill out a card with a question about the show or electricity and the exhibit would send you an answer. Well what I wanted every time I went was to get a letter a few days or weeks later from the Tower of Light. But, there always seemed to be an attendant next to the box you were to put your questions in. If I didn't act fast enough the attendant would take my question and answer it right there and thwart my purpose in writing it in the first place! So it stared to become a game: how does little Gary get the question into the box and get out of the building without the attendant grabbing and answering it? I only hit about 30 percent!

If there wasn't too long a wait and my folks were agreeable, I would go through the ride again! But I also had to get to GE and Bell and IBM and Pepsi and Johnson's Wax and the Searching Eye at Kodak and ... oh, don't get me started!

Uncle BenThe 'show biz' influence the fair had on Gary Holmes brought him to stage managing, back office theater work and ultimately as an attorney doing copyright and tradmark law, with occassional 'very low level' productions of the plays he writes.Of his repeat visits to his favorite shows at the Fair, Gary says, "I would literally 'breathe them in.'"


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