Part I of my article on the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair ran last night; the link is here.
Just like the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, the sequel in 1964 had to have a grand monumental structure that would be an instantly recognizable icon of the fair, like the Eiffel Tower (1889 Paris World’s Fair) or the Space Needle (1962, Seattle). In 1939 it was the Trylon and Perisphere, two monuments that did not survive that fair. The monument design that won for the 1964-65 fair was the Unisphere, a 120-foot diameter globe made of 900,000 pounds of stainless steel, sprouting out of a giant reflecting pool. The Unisphere won out–it was Robert Moses who chose the design, of course–over other ambitious projects, such as one called the “Galaxon,” which would have been a 300-foot-wide concrete candy dish set on a crooked angle, or a 170-foot tower that would have been called “Journey to the Stars.” We’re probably lucky Moses liked the Unisphere, at least a somewhat more down to earth design. The Unisphere survived the fair and is still there in Flushing Meadows Park.
The other iconic architecture of the fair was the New York State Pavilion, whose most recognizable feature was a set of two uneven towers, concrete stalks with disc-shaped buildings on top of them which contained restaurants and observation decks. Moses and the bigwigs of the fair decided to get noted artist Andy Warhol to contribute a large piece of art for the exterior of one of these buildings. They were less than thrilled when Warhol unveiled his choice: a huge grid composed of numerous mug shots of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Originally fair officials were concerned that the artwork would invite lawsuits, but somebody evidently pointed out to them that somebody being chased by the FBI was not likely to reveal his location by filing a lawsuit against Andy Warhol for putting his mug shot on a building. The exhibit ultimately stayed.
The Illinois Pavilion featured a very interesting attraction which was cutting edge for 1964: an animatronic robot designed to look and speak like Abraham Lincoln and regale visitors with a medley of some of Lincoln’s most famous speeches. The voice of Lincoln was provided by Royal Dano, a character actor on TV from the 1950s to 1980s (one of his most famous roles was the creepy preacher in the Philip Kaufman film The Right Stuff). The exhibit was designed by the Disney company and became so popular that Disney decided, when the fair was over, to crate up the Lincoln robot and install him permanently in an exhibit in Disneyland that became known as “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.”
Amazingly, Disney’s hit with the Lincoln robot was not his only success involving animatronics at the World’s Fair. The Disney corporation paid through the nose for a lot of space at the fair to show their wares, and also subcontracted to do several other company’s presentations–for example, oil company Sinclair got the Disney people to create robot dinosaurs for them, which proved one of the most popular attractions at the fair. Pepsi Company got Disney to create not one but an army of tiny robots dressed like children, who were dressed in clothes from around the world and set to work singing a song called “It’s A Small World After All,” which has got to be one of the most annoying pieces of music ever created. This exhibit was also installed at Disneyland after the fair was over.
One of the two most popular attractions of the entire fair was GM’s “Futurama” ride, which took visitors on a “tour” of human history and bold new imaginings of the future, which curiously all seemed to revolve around General Motors projects. (I suppose an animatronic Joe Biden doll talking about the 2009 government bailout of GM would have been too depressing a future to show to fairgoers). The second was an exhibition of Michaelangelo’s statue, the Pieta. The Pieta was shipped from Italy along with a copy that was used as a decoy during its installation to fool would-be art thieves. Millions of visitors saw the sculpture, which I believe has never appeared in the United States since then.
“Les Poupées de Paris” (The Puppets of Paris) was a puppet show attraction that was, if not racy, at least a bit more risqué than anything else at the fair. It was created by Sid & Marty Kroft, who in the 70s went on to produce the “Land of the Lost” show.
Despite all these fun attractions–and an opening season that looked like it was on target to stay in the black–the 1964 World’s Fair was secretly in very serious financial trouble. Millions of advance tickets had been sold before the fair even opened in April 1964, but all of this money went down on the books for the fair’s first season, not the second. What this meant was that, although when the first season closed in October 1964 it looked like the fair had made plenty of money, by the time it was about to open again in April 1965 the fair was running on fumes because it had no advance ticket sales to pay the bills. A majority of the fair’s financial committee resigned in protest, complaining they hadn’t been told of the true nature of the fair’s financial situation. Robert Moses, predictably, blasted them for soiling their own nest. But even he couldn’t conjure money out of thin air. He was forced to lay off 3,000 employees, reduce the publicity budget and raise the ticket prices from $2.00 to $2.50 a head. It didn’t help. The fair was still bleeding cash. It never actually got into the black.
The closing day of the fair was October 17, 1965. This event was well-attended, possibly because New Yorkers sensed that the era of large-scale flashy world’s fairs was pretty much over and that this was the last hurrah. Unruly visitors went on a minor rampage through the fairgrounds that day. Women tore up flower beds and stole silverware from restaurants. Somebody stole the statue of King Tutankhamen from outside the Egyptian Pavilion. Closing day was ignominious and embarrassing for the fair’s organizers. When it was all said and done the financiers who put up the cash got little more than a pie in the face for their trouble: for every dollar invested, they got back a little more than 19 cents. The fair was a financial disaster.
But still, there were many New Yorkers and travelers from all over who remember the fair with fondness. (One of them, a frequent reader of this blog, posted a comment about his own reminiscences of the fair on last night’s article). Despite the financial troubles and Moses’s meddling, the 1964-65 World’s Fair was definitely the end of an era, and one that we will probably never see again. It deserves to be remembered.