World's Fair and the Futurama

This is a story of two world’s fairs, held 25 years apart. The early fair, the one my parents went to as kids, is still justly remembered with fondness and respect, a last good time before World War II. The later one, the space age fair that my wife and I went to as kids, was also a dazzling, Disneyland-sized tribute to modern progress. It was held in the same place, by many of the same people, companies and designers who created the first one. But this new fair, “our” fair, was scorned by fashionable critics.

Then and forever since, the few writers who mention the New York World’s Fair 1964/65 saw it as ugly and unimaginative if not outright tacky, shallow corporate hucksterism. In the quaint language of the day, the fair was a distraction from pollution, prejudice and poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine said something typical that seemed clueless and unintentionally funny even at the time. It still sticks with me—“Only the people who went to it liked it”. I’m one of them.

I usually write about technology intersecting show business. This post is about one very un-usual, very costly form of specialized moving image storytelling, the world’s fair or theme park exhibit ride. It’s a unique kind of show you actually move through, part inspiration, part entertainment, part advertising--or propaganda. It’s a popular art form that was essentially invented in America to look beyond those Depression blues. Its spirit lives on even today at Epcot Center and in every Disney park.

Flashback, all the way back to April 30, 1939. “I Have Seen the Future”. That’s what it said on a display pin you were handed when you stepped off the seated ride conveyor, at the end of General Motors’ spectacular Futurama exhibit at the 1939-’40 New York World’s Fair. Its dazzling moving diorama views of mile-high skyscrapers and twenty-lane, hundred-mile-an-hour superhighways made it by far the fair’s most popular pavilion. America’s future was looking far brighter than it did when the World’s Fair was first proposed in 1935, in the Gotham City-like depths of the Great Depression.

The Futurama badge you pinned to your lapel was a boldly colored design on enameled metal, New Deal stark and mythic looking. Working class families were almost all Democrats, suspicious of Wall Street, and recently scarred by hard times. Yet they flocked to see the pride and self-flattery of rich corporations at the zenith of their power, spending bundles to create ten-minute visions of the future so elaborate that you can sit down and spend ten minutes riding through them. And Futurama, a word trademarked by General Motors, was where it all started.

When the NYWF opened, Germany’s conquests were still nearly bloodless, something that would change, and soon. But as the public swarmed through the gates on that last day of April, 1939, there was still plenty of hope that it would indeed be the beginning of a bright new day.

Another seated conveyor “ride” at the 1939-’40 fair was called Democracity, the fair’s own giant light-and-sound diorama of city life in a rationally planned future. This exhibit took place inside a giant ball, half of the iconic Trylon and Perisphere theme center known to every viewer of the 1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33”. In the diorama, each quadrant of town had to re-paint their buildings to match the neighborhood’s voted-on color scheme. Democracity would have been democracy at its pushiest.

The pre-war fair wasn’t all rides, of course. It marked the public debut of nylon stockings, fax machines, new forms of plastic, robots, and television. Some pavilions had a sense of fun, like NCR’s building that was shaped as a giant cash register, whose numbers displayed a running tally of the day’s attendance. There were exhibits of passenger trains and of milking machines. Foreign pavilions competed to attract visitors with free food and entertainment.

There was also a lakeside Amusement Area, with more traditional fairground entertainment, games of “chance”, carny barkers, and side shows, including “artistic” poses by topless women. It doesn’t fit our clean image of 1939, but it happened.

Then, world war, and a world transformed. In the prosperous 50s, with America effectively on top of the world, New York’s power circles wanted another round. Everyone was in on it: Democrats of Brooklyn’s Tammany Hall and the outer borough construction unions; patrician Republicans who ran Manhattan’s banks and real estate. Everyone could make a buck off another world’s fair. Political power broker Robert Moses, the unelected king of New York, accepted the job of making it happen. The date, 1964, was chosen as the 300th anniversary of Dutch New Amsterdam becoming British New York.

After toying with impractical schemes like a glass dome a mile in diameter, the city settled on the simplest, cheapest solution, of re-using the street plan of the ’39-’40 fairgrounds. The Kennedy administration was fully on board. Like the earlier fair, the flashiest parts would be presented by major corporations like General Electric, AT&T, IBM, DuPont, Bell Telephone and the car companies.

The international clearing house for world’s fairs had already okayed Seattle’s Space Needle world’s fair of 1962, and was in the process of approving Montreal. They turned down New York. They’d turned down New York in the 30s, too, but this time they made it stick. Most major countries like Britain, France and Germany didn’t participate. To save face, the fair allowed privately owned unofficial fake “pavilions” that were no more than a fast food stand and a souvenir shop. A definite mistake, though not a killer one.

In a late stage of design, the USSR and its satellites changed course and withdrew. In a fit of spite, Moses—that’s Robert Moses—gave their land to God; he made their pavilion real estate available to religious groups, just this legal side of free of charge. Not everyone loved the flashy Vatican pavilion, but my family did. The Billy Graham Evangelical Organization had a great exhibit. For years to come, I was the only Catholic kid in the neighborhood who subscribed to the Hour of Decision newsletter (as well probably being the only one with a copy of the album to 1964’s biggest Broadway hit, Fiddler on the Roof). An Anglican writer complained good-naturedly that the various denominations of the Protestant and Orthodox pavilion looked like a bunch of Allegheny Airlines check-in counters. It should be admitted that the ’64-’65 fair was a bit on the churchy side, but it accurately reflected the attitudes of the country at that time, a reality that irritated the hell out of critics.

Progressives were increasingly distrustful of technology, and seemed to have no interest in automobiles, computers, suburban living, video telephones, or space travel.

In 1964 and 1965, the GM Futurama’s exciting ten-minute trip into the future was once again the most popular exhibit at the fair. Seated riders glided past lifelike scenes of lunar colonies, arctic weather control stations, and underwater scenic hotels. The so-called pin that ride attendants handed you was made of injected plastic, and its symbol was just an atomic abstraction of the space age. A sign of changing times and styles.

People in 1939 wore hats, and men often wore a jacket and tie even in summer heat. By contrast, a glance at color photos of the 1964 crowds doesn’t look that strange to us today. People are dressed for comfort, as we do today, though for the ladies, slacks and not-very-short shorts were still outnumbered by dresses and skirts. It was a world of families, not singles. The crowds of ’64, the civil rights era, are more racially integrated than ‘39s, as ours are today.

Some of the differences between then and even just a few years later don’t show up readily in photos. What we think of as the 60s had barely started. There was no women’s movement to speak of. The only new freedom for women touted at the fair was the kind that modern appliances and wash and wear fabrics could convey. The world of 1964 wasn’t thinking much about gay rights, or the environment, not yet, anyway. The Vietnam war hadn’t inflamed the country; that came later. There was no graffiti, and very little crime at the fair. So far as we know, the smell of marijuana was never detected wafting through its nighttime streets. All of this would change quickly, even by the time of the New York fair’s gifted, conceited younger sibling, Montreal’s much-loved expo67.

More than a half century on, I still think that most, not all later criticisms of the fair were snobbish sour grapes. ’39 also had its share of tacky, and ’64 had plenty to be proud of. It hosted the Pope and the Beatles, among 51 million other people. It inspired artists from Andy Warhol to Stanley Kubrick. If its fascination for outer space now seems a little naïve, it appears to be coming back into style. The IBM pavilion’s computers-are-your-friends creativity was smartly ahead of its time, and so were the telecommunications forecasts of one of the fair’s other great ride pavilions, Bell System/AT&T.

Walt Disney, whose theme park rides owed much to the earlier fair, designed no fewer than four exhibits, three of which were retained afterwards for use in Disneyland: the Illinois pavilion (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Pepsi-Cola (It’s a Small World), GE Carousel of Progress (It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow) and the biggest of the four, Ford Motor Company’s own ride through history, one-upping GM by having the passengers seated in actual Ford cars, propelled from below with small electric motors.

The top attraction remained the General Motors Futurama. There’s a saying in show business, “Give the people what they want and they’ll show up for it”. That’s why two generations of people waited in hour-long lines to see what amounted to a slow ride around an ingeniously detailed, three-block-long model train layout, while contemplating America’s future. What Futurama gave us in the crowd was buoyant technological optimism.