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Some spectacles just aren’t as spectacular as they used to be.
Take the Olympics, for instance: My interest in the Games has been slowly dwindling since about 1988. I think it’s a combination of doping scandals, general adulthood, and the loss of that juicy rivalry we used to have with the USSR and East Germany.
Or consider the Super Bowl, which is now so garish, gluttonous and over-the-top as to completely turn me off. I don’t watch it any more unless I care about one of the teams. And since I’m a Buffalo Bills fan … well, let’s just say that I get out of bed on Super Sunday for the chili.
And then there’s the World’s Fair. These peaked before I was born, so I don’t have personal knowledge of their glory.
But I understand that, once upon a time, World’s Fairs were major cultural events. They were places where people came in droves to experience other cultures for the first time and see new things. (World’s Fairs around the turn of the 20th century introduced visitors to such diverse inventions as moving pictures, escalators, Ferris wheels and Dr. Pepper.)
Even into the 1960s, the World’s Fair was still making a dent on the popular consciousness. Elvis Presley, perhaps America’s most bankable star, capitalized on the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair as the setting for his movie “It Happened At The World’s Fair.” Granted, the setting was probably chosen to lend a little cheap exoticism to Elvis’ threadbare plot lines, more so than for any other reason. Still, the fact that he was there at all says something. Can you imagine Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez filming a World’s Fair movie nowadays?
So when the 1964/65 World’s Fair came to Flushing Meadows — a manageable drive from their home in the Connecticut suburbs –my grandfather recorded the grand opening on his calendar, complete with a rough sketch of the fair’s Unisphere encircled-globe symbol.
And three months later, when things had warmed up and the initial crowds had subsided, they made a date to see the world and still get home in time to sleep in their own beds.
(45 minutes from Stamford to Queens seems like pretty good time. Alas, my grandfather did not record the route he took. The best route Mapquest can offer nowadays — I-95 to the Hutchinson River Parkway southbound — has a listed time of 55 minutes.)
My dad did not go to the Fair. He was busy with his summer job at Parker Instruments in Stamford, and had no time for such silliness.
But my Aunt Elaine, who went three times (once with family, once with friends, and once with her high school class), was kind enough to share her memories of the big event:
— Seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta, which had been carefully shipped over for display at the Vatican pavilion. The sculpture was “just breathtaking and seemed to have its own display house, with beautiful lighting and music,” my aunt writes.
“This was the first time I rode on mobile flooring (like they have in airports), which was interesting in itself to me,” she adds. “I guess they didn’t want anyone loitering around the Pieta.”
(My mother said she didn’t think she’d gone to the fair until she read my aunt’s e-mail, which brought back memories of seeing the Pieta in the same setting.)
— The Spanish pavilion, which my aunt describes as “one of the most impressive total exhibits with art, live flamenco dancing and music.” (Her future husband, my Uncle Steve, also visited the Fair while on leave from the Navy, and says he “lived” in the Spain pavilion.)
— A Bavarian or Austrian mountain village, with good food.
— African dancers and music, which my aunt loved, being a dancer herself.
— “Also, in some of the walkways between exhibits there were musical bands of various cultures,” my aunt writes. “I particularly remember the steel drums of Trinidad or somewhere like that.”
The 1964-65 fair, along with Montreal’s Expo ’67, may have been the last great fairs to capture the American imagination. Subsequent fairs would be held in second-rank cities like San Antonio (1968), Spokane (1974) and Knoxville (1982) before departing the U.S. entirely.
In her e-mail, my aunt quipped, “I’m thinking if the price of gas keeps going up, they may have to start having World’s Fairs again, because people won’t be able to travel so readily to the actual places!”
I was surprised — as I suspect she would also be — to find out they’ve never stopped having World’s Fairs. In the past decade, fairs have been held in Aichi, Japan; Zaragoza, Spain; and Shanghai, China. And upcoming events are scheduled in Yeosu, South Korea (2012) and Milan, Italy (2015), if you want to book your travel now.
I suspect, though, that the appeal of the World’s Fair is pretty well faded thanks to the Internet.
In 1964, my grandparents wouldn’t have known much about the people and customs of, say, Thailand. A trip to the Thai pavilion would have given them an educational, if sanitized, glimpse of the country, probably the closest they were ever going to get.
Today, with a half-hour online, you can catch up with the latest breaking news in Thailand; see high-quality pictures of the major cities and countryside; and learn about Thai customs and important historical figures. You might even luck into a cyber-chat or e-mail correspondence with a person living in Thailand, for an unfiltered view of daily life there. And if that made you hungry, you could pick from hundreds of online recipes for pad thai or tom ka gai to make in your own kitchen. (Or you could call out for Thai takeout, which my grandparents almost certainly couldn’t do in 1964 Connecticut.)
Most of the futuristic predictions made at World’s Fairs over the decades have flown far wide of the mark. But one common refrain from the ’64-’65 World’s Fair has been proven true by the Internet:
It is, indeed, a small world after all.