Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Assorted mishaps from the 1964 New York World's Fair -- in its first month and before it even opened



Certainly Robert Moses expected there to be a few little problems to arise at the opening of the 1964 World's Fair on April 22, 1964.  And for the most part, the most popular attractions launched without a hitch.  But a host of bad press on opening day and a litter of minor issues created a sense of unease among some organizers.

The fair was already a controversial venture by Moses -- unsanctioned by the official World's Fair organizers and sold wholesale to a bevy of corporations as a way to fund the hugely expensive endeavor.  Moses' own reputation was on the wane by 1964; the fair would further tarnish it.  Whatever enthusiasm New Yorkers had for the fair in 1964 evaporated with its completion in the fall of 1965, with reports of ludicrous financial mismanagement and a gradual indifference by fair-goers to its line-up of generally un-amusing amusements.

So these first few mishaps from the months before and after opening, in retrospect, seem to be a harbinger for the greater fiascoes which followed.  Money issues, faulty machinery, injuries, lack of planning -- welcome to the World's Fair of 1964!


1) The World of Food never opens
With hundreds of new temporary structures going up, you wouldn't think that a single building lagging behind would be much of an issue.  But the prominently placed World of Food  -- standing 75 feet from the fair's entrance -- was one of the largest pavilions on the fair, and little work had been done on it since ground-breaking in January.

The building was to celebrate cooking and gardening, with weekly festivals devoted to a particular food (shrimp, apples), a rooftop 'edible garden' and a model kitchen with the most innovative home appliances.  A teen center on the ground floor would host cook-outs and clam-bakes with appearances by the hottest young stars of film and television.

It would have, that is, except the organizers ran out of money, and a large gaping construction site sat like an open sore marring the fairgrounds.  Moses and fair organizers wanted to level the site immediately, fighting it out in court with the World of Food organizers.  Finally, two weeks before the opening, the uncompleted venue was finally torn down.

But there was no time to fill the lot, so on opening day, an odd gap in an otherwise tightly organized grounds greeted visitors.  Gift shops sold World of Food souvenirs anyway.  Meanwhile, the fair paid thousands of dollars to store the unused construction materials off site.  [More information at Bill Young's excellent World's Fair site. Image above is also from there.]

2) Ceramic catastrophe
The most spectacular displays were often at the pavilions hosted by foreign countries.  The Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion, for instance, would become one of the most popular attractions.  The organizers from Spain, however, would have to scramble when they opened crates containing a 50-foot ceramic relief by Antonio Cumella called 'Homage to Gaudi," only to discover that much of it had been crushed in transport.

Welders furiously labored to repair the work before the fair opened.  Some semblance of the work was eventually displayed.

Courtesy New York Daily News

3) Rain on Opening Day
The April 22nd opening was to be one of the greatest events in New York City history, and in volume, it certainly was.  Ten of thousands clogged the highways in one of New York's ugliest traffic days. Over 90,000 made it to the fairgrounds to witness opening ceremonies that included a speech by president Lyndon B. Johnson, president for only a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But fair organized had planned for 250,000 attendees.  Keeping people away was the "November-like weather," torrential morning rain and a chilly, cloudy afternoon.  The New York Times reported:  "The World's Fair opened yesterday morning with a parade that had everything. But mostly it had rain, and 4,000 sodden marchers outnumbered the hundreds of sodden bystanders."

4) Protesters and arrests
President Johnson and fair organizers were met with picketers and sit-ins, mostly civil rights organizers.  They managed to heckle Johnson through his entire speech at the Federal Pavilion and sit in at several fair venues.  In particular, protesters camped out in shrubbery outside the pavilion and had to be forcibly removed.  "It was dreadful, dreadful," said one state official.

By the end of the day, over 300 people had been arrested by police.  What had particularly incensed protesters was a variety show at the fair called "America, Be Seated," a "minstrel-style" show that meant to turn the derogatory stereotypes of old into something fun and jazzy for the 1960s.  "I think we'll start a whole new wave of minstrel shows," hoped producer Michael Todd Jr, (stepson of Elizabeth Taylor), promising no "burnt cork" and that every performer in the integrated cast would be wearing "his own face."

It was still deemed too offensive for many and quickly closed within two days, raking in a grand total of $300.

Below: From the New York Times, April 23, 1964


5) City locked down
If you weren't at the fair, you were probably cursing it out.  A planned "stall-in" by demonstrators to stop traffic throughout the city failed to materialize, but the city planned for it anyway, created a veritable police state that day.  "Police cars and tow trucks waited sometimes as close as every half mile along Grand Central Parkway."

This tension led to a near-disaster at one subway station, when four protesters and three police officers were injured "when a crowd tried to stop one morning subway train." [source]


6) No hospital
Five days after opening, seven fair goers were injured inside fair transportation sponsored by Greyhound Bus Lines. One of these "Glide-a-Ride" vehicles hit one of the eleven General Foods arches (pictured above), causing minor injuries.

But there was no hospital facility on the fairgrounds -- "[T]he hospital was expected to open late next month" -- so the injured were treated at the employee's dispensary and advised to see their own doctors at once. [source]


Leonidoff's Wonder World. Pic courtesy Randy Treadway at World Fair Community. There are many more rare photos of this event there.)

7) Water and Ice Catastrophes
Two big-name entertainments at the fair were plagued with constant accidents and delays before they opened.  Leon Leonidoff, famed producer at Radio City Music Hall, watched as his "Leonidoff's Wonder World" befell perpetual mishaps, mostly associated with a faulty mechanical swimming pool.  The show was hugely expensive and not a big draw (see photo above).  It closed within two months.

Meanwhile, Olympic champion Dick Button was having similar issues over at Dick Button's Ice-Travaganza.  His woes involved transportation costs and salaries associated with his mostly European cast.  This show, too, was considered a failure, closing a few weeks after its opening opening.

However it did have a skating chimpanzee in a dress, so that's something to celebrate.

8) Elephant Attack
Six days after the fair opened, a trainer was "stepped on" by a chained elephant named Anna Mae.  Again, as no fair hospital had been opened, the trainer was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital.

You can imagine what the conditions for this poor animal were probably like.  The animal, known for "her erratic temperament," was chained to two other elephants at the time of the attack.


Above: the Ford Pavilion (NYPL)

9) Ford Pavilion Smoked Out
Nine days after it opened, a transformer at the Ford Pavilion -- featuring Walt Disney's Magic Skyway -- caught fire, issuing smoke into the attraction and causing 2,000 people to be evacuated.  The conveyor belt Skyway was also prone in its early days to malfunctions, leaving fair-goers trapped in late-model Ford vehicles in front of caveman and space-age dioramas. [source]

10) The World's Fair Bus "Riot"
May 16 was a day of record attendance at the fair, so it should be assumed that it was also a day of high tensions and long lines.  People were especially impatient that evening while waiting to board shuttles back to the parking lot.

"A shoving, yelling crowd of 15,000 persons went into near panic," creating four blocks of mayhem as people attempted to squeeze into an inadequete number of vehicles.  A "riot call" was made on the fairgrounds, with additional police and several ambulances called to treat minor injuries and several women who had fainted.

"They acted like animals," commented one bus inspector. Said another, who had been grabbed and lifted by his tie:  "If we lived through [Saturda] night, we can live through anything." [source]

Top image courtesy Flickr Marsmett Tallahassee

2 comments:

  1. I was there as a little kid, and I have to say, it was magical. I have great memories of it all. The fountains, the lights, fireworks, modern architecture, exotic food. It was wonderful and it spurred my life-long interest in travel, architecture, foreign culture, etc.

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  2. My brother and I were leaving the Fair in 1965. We took one last look at the fair when we spotted a guy standing on the edge roof of the United States. He either jumped or fell off the building. We both thought it was a worker, who fell off the building. We expected to something about on the news, but we never did. If it were my recollection alone, I'd say it was my crummy memory ,but we both saw it. And from that day to now, we both remember it. Anybody have any inclining of a worker getting hurt by falling off that building?


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