- Historic Sites
The Other Fair
New Yorkers recall 1939 as the year of the great World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. But that’s just more Eastern provincialism. Take a look at what was going on in San Francisco.
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
It turned out that thousands of others, envisioning mob fury in the style of Cecil B. De Mille, decided to eat their sandwiches at home and listen to the madness on the radio. Only 130,000 passed the turnstiles, about half as many as the management had anticipated. Those who had the fortitude to reach the island found caramelcorn and fried-potato vendors, rickshaw pullers, weight guessers, and Hum-a-Tune sellers anxiously waiting to serve them. College men in blue and gold uniforms rushed out, offering rides in rolling chairs and round-the-island tours on Elephant Trains. Loudspeakers serenaded the crowd with “The Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” and “Ferdinand, the Bull with the Delicate Ego.” In music, as in architecture, the exposition was conservative. The ferries broadcast “I Sailed Away to Treasure Island” with ceremonial regularity. The governor of California, Culbert Olson, was on hand to turn a jeweled key, and President Roosevelt spoke by radio from Key West, Florida. The President, whose mind was evidently on matters of state, said it was a fine thing when a country could acquire a new island without military aggression.
My classmates brought back tantalizing reports: Sally Rand, the fan dancer, had this “Nude Ranch” where the women wore nothing but gun belts and bandannas, and children couldn’t go in. The Uffizi Gallery of Florence had sent a painting of a naked woman standing on a shell, called Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. A Pan American B-314 Clipper that flew to China was floating in the south lagoon, and you could watch them working on it at the Aviation Building. Rancho Soup was giving out free samples of vegetable beef. At the Gayway they had this giant crane that took you up a couple of hundred feet, but the wind would freeze your butt off; and they had this Diving Bell where you went down to the bottom of a tank and a giant octopus wrapped its arms around the windows.
Before long I, too, had seen it all, or was on my way to doing so. The wonderful exposition that had been growing in my mind ripened suddenly into a multitude of sensations: the smell of corn on the cob and cotton candy, the sound of Goldman’s marching band, the taste of salt wind. I made repeated assaults on Sally Rand’s ranch and was repeatedly denied admission. I saw with my own eyes the Navajo sand painters, the Raphael Madonna, and the Hills Brothers movie about coffee beans.
World’s fairs, I have learned, have no continuity, no climax. They have a beginning and an end, but the middle does not move. This peculiarity showed up recently in a book of transcribed interviews with fifty veterans of Treasure Island (The San Francisco Fair: Treasure Island, 1939–1940, Scottwall Associates, San Francisco, 1989). Two or three had met adventure at the fair. Dorothy Takata, while dancing at the Japanese Pavilion, had been allowed her first glimpse of the husband her parents had selected for her. Jerry Bundsen had slipped into the costume of an Indian scout and died defending General Custer from the Sioux at the “Cavalcade.” And Joe Sprinz, who was the catcher on the San Francisco Seals baseball team, gained agonizing celebrity when a ball that was dropped from a blimp eight hundred feet above slipped through his glove and smashed into his face.
But for the most part our impressions (I was among those interviewed) were just that: little dents in the brain, left by the sight of a celebrity, a flicker of colored light across the water, or something sweet and buttery to eat—the Dutch pancakes, the scones with jam, the creamed tuna in a patty shell. We remembered the Guatemalan marimba band, the Australian wallaroos, the giant cash register that showed the day’s attendance, the electronic voice called Voder, the transparent car, the mule-faced lady at Ripley’s Odditorium.
So it is that one goes elsewhere for chronology. On March 15, while Treasure Island was celebrating San Francisco Architectural Club Day, Adolf Hitler completed his protective arrangements with President Emil Hàcha of Czechoslovakia and sent German soldiers into Prague. In May the maharajah of Karputhala came to Treasure Island, wearing a turban and gripping a goldheaded cane. On August 23 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship and alliance, and on September 3 the Allied nations declared war on Germany.
The seamless pattern ended on October 29. The exposition closed, six weeks early and $4,166,000 in debt. New York was even worse in debt, and the world had clearly gone to hell.
Too suddenly, the unforgettable, primogenous 1939 had joined the other dead, departed years, and for the moment it appeared that it had not been special after all. The war in Europe settled into a deceptive lull. The two world’s fairs announced that they would run another season, with louder music, brighter colors, and bolder showgirls. I remember my exhilaration, entering a new decade. The thirties had been all that I had known. The forties, I was certain, would be an improvement.