by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 20, 2009
WHERE'S THE PIETA?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The loveliest part of writing this column is the unexpected response I sometimes get from readers. A few weeks ago, for example, a woman who declined to give her name called with an odd question. Wasn't I the one who had written about having a job at the 1964 New York World's Fair? Well, yes, I was.
In that case, she had discovered two guidebooks to that very fair while cleaning out her house. Would I like them? Well, yes, I would. A few days later, I held in my hands not only a precious piece of my personal history, but a time capsule of an America at an early, more innocent time.
It was 1958 and Dwight D. Eisenhower was president when the idea was hatched to build a New York World's Fair in 1964, to coincide with New York City's 300th anniversary. (In 1664, British soldiers ran Peter Stuyvesant and his fellow Dutchmen out of town and changed the name from Nieuw Amsterdam to New York.)
A fair at the unfortunately-named Flushing Meadows (also the site of the 1939-1940 World's Fair) was an expensive and complicated proposition, but Robert Moses, New York's "master builder" (or master destroyer, depending on your politics) bulled it through. He financed it with $35 million in 6 percent bonds and an additional $24 million from the city - to be paid back from profits. The goal was to attract 70 million people over two seasons, but attendance stalled out at 51 million, and I don't know if the city was ever repaid.
The central theme of the fair was "Peace Through Understanding," and a huge metal statue of the world, the "Unisphere," was created by Gilmore Clark and U.S. Steel to the tune of about $2 million. It stood in fountains in the center of the 643-acre grounds. Today, it is the only part of the fair that still remains, although Shea Stadium, which was built next door, lasted until 2008.
The fair didn't have the official sanction of the Bureau of International Expositions, so many foreign nations refused to come. What was then called "Red" China was not there, but the Republic of China (Taiwan) was. Belgium was absent, but something called the Belgium Village introduced this country to the Belgian Waffle - a huge hit. A few Japanese corporations dipped a toe into the American consumer market for the first time: Hitachi ("Today, 'Made in Japan' means quality!") and Datsun were there.
American companies shone. Formica built the first house to have exterior walls made of laminated plastic - wonder whatever happened to that idea? From General Cigar's Hall of Magic, huge smoke rings drifted into the air. Bell Telephone, Rheingold Beer, Parker Pen, Ansco Color Film - all gone now.
There was even a Hall of Free Enterprise, built by the American Economic Foundation, which explained the glories of capitalism to the world. "The principles and benefits of 'free competitive enterprise, properly regulated, unhampered by unwarranted interference' are explained in a variety of ways," the guidebook says. I guess today they'd take out that pesky phrase, "properly regulated."
Walt Disney designed four exhibits, including the irritating Pepsi ride, where small animated puppets sang, over and over again, "It's a Small World (After All)." In 1966, when Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Fla., the ride was recreated there. In the Illinois Pavilion, a creepy animated statue of Abraham Lincoln recited parts of his most famous speeches. This statue, too, ended up in Disneyworld - and in a famous malfunction video on YouTube. The International section of the fair, by the way, later inspired Disney to build Epcot.
I was a Greyhound Golden Girl. (It was strictly a patronage job; my uncle worked for Moses.) We wore bright yellow uniforms and hats and gave tours to dignitaries. Or else we smiled and gave directions from booths that dotted the grounds. The most-asked question was "Where is the Pieta?" Michelangelo's almost-translucent masterpiece was in the Vatican Pavilion. I must have given directions to it more than 150 times a day - and all the time, "It's a Small World (After All)" was drifting in from the nearby Pepsi Pavilion. If I close my eyes, I can still hear it.
It's funny how picky memory is. I asked my mother what she remembered and she said it was waking up early and driving me to work in her nightgown every morning at 7 a.m. She said my future husband was also in the car, but I have no recollection of that. So I called and asked him; he said yes, he worked in a pavilion, but he doesn't remember me working at the fair. The only other thing I remember about the fair was hearing my first dirty joke there. It took another 10 years before I understood it.
Well, it was a more innocent time. Yes, we were all still traumatized by President Kennedy's assassination - Sunday is the 46th anniversary of that horrible day. The Cold War was still at high tide. Vietnam was starting to creep into the news. So it wasn't a small world (after all). It wasn't all sweetness and light.
But all in all, it was a pretty good time to be 22 years old. The future seemed limitless. Many good colleges - including the one I had just graduated from - were free. Jobs were waiting. And we had the freedom to go and "find ourselves" instead. My generation was probably one of the luckiest of all times, coming of age in an America of abundance and achievement and unquestioned dominance in the world. It may have spoiled us. It is a moment we may never see again.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a columnist and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.