Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 14: A Fair to Remember

(This is the 14th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with  Part 1.)

Although my family had been to and enjoyed Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida several times since shortly after it opened in 1971, we didn’t make it to EPCOT center until 1988. I had been entertained by the environment and attractions at Magic Kingdom, but EPCOT took it to a whole new level.

The themed “pavilions” in the “Future World” half of the theme park were widely spaced on gorgeously-landscaped grounds, the crowds were much less crushing than at Magic Kingdom, and because we went in the fall, you could literally visit every attraction almost leisurely, with little wait.

It was the same in the other half of the park, the “World Showcase” of pavilions of a variety of nations around the Showcase Lagoon.

Among my favorite attractions on that first visit was the “Spaceship Earth” ride inside the large geodesic sphere near the entrance to the park. You had your own little private vehicle that took you past numerous clever life-sized dioramas that depicted the history of communication, while individual speakers inside your vehicle broadcast a running commentary by Walter Cronkite about what you were seeing.

Another favorite was the ride in the Horizons pavilion (which was closed in 1999, replaced by the Mission: SPACE pavilion and thrill ride). It had a similar ride-through experience that took you past a variety of scenes with audio-animatronic figures depicting “visions of the future.” These scenes offered speculation on how man would, in the not too distant future, conquer the obstacles to living in deserts, undersea, and in space, as well as in ultra-futuristic cities.

The whole park was full of examples of the amazing things man had accomplished up to the present, and his noblest aspirations for the future, as well as sharing the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that he had been able to more and more fully explore—and capture on film, for all to see. Circle Vision or ultra-wide projection screens in several pavilions showed everything from the Canadian Rockies to the Great Wall of China and the Rivers of France.

I couldn’t help but ponder that being immersed in all the attractions at this unique place was just a bit like getting to look down on the Earth from God’s vantage point and see the very BEST of what man had been able to accomplish with his God-given creativity, in the even greater context of the beauty of God’s Creation itself. Yes, outside the park’s perimeter I knew that the world had many dark spots, and had even had many periods of “dark ages,” where man had made a mess of things. But after all, the Bible does say that whatsoever things are good and pure and of good report are worthy things to “think on.” And this place reminded me that SOME of what mankind has done really has been “of good report.”

It was quite a few years after that visit (and a few more visits) that I began stumbling, on the Internet, on information about where some of inspiration for the infrastructure of EPCOT came from. Up until then, I hadn’t ever heard much, if anything about the various “World’s Fairs” of America’s history. I particularly came across descriptions and pictures of the Columbian Exposition/ World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago, and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 in New York City. These fairs were essentially huge “cities” built at great expense over a period of a few years, to be used for a year or two to “host” a world’s fair, and then destroyed. And it slowly dawned on me that EPCOT was essentially a “permanent world’s fair.” Those earlier fairs included many of the same elements I’d experienced at EPCOT, including spacious, beautiful landscaping, impressive architecture, themed pavilions (e.g., “transportation,” “fine arts,” “science and industry”) that featured displays and even “rides” that exhibited the accomplishments of man in their own time—and sometimes speculation about the future. The fairs included pavilions put up by nations from around the world to exhibit aspects of their own cultures and products. The Chicago fair even grouped pavilions around a lagoon, much like EPCOT!

I particularly became fascinated by the parallels between EPCOT and that 1939 New York Fair.

Futurama

In the pilot of the animated comedy Futurama, the protagonist awakens from a millennium of cryogenic slumber to find himself in the year 3000.

The first thing he hears is a portentous, booming voice: “Welcome…to the world of tomorrow!” The speaker is soon revealed to be a lab technician with a flair for the melodramatic. The scene riffs on a 70-year-old fair ride, a vision of the future that’s been so influential it’ll probably seem familiar even if you’ve never heard of it.

The direct reference is to the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, whose tagline was a promise to show visitors “the world of tomorrow.” The most memorable exhibit at the fair was the General Motors Pavilion, and the most memorable feature in the General Motors Pavilion was a ride called the Futurama.

People stood in line for hours to ride it and experience the exciting possibilities of life in the distant future —the year 1960.

The Futurama ride carried fair visitors past tiny, realistic landscapes while a narrator described the world of tomorrow. The effect was like catching a glimpse of the future from the window of an airplane.

As you might expect from a ride sponsored by GM, the focus was on what roadways and transportation might look like in 20 years.

… GM’s ride presented a utopia forged by urban planning. Sophisticated highways ran through rural farmland and eventually moved into carefully ordered futuristic cities. “You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this,” says Howland. “There wasn’t an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision.” [Wired]

This obviously put me in mind of the futuristic Horizons ride at EPCOT, and the parallel was cinched when I saw the opening title shot of the 1939 documentary that covered the Futurama attraction.

The main icon of EPCOT center, looming in every picture, is the Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere.

Compare this to the icon of the 1939  Fair.

The Trylon and Perisphere were two modernistic structures, together known as the “Theme Center,” at the center of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. Connected to the 610-foot (190 m) spire-shaped Trylon by what was at the time the world’s longest escalator, the Perisphere was a tremendous sphere, 180 feet in diameter. The sphere housed a diorama called “Democracity” which, in keeping with the fair’s theme “The World of Tomorrow”, depicted a utopian city-of-the-future. Democracity was viewed from above on a moving sidewalk, while a multi-image slide presentation was projected on the interior surface of the sphere. [Wiki: Trylon and Perisphere]

Here’s a little “digital recreation” of what it would have been like to visit the attraction.

Here’s a picture of the layout of Democracity.

You may wonder how this ties in with EPCOT. Well, the Epcot you can visit now (note the recent name change that eliminates the original ALL CAPS spelling of the park’s name) doesn’t give any hints of this. But Walt Disney didn’t plan EPCOT to be a “theme park” with attractions and rides. His original plans were to literally make what the letters of EPCOT stand for…an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”  His intent was to build an actual futuristic, semi-utopian “demonstration city” near Magic Kingdom, with people living and working in it. When he unexpectedly died in 1966, five years before even the Magic Kingdom opened, his staff put the EPCOT plans on hold. And they eventually opted to make a drastically altered version of what Walt originally had in mind, turning it into the Epcot people are familiar with today. But the original EPCOT plans looked like this in the concept paintings made for Walt by Disney Imagineers. The parallel to Democracity is very clear.

Walt had obviously been influenced by the “futuristic” plans of the 1939 Democracity and related “idealistic cities of the future” of that time.

Audio-Animatronics

Anyone who has been to a Disney park, including EPCOT, is well-familiar with the use of audio-animatronic robotic characters that bring artificial “life” to many of the attractions, such as the Carousel of Progress.

It was Walt’s Imagineers who actually created what they came to call audio-animatronics, very lifelike robots, starting with an Abraham Lincoln character they built on commission from the state of Illinois for its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. So there were obviously none of those extremely human-like robots at the 1939 Fair. But the ‘39 fair did introduce essentially the original prototype for the “manlike robot,” which started the techno-genealogy toward the eventual robotic characters in the Horizons attraction at EPCOT and so many other Disney attractions. And here he is … Elektro the Moto-Man and his trusty sidekick, Sparko.

Elektro could do 26 actions on command, had a vocabulary of 700 words, could tell red from green lights, and could even smoke… and crack stupid—and on occasion, sexist—jokes! Here he is in action.

Elecktro and Sparko were a hit with most fairgoers—including fictional ones.

Tom Middleton, his wife Jane, their children Babs (18) and Bud (14), and “Grandma” were the fictional family starring in a one hour promotional video produced by the Westinghouse Corporation to encourage Americans from across the land to make the trip to New York for the fair. (And, of course, in particular to visit the Westinghouse exhibit—which included Elektro and Sparko.) You can see the Middletons and their adventures online: The Middleton Family at the World’s Fair .

Yes, the whole idea of the 1939 NY World’s Fair really caught my imagination as a wonderful, idyllic place much like EPCOT, that I wished I could have visited. It seemed like it would have been such a fun, enlightening, refreshing experience to go there with the enthusiastic Middleton family.

That is, until I recently found out about the ‘39 Fair’s dark underbelly. But more about that later.

The Amusement Zone

Those civic leaders responsible for creating and hosting World’s Fairs have always had high aspirations for their efforts to be highly educational and informative, exposing the masses to places and ideas and inventions and ways of doing things that they aren’t familiar with. There are usually displays of fine arts and music, the crafts and customs of other countries, the latest offerings of industry to create “a better life” for everyone.

But from the earliest fairs on, it became obvious to those involved that the masses don’t want to JUST be educated and informed and exposed to “highbrow things.” They also want to be entertained. And if World’s Fairs don’t provide a big dose of entertainment too, they will be financial flops. So one of the features of every fair since the 1800s has been an “amusement strip.” The 1893 Chicago fair was the first to have a totally separate zone dedicated to “lowbrow” entertainment such as thrill rides and popular music shows. The strip at that fair was dubbed the “Midway Plaisance” (plaisance is a French word implying a pretty park). From that comes the common term “midway” used for the comparable part of county and state fairs to this day.

The midway at the St. Louis Fair of 1904 was called “The Pike.” That’s where, for instance, the famous Ragtime composer and piano player Scott Joplin (remember his catchy “The Entertainer” composition that made the pop music charts back in the 1970s?) and other African American musicians performed at that Fair.

And the 1939 NY Fair had The Amusement Zone. Including the lake in the midst of it, it covered 1/3 of the Fair’s whole area.

As you might guess, The Amusement Zone had a great appeal to children and teens. And no wonder. First there was the six acre “Children’s World,” that featured miniature trains that took kids on a “Trip around the World,” including side boat trips to Holland or Italy, or to a visit with an Eskimo family.

There was the splendiferous “Billy Rose’s Aquacade” which featured Johnny Weismuller, star of the Tarzan movies, and a bevy of lovely, skilled synchronized swimmers.

There was a “Theater of Time and Space” sponsored by a watch company, which “transported you to the far away shores of island universes in the dark cosmic depths aboard a rocket ship at speeds faster than the speed of light.”

There was a roller coaster, a parachute drop, a replica of George Washington’s home, even a “Little Miracle Town” populated by “The World’s Greatest Little People”—“65 of the greatest Midget Performers from the Four Corners of the Earth.”  This included acrobats, ballet dancers, magicians, comedians…and even “Three Orchestras.”

I have a number of attractive books either about, or including sections on, the 1939 New York World’s Fair. They all have numerous photos of many of the attractions found in the main section of the Fair, and usually some of attractions of The Amusement Zone, such as those listed above. What I didn’t realize until recently was that there was a whole “other world” at this World’s Fair that didn’t make it into the standard Coffee Table Books. It doesn’t feature prominently on most ‘39 Fair websites either. You have to do a bit of Web rummaging, a bit of creative googling, to find hints of it.

Well, maybe most books or websites have tiny hints of it. Most mention a few cryptic “details” of a couple of the attractions in The Amusement Zone. First there was the Salvadore Dali “Dream of Venus” attraction.

One of the most intriguing and remembered exhibitions at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City was without a doubt Salvador Dali’s bizarre, surrealist funhouse, Dream of Venus.  Those who were at the scene in 1939 and dared to enter Dali’s interactive, artistic spectacle, would have had to pass under a pair of woman’s spread-apart legs and purchase their tickets at a giant fish head.

This avant-garde  ”girlie-show” featured displays of naked ladies swimming in water tanks while some were perhaps milking a wounded cow or typing on a floating typewriter.  Inside, visitors found live lobsters sizzling on a hot bed of coals, another naked woman laying in a giant bed, surrounded by red satin, flowers and leaves, and a rubber female figure painted as a piano.

And this brief excerpt is a mild description of the full extent of what was “going on” inside the bizarre house. Yep. Live nekkid ladies. Some wet, some dry. Doing strange stuff. Inside a building like nothing you’d ever seen unless you were a guy prone to eating way too much pizza and drinking too much beer before going to bed at 4 in the morning. Evidently that was the kind of guy Dali was. Only difference was … he was a “famous artist.” Which made it possible for him to bring his nightmares into the real world, and populate them with nekkid ladies, and pass them off as “good clean art appreciation” experiences for Fair Goers.

Well, OK. That was “art.” So it is somehow understandable how it could make its way into the World’s Fair.

And then there was the “Jack Sheridan’s Living Magazine Covers.”  As you might expect, this was an attraction within which you saw life-sized magazine covers with “live” humans being the illustrations on them. You paid a small entry fee, and entered the building where young women posed with the magazine backdrops. You were allowed to take pictures as each one posed for about 15 seconds, and the whole show took about 8 minutes.

Yep. You’ve guessed it. The young ladies were all nekkid from the waist up. At least. A “Bride” magazine with a nekkid lady in a see-through bridal gown. And so on. They stood real still, of course. Although they breathed real deeply and heavily, which evidently was intended to emphasize their “aesthetic attributes.”

Art. It must have been art. That’s it. It was art. Which makes it OK that the sleazy exterior of the building, with not-nekkid-but-scantily-clad women posing on balconies, while the barker below hawked the wares inside—was right across the walkway from the entrance to the Children’s World.

And what was right across the walkway from the gen-yoo-wine replica of George Washington’s home? (The Fair was ostensibly “honoring” the “150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President in New York in 1789.) Why, over yonder was the entrance to the “Aztec Sun Worshippers” attraction.

Which had no Aztecs, and no worship going on. Just … taDA … nekkid ladies (topless … at least…) wandering around a park-like area soakin’ up the sun. Eating sandwiches at picnic tables, taking showers, playing “jacks.”

Art. It must have been art. That’s it. It was … No.  It wasn’t art. It was pure voyeurism. But … but … at least it was “clean,” innocent voyeurism.  No bump and grind, no come hither looks. Just cheerful half-nekkid young women making a living by eating sandwiches in front of gawkers snapping souvenir photos with their Kodak Brownie Cameras.

Yes, I have long been aware of the three “attractions” mentioned above. I have never really understood how, in the 1930s, when the “Hays Code” for the motion picture industry made it impossible to even show two married people in the same bed, or anybody kissing more than three seconds—and even had flapper Betty Boop required to wear longer skirts than she used to because very little flesh was to be exposed by actresses—the promoters got away with these sorts of “attractions” at such a public event. But I decided what I said above … two of them got by on the technicality that they were ostensibly “artistic presentations,” and the third had the young women doing such innocuous things that it was hard to pin it down as something that would provoke people to certifiable “lust.”

Ah …but I was naïve. I didn’t realize that the passage of time had “filtered out” the Rest of the Story about The Amusement Zone. Those three attractions were indeed only the tip of a very deep and grimy iceberg.

For instance, you may have noticed in the pic above that the entrance to the Sun Worshippers realm was immediately connected to the entrance the Congress of Beauty. Until recently, I’d seen no description of what this was all about. Oh. More art.

If that’s what you can call a collection of seedy burlesque show acts. There was a woman who danced with a parrot…who, at the appropriate time, pulled most all of her skimpy outfit off with its beak, to the hoots and hollers of the appreciative audience. There were dances involving mostly nekkid men and women imitating sex acts. There was a scene with a mostly nekkid man and woman making love …interrupted by an ape who drags off the woman, paws all over her, and dumps her in a volcano. There’s the “dance of the roses,” where the dancers have teensy flowers covering parts of their tops and bottoms … and they eventually toss the teensy flowers to the men in the audience. Who evidently seemed very appreciative to have the pretty flowers. To take home to their wives, no doubt.

And so it went on at sleazy venue after sleazy venue down the midway, tucked between the Time and Space theater and the Midget Town, between the Aquacade and the Roller Coaster. Barkers everywhere, offering their wares…like at the Little Egypt show, where the barker urged you to “See Stella before the cops get here; you will not find this in the Guide Book.”

Or the Artist and Model show, where another pitch man insisted if those entering saw “even a string” on the model, they would get their money back. Nobody requested a refund.

I think what turned my stomach the most was a description of a show called “Extasie.”

It was, of all things, based on a Biblical story. At the beginning you saw a pit on the stage. You quickly realized this was “jail” and the top half of a nekkid man (at least as far as you could see him) playing “John the Baptist” was sticking up out of the pit.

A mostly-(maybe-all) nekkid Salome, stepdaughter of Herod, was leaning over trying to seduce John into kissing her. He rejected her, and she stomped off to find Herod. She then did a really, really sleazy Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod. He was pleased and promised her anything she wanted, which was of course the head of John the Baptist. Some aides brought the head and tossed it on stage. (Not sure how lifelike… and/or how gory the simulation was).  She leaned down and began fondling it and kissing it on the mouth, bragging to “it” that she finally got to kiss it. Then she laid down next to it on the stage and writhed in a simulated sexual frenzy.

Art. It must have been art. Or freedom of religious expression. Or somethin’.

As were the frequent parades and public expositions by some of the “stars” of such shows right out on the “midway” where everybody could see them. No, there wasn’t outright nudity in those (unless a participating young woman had the 30’s equivalent of a “wardrobe malfunction”). But the outfits were extremely skimpy, the writhing, jiggling, shimmying dances and posturing extremely provocative. 14 year old Bud Middleton sure would have gotten an eyeful, even though he would have to have been all of 16 to get into the smut shows!

Surely the producers of a World’s Fair, where the US was “on display” for the admiration of the whole world; where our nation’s noblest and finest and highest qualities were offered for open inspection; where families were encouraged to bring their children and teens from all over America to come see the noblest  and highest aspirations we have for our country…

…surely such men couldn’t possibly have just allowed the vilest of smut and filth to be sprinkled right in the middle of it all…could they?  And surely a nation of basically godly men wouldn’t have flocked to see, often right with their wives and children and mothers and mothers in law in tow, the dregs of what man…and the nekkid young ladies men could  hire … were able to produce.

Surely this couldn’t have been going on back in “the Good Old Days.” Could it?

Yes, it could. And did. “In spades,” as the old saying goes.

Pam’s Lament

I viewed EPCOT as getting to see a little taste of what God would see looking down and choosing to focus on the very best that mankind had done with the creative gifts He had created them with.

I thought that was what the 1939 World’s Fair had been … but I’ve come to realize it was really as if God was looking down at a lovely city…joined at the hip to a cesspool.

Here’s how one chronicler of that event in the New York Daily News put it.

OSTENSIBLY, IT WAS about international goodwill in a darkly war-beclouded world. Ostensibly, it was about the peoples of the Earth together joining hands in celebration of their noblest and most harmonious ideals. Ostensibly, it was about The World of Tomorrow, that gleamingly marvelous place where every home had an electric waffle iron and an automatic washing machine and where robot cars sped efficiently along the super-expressways that linked great domed cities.

What it was really all about was naked ladies. You couldn’t have a world’s fair without ‘em. Everybody knew that. Ever since Little Egypt wowed the folks in Chicago in 1893, there had never been a successful exposition absent naked ladies. The Chicago fair of ‘33 had been going bust until Sally Rand came along with her fans and plumes and bubbles. Sally was the top draw at the San Francisco fest [the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition World’s Fair] right this minute, her “Nude Ranch” revue bringing in double the revenues of any other attraction.

If you didn’t have naked ladies, you didn’t have a fair.

Although not everything predicted by the General Motors Futurama came to pass, by the 1960s we were soon well on the way to the Interstate Highway system envisioned by the attraction, a great improvement over the congestion of the 1930s.

But it’s a good thing we didn’t “progress” forward from the state of acceptance of sexually explicit entertainment in public places that seems to have been true of the times in the late 1930s. Otherwise every Disney park, every Six Flags, every county fair in America by this time, would no doubt have a whole section of their property dedicated to live, participatory orgies … complete with animals and more.

Once again, the “media” of the times from the 1950s and earlier—movies, and later TV—has given us a false view of the real “way it used to be.”

Can you perhaps begin to see why I am fed up with those … particularly the “older” generations … who rant about how “awful” the world of modern America is now, and how much more pure and good and godly and decent it was “back in the day”?  I’ve now seen more  than ever before some of the rest of the story of “back in the day,” and have become convinced that it was no different from now.   There are people with a strong sense of sexual morality today, just as there were back then. There are people for whom just about “anything goes” now, just as there were back then. People haven’t changed at all “inside” in general.

As a matter of fact, there are some aspects of modern society that I find much more conducive to living decently than was so, say 75 years the past.  I cannot fathom going to visit the Magic Kingdom next time and finding, next to “It’s a Small World After All” … a nude review!

Yes, there’s nudity in movies now, even at “regular” theaters. Yes there is gross porn on the Internet. But you have to go looking for it. You don’t just stroll by it with your kids at Six Flags!  There seems to have been, inexplicably to me, much more tolerance among those in positions of civic responsibility back in the 1940s and before, for an “acceptable level” of filth in public places. And there seems to have been, equally inexplicably to me, much more tendency for men in particular to be willing to walk into such places right out in public in venues such as the World’s Fairs back in the 1940s and before. In recent decades, most men have at least had the pseudo-decency to “put on a disguise” before walking into a XXX-rated movie theater if they are somewhere where they might be recognized!

Even the smut peddlers (XXX theaters, girly shows, etc) here in my home state of Georgia have the “decency” to set up shop out on obscure exits of the Interstate.  They don’t put ‘em next to the Cracker Barrel at the busy exits, nor do they come in town and put them next to the public libraries and museums.

No, I have no desire to go back to the Good Old Days!

But wait. Maybe I just didn’t go back far enough, to the real Good Old Days. Little House on the Prairie and all that. OK. Keep your rose-colored nostalgia glasses firmly in place as you check out the next Panic Button blog entry, Double Trouble. Once again, you’re gonna need ‘em. And maybe smelling salts.

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One Response to Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 14: A Fair to Remember

  1. Doug Young says:

    Never knew that Scott Joplin was African-American. Thanks.

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