By Arthur H. Gunther III
Fifty years ago, visiting the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City was like riding a train on what was supposed to be a vacation, but troubling, intruding bad news from home interrupted the anticipated gaiety you had when you boarded, and you could not concentrate fully — there was a buzz in your head. When you got off, you didn’t know where the next stop would be. You did realize, though, that you could not go home again.
The stirring of lost illusion that began with the John Kennedy assassination less than a year before was the bad news, and the bubbling over of long-contained emotion — from anger to euphoria and all the in-between that would become the 1960s civil rights movement, the Beatles, Vietnam and government distrust — would be the many stops ahead. In the years and decades after the fair, not all trains pulled into all stations, and not everyone got off at every stop.
It is odd that the previous New York City World’s Fair, the 1939-40 event also set in Flushing Meadows, Queens, was equally an uneasy citizen layover, that uncertain moment before the second war to end all wars. Then, as at the 1964-65 fair, the day’s job seemed to be distraction. In 1939, “Building the World of Tomorrow” theme would prove severely understated. In 1964, “Peace Through Understanding” became an illusive dream.
Yet there was fun and joy at both fairs, the first an escape from the lingering Great Depression and a chance for people and nations to mix, albeit in tentative fashion. The second fair included recognition that there had been post-war achievement even on the shaky ground of the Cold War. The bright, cheery pastel colors of the 1950s were still popular, American cars were bigger than ever, more suburban homes were being built, and the latest recession was over. In 1939, and in 1964, we all could have a bit of fun, for a time.
A highlight of the 1964-65 World’s Fair was the The Pietá, Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture that was installed on loan from the Vatican at its World’s Fair Pavilion. Though commissioned for French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres, the famous work long ago had been moved to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. This art, which depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, was visited by 27 million at the fair, including Pope Paul VI.
The sculpture, so beautifully telling of a mother’s lost and earthly mourning, offered fair-goers, Christian, Catholic or not, a story of pain, of suffering but also of hope. (Just look at the way Mary holds her son.) As such it may have been the perfect “exhibit” at a world’s fair caught between the ever-greater expectancy of the 1950s and the institutional foundation shaking of the 1960s.
The 1964 fair brought us full-blown consumerism. Such fairs are 90 percent that by nature, of course, but the last Flushing Meadows event was particularly gaudy. Larger-style waffles, called “Belgian,” were a smash hit at $1 each, not the 10 cents you paid at Joe’s Diner for the ordinary but still tasty variety. A 20-ounce soda was also $1, not the 5-cent, eight-ounce vanilla cream Pop Roth’s store mixed at fountain service. Prices would rise and rise after the 1964-65 fair, even at Joe’s Diner and Pop Roth’s, and the inflation as well as an emphasis on things bigger continue today. So does the entire story of consumerism, though a shrinking U.S. middle class will change that. The Pietá is back in the Vatican, visited by millions yearly, its message even more relevant in a world where the “tomorrow” of the 1939 event happened but not as planned and where 1964’s “Peace Through Understanding” remains the slippery, illusive dream it has always been.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at email@example.com. This essay may be reproduced.