Out of the tradition of the great 19th-century European trade exhibitions came the World’s Fair. From the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 to the sprawling 1982 celebration in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bill Moyers explores the ways in which these global festivities have reflected America’s changing views about the world and the future.
ED WYNN: George, I want to congratulate you on the success of this marvelous institution out here that you call the World’s Fair.
FIRE CHIEF: We call it a Century of Progress.
ED WYNN: Well, you can call it a Century of Progress. I’ll call it a World’s Fair. That’s all there is to that.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: The eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Yes, our wagon is still hitched to a star.
FREEMAN GOSDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, we take great pleasure in christening this car and the skyride the official Amos and Andy skyride of the Chicago World Fair. Here we go. Hit it. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t mess with that thing, did I son?
JOHN F. KENNEDY: By dialing 1964, I launch the final phase of this great effort. [TELEPHONE DIALING]
RICHARD NIXON: It is my high honor and privilege to declare Expo ’74 officially open to all the citizens of the world.
BILL MOYERS: Give a fair, and the President of the United States will be there, no matter who he is, no matter what his politics, no matter what affairs of state are clamoring for attention. I’m Bill Moyers. And I know Lyndon Johnson felt that way. He was willing to brave rain, political rivals, and the threat of civil rights demonstrations, to open the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Why? Because a fair is a call for celebration, and politicians love to celebrate.
President William McKinley wrote, “expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They’re records of the world’s advancement. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people. They quicken human genius.” That was before he got assassinated while attending the 1901 World’s Fair at Buffalo.
Still, it was a pretty apt assessment. Fairs are ready made for a little self-congratulatory backslapping and a swell occasion for optimism.
I’m talking here about World’s Fairs, not industrial or agricultural expositions, colorful though they may be. American World’s Fairs evolve from the great trade shows of Europe. And once on this side of the Atlantic, they quickly became launching pads for new products and showcases for feats of technological daring do, of which there were always a great many.
Everyone could get a gander at the experiments that might soon become the main springs of our daily lives. Small wonder historians see fairs as a grand expression of our innovation and as a gauge of our faith in ourselves and our faith in the future. Certainly, we took such measure at the World’s Fairs of the 20th century.
BILL MOYERS: The classic recipe for a World’s Fair calls for a few time honored ingredients. Fireworks, plenty of music, a Ferris wheel, much ballyhoo, and the promise of an adventurous beak from the daily routine.
Knoxville, Tennessee dished up its version in the summer of ’82, adding a dash of southern culture to give this Fair its special flavor. By night, carnival diversion spread as far as the eye could see. By day, the grounds took on a more serious look, that of an international assemblage whose common purpose was to inspire all comers with the theme, energy turns the world.
Like all World’s Fairs, this one promised a combination of entertainment and learning. This time, the promise was enough to lure 11 million visitors at $10 a ticket. For their money, they got a state of the art fair, plus a day-long respite from the frets and worries of the outside world. At center stage, the $22 and 1/2 million US pavilion, where planners set out to acquaint us with the means by which we will propel ourselves into the future.
ROBOT: Welcome, humanoids, to Energy Unlimited. My name is Quadracon, and I have travelled through time and space to tell you humans of the types of energy you’ll be using in this country for the next 50 years.
GUIDE: Have you ever worked in a nuclear power plant before? No, all right. Great. You’re going to work in one today. Why don’t you turn around and take a —
BILL MOYERS: Robots, computers, and nuclear energy figured heavily in the mix. But no one needed to be as sophisticated as the technology to take in this pavilion’s cheerful pitch.
GUIDE: Now we’re going to try to split this uranium atom with neutrons from that gun in a process called fission. So, Robin, you take aim and shoot the uranium atom. Go for it. OK, you got him. The uranium atom absorbs the neutron. You can stop now. It gets excited. It starts to vibrate, pulsate. Pretty soon, it splits apart and releases a tremendous amount of energy. Now when those uranium atoms split —
BILL MOYERS: For those who found the future intimidating or incomprehensible, there was also the remembrance of fairs past and homage to the wonders first displayed at the great grand pappy of 20th century American fairs, the World’s Colombian Exposition. It was a grand celebration of American ascendancy.
TOM JUDD: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 set up this beautiful city. It’s called the Dream City, all white. And people came from all across the world to see that Fair, participated in that Fair. One woman walked from Galveston, Texas, to Chicago, Illinois, 1,500 miles on the railroad tracks to get to that Fair.
BILL MOYERS: Tom Judd of the State University of New York teaches the history of technology through innovations that first appeared at fairs.
TOM JUDD: People came from all over the world selling their kitchen stoves, giving away they burial money, to get to that Fair.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
TOM JUDD:Because that Fair seemed to capture the spirit of America, perhaps the spirit of Western civilization, that you could build something, something magnificent.
BILL MOYERS: The Chicago Fair is now remembered for its architecture, for Thomas Edison’s moving pictures, and for the Ferris wheel named for its inventor, George Washington Gale Ferris.
By the time the Pan American Exposition opened in Buffalo in 1901, fair goers knew they could count on a multitude of midway thrills. Among Buffalo’s biggest hits, the food booths with free samples. People also came to gawk at babies at a child hatchery and at Sioux chiefs at an Indian convention. The intent of this Fair was to foster trade expansion. But by far, its most important legacy was the tower of light. Until it lit up this entire fair, electricity was regarded only as an expensive, and somewhat dangerous, toy.
BILL MOYERS: Next came St. Louis and the grandest Fair to date. With an air field, an enormous sports stadium, and three hours of fireworks on dedication day, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 promised the best, the biggest, and the newest of everything under the sun.
[MUSIC – “MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS”]
Besides that still familiar tune, St. Louis gave us the safety razor, rayon, iced tea, and when the summer sun calls the shortage of reusable cups, the delicious edible ice cream cone. Also on display were whole villages of natives from exotic lands. And underlying every spectacle was a new found attitude toward technology and tomorrow.
TOM JUDD: The 1904 Fair is remembered mostly for transportation. And I suppose this is because an automobile actually drove from Washington to St. Louis and didn’t break down once in the entire trip.
Now people have been flying around in balloons for 100 years from back at least in the earliest 19th century in France. That’s one thing to fly around in a balloon and not know where you’re going to land, and another thing to go up in a balloon and go from one place to another place and to return.
BILL MOYERS: To really have control?
TOM JUDD: To really have control of this. A large money prize was being offered for anyone who could get their dirigible up in the air, go 100 miles in one direction, and then turn around and come back.
BILL MOYERS: Anybody win?
TOM JUDD: No, but they came close. They came very close. No one actually made it. But it shows that it was just around the corner. What no one recognized, of course, was that the airplane was just around the corner.
BILL MOYERS: No one won the dirigible contest, but Americans won 23 first place track and field medals at the Olympic games held that summer as part of the Fair. The records they posted raised some interesting questions.
TOM JUDD: People began to ask, are they really making world’s records? Could not a native who has thrown a javelin all his life, or an Indian who has shot a bow and arrow all his life, be more accurate and more proficient than these white males from Western civilization? So they tested this. At the conclusion of the Olympic Games, they had something called anthropology games.
BILL MOYERS: Anthropology games.
TOM JUDD: Anthropology games, where they brought all the natives from the various pavilions that were at the St. Louis Fair, and they had archery contests and javelin throwing contests, and jumping contests, all the events that were part of the Olympics. And by and large, the natives did not do very well in these contests.
BILL MOYERS: And what was the result of this?
TOM JUDD: The result of this was the recognition that these records that were being set in the Olympic Games were indeed the world records. And it’s part of this development in 20th century civilization of the recognition that efficiency can be taught through scientific techniques. At the same time that coaches are coaching through scientific technique for better performance, we have the development of scientific management.
BILL MOYERS: And the World’s Fair gave legitimacy to that claim?
TOM JUDD: Yes. Right. In a very different area, but it gave that legitimacy to scientific management.
BILL MOYERS: Scientific and technological advances were hurdling into our lives at an unheard of pace in the years just before we entered World War I. And the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 meant to celebrate all of them. Pride in our latest accomplishments ran as high and as loopy as Art Smith in his exhibition biplane. After all, San Francisco had rebuilt itself after the quake. Teddy Roosevelt had built the Panama Canal. Long distance phoning was possible. And Americans had discovered cafeteria dining. Taking bows, strutting our stuff, seemed just the ticket. Why are people interested in such things?
TOM JUDD: Well in the past, they were interested in World’s Fairs because World’s Fairs gave us a photograph of the present, a story about past progress, and a vision of the future that really was an inspiring vision. Secondly, I think it was because people didn’t have television in those days. And they would hear about these developments, perhaps see a picture of these developments in their magazines, and wish to go and see the actual invention itself.
BILL MOYERS: Not without reason, various World’s Fairs had already been showcases for the Corliss Engine, everybody’s windmills, Otis’ elevator, McCormick’s rebirth, the glider, the telegraph, Edison’s phonograph, Bell’s telephone, the first electric stove, the automatic milking machine. And at some fairs, you could order a car in the morning, watch it be assembled during the day, and drive away in it at night.
The scientist, CP Snow, wrote that until this century, social change was so slow, it would pass unnoticed in one person’s lifetime. This is no longer so, he said. The rate of change has increased so much that our imagination can’t keep up.
We of the late 20th century tend to think of ourselves as having some sort of franchise on future shock. Not so. Future shock arrived early this century with the inventions we’ve just seen. The difference is that at least in the beginning of this century, we seem to have reason to believe that all changes were improvements. Such belief was held with an almost religious fervor. World’s Fairs were a kind of mighty revival. Believers came to have their faith renewed. Skeptics faced the possibility of conversion. Then came the savagery of World War I, and the pandemonium of the ’20s, the shock of the crash, all casting shadows of doubt over the crystal ball that once showed such a sunny future. Fairs changed, too. And I asked Tom Judd about how those changes showed themselves in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933.
TOM JUDD: The official theme of the World’s Fair —
BILL MOYERS: Of ’33?
TOM JUDD: Of 1933. The official theme in the official guidebook was science finds, industry applies, man conforms. Human beings losing control of their technology is the message that I get out of the 1933 World’s Fair. General Electric had as its exhibit the House of Magic. It’s not a house of understanding. It’s a House of Magic that science is beyond the everyday working man or woman who comes to the Fair. The message here is, look, we’ll entertain you. We’ll dazzle you with our magic of science. The Hall of Science had a huge statue of a robot leading two trembling human beings, a man and woman, into the future. Man and woman are not in control of science. Science is in control of man and woman.
BILL MOYERS: Chicago called its Fair, A Century of Progress, and meant it to be a futuristic celebration of the city’s 100th anniversary. But in 1933, the Depression had made us nostalgic for less troubled times. Yankee virtues were back in style. Early on, there had been talk of canceling the Fair. But Chicago went ahead simply to provide badly needed jobs. That this Fair made money had less to do with visions of a flawless future than with the fact that the planners understood people’s need for cheerful and reassuring distractions. Foremost among them, a concourse of foreign villages, a refined version of the phenomenon from earlier fairs. Gone were the dog eating Igorots of St. Louis and the rain dancing Iroquois Buffalo. Here instead, in a single day, fair goers could tour an entire world of happy, dancing natives.
EMCEE: And now, Ladies and gentlemen, you are now confronting Nudy Italiana. And presenting for your approval —
BILL MOYERS: At the end of the concourse, a feature that had been the secret of financial success at many a fair. First, there was Little Egypt. She danced up a storm in 1893 at Chicago, where she was billed as having “educated muscles”. Fatima took the turn of the century by shock, wiggling herself in a way that hadn’t been wiggled in Buffalo before. By 1933, Hoochie Coochie came in the form of Sally Rand. Some form. Each time the police raided her fan and bubble dance, attendance at the Fair shot up. Insult to the Ladies’ Purity League and injury to public morals were not the work of Rand, alone. Mike Todd offered a bevy of dancing beauties. And Texas Guinan, of prohibition fame, resisted all efforts to add wisps of chiffon to her troops’ bare bones. The finance men, of course, gazed fondly only on their balanced books. For those with an aversion to the flesh pots of fairs, there always have been plenty of other thrills.
BILL MOYERS: So much a part of World’s Fairs are gut wrenching rides, that there is now a move afoot to refurbish the most thrilling among them. Ellen Harrison, art critic and museum curator, is trying to rescue the parachute jump left from the 1939 Fair.
HELEN HARRISON: Oh, people lined up to go on this. And they line up to watch other people go it. They really enjoy the people screaming as they came down. Those guy wires that hang down would help to keep the chutes from tangling. But unfortunately, if there was a wind, the guy wires, themselves, would tangle up. And several people were stuck on it from varying lengths of time. There was even a couple married on it during the 1940s season.
BILL MOYERS: Somehow, going to the Fair imprinted itself on a person’s memory in a very powerful way, doesn’t it?
HELEN HARRISON: Well it’s a group experience in a way that watching television or going to the movies is not. It does go back to the old fashioned idea of getting together in a country fair or some kind of an enjoyment to group activity, an amusement park.
BILL MOYERS: The ’39 New York Fair called itself the World of Tomorrow. Outside its gates, the world seemed on the verge of chaos, which may explain why within the Fair, everything seemed to emphasize control, precision, like Billy Rose’s Aquacade.
HELEN HARRISON: These places still attract people because you have a chance to see and experience things in the company of others. It’s not a private activity. You could go with your boyfriend, girlfriend. It’s something that you share together, rather than something you experience on your own.
BILL MOYERS: Any significance to this?
HELEN HARRISON: Well the Trylon and Perisphere was the theme symbol.
BILL MOYERS: Say that again…
HELEN HARRISON: Yeah, these are invented pseudo-Greek terms that describe these two forms. The Perisphere, or the circular form, was intended to represent the earthly realm. And the Trylon, of which this is a three-sided triangular column, which is rather a dumpy version, was meant to symbolize the hope for the future, or the forward looking or upward looking vision, that the Fair was supposed to represent.
BILL MOYERS: The inside of the Trylon was empty, and the entire Fair was built on what six months before had been an enormous ash sheet. But within the Perisphere was Democracity, the ultimate expression of this Fair’s theme.
So grim was the news from the outside world, that radio broadcasts were banned from the ground. Visitors trooped up the Helicline, knowing they could indulge in uninterrupted fantasy of a flawless, classless, odorless, trouble-free future.
HELEN HARRISON: Well the concept behind the Fair was very high minded. It had a lot to do with the idea that you could plan a better future if everybody was smart, put their heads together, and if people could be convinced that this was the right way to go about it.
BILL MOYERS: Those were years in which sociologists were talking about the people. As distinct from any individual, the people were invested with many mystical notions. The people of the future might wear plastic dresses and sport Dr. Alexis Carrel’s artificial heart. In the world of tomorrow, the people would do their own X-rays and thrill to manufactured sparks. It was this world, too, that anticipated the compact. The Crossley got the endorsement of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. But it seemed symbolic that he drove it only around in circles.
GUIDE: Ladies and gentlemen, so that you may enjoy these 10 magic minutes, you have been given a Polaroid viewer. Polaroid material is a product of scientific magic. It makes light do tricks never thought possible. Take the viewer with the long tab in your right hand. Hold it in front of your eyes. As the features of the Plymouth are revealed in new dimensions, you will come to realize that, indeed, Plymouth is in tune with tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: Fairs long had mingled elements of the serious and the sublime. By 1939, the two are inextricably mixed. The automobile manufacturers led the way. With social and physical mobility on the rise, the car companies had a great deal to gain by linking their products to any possible vision of the future. So car companies competed with each other in games of lavish showmanship. Where once they’d shared common ground in a single transportation center, they now built whole buildings and filled them with science and industry that seemed to need no help from human hands. Paradoxically, automation at that time was a somewhat scary subject. Jobs were at stake, and the Depression still with us. Exhibit planners ignored the paradox as they put together their optimistic and highly technological vision. Nonetheless, the most popular exhibit at this Fair belonged to an auto company.
GRANDPA: You don’t suppose we could leave the world of tomorrow until the day after? No, I guess not. Well where is the end of the line?
GRANDDAUGHTER: It’s right over there, Gramps. It isn’t far.
BILL MOYERS: The General Motors Futurama cost something like 5 million prewar dollars for the purpose of predicting that far off year, 1960. 25 million people peered through it into the future. Here was the largest scale model ever built, showing a world of superhighways with 100 mile an hour speed limits and orchards where each tree grew under its own canopy of glass.
ANNOUNCER: Strange, fantastic, unbelievable. Remember, this is the world of 1960.
HELEN HARRISON: You flew over an arterial highway system, which did not exist, the coast to coast highway system. It would be like in the 1860s, flying over a coast to coast railway, and suddenly realizing the implications of what it meant to link the continent by rail. Well here we had it one step further along, linking the continent by road so that each individual motorist could motor from coast to coast on a continuous ribbon of highway. Of course, these highways were built, although they were built very differently from the way that Norman Bel Geddes, the designer of Futurama, had envisioned them. But the concept of an arterial national highway system, which was begun under the Eisenhower administration, was a very visionary one, and one which really changed the face of the American continent forever.
ANNOUNCER The city of 1960 has abundant sunshine, fresh air, pine green parkways, recreational and civic centers, all the result of thoughtful planning and design.
GRANDDAUGHTER: Won’t it be a wonderful place to live, Gramps?
BILL MOYERS: Was their vision of the future as an orderly, immaculate, coherent, planned future, right?
HELEN HARRISON: Well it would have been right to think in those terms if the kind of cooperation that they envisioned had come to pass. Of course, the irony of it is that it was happening on the eve of war in a mood which was destroying the very atmosphere in which any such cooperation could have existed.
BILL MOYERS: There is something we haven’t mentioned yet, something that made an appearance at the ’39 New York Fair. The essayist, EB White, wrote of it. “I believe this is going to be a test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision, we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace, or us saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by this. Of that I am quite sure.” This invention of which he was writing had been known in England for some years. There had been some flickering and fleeting demonstrations of it in this country also. But it didn’t come to the Fair until it was introduced in ’39 by David Sarnoff.
DAVID SARNOFF: It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art, so important in its implications, that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like torch of hope in a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.
BILL MOYERS: The invention was, of course, television. Any list of the 20th century’s significant inventions has to include it. Even the wonders we now see unfolding, microbiology, space exploration, computer technology, none of these can dwarf the impact of television. Television has changed World’s Fairs, as well. Where once people flocked through the turnstiles for the privilege of seeing the newest of the new, they may now stay home and still be in the know. So why do we still have Fairs? Well, for one thing, television has not replaced the thrill of actually being there, at the baseball game, or in the theater, or at the concert, or on the fairgrounds. Many of us still thirst for a first person experience. And for another thing, we are an adaptable people. If one reason for having a fair no longer obtains, well, we’ll find another. It happens all the time. Tom Judd believes the futuristic visions that once were a must for fairs have already been replaced.
BILL MOYERS: As if to confirm Tom Judd’s theory, Knoxville’s International Energy Exposition featured technology as old as the sun, itself. Photovoltaic cells didn’t power the telephone, just the night light inside the booth. This Jeepney from the Philippines, a great favorite, used coal for fuel.
TOM JUDD: One of the most significant developments is the American loss of its belief in progress. Since 1974, polls have been showing that Americans, that a majority of Americans, no longer believe that the future will be better than the present, and the present is better than the past, which is the definition of progress. And that’s fundamental.
BILL MOYERS: How is the sense of pessimism reflected in fairs?
TOM JUDD: We look at the Knoxville Fair, the most recent fair. There was very little vision offered for the future.
BILL MOYERS: With such doubts in the air, fare goers seemed to prefer a little taste of the past.
SADIE, GROUNDHOG CONCESSION: This is official World Fair groundhog, because they had contacted him to sell. Would you like to be eaten at the World’s Fair? And he said, what an honor, because when the gets to groundhog heaven, you see, he’s going to be the only groundhog that can say I got eat at the World’s Fair. None of them other groundhogs got eat on a country table.
VISITOR: What is that?
BILL MOYERS: Whatever their preference in food, fun, and exhibits, all comers to this Fair served a common purpose. They are helping to underwrite the urban renewal of downtown Knoxville. Every cash register on the grounds was wired to a central computer that instantly calculated Knoxville’s part of the take. Every waffle, every soda, every souvenir, was a part of the plot.
Before the Fair, this area was a blighted railway siding, populated mostly by down and outers. The profit from the Fair intended to replace the wrong side of the tracks with a park and convention center with nary a dollar of city taxes at stake. It’s the new reason to have a fair.
BILL MOYERS: Seattle pioneered the idea in 1962 with its Century 21 Exposition, built on the side of an old bus depot not far from downtown. Our crisis of faith in the future hadn’t yet hit with full force. So Seattle enjoyed the best of both worlds. An old fashioned fair with a newfangled intent. It proved a winning combination.
GUIDE: I’d like to Welcome you to the Space Needle today. We are travelling in our west elevator, ascending at a rate of 800 feet per minute. It will take us just 43 seconds to reach the observation deck. Total height of the structure is 605 feet, or 184 meters. And it was built in less than a year in 1962 for Century 21 Seattle World’s Fair. Directly below us–
BILL MOYERS: At its heart, the Space Needle, a marvel of modern engineering camouflaged as carnival come on.
GUIDE: Exit to your right, but watch your step.
BILL MOYERS: With hostesses decked out as Star Trekkies and a restaurant revolving around the top, the Space Needle capitalized on this Fair’s forecast of the space age and contributed to the prophets that built Seattle a permanent park and cultural center.
ANNOUNCER: As you may have heard, the functioning of the turntable is so smooth that you can balance a half dollar on its edge or stand a cigarette on its ends. You realize you’re moving only when you glance up after a few moments of conversation and see that your view has changed.
BILL MOYERS: Indeed, the success of Century 21 changed Seattle’s entire skyline. Critics pronounced architecture, ideas, and execution, original. And suddenly Seattle was a city to reckon with. To this day, tourists write the Space Needle into their travel plans. Among the sites they can still see, another marvel of Century 21, the monorail that connects downtown to the fairgrounds.
In the early ’60s, planners hoped such things would ease traffic in urban areas. Seattle’s Monorail was supposed to be a demonstration model. Today, it serves a small number of commuters and a large number of tourists who come to see the residuals. That’s fair buff lingo for what a city gets to keep after the fair closes. In October 1957, when Seattle was just beginning to think of sponsoring a fair, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik One. The space race was on, and the US was behind. The federal government spent $9 million on this science pavilion to try to inspire us to catch up.
GUIDE: Here, you get an exciting panorama of new questions about earth and space, matter and energy, and living things. The US Science Pavilion will use nearly 10,000 fireflies, hatch 15 dozen eggs a day, use 286 frogs, 100 horseshoe crabs, 14 mice, a 1/2 dozen electric fish, several hundred silver salmon, and four rhesus monkeys, in public demonstrations and experiments. When we return to this building for a later telecast, they’ll all be here.
BILL MOYERS: The electric fish and the horseshoe crabs are gone. But the Science Pavilion remains. The liveliest part, a hands-on science center for young minds. Childish curiosity meets the fun house trick. And the hope is that the spirit of play will launch a whole new generation of astronauts.
VISITOR: We could be here all day long. Oh heavens to Betsy. I look nice and skinny here. Is that a sharp? [LAUGHS]
BILL MOYERS: Applause for Century 21 was still resounding as the next fair was a building. It was Robert Moses’ 1964 extravaganza in New York.
LOWELL THOMAS: How will this fair different from other World’s Fairs?
ROBERT MOSES: Well, it’s bigger. There’s more to see and more ground to cover. Better exhibits, more of them. It’s on a huge scale, measured by acreage, numbers of exhibits. By any other norm or measure, it’s on a much bigger scale.
ANNOUNCER: There is the symbol of the Fair, the great Unisphere.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This Fair represents the most promising of our hopes. It gathers together from 80 countries the achievements of industries, the health of nations, the creations of man. This Fair shows us what man at his most creative and constructive is capable of doing.
ANNOUNCER: Everyone is coming to the New York World’s Fair. They’re coming from the four corners of the earth and from Five Corners, Idaho. They come down from New Athens, Maine and from Athens, Greece. And from Tokyo and Kokomo and Rome. Down from Frisco and down from Troy. From Hamburg, Geneva, from Aurora, Illinois.
BILL MOYERS: They also came from the local police precinct. No longer was it possible for World’s Fair to wall out the wider world.
DEMONSTRATORS: “We shall not be moved, We’re fighting for our freedom and we shall not be moved”
JAMES FARMER: We’ve gone to the Unisphere, where we’ve set up headquarters. And from there, we will go to certain pavilions.
REPORTER: What pavilions? What are your plans?
BILL MOYERS: James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality.
JAMES FARMER: There we will be picketing and protesting against a continuation of segregation in Louisiana, and to show the glaring contrast between the glitter fantasy world being shown at the World’s Fair and the real world of brutality and poverty and hatred and vengeance which Negroes face in Louisiana.
BILL MOYERS: Certainly, there were gathering storms over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, this Fair attracted every imaginable commercial exhibit. Once again, GM built an elaborate Futurama. This one, however, steered clear of foretelling any exact date. Instead, undersea, outer space, and tundra villages were envisioned for some vague, far-off future time.
Among the most lavish and successful exhibits, the IBM Pavilion. Computers were just beginning to dawn on the public consciousness and were regarded by some as remote and threatening. IBM set out to accustom the uninitiated to yet another new idea.
IBM FILM NARRATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the IBM information machine. The railroad scene is familiar, even nostalgic. But it is large and very complex. The machine brings you information in much the same way as your mind gets it, in fragments and glimpses, sometimes relating to the same idea or incident. Apples become barrels. Barrels become boxcars. Boxcars become waybills. Waybills become train lifts, and so on, and so on. Each abstraction a little farther from the reality we know, a little easier to handle. To the simplest of the abstractions, the ones and zeros. These can be handled at great speed, and soon, the selected information finds its way back into a familiar reality.
We solve our ordinary problems in much the same way as we solve our most complicated ones. The programming of computers to handle data and build revealing relationships is just a fine elaboration of the familiar methods we all know and use every day.
BILL MOYERS: On the cultural side, too, the New York World’s Fair was a major production, offering a dizzying array of cultural come ons. The notion that less is more held no appeal for Robert Moses. To him, more was more, and his Fair showed it. Still, there were a few diamonds among the rough, Including Michelangelo’s Pieta, brought all the way from Rome. Critics complained about expense, about crowding and commercialism. But certainly by 1964, extravagance may have seen the only way a fair could compete with other entertainments for your money and attention.
ANNOUNCER: Some places make you happy just to be in them.
LOWELL THOMAS: World’s Fairs, as a rule, are ephemeral. Will there be anything lasting at this one?
ROBERT MOSES: Oh yes, indeed. In the first place, we’ll have several new buildings. But over and above that, we’re going to finish Flushing Meadow Park with the receipts of the Fair. And when I say that, I think it’ll be the finest part of the City of New York. It’s right at the geographical and population center. And I think it will cost about $10 million to finish the park. The landscaping will be here. The trees will still be here. About half the utilities have been put in on a permanent basis, so they’ll stay. And this will be a great park, the park.
BILL MOYERS: For all Moses’ certainty, it was just not to be. This is the park today. The New York World’s Fair finished its two season run $21 million in the red. The Fair had been built on the same ground as the ’39 Fair, built, too, on the same ambition of leaving a noble legacy. What remains hardly gladdens the heart.
Critics seem to praise fairs for their showmanship, for their entertainment value, for their hoopla, and dismiss these higher purposes, which many of the planners envisioned for them. Is that true? Do you think that’s what critics mostly do?
HELEN HARRISON: Well I think it’s true that the serious purpose does get lost underneath the hoopla. You know, there are themes, like peace through understanding. It seems laughable when you would expect that the 1964 Fair would expect us to understand the world through its material products as produced by the industrial companies. This is really not the key to understanding. And yet it is.
If we look at these products, these are things that we deal with everyday. By looking at them more closely, we can perhaps understand ourselves better. The very fact that that Fair was heavily commercialized said something very important about our culture at that particular moment. In spite of themselves, fairs do provide wonderful cultural indicators.
BILL MOYERS: The question of whether fairs have outlived their usefulness is raised with nearly every fair. It didn’t deter Knoxville. And in this country alone, plans are already underway for fairs in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York.
The Chicago Fair in 1992 will celebrate Columbus’s discovery of this continent. Perhaps it is a sign of emerging maturity that this nation now seems willing to have a past as well as a future.
So looking back and looking ahead, the grand and foot-wearing tradition of convening a crowd will continue. But you suspect that if the past is a guide, we will go to the fairs of the future expecting the best is yet to come.
When archaeologists dig up our civilization somewhere ages and ages hence, I hope they’ll come across the preserved remains of our World’s Fairs, such as this replica of a Ferris wheel from the early part of this century. Fairs have marked a number of milestones in our progress. And even in the darkest times, even in the hands of the hucksters, they’ve comforted us with the notion that brains and brawn, faith and courage, will somehow lead us on.
As long ago as the time of the Greeks and Romans, people sought out opportunities to gather together at great festivals. The sports arenas and market squares archaeologists are always uncovering were, many of them, fairgrounds of a kind where the ancients came to celebrate themselves.
True, it now seems harder for a fair to scale the heights of our imagination the way, say, St. Louis did. But Ferris wheels and other joys are still with us because someone had the passion to believe there was something worth showing off about. And others understood the need to bear constant witness to human ingenuity and the need for human recreation. Those still seem good ideas, especially when times are tough because celebration has within it the seeds of inspiration and a little fun. We need all we can get of both. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.