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1964 New York World's Fair

The 1964/1965 New York World's Fair was the second World's Fair to be held at Flushing Meadows Park in the Borough of Queens, New York in the 20th century. It opened on April 12, 1964 for two six-month seasons concluding on October 21, 1965.

It was the largest World's Fair ever to be held in the United States occupying nearly a square mile of land. Truly a “Universal and International” class exposition, it was not sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) and is often overlooked by historians because it was not an "official" World's Fair. This lack of BIE endorsement meant that many large European nations such as Great Britain, France and Germany, as well as Canada and Australia, chose not to participate in the Fair. Most international exhibits were sponsored by tourism and industrial concerns and not officially sanctioned by their governments.

More important to this exposition than international participation was extensive involvement of United States corporations as exhibitors. American industry spent millions of dollars to create elaborate, crowd-pleasing exhibits. Critics of the Fair charged that the heavy influence of industry created a overly commercial atmosphere.

The Fair's theme was "Peace Through Understanding," dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe" and was often referred to as an "Olympics of Progress." The theme center was a 12-story high, stainless-steel model of the earth called Unisphere with the orbit tracks of three satellites encircling the giant globe.

By the time the gates closed more than 51 million people had attended the exposition, a respectable attendance for a World's Fair but some 20% below the projected attendance of 70 million. The exposition ended with huge financial losses and amid allegations of gross mismanagement.

Today the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair is remembered as a cultural highlight of mid-twentieth century America. It represents an era best known as “The Space Age” when mankind took its first steps toward space exploration and it seemed that technology would provide the answers to all of the world’s problems. The exhibits at the Fair echoed a blind sense of optimism in the future that was prevalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its architecture can be labeled as “Populux” or “Googie” where flying saucer shapes, vast cantilevers and towering forms make up the majority of pavilion design.

Controversial Beginnings

The Fair was conceived by a group of New York businessmen who fondly remembered their childhood experiences at the 1939/1940 New York World's Fair and wanted to provide that same experience for their children and grandchildren. Thoughts of an economic boom to the city as the result of increased tourism was also a major reason for holding another fair a scant 25 years after the 1939/1940 extravaganza.

World’s Fairs in the United States are not government financed. Organizers must turn to private financing and the sale of bonds to pay the huge costs to stage them. The organizers turned to New York’s “Master Builder,” Robert Moses, to head the corporation established to run the Fair because he was experienced in raising money for vast projects. Moses had been a formidable figure in the city since coming to power in the 1930s. He was responsible for the construction of much of the city’s highway infrastructure and, as Parks Commissioner for decades, the creation of much of the city’s park system.

In the mid-1930s he oversaw the conversion of a vast Queens garbage dump into the glittering fairgrounds that hosted the 1939/1940 World’s Fair. Called Flushing Meadows Park, it was Moses’ grandest park scheme. He envisioned this vast park, comprising some 1300 acres of land and located in the geographical center of the city, as a major recreational playground for New Yorkers. When the 1939/1940 World's Fair ended in financial failure, Moses did not have the available funds to complete work on his project. He saw the 1964/1965 Fair as just the vehicle to complete Flushing Meadows Park.

Moses realized that in order to ensure profits for the Park, the Fair Corporation would have to maximize receipts from the Fair. The Fair would need an attendance of 70 million people in order to turn a profit. This led to the first of two decisions which would cause the Fair to come to blows with the Bureau of International Expositions, the international body headquartered in Paris that sanctions World's Fairs. The Corporation determined that attendance that large would mean the Fair would have to run for two years. BIE rules state that an exposition may only run for one, six-month period. Secondly, the Corporation decided to charge rent to exhibitors. This was also a direct violation of BIE rules which state that no host may charge exhibitors rentals. In addition, Montreal, Canada, had been selected to host the Universal and International Exposition of 1967 (Expo67) and BIE rules state that only one Universal exposition may be held within a 10-year time span.

Moses was undaunted by the BIE's rules when he journied to Paris to seek official approval for the New York Fair. When the BIE balked at New York's applicaition, Moses, used to having his way in New York, angered the members of the BIE by taking his case to the press publicly stating his disdain for their organization and their rules. The BIE retaliated by taking the action of formally requesting their member nations not to participate in the New York Fair. The 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair became the only significant World’s Fair in history to be held without BIE endorsement.

International Participation

Major foreign exhibits were absent from the Fair due to the BIE decision. New York in the middle of the twentieth century was at a zenith of economic power and world prestige. Unconcerned by BIE rules, smaller nations saw it as an honor to host an exhibit at this Fair in the World’s most prestigious city. Therefore most international representation came from smaller nations and so called third-world countries. The absence of Canada, Australia, major European nations and the Soviet Union did tarnished the image of the Fair. In the end, only Spain and Vatican City hosted a major national presence at the Fair. Other international participants included Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Thailand, Philippines, Greece and Pakistan, to name a few.

One of the Fair’s most popular exhibits was the Vatican pavilion where Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta was displayed. A recreation of a medevial Belgian Village proved to be very popular also. There, Fairgoers were treated to a new taste sensation in the form of the "Belgian Waffle" -- a combination of waffle, strawberries and whipped cream. Elsewhere emerging African nations displayed their wares in the Africa Pavilion. Controversy broke out when the Jordanian pavilion displayed a mural emphasizing the plight of the Palestinian people. The city of Berlin, a Cold War hotspot, hosted a popular display.

American Industry Takes the Spotlight

At the 1939/1940 World’s Fair, industrial exhibitors played a major role by hosting huge, elaborate exhibits. Many of them returned to the 1964/1965 Fair with even more elaborate versions of the shows they presented 25 years earlier. The most notable of these was General Motors whose Futurama, a show in which visitors seated in three-abreast moving armchairs glided past detailed, miniature dioramas showing what life might be like in the “near-future,” proved to be the Fair’s most popular exhibit. Nearly 26 million people took the journey into the future during the Fair’s two-year run.

Other popular exhibits included that of the IBM Corporation where a giant 500-seat grandstand was pushed by hydraulic rams high up into an ovoid-shaped rooftop theater. There, a 9-screen film showed the workings of computer logic. The Bell System hosted a 15-minute ride in moving armchairs depicting the history of communications in dioramas and film. DuPont presented a musical review by composer Michael Brown called “The Wonderful World of Chemistry.” At Parker Pen, a computer would make a match to a world-wide pen-pal.

The surprise hit of the Fair was a non-commercial movie short presented by the S.C. Johnson Company (SC Johnson Wax) called "To be alive!" The film celebrated the joy of life found worldwide and in all cultures. The movie went on to win an Academy Award in 1966.

The Fair is remembered as the vehicle Walt Disney used to design and perfect the system of “audio-animatronics” where a combination of sound and computers control the movement of life-like robots to act out scenes. Disney was responsible for the creation of four shows at the Fair. In the “It’s a Small World” attraction at the Pepsi-Cola pavilion, animated dolls and animals frolicked in a spirit of international unity on a boat-ride around the world. General Electric sponsored “Carousel of Progress” where an audience seated in a revolving auditorium saw an audio-animatronics presentation of the progress of electricity in the home. Ford Motor Company presented Disney’s “The Magic Skyway” featuring life-sized audio-animatronic dinosaurs and cavemen. And at the Illinois pavilion, a life-like Abraham Lincoln recited his famous speeches in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Disney relocated many of these these exhibits to Disneyland following the Fair (and subsequently to other Disney Theme Parks) where they continued to delight audiences for years.

Federal and States Exhibits

The Federal Government's exhibit was titled "Challenge to Greatness" and focused on President Johnson's "Great Society" proposals. The main show in the multi-million dollar pavilion was a 15-minute ride through a filmed presentation of American history. Visitors seated in moving grandstands rode past movie screens that slid in, out and over the path of the traveling audience. Elsewhere, tribute was paid to recently assinated president John F. Kennedy who had broken ground for the pavilion back in December, 1962.

New York state played host to the Fair at it's six-million dollar open-air pavilion called the "Tent of Tomorrow." Designed by famed modernist architect Philip Johnson, the pavilion also bosted the Fair's high spot observation towers.

Wisconsin exhibited the "World's Largest Cheese." Florida brought a Porpoise show and Water Skiers to New York. Oklahoma gave weary Fairgoers a restful park to relax in. Missouri displayed their state's space related industries. At the New York City pavilion, a huge scale model of the City of New York was on display complete with a simulated helicopter ride for easy viewing. Visitors could dine at Hawaii's "Five Volcanoes" restaurant.

Controversial Ending

The Fair came to a close embroiled in controversy over allegations of financial mismanagement. Controversy had plagued it during much of its two-year run mainly due to Robert Moses’ inability to get along with the press. As a result the press seemed unduly harsh on the Fair, criticising everthing from a percieved lack of fine arts displays to the prices charged for admission to charges that the Fair smacked of crass commercialism. It was no secret that the attendance had been disappointing. Only 24 million people attended the Fair by the close of the 1964 season. Whether the attitude of the press played a part in poor attendance or whether the apathy of New Yorkers toward the Fair gave the press an additional excuse to attack it is open to debate. But it was a gross accounting error brought to light at the close of the 1964 season that gave the press their most destructive ammunition.

The Fair Corporation had taken in millions of dollars in advance ticket sales for both the 1964 and 1965 season. The receipts of these sales were booked entirely against the first season of the Fair. This made it appear that the Fair had plenty of operating cash up to and including the first season when, in fact, they were inadvertantly borrowing from the second season’s gate to pay the bills. Before and during the 1964 season, the Fair spent lavishly despite attendance that was considerably below expectations, simply because there was so much money in the coffers. By the end of the 1964 season Moses, and the press, began to realize that there would not be enough money to pay the bills and the Fair teetered on bankruptcy. There would be millions of people attending in 1965 who had tickets to enter but whose receipts had already been spent. The press, and soon the city of New York, began to demand accountability for what they considered gross mismanagement of the Fair.

The Fair was eventually able to limp through the second season without having to declare bankruptcy because of emergency monies provided by the city, an increase in ticket prices and a surge in attendance as the Fair drew to a close. However, the financial crisis further tarnished the image of the Fair and of Robert Moses who was seen to be taking personal advantage of the Fair after the escrow account guaranteeing his one million dollar salary was discovered and made known to the public by the New York press.


Like its predecessor, the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair lost money. It was unable to repay its financial backers their investment and it became embroiled in legal disputes with its creditors until 1970, when the books were finally closed. Most of the Fair was completely demolished within six months following the Fair's close. Only a handful of pavilions survived, some of them traveling great distances following the Fair: The Austria pavilion became a ski lodge in western New York; the Wisconsin pavilion a radio station in Neillsville, Wisconsin; the US Royal Tire-shaped Ferris Wheel a roadsign along a Detroit, Michigan Interstate highway; the Pavilion of Spain relocated to St. Louis and now a part of a Mariott Hotel; the Parker Pen pavilion offices for the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake-of-the-Ozarks, Missouri, the Johnson Wax disc-shaped theater reworked and part of the S.C. Johnson office complex in Racine, Wisconsin; the Christian Science pavilion a church in Poway, California.

New York City was left with a much improved Flushing Meadows Park following the Fair, taking possession of the Park from the Fair Corporation in June, 1967. At the center of the park stands the symbol of “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” – the Fair’s Unisphere symbol, depicting our earth of The Space Age. (The Unisphere later was made famous again in 1997 when it was featured in the film Men in Black.) The city also received a multi-million dollar Science Museum and Space Park exhibiting the rockets and vehicles used in America's early space exploration projects. Both the New York state pavilion and the Federal pavilion were retained for future use. No reuse was ever found for the Federal pavilion and it was demolished in 1976. The New York state pavilion also found no residual use and continues to deteriorate in the Park. The Space Park deteriorated due to neglect and was eventually removed from the Park. The Fair's Heliport has found resuse as a banquet/catering facility called "Terrace on the Park."

In 1978, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, as it is now called, became the home of the US Tennis Association and the US Open tennis tournament is played there annually. The former New York City building is home to the Queens Museum of Art and continues to display the multi-million dollar of the model of the city of New York.

The Fair is a distant memory for most who were visitors. Those who were children at the time of the Fair are nearing retirement today. After years of neglect, the Fair’s legacy structures at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park are being refurbished. New York, in recent years, has begun to realize how important that Fair was to the country’s and their city’s history and how much it represented an era to millions of Americans. It was a time when the possibilities of the future looked so bright and its possibilities seemed to be just around the corner.

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