It opened in the Spring of 1964 on the same ground as the previous one in 1939, It was a sprawling testament to American Industry; the partial brainchild of Robert Moses who was responsible for changing the city’s landscape probably more than any one man. To do so of course countless residents were displaced; whole neighborhoods demolished and the city itself transected by miles and miles of expressways and highways. He was a hero to some, a villain to others but he was a man with a vision that’s for sure.
The anticipation leading up to the official opening was intense for the city; a lot of people were banking on the fair bringing in tons of money to the city; hotels were booked, restaurants were designing special menus, and the companies that were to be represented there had started running television and newspaper ads for months in advance.
Bell Telephone promised a phone that would allow you to see the person you were speaking to; Ford was to debut it’s latest model (think it was the Fairlane 500), Belgian Waffles were to be introduced to America; Firestone or was it Uniroyal that promised the largest tire in the world; the steel Unisphere would be at the center of it all; Each state and a fair number of foreign countries were building pavilions; IBM would have it’s 500 seat grandstand “people wall” which would lift on hydraulic rams; Westinghouse would bring you through time itself at it’s pavilion; and amazingly the Vatican was loaning the famous Pieta sculpture, a Michelangelo masterpiece to be displayed at their pavilion – we all knew that was number one on Mom’s must sees. For me it was the Sinclair Oil Pavilion (called appropriately enough Dinoland) with it’s promised life size Dinosaurs!
It was ambitious to say the least. And later I read that financially it was pretty much a failure for a lot of participants, but Moses made out alright…..oh and we loved it.
It was already an exciting time in the city; the Beatles would appear on Ed Sullivan’s variety show the same month the fair opened and a little later the Mets would come home to Flushing and play at the new Shea Stadium.
I remember being in a constant state of excitement; there was so much to see and do. Our parents promised we would indeed pay the $ 15 admission fee and go as a family at least once. I hoped for way more than once, but I would take what I could get.
The day we went for the first time was a sunny and bright one; warm for April. The new Number 7 train line dropped us off on a long wooden ramp that changed to concrete as we hit the fair grounds. It was designed so that all walkways led to the Unisphere and its reflecting pool. I looked around me and the huge pavilions seemed to rise up on all sides; trams passed by loaded with people; music was coming from somewhere, everywhere. What to see first??! Ahhh what a dilemma! I of course just followed wherever Mom and Dad led us, but all the time I was thinking about those Dinosaurs.
And we did it all; saw it all; ate it all. The dolphins at the Florida exhibit, the Bright New Tomorrow of the Carousel of Progress, the automatronic Lincoln at the Hall of Presidents, the ride into the future at General Motors, the It’s a Small World After All of Disney’s genius, the huge tire, the two way phones, the Hall of Science, all of it.
And then it was time for the special ones. The Vatican Pavillion was a wonderful bit of architecture in itself, but what it held brought Mom to tears. We stood on a moving walkway in a dimly lit room, hushed with reverence and anticipation. And then it was there. The Pieta itself. I don’t need to, and wouldn’t presume to explain the breathtaking beauty of the piece ; it was after all Michelangelo. But it was transforming. The tissues were passed from Mom to us and even Dad was struck silent. I am always in awe when I am in the same room, close to something like that. I mean, there it was, right in front of you; not on film; not in a photo, but the real thing right there. I have thankfully experienced that feeling many times since – the Library of Congress with it’s original documents does it, seeing Galileo’s homemade telescope, the Crown Jewels…the list goes on. And every time I say a prayer of thanks that I got to have the experience I was having. I know I am writing this in hindsight but I think seeing Mom so affected by a work of art like that taught me to mark my time well, and appreciate the chances you get to share some space with such purity.
But hey it was time for Dinoland right?! And finally there I was standing next to my favorite of them all, Tricerotops in usual fighting form facing off against a huge TRex. They were all there – all my friends..Stegasaurus, Diplodocus, Brontosaurus. I was in heaven….they even moved!! And grunted!! As you can imagine Mom and Dad had to drag me out of there…I was ready to stay my whole life. I had dreamed of this…seeing these amazing creatures from out of my How and Why Book of Dinosaurs…and I was finally doing it….no way was I leaving.
Well..you know how that goes. As usual Dad put it simply and effectively.
“You may not want to leave, but you’re leaving because we are leaving”
Alrighty then. Leave we did. But in a way I never really left there, just as any special place or person sticks with you for your whole life. You physically leave but mentally….well let’s just say a part of me is still that little kid standing in awe and affection, shadowed by creatures from a time long past.
So I guess I am sorry the fair wasn’t a commercial success, but here’s to you Mr. Moses, it was a hell of a show for fifteen dollars!