Walt Disney's "It's a Small World." The "Carousel of Progress." Billy Graham's religious film "Man in the 5th Dimension." Full-scale models of the engines of a Saturn V rocket. Wisconsin's "World's Largest Cheese. A US Royal tire-shaped Ferris wheel. A recreated medieval Belgian village. DuPont's musical review "The Wonderful World of Chemistry." Intricate miniature dioramas of a possible world in the near-future, Futurama II, presented by General Motors.
All of these exhibits and pavilions, nutty ideas and contradictions were on display at the 1964-65 World's Fair. Today marks the 50th anniversary of that fair, which first opened on April 22 in New York's Flushing Meadows. The fair showed visitors a "spectacle that embodied the innovative, lunacy, hope, and fear of the Sixties," according to Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America Hardcover, a new book New York City journalist Joseph Tirella.
Perhaps the world all seems closer today, with the ease of international travel and the Internet. There's no need for a foreign government to exhibit exotic wares in a funky cheese-shaped pavilion or hand out Belgian waffles when we can get our choice of gourmet items at Whole Foods. In 1964-65, the world was more naive, more forward-thinking, rather than future-fearing.
I recently had the chance to ask Tirella a few questions about his book Tomorrow-Land, the fair, what made it innovative and unique, and why it remains an important time capsule on the cusp of a tumultuous era. Read more about Tomorrow-Land on the book's Facebook page and on Amazon
Ethan Gilsdorf: What are three things people need to know about the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair?
Joeseph Tirella: The 1964-65 New York World's Fair happened at a time of tremendous change in America. After the Fair, America soon became a very different country. Finally, the Fair gave a glimpse of what America would look like in the future—a multicultural country.
Gilsdorf: You say that the fair remained a seminal event in the lives of many who attended. What made it awesome for those who were there?
Tirella: There was nothing like the 1964 Fair before it or after it. The technological advances displayed at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair were special but that was a time when computers and technology was considered science fiction—more Buck Rogers than reality. But in 1964 the world was already living in the atomic age and the Space Race was on. Technology, despite its obvious potential for destruction, was still seen as a force for good in the lives of Americans. That would eventually change.
Gilsdorf: What was the weirdest building or exhibit at the fair, in your opinion, or the "life in the future" prediction we'd most laugh at today?
Tirella: By far I think the part in GM's Futurama II exhibit that predicted humanity would be living underwater in underwater apartments and underwater hotels. It's just kind of laughable to think 50 years ago anyone would have suggested that. Imagine the environmental impact of that. How much electricity/power would it take to make enough light for human beings on the bottom of the ocean? Besides do humans need sharks for neighbors? And, for that matter, do sharks want humans for neighbors.
Gilsdorf: Exactly. I was just checking out GM's promotional film for Futurama II. "Trains of submarines transport materials and goods along the waterways of the under sea," says the narrator. "Aquacopters search the ocean floor to find, miles deep, vast fields of precious minerals and ores. … In warmer seas are new realms of pleasures… A weekend if you wish at Hotel Atlantis in the kingdom of the seas." Aquacopters! Very cool. And totally unrealistic.
Gilsdorf: You said that "America soon became a very different country." It sounds like there was a real culture clash brewing in and outside the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows. On the one hand, there was a last-gasp, Camelot-era faith in old values and government/corporate benevolence, represented by Guy Lombardo, Disney, Ford, GM, and NASA. But there were the beginnings of the counterculture in exhibits by Warhol. Then Ken Kesey crashed the gates, and Beatles and Dylan performed nearby, Malcolm X was agitating nearby. The assassination of Kennedy happened only few months before the fair opened in April, 1964. The fair epitomized that split in America. The times, there were a changin.'
Tirella: Absolutely. Inside the Fairgrounds was the Fair; outside America was changing rapidly — far too rapidly to understand. Looking back now, a half-century later we can see the juxtaposition of two worlds colliding.
Gilsdorf: I get the impression that 1964-65 New York World's Fair, or possibly the 1967 Montreal Expo, were the last of the big, innocent, possible naive "the future really is going to be brighter" world's fairs. World's fairs don't seem to have the huge impact they once did. Was that 1964-65 fair the last of its kind?
Tirella: Yes, it absolutely was. It was the last hurrah of an age when America collectively optimistic before the disappointments and disillusionment of Vietnam, multiple political assassinations, race riots, Watergate, the economic woes of the 1970s, etc.
Gilsdorf: So here's a question I've always wondered: Who decides who gets to have a world's fair? Is there like an IOC of world expositions?
Tirella: The Bureau of International Exhibitions, or B.I.E. They are based in Paris and they regulate World's Fairs.
Gilsdorf: But the fair was not officially sanctioned, right?
Tirella: Yes, it's true. Not a sanctioned world's fair. The B.I.E. actually boycotted it.
Gilsdorf: Whoa. You mentioned the GM Futurama. There were some pretty funky pavilions built, and I heard that Disney relocated several of the exhibits to Disneyland in Anaheim. Do any of the buildings survive in Flushing Meadows? Were they moved elsewhere? What can folks still see?
Tirella: Yes, the Unisphere; the Space Museum; and the New York City Building, now the Queens Museum (newly renovated) are all in their original locations. Same with the NY State Pavilion, which is totally decayed. It is a rotting hulk of a mess but even in its current state it is something to behold. With the right vision and investment it can truly be something.