As the last batch of Baby Boomers were being born fifty years ago, New York City introduced growing boomers to a fantastical future at the 1964 World’s Fair. Imaginative architecture, technological marvels and a view of the future that was unthinkable a decade earlier were voiced as the blueprint to progress for humankind. Included in this vision was space travel, underwater exploration complete with aquaculture and underwater living quarters, super highways for cars that drive themselves, homes in skyscrapers, exploration for minerals at the earth’s poles and technological breakthroughs that would make life easier, safer and better.
The Fair opened surrounded in controversy, as the official Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) had not sanctioned the event. International rules stipulated that only one fair could be held within a 10-year span, and Montreal, Canada, had already been chosen to host the next World’s Fair in 1967 (Expo67). Further, the New York World’s Fair organizers, led by Robert Moses, wanted to charge rent to exhibitors in an effort to recoup construction costs. That was a violation of BIE rules. Moses had overseen the construction of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was the main force behind the construction of much of the city’s highway system and the creation of the recreational and park system. Each had been controversial in their own right, including the fact that the 1939 World’s Fair was a financial disaster. Eager to redeem his reputation, Moses led the organizers to build on the same site as the 1939 Fair, only bigger and more expansive than any previous fair had been. For this reason the organizers knew they would have to have 70 million visitors to make it a successful event, and that would require the site to be open for two six-month periods. This was also a violation of BIE rules, as only one six-month period was sanctioned.
As a result, many European nations and U.S. allies chose not to participate, including Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union. Instead, spots designated for governments were filled by tourist bureaus and corporate sponsors. The proliferation of corporate interests alone fueled the controversy as the press characterized the Fair as too commercial.
For visitors, however, none of that mattered as they were immersed in a world filled with optimism, driven by technologies that would help to solve the world’s problems. Corporate interests, including General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, IBM, RCA, DuPont, Bell Systems and the Walt Disney Company all contributed their visions of tomorrow.
Among the marvels introduced at the Fair were the Ford Mustang, animatronic figures from Disney, color TV from RCA and the video telephone from Bell Systems.
The Mustang was unlike any car introduced before it in that the public became immediately enamored with its styling and size (see Boomers Loved the Ford Mustang). The car model is still being sold today, with those early models especially prized by boomers.
The Walt Disney Company exhibit was populated with animatronic figures that moved more like humans than any mechanical figures that had previously been seen. The “It’s a Small World” exhibit introduced more than 100 figures dressed as children from various nations, along with a song that could very well be used in enhanced interrogation. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” saw the 16th President of the United States stand up from a chair and address the audience. “Ford’s Magic Skyway” showed a world of dinosaurs — all huge animatronics made by Disney’s company. Today, “It’s a Small World” is a feature of Disneyland and the latest incarnations of Abraham Lincoln and the dinosaurs are part of the Disney World experience.
Color TVs were first sold by RCA in the mid-50s, but only a small portion of TV programming was being broadcast in color in 1964 (see Fancy Colors: Boomers Watched TV Before There Was Color). NBC became the first network to broadcast all their programming in color two years after the opening of the Fair, in 1966. Despite this “futuristic” vision of television communications, by 1970 only about half of all U.S. households owned a color TV. Today’s kids have no idea what a black & white TV looked like.
Bell Systems showcased a two-way video phone that captured the public’s imagination, but in practicality a short conversation demonstration between New York and Philadelphia would cost as much as $25 in today’s dollars, making the technology beyond the reach of the average consumer. Yet fifty years later, face-to-face conversations occur daily in business video conferencing and real-time video sessions via Skype and Facetime.
Vatican City displayed Michelangelo’s Pieta, which became one of only a few cultural highlights. People waited in line for hours to get a glimpse of the statue. It returned to the Vatican after the Fair, and was damaged by a deranged Dutch man wielding a hammer in 1977. The repaired statue currently resides inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
Meanwhile, 1964 was percolating beyond the borders of the World’s Fair. Race relations, escalating involvement in the Vietnam war, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union all took their toll on world optimism. Times were changing, and utopian visions of the future began to feel as dated as the 1950s.
Living in the Midwest, the sum total of Mister Boomer’s connection with the 1964 World’s Fair was through a comic book. The Flintstone’s At the New York World’s Fair (1964) saw the famous cartoon characters, through the magic of time travel, visiting the Fair. His sister had purchased the book and it is now part of Mister Boomer’s personal collection.
The Fair may very well have captured the attention of Mister Boomer’s father, however. Three years later, he drove to family to see Expo67 in Montreal. Mister Boomer recalls that as a magical experience where he first saw lasers demonstrated, heard electronic music, viewed amazing architecture, witnessed a 360 degree movie and was exposed to many different cultures through the various countries’ pavilions.
The New York World’s Fair ended in debt, missing their projected attendance mark by nearly 20 million. Yet if Mister B’s 1967 World’s Fair experience is any barometer, then boomers who visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair remember the wonderment of it all and not the controversy.
Did you attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair with your family, boomers?