With the 50th anniversary of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair upon us, the Queens Museum has unveiled a new exhibit featuring everything from one of the animatronic brontosauruses from GM’s “Futurama” attraction to a Bell System Picturephone that was created way before FaceTime.
If you’re a fan of Mad Men–era NYC you should definitely see the exhibit, on view till Oct. 18, along with the museum’s long-term display of over 900 smaller artifacts from the fair. But let’s face it, all of the ephemera can’t do justice to what was truly a mind-blowing extravaganza made up of 150 fantastically designed pavilions offering everything from utopian visions of the future, to Jurassic Park-style dinosaur battles, to canoe rides through replicas of exotic island paradises — not to mention, of course, the Unisphere and the Panorama, among the few attractions that outlasted the fair.
Running from mid-April to mid-October in both ’64 and ’65, the fair was immense. Which is why the 312-page guide put out by the editors of Time-Life Books featured a welcome message in which Robert Moses, the event’s proud president, implored visitors to “study the fair. Come often. When you get here, don’t rush.”
We recently acquired a copy of that official guide and gave it a read. Here’s what we learned.
1. You could get there by helicopter and by hydrofoil.
Helicopters regularly traveled between Wall Street and the fair’s 120-foot-high heliport (still home to a banquet hall). Rides were $8, or about $60 today. Hydrofoil boats, “which skim over the water on winglike foils,” went from South Street and East 25th Street to the Fair Marina (also still home to a restaurant). You can see the hydrofoils at 5:14 in this video.
2. You could dine in a teahouse.
The Korea pavilion featured “dancing drummer girls” as well as a teahouse serving exotic dishes like kimchi.
3. Or you could dine in a tree-house.
The Africa pavilion, made up of huts on stilts (shown at 1:09 in the video above), featured caged wild animals and $500 diamonds on display. And there was tree-house dining: “The multilevel rooms of the tree-house restaurant and bar are reached by a winding staircase that girdles the tree’s massive trunk.”
4. There was a robot Lincoln created by Walt Disney.
Seriously, peep the video above. “With mannerisms characteristic of the great Civil War President, the animated figure recites excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches on liberty, civil rights and freedom. Dimensions of the figure duplicate the physical statistics found in biographies; the facial features were taken from Lincoln’s life mask.”
5. There was a 100-dish Viking smorgasborg.
The buffet in the Minnesota pavilion “groans with over 100 foods” from the state, including venison, pheasant and pike.
7. There was a million-dollar money tree
At the American Express pavilion, “a million dollars’ worth of real currency ‘grows’ on a money tree.”
8. There were “rest alcoves” with “nap robes.”
Wandering the fairgrounds could be tiring. So, “uniformed attendants escort visitors to their rest alcoves, set a timer outside and rouse them gently if they sleep beyond the half-hour limit. Each alcove is carpeted and furnished with bed, shelf and full-length mirror.”
9. The Vatican pavilion cost $2 million.
The sum was raised by churches around the U.S. It was the first time Michelangelo’s Pieta left Old St. Peter’s Basilica. The pavilion was eventually relocated to Groton, Connecticut, where it became a church. You can see the interior above and the exterior here.
11. Boy Scouts told stories at night.
The Boy Scouts of America pavilion featured a “nightly campfire with singing and storytelling.”
12. Rheingold recreated old New York.
The brewery’s pavilion recreated a “cobblestoned, gaslighted New York City street of 1904,” with occasional appearances by a barbershop quartet and Miss Rheingold herself. It took two years of study and planning.
13. Schaefer created the longest bar in the world.
The brewer’s pavilion included an illuminated 12-foot-tall fountain, “ornamental trees that at night appear to be filled with twinkling fireflies,” and a 100-foot-long bar.
14. There was a transparent chocolate factory.
The Chunky Candy pavilion showed candies being made in slow-motion.
15. There was an “autoparts harmonic orchestra.”
Inside of the Ford pavilion there was a harp made of transmission housing and brake cables, and a trumpet fashioned from a section of axle and fuel pump parts. See them perform at 6:30 in the video above.
16. Pepsi created a small-scale Disneyland.
The “It’s a Small World–A Salute to UNICEF” boat ride carried spectators past the Eiffel Tower, a Dutch windmill and the Taj Mahal.
18. There was a “nonsense machine.”
Kids could crawl through the maze-like device consisting of a hall of mirrors, “squeeze-bulbs that emit strange noises and cranks that operate robots.”
17. There was an “international sandwich garden.”
At the Seven-Up pavilion, you could sample sandwiches from 16 countries while a five-piece ensemble played American show tunes and music from all over Europe and Latin America.
18. You could get converted by Billy Graham.
The evangelist’s pavilion included a 400-seat theater and a 100-foot-high tower “topped by a brilliant sunburst.” A 50-foot “wrap-around” screen played a movie “recounting the story of mankind from the beginning of time”; “for those who accept the invitation to receive Christ, given by Dr. Graham in the film, a trained staff offers guidance and counseling, also in several languages.”
19. There were 1,400 public “push button” phones.
And over 450 million feet of telephone wire under the grounds.
20. You could “explore the mysteries of a woman’s mind.”
At the IBM pavilion, “a new kind of living picture entertainment comes to you from nine separate screens,” per an ad. “It puts you inside the mind of a racing car driver at 120 miles per hour. You will explore the mysteries of a woman’s mind as she plans the seating of a dinner party.”
21. You could also get inside the mind of a missionary.
The Wycliffe Bible Translators, a missionary group, exhibited blowguns (“just one of the hazards WBT missionaries have encountered”) along with panels showing “the conversion of an Amazon jungle headhunter.”
22. You could eat duckling stuffed with shark fin.
At the Hong Kong pavilion, which was dominated by three Chinese junks, “Chinese opera singers, acrobats and other groups perform during the dinner hour.”
23. You could see the world’s biggest wheel of cheese.
The 17-ton cheese wheel in the Wisconsin pavilion was “protected against mice by glass, even though experts figured out that it would take one average-sized mouse 27 years to devour the whole cheese.”
24. You could see a million volts of electricity go “crackling” through someone’s body.
At the Sermons from Science pavilion, a Christian endeavor that aimed to “illustrate the compatibility of faith and knowledge,” a demonstrator sent the electricity coursing through his body to ignite a block of wood in his hands.
25. You could see “gaudily dressed clowns” and drink at a 1,500-seat rathskeller.
The Belgium pavilion (shown at 0:20) was a copy of a walled Flemish village from 1800 and included replicas of over 100 houses and Antwerp’s Gothic Church of St. Nicholas. “Four times each day gaudily dressed clowns wearing wooden-shoes, ostrich-feather headdresses and bells dance through the streets.”
26. The Fair’s exhibits were worth $300 million.
That’s according to an insurance estimate that didn’t count irreplaceable art objects.
27. You could ogle Pakistani models.
They appeared in periodic fashion shows to exhibit the country’s “progressive present.”
28. You could see someone hit 30 MPH with a jet pack.
“The actor who ‘flies’ cross-stage in the last scene of the Ampitheatre show, ‘Wonderland,’ is propelled by a hydrogen-powered jet engine strapped to his back.”
29. There was a pain-in-the-ass reproduction of the Santa Maria.
After it made the trip from Barcelona, “tree limbs were cut, telephone lines taken down, street lights swung out of the way, street signs removed, and the truck carrying the 110-ton ship became mired in soft asphalt. Cost of the five-mile trip: about $30,000.”
30. And a reproduction of the Bounty, packed with hogsheads.
The replica of the boat from Mutiny on the Bounty traveled more than 40,000 under sail after it was built in Nova Scotia.
31. You could watch Polynesians dive for oysters.
The Polynesia pavilion (shown at 7:30 in the above video) included “a lagoon where beautiful Polynesian girls pilot outrigger canoes and natives dive for oysters. The oysters were transplanted to Flushing Meadows from Pacific pearl beds.”
32. You could see a million dollars in gold nuggets and ride a mechanical buffalo.
At the Montana pavilion there was also an encampment of American Indians offering “several shows daily of tribal dancing.”
33. There was a model railroad atop a 50-foot map of Long Island.
The map included models of Jones Beach, Montauk Lighthouse, JFK and more.
34. There was a women-only “color carousel.”
At the Clairol pavilion, ladies could enter one of 40 private booths on a slowly circling turntable in order to receive a “complete hair-coloring analysis” that showed them how they looked in various styles.
35. Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas signed autographs with the help of robots.
At the Hollywood pavilion, they were assisted by “a multiple-writing machine that signs 100 at a time.”
36. In addition to the 1964 panorama, there was a model of the city in 1664.
Plus “a Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority theater that shows color films of the many bridges and tunnels of New York.”
37. You could actually fly over the panorama.
“Passengers enter helicopter-like cars at the Narrows. The cars rise just high enough (two feet) to clear the model. As they fly over the city the lighting changes to evening, while a recording tells of the city’s history and operations.”
38. There were robot dinosaur battles staged by Walt Disney.
As you can see at the 5:12 mark of the video above, the Ford pavilion featured “huge dinosaurs engaging in combat while primitive creatures soar overhead. Life-sized cavemen appear, in a triumph of electronic animation.”
39. An 80-foot-tall tire served as a ferris wheel.
Above, check out the reproduction of the ferris wheel at the U.S. Rubber pavilion. It’s now on display in Allen Park, Michigan.
40. “Hell Drivers” performed in an Auto Thrill Show.
“In the show’s climax, a driver pilots a truck on a dangerous ramp-to-ramp ‘flight,’ hurtling more than 70 feet through the air.”
41. The monorail was awesome.
It could carry 6,000 passengers an hour, including (as you can see in the above video) those Boy Scouts we mentioned.
42. The circus featured chimpanzees playing musical instruments.
43. Members of more than 100 American Indian tribes were on staff.
And 50 American Indians were involved in the construction of the Unisphere “without a single injury.”
44. There were $2 million in wax statues.
Walter’s International Wax Museum featured a 20-by-30-foot copy of the Last Supper.
45. The “Tower of Light” was equal to 50 fully illuminated Yankee Stadiums.
The “world’s most powerful searchlight” was part of this exhibit that also included an animated penguin and polar bear acting out the wonder of air conditioning.
46. There was a Pearl Bailey puppet wearing $15,000 worth of chinchilla.
Plus puppet versions of Sinatra and Elvis, courtesy of the “Les Poupees de Paris” show.
47. There was a “bull in a boudoir.”
In the Texas pavilion, “a real bull is sumptuously stabled in an elegant French bedroom, surrounded by displays of the latest improvements in raising and breeding cattle.”
48. You could eat a 12-course luau and get a canoe ride from a “beach boy.”
At the Hawaii pavilion, naturally.
49. There was an “aerial tower ride and waffle” restaurant.
A “typically European eat-and-ride attraction,” apparently.
50. At the time, the Unisphere was the “largest globular structure ever built by man.”
“All told, more than 500 major structural elements were assembled to mount a 120-foot diameter armillary sphere on a 20-foot base, at a total weight of nearly 900,000 pounds.” And she’s still a beauty, if you ask us.