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.