Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bucket List NYC: Standing In the Shadow of the Unisphere

Foreground: Police tape. Background: Unisphere.
Tom and I are pretty much sure at this point that our days in Grey Gardens are time in New York City is limited. We had been going back and forth between moving to Southern California to be near some of his loved ones (and Disneyland) or to Central Florida to be near some of my loved ones (and Walt Disney World) and have come to an almost officially official decision. In the meantime, we have started a sort of informal bucket list of things we want to do here before the wind changes and take us elsewhere. There are many experiences and opportunities that are easy to take for granted as someone living in New York City.

Memorabilia in the Queens Museum of Art.
One of these bucket list items has been to make it out to the theater more. We have avoided it more often than not lately because a) it's expensive, 2) it's not usually very good, and we don't want to waste our time, energy and money on mediocre, unexciting productions that purport to be the pulse of the American theatrical heart when in truth they are are actually just lifeless. Exuent rant stage left. In our effort to give more theatre a shot, which has yielded mixed results, uncovering a few keepers and more than a few that we'd like to toss back, we decided to see a new musical in Queens, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. Because it was atrocious.

Disney and Moses in the Queens Museum of Art.
Thankfully, however, it was far from a wasted trip since one of the major reasons we decided to see it was the fact that it was at the Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. In other words, it was an excuse to check another item of the bucket list- visit the site of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, which was a major event in Disney history. It was a controversial fair, since it wasn't officially recognized by the committee that recognizes such things. Robert Moses, the powerful New Yorker who willed the fair into being, decided to break rules left and right, charging rent for the pavilions, running the fair for two years instead of only one, and hosting it before enough time had passed between it and the last fair held in the U.S. Regulations be damned, Moses plowed ahead, wanting to celebrate the 300th anniversary of New York's founding and atone for the losses his previous fair in the same spot accrued in 1939-1940. The result was that many governments couldn't officially participate, leaving industries to pick up the slack and people to claim that the fair was too commercial.

Entrance Plaza. You can see the Unisphere
in the center of the shot. It's omnipresent.
As the fair was being planned, Disneyland, designed and executed by WED Enterprises (later Imagineering) under Walt Disney's guidance, was a bit more then five years old and a certifiable smash, so it was inevitable that he would be sought out to design attractions for the event. Disneyland was put into a holding pattern for several years as Walt had the foresight to see that WED could use corporate money to develop new technologies and rides, test them out on the east coast and get a feel for how his entertainment would be welcomed there, and then bring a good chunk of that work back with them to Disneyland after the fair closed. And that's exactly what he did.

Another shot near the entrance.
I cropped out the homeless guy.
It was here that Disney introduced technologies and concepts that would allow his imagineers to take theme park attractions to whole new levels. WED was brought on to create four attractions and we can still see at the very least remnants of all of them in the parks. For Ford they created the Magic Skyway, which took people on a trip through time from the age of the dinosaurs to the present in a Ford convertible and resulted in the Omnimover ride system in place in attractions such as "The Haunted Mansion". You can also still visit the dinosaurs from the ride at Disneyland if you take the train between Tomorrowland and Main Street. The amazing Marc Davis cave people, however, have been lost to time. While you were in the queue, there were also detailed miniature representations of distant lands to peruse.

Unisphere + rainbow = happy gay photographer.
The Illinois State Pavilion featured the most advanced audio-animatronic figure created up to that point in Abraham Lincoln. People were mesmerized during the presentation, which managed to piece together an incredibly moving speech from bits of several others without sounding like a greatest hits montage. The figure ran into technical difficulties here and there (it was apparently inclined to give its audience the finger now and again) but for the most part, people were so convinced that it was a real actor up there, they would throw things at him to get a reaction. The show can still be seen at Disneyland in its original form and later spawned "The Hall of Presidents" at Walt Disney World.

The former Fountains of the Fairs are now a skate park.
For General Electric, Disney created Progressland with "The Carousel of Progress" as its centerpiece. The rise still exists in WDW in an updated form as the only attraction in that park that could literally be dusted for Walt's fingerprints. The theatrical show, using audio-animatronic actors (and pup), moved the audience from scene to scene while the stages stood still. Since it still exists, it is the best remembered piece of the exhibit, but after the show, the audience saw the Skydome Spectacular, which was a show that was projected onto the inside of the domed roof of the pavilion. Disney also developed a show using two A-A birds to help the audience understand electricity. It all owed a great deal to the unrealized Edison Square concept developed for Disneyland.

Vegetation on the bottom of the Unisphere.
Pepsi was the last company the approached Walt, asking him to create a show for UNICEF in less than a year start to finish. Even up to his neck in the three other projects for the fair, he agreed, and the classic "it's a small world" attraction was born. The major contributor was Mary Blair, who designed the look of the ride, which was a charming boat ride through the nations as we meet the children of the world. Other major contributors were the Sherman Brothers, who gave us the ubiquitous song, Alice Davis, who handled the costuming, Blaine Gibson, who designed the dolls, Claude Coats, who gave the ride its layout, and Rolly Crump, who added other touches to the design and designed the gorgeous "Tower of the Four Winds" kinetic sculpture that adorned the outside of the otherwise plainly designed show building. Along with the classic attraction that is now in every Disney destination, the boat ride gave the imagineers a new method of moving crowds through a large capacity attraction. They would later use it in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Splash Mountain".

The Panorama is huge and amazing. It's the entire city
in miniature at the Queens Museum of Art.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around the way the a World's Fair works. I was born in 1980, so there have been no major World's Fairs in the U.S. since I was four years old. To be honest, to my generation Epcot in Disney has always been our World's Fair, showcasing both foreign cultures and the promise of tomorrow. The thing that is really beyond me is the ephemeral nature of the fair. It seems like such a shame that all of this amazing architecture and history is built just to be unceremoniously torn down. Even Rolly Crump's spectacular "Tower of the Four Winds" was destroyed and just dumped into the river because of the prohibitive cost of moving it. On the whole, though, it is said that Walt felt the same way I do- What a waste.

I found these vintage Disney/fair souvenirs
at the Museum gift shop.
What started as a piqued interest in the fair because of Disney has grown. It has become my latest obsession (like I need another one). I am fascinated by the time it encapsulates, when America was still full of a kind of innocence and promise that has all but evaporated in the ensuing decades. I look at the future of the world and our nation and often feel a knot of helplessness in the pit of my stomach. Such is the legacy of the generations since the Space Age. The fair captured the last gasp of a hopeful nation before it was buried beneath a pile of endless foreign conflict, cultural schisms, governmental ineptitude and rampant corporate greed.

The period of time that it represents, the fascinating architecture, the theme of "Peace Through Understanding", the grandeur to the brink of camp. All of it has captured my imagination the way it did for my parent's generation. My Mama still remembers her visit. A friend of mine (shout out to Bart!) tells of his trip with a glow in his eyes, recounting how at the end of their trip his mother told him that she would let him choose one last thing to see again before they left. He, of course, chose "it's a small world". He's a gay after my own heart. The fair has created it's own mythology and it is one that I am just starting to peel the layers back to see.

Looking towards the Fountains.
As much of a success as it may have been in some respects, the fair was a financial failure. Attendance fell well below expected numbers. Some exhibitors couldn't even afford to stay open through the end of the fair, leaving it up to the fair itself to keep them running rather than deal with the PR mess of having closed exhibitions. Robert Moses had planned to use profits from the fair to turn Flushing Meadows-Corona Park into a public space to rival Central Park. With the fair finishing in the red, that was an impossibility. Within months, the site was razed, leaving behind a few pieces of art and architecture and a shell of a space waiting to be transformed into a proper park. Time, though, was not kind. New York's finances in the late 60's and 70's were not in the greatest shape. Most of the few remnants that were left to be preserved were untended and fell prey to the elements and disrespectful humans. It is a pretty sad end to the story.

My favorite statue from the fair-
The Rocket Thrower. Hubba hubba.
Walking through the park today is an interesting experience. Pieces of the fair still exist. The Unisphere still stands and the fountains around it still flow sometimes, while empty pools that used to contain jumping fountains remain devoid of water. Some of the gorgeous statues still stand. The New York Pavilion now contains the Queens Museum of Art, with the Panorama of New York City intact and a circa-rama theater has been converted into the gorgeous theater that we went to the park to see a show in. The Observation Towers and Tent of Tomorrow with the large scale terrazzo map of New York on the floor, though landmarked, are in complete disrepair. Gotham Plaza, the entrance, is quite run down. Skateboarders have taken over every concrete surface and soccer matches the green spaces. Kids play hide and seek in overgrown bushes and race remote control cars down the walkways. Almost none of them, I would venture to bet, have a sense of history regarding the ground they're standing on.

What's left of the Observation Towers and
Tent of Tomorrow.
Today, the fair seems almost all but forgotten on its former site. I was surprised about the sense of sadness that I had walking around before we went to the show and I have spent the weeks since trying erase that feeling by diving headfirst into the history of what stood there. New York is a strange city. There is so much history here that they have to pick and choose what they are able to respectfully preserve. The 64-65 World's Fair is one of those pieces of history that has largely managed to fall through the cracks. Little of those two amazing years remains. But a trip to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on a Saturday afternoon was enough to set my mind ablaze in respect for and fascination with this incredible slice of the past- both Disney's and America's.

Of course, I scoured YouTube for interesting videos of the 64-65 Fair for you guys, since y'all are so awesomesauce. Here are the ones that really churned my butter. I hope you enjoy them!

This first one was made by Ford and shows a complete ride-through of the Magic Skyway, which otherwise might have been completely lost. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain Walt's original narration.

This is the famous "Disney Goes to the World's Fair" episode of The Wonderful World of Color. It is one of my favorite episodes and was released on a now out of print DVD in the Walt Disney treasures line. It shows Walt and his imagineers in preparation for the event. This is the first part of five.

This is a very cool special from NBC that I found where a host takes you on an overview of the entire fair. It is well-shot and the host has a dry sense of humor. It's a great way to get a taste of things that aren't Disney from the fair, and there were many. It's nice to see more of the scope. This is part one of six.

This is a commercial from the time for the subway extension that was done specifically to give people access to the fair. It's the very same 7 line that I took out to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park a few weeks ago. And it was not nearly this much fun. I wish it had been, though.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a few amazing sources of information for this entry and for the brain expansion that this journey into the 64-65 New York World's Fair has become and will continue to be for me. First is the amazing 5 CD set Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair. It contains ride-throughs with alternate versions, music, demos, show recordings and studio outtakes and is beautifully packaged with informative liner notes, which are really more like a short book. I have listened to the Ford Pavilion CD so many times that most of the tracks have slowly crept up into my iPod's most played playlist. Also, there is a fantastic book by Bill Cotter and Bill Young called Images of America: The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. It has tons of great information and black and white photos of the fair. I have been slowly digesting each morsel on the subway every day for a week, trying to soak it all in. If you are interested in more in-depth information on the fair, especially Disney's influence there, I cannot recommend these highly enough. 

The back side of the good ole U. S. of A. on the Unisphere.
I'm just at the beginning of my journey of discovery with the fair and I feel lucky that this came onto my radar while I was still living close enough to dig a little deeper in person. If you are in the area and have a passion for Disney history, it is well worth the trip to the Park. Despite the lack of buildings and landmarks, there is still a palpable sense of what was there. Though I'm sad about what was lost and will no doubt spend plenty of time trying to wrap my brain around the whole affair, I must say that I'm grateful that Walt saved so much of it and that Disney has kept it alive in one form or another. Disney has a respect for its history that even the city of New York doesn't and/or isn't able to have. I may not be able to ride a Ferris wheel housed in a giant tire, see the dancing fountains or shows, or even take a trip on the Magic Skyway, but I am able to ride "it's a small world" and the "Carousel of Progress" and be transported to a time when the idea of "a smile mean(ing) friendship to everyone" in "a great, big beautiful tomorrow" was not completely doused in irony, if only for a few minutes. In today's world that experience is not only nice but necessary. And I am extremely grateful to Disney for making it possible.

One last look at the Unisphere before we left.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa. I've been meaning to get out here and check all of this out, but I haven't -- only passed it about a million times on the LIE though. Great, comprehensive article. Really love it. As always you bring joy to my reading time! :) Can't wait to hear where you guys are moving to! Happy Monday!