Monday, July 16, 2007

At 140 Feet High and 120 Feet in Diameter, It Really Isn't All That 'small'

Walt Disney: (answers phone) It’s your dime - talk.
Robert Moses: Walt! It’s Moses.
Walt Disney: The guy who parted the Red Sea?
Robert Moses: No! The guy who parted the Bronx. Have I got a proposition for you…

That of course, is a loose interpretation of the beginning of Walt Disney’s association with 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

When fair president and master planner Robert Moses decided to go it alone by turning his back on the Bureau of International Expositions, and with many countries showing solidarity by not participating in something called a World’s Fair, he started calling the smaller countries, like Disneyland and the Vatican. Walt sent robotic children from around the world in the hopes that no one would notice the absence of say, France and the pope sent Michelangelo’s Pieta (not the real one, but a knock-off purchased by then-Cardinal Spellman on Canal Street).

Fast forward the present. After years of zipping by Flushing Meadows Corona Park on the Van Wyck Expressway, seeing the Unisphere, New York State Pavilion and its observation towers peeking above the trees and having experienced variations of it’s a small world and The Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World, I finally decided to take the 7 out to Queens and see it for myself. So in the spirit of “The World of Tomorrow” (1939 New York World's Fair theme) and “Peace Through Understanding” (1964 theme), I set out with robot (from my comic strip, Five & Tension) and digital camera:

Aside from the familiar iconic structures like the Unisphere, there are several markers acknowledging the park’s history. Most notable: two monolithic, etched-granite pavement montages commemorating both the 1939 and 1964 fairs. Located slightly to the east of the Unisphere, they are composed of one-hundred and twenty squares, which I individually photographed, then lovingly skewed and reassembled in Photoshop. What exactly do my efforts have to do with the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964? Well, to date all have failed to turn a profit. Feel free to click on each image for a closer look:

Over at the New York State Pavilion, its circular structure with accompanying observation towers (familiar to younger generations as the location for the climatic battle scene from 1997’s Men in Black) stand neglected, rusting, boarded and chained. At the base of the observation towers is a plastic historical marker almost obscured by vegetation and mounted on a surrounding fence. Adjacent is the Queens Theatre-in-the-Park, which currently taunts its landmark neighbor with renovation-related construction. The theater's re-design even manages to incorporate some design elements from the pavilion’s towers. Please enjoy these images of civic neglect:

I also stopped by the Queens Museum of Art, housed in what was the original New York City Pavilion from both fairs. The museum still boasts the impressive original panoramic scale model of the five boroughs of New York City from the ’64 fair. It was created to give visitors a “virtual helicopter tour of the city” as the panorama’s recorded narration suggests. The museum also displays a small exhibit of models, art, souvenirs and miscellaneous paraphernalia from both fairs as well as a plaster reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta (really a second generation copy of the knock-off). Here are some images of the museum’s exterior, four out of the five boroughs, the eastern section of The Bronx (my home borough) and a close-up of lower Manhattan on the panorama:

At 1,255.42 acres, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. What is written here involved two separate visits and the photography of other original 1964 fair sites not appearing here, including the New York Hall of Science and Terrace on the Park (originally the Port Authority Heliport) as well as some sculptural pieces. I plan to continue to research this fascinating topic and hopefully post more at a later date. The 1964 New York World’s Fair predates me by about decade and a half. It is only through the documentary efforts of others - books, stories from attendees, a museum exhibit and the internet - that I have been able to experience it virtually. There is of course that other all-important source: my imagination.

If you're interested in learning more about the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, I recommend the following sources which I found to be most informative:

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York City, by Robert A. Caro
New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns, James Sanders and Lisa Ades
Since the World Began: Walt Disney World’s First 25 Years, by Jeff Kurtti
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website: - Exploring America’s Space Age World’s Fair