Summer Memories: New York World’s Fair

The World's Fair anthem: "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow." Above: artist rendering of the GE pavillion, designed by Walt Disney. Source: © The Walt Disney Company

Miss New York beamed from the stage. In her blue taffeta dress, white gloves and shiny pumps, she began to sing,

“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you—“

Suddenly, the music stopped and, in a pre-rehearsed sort of way, she looked around, wide-eyed, at the hundreds of moms, dads and children in the audience, sticky from the hot summer sun, and exclaimed,

“Why, children! Won’t you join me on stage, so I can get to know all of you?”

Extending her arms toward us, she beckoned excitedly, “Come, come!”

As if an army of sweaty kids, marching up to hone in on her song, was going to make her day. I for one didn’t like the way this was going. I was way too shy and mortified to even consider getting up on stage with Miss New York and a bunch of kids I didn’t know, just to sing a song from The King and I, much as I liked the song and knew all the words.  Besides, with my brown, choppy hair and the clothes I had on–an old pair of my brother’s shorts, and a striped shirt–I didn’t think I was presentable enough, certainly not ready for my close-up, Mr. Ziegfeld. So I sunk into my seat as best I could and drew from the years of practice of avoiding the donation basket in church:  I pretended not to notice what was going on by acting as if I was distracted by something in my lap.

Miss New York said, “Come on, dear, come with me.” Which is when I realized she was standing in the aisle right by our row, talking directly to me, the last holdout.  Apparently, all the kids were already on stage and, Miss New York wasn’t taking no for an answer. I felt flushed, sure I was going to pass out. I looked at my mother, hoping she’d rescue me and tell Miss New York that I was ill, but my mother had already jumped ship.  She gave me one of her stern looks and began prying me out of my seat, pushing me towards the pretty lady. Miss New York grabbed my hand and, against my better judgment, I followed her on to the stage.

So was my brush with fame, and it happened at the New York World’s Fair.

The Ford Mustang made its debut at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

If you ask me, the World’s Fair was the best thing to happen to New York.  During it’s two-year run, from April to October, 1964 and 1965, we had a slew of family from Venezuela checking in at the Casa Medina, so they, too, could attend the fair.  And, each time new visitors arrived, I got to go, too.

Which was fine with me because, except for that one humiliating incident on stage with Miss New York, I was head over heels in love with the fair. There was so much to see, and so much to take in. I can still remember the smells—a mixture of cotton candy, Belgian waffles and fresh strawberries.

The fair’s theme was “Peace Through Understanding.” But it might as well have been technology and the promise of the future. A multitude of innovations made their debut at the fair. Like the touchtone phone, color TV—and the Ford Mustang. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” was a song written for the fair and it became an anthem for hordes of baby boomers who were happy to soak up its message—that the fair was there to celebrate us and trumpet our future! Seeing is believing, and the fair had lots to keep us mesmerized, and we, in turn, responded with the appropriate  “Ooh’s” and “Ah’s” upon discovering yet a new technological innovation. We were pliable, blank slates–the leaders of tomorrow–and we were ready to embrace a new era of space and beyond!

This was where Walt Disney launched its first use of audio-animatronics and introduced the “It’s a Small World” exhibit. I took that boat ride to hear the internationally-outfitted dolls sing, at least 46 times.  But my favorite pavilion, hands-down, belonged to General Electric, in which the audience got to sit in an auditorium that revolved around a 360 degree stage, for a show called, “The Carousel of Progress.” It featured animatronic families from the 1890’s to the then present, singing about the astounding world of electricity. By the time it ended, you couldn’t help but feel pride in American know-how.

At the RCA pavillion, you could see yourself on Color TV!

The last time I went to the fair it was with my father. My family, having gone scores of times, was exhausted. We’d seen it all and then some.  But not me.  I was always up for going.  And since my mother didn’t want to go, I went with my father. Just the two of us, which, if you ask me, is a recipe for not having fun. That day, my father insisted on seeing everything one more time, including what I deemed were the boring parts—the international and state pavilions, and DuPont’s musical tribute to the world of chemistry, which didn’t hold a candle to GE’s pavilion.

Worse, my father refused to spend a dime on food, so nothing to eat all day long. By nightfall I was famished and feeling faint, as we made our way to the subway. I complained of a headache. My father reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wrapped sugar cube. I ravished that sugar cube, treasuring ever speck of it.

As we reached the train station, I turned around and looked back at the lights of the fair, one last time.  Hard to believe it would soon close forever.  All those pavilions. For two shiny summers, the World’s Fair had been my Mecca, a place to learn what my future would hold. And, in a flash it was over, thus providing me with the harshest lesson of all: nothing lasts forever.

21 thoughts on “Summer Memories: New York World’s Fair

  1. Wow, Monica, great post.

    I confess, I have never been to a fair in the United States. Ever. I am Italian-American, and I do however recall going to harvest fairs in Italy. Those were wonderful days. I don’t think any country takes its autumn harvest as seriously as Italy does, really. You can get stuffed full with food, and still want to eat more. It’s crowded, and busy, and yet everyone is friendly to everyone. Thousands of people lined up to try and get their piece of traditional Italian food.

    I would go every year when I was a kid. And I think I’d definitely go back there again.

    – Ashley

  2. You took me right back to the Festival of Britain that played shortly after the end of the Second World War. Much of London was still in ruins and this Festival was meant to give the people the feeling of recovery. But for the kids it was a chance to see amazing things never before imagined.
    Thanks for the memories.

  3. What a wonderful post, Monica. You’ve really sparked my memory of the fair, which, I agree, was absolutely MAGIC. I think, in hindsight, my experience there, as a young girl with my family, must have shaped my idea of the future – I’m sure I’ve incorporated it into dreams, it’s just become part of my imagination.

    So many memories, some I don’t even know if they were real. Was there a car that we could sit in that was like a modern living room – where the kids could watch tv and the chairs turned to face each other and the car was driving on automatic pilot? Was that where there was ‘It’s a Small World, After All?’ – or was that Disneyland?

    We’re about to have a summer holiday with our extended family at my widowed mother’s summer home – end of Long Island – and I will ask what she remembers, as my sister was probably too young – and my brother, a baby. Our father died almost eight years ago, so reading the part about the sugar cube had me in tears.

    Absolutely beautiful post. I don’t know if we met in school – I was Jill Carin then. My father, Arthur Carin, was the president of the school board through the sixties- probably during the Fair years, actually. Sorry to go on so long – reading this on a rainy Saturday in London, you’ve really brought me back to such a happy time: a future where anything was possible.

    I guess that World’s Fair informed my vision of the future.

    • Jill, Thank you for all your memories and your enthusiasm in remembering. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote this post. The World’s Fair was THE highlight of my childhood. To think, something so beautiful and amazing was designed to be torn down in such a short span of time! How often does that happen? And we were so young and innocent. It was a time when we believed all we saw, all we were told. Wonderful world of Chemistry? Carousel of Progress? If they were launched today, would we embrace it so, as we did then? I do believe you’re right in saying, the World’s Fair informed our vision of the future.

      There was a car ride on automatic pilot–that later became the People Mover at Disneyland. I don’t remember the details of that ride. It’s a Small World got its start at the fair and was later packed up and shipped to Disneyland, where it still resides. I’m excited that you’ll ask your mom–be sure to report back what you learn from her. I wish I could ask my parents but they’ve both been gone for 17 years. My true favorite was the GE pavilion and the Carousel of Progress. I think we liked the fair because a lot of it was designed and built by Disney–like the car ride you mention, the carousel, and even Abe Lincoln giving his Gettysburg speech (which ended up in Disneyland, too). Did you know that Walt Disney actually considered opening Disneyland East right on that very spot of land in Queens–before he decided upon Orlando? What fun that could have been!

      Thank you for stopping by!

    • Thanks! There’s a few more where these came from. What amazes me is a lot of this I haven’t thought about in years, but when I start thinking about it, it’s like memories coming out of the woodwork of my mind! A regular Pandora’s box! 🙂

  4. Monica, I have never been to the World’s Fair, or New York, for that matter, but your post makes it sound like the most wonderful place to be in! I loved the part where your dad gives you a sugar cube! I’m certain the excitement and the memories, more than made up for the lack of food, amiga! I’m glad you have these fond memories and that you’re kind enough to regale us with them!

    • New York was one of the best places to grow up in, especially at that time. I got exposed to so much culture, music, art and theater–not to mention the fabulous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes! What an amazing childhood. Plus, every year we’d go back to Caracas for a visit. And, of course, there’s the World’s Fair. There was a moment, before it was closed for good, that Disney considered making it the East Coast Disneyland. But in the end they opted for creating that in Orlando, Florida, where the weather is warm all year round. So many stories came out of that fair, and mine was just one of them. 🙂

  5. What a great memory Monica! Such fun and excitement !! I spent my summers at the beach so the boardwalk was a nightly event with all the rides and sounds! Riding the trolley/bus to get there was just as much fun.
    In the sixties..well at the time of the fair..I was literally in utero! I was born October of 64~! lol
    Have a great weekend

    • Well, I know my words can’t begin to describe the enormity and the wonder of the fair. I loved it and felt so at home there, but mostly because I lived so close to the fair. It ran for two years, but was only officially opened 365 days in all. And I was probably there for 300 of them. lol Hope you have a nice weekend, too!

  6. Awesome, Monica! Some of the names from the World’s Fair sound like exhibits that graced Walt Disney World — I loved seeing the “Small World” and “Carousel of Progress!” Though I’d have been like you at that age, hiding from Miss New York and her stage!

    • Yes, Disney was hired to create some of the exhibits at the fair. They they reserved the right to take the exhibits and move them to Disneyland and Disneyworld. The entire fair makes for a fascinating story.

  7. I always wanted to attend a world’s fair but never had the good fortune, but now I can say I experienced it vicariously thru your incredible writing! Thanks for taking me somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, which is what good writing does, and now that I think about it, the exact reason I started Adventures by the Book, to transport people a little more literally to a place and time that good writers like you take us.

    • I actually got to attend two world’s fairs. The second, in 1986, when the Vancouver Expo, opened. Which was pretty much the same thing. I lived just two hours away and visited two or three times. The theme then, was the world of transportation.

      Thank you, Susan, for making my day, with your very nice comments about my writing. I am beaming with gratitude!

  8. I still have my license plate that say’s “SUSAN” from the New York Worlds Fair. and who will ever forget those Belgium waffles. Can anyone remember what The House Of Tomorrow looked like and what was in it? That question has come up a lot in my life.

    • How cool, to have your name on a NY World’s Fair license plate. And, yes, I LOVED those Belgium waffles. I don’t recall the house of Tomorrow though. Are you sure you don’t mean the Carousel of Progress in the GE Pavilion? That was THE most popular part of the fair, and where they sang about the great, big beautiful tomorrow. Of course, I was 8 and 9 when during the time of the fair, so I don’t remember all the features of the fair. Just the ones I loved. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. When I was a kid, I loved to visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. My favorite part was imagining how the world would be when I was grown up and all of those new inventions would be in every home.

    • I’ve been to that museum and it’s fascinating. I grew up loving museums, also visits to stately homes like those belonging to FDR and the Vanderbilts. But, nothing, absolutely nothing beats the experience of the World’s Fair. 🙂

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