Narrated by Jason Robards
By Larry Zim, Mel Lerner, and Herbert Rolfes; Harper & Row; 240 pages .
By Barbara Cohen, Steven Heller, and Seymour Chwast; Abrams; 80 pages .
Videotape produced and directed by Tom Johnson and Lance Bird; 83 minutes .
Just why the 1939 New York World’s Fair has got so thoroughly under everyone’s skin is not easy to say. The exposition did, of course, have a powerful advantage in timing, gleaming briefly as it did between the darknesses of depression and world war; and then there is the appealing irony of all those people believing they would soon be living in Art Deco cities where everything looked like a radio or an ice-cream scoop, when in fact the only buildings to bear out the prophecy were a few gas stations and the Guggenheim Museum. But none of this seems quite enough to explain why everybody over the age of fifty has radiant memories of the event, or why people born decades after it closed wistfully acknowledge it as the greatest of all expositions.
Something of the spirit that sets this apart from other fairs can be found in two good new books published on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, and in a videotape. Of these, the most inclusive is Zim, Lerner, and Rolfes’s The World of Tomorrow . Commencing with a color photograph of the subway entrance to the fair and moving on to the Trylon and Perisphere (was any structure so short-lived ever so memorable?), the book moves into a carefully documented world of gigantic typewriters, streamlined steam locomotives, innumerable murals, and the Westinghouse time capsule preserving a baseball, a light bulb, Mickey Mouse, and other clues to the national essence intact in its “immortal well.” The tour takes in virtually every aspect of the fair, and it is especially effective in recreating that king of exhibits, the General Motors Futurama, which took the 1939 visitor high above the busy, happy world of 1960: “Now we approach a modern university center. Here, in buildings of simple but functional architecture, the youth of 1960 study for their future in a world of still greater progress and achievement.…” The book concludes with a survey of the immense residue of souvenirs the great party left behind, hatboxes and carpet sweepers, candles and golf-club covers, all bearing the ubiquitous symbol that one of its very few detractors referred to as “the egg and the tack.”
There are plenty of world’s-fair souvenirs in Trylon and Perisphere too, and Seymour Chwast’s handsome design makes all that tin and felt and Bakelite look quite splendid. Trylon and Perisphere is not as thorough as World of Tomorrow , but it is huge—a foot wide by sixteen inches high—and the photographs of the fair, many of them in good color and run large, give a vivid and moving sense of people squinting happily in the lost sunlight of an extraordinary place. The book begins with a sampling of fairgoers’ memories, and these, like the fair itself, are curiously stirring: “In the Westinghouse exhibit, an artist designed a fantastic kitchen of the future for me. She signed the sketch D. Kirby. To add to the aura, I remember she had one arm. She carefully placed the sketch in a blue and orange tube. The paper is yellowed and frayed, but 1 can still recall what this meant to a thirteen-year-old girl who lived in a dingy tenement in Brownsville.” Another reads, “Sure, there was a lot of hype. Sure, much of it was hokey. We knew that, but we loved it anyway for its powerful assertion that there could be a future. We needed to believe that, against all the evidence to the contrary.… But if I had to pick the one thing that made the deepest impression on me, it was … the Polish Pavilion. That was a shock, a stark reminder of what had happened to one small country and its people, as if it said, ‘Enjoy the glitter around you and the hope for a future—but remember what happened to us and be warned.’”
And that, in the end, may be what throws this fair into such high relief —the glare of a burning world. The exposition ran for two seasons, and there were pavilions that stood empty in the second one because the countries they represented had ceased to exist. In the remarkably fine documentary The World of Tomorrow (no connection with the Zim-Lerner-Rolfes book), you can see Lithuanians dancing in their native costume at the fair in the summer of 1939—their last as a nation. The film is narrated by Jason Robards with just the right blend of amusement, fondness, and distance— and, indeed, we see movies, taken with the family’s Kodak Keystone, of ten-year-old Jason enjoying the fair as he absorbs its gospel of aerated bread and city planning and catches a glimpse of the surprisingly naked young women in the Amusement Area. We also see a good deal of the Depression-scoured landscape in which the fair bloomed, and John Crowley’s script, by turns funny and passionate, puts the exposition in its largest cultural context without ever sounding sententious.
The movie’s cast is pretty impressive—Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Mickey Rooney, Billy Rose, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Howard Hughes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ethel Merman, and Their Majesties King George VI of England and Queen Mary—but the fair itself steals the show. There is marvelous color footage of vast, sinuous buildings jetting water, and light lying lush and mysterious on the underside of trees, and teardrop-shaped vehicles scudding past, and always crowds of people, most of them oddly modern-looking in their summer clothes, taking it all in.
It is some indication of the potency of what they were seeing that when the present writer brought his son and daughter, then aged sixteen and fifteen, to this movie the two kids—both of them veterans of Disneyland and the most elaborate modern theme parks— emerged in tears, filled with desperate longing to be in Flushing Meadows a lifetime ago.