It was 1964, the height of the Cold War and Americans were still reeling from the loss of their young president a year earlier. The perfect antidote was a World’s Fair.
Although not a financial success, the two-year event at Flushing Meadows buoyed spirits in a time when that was much needed.
The fair will always have special meaning to Queens residents because the international event was held right here, in Flushing Meadows. It commemorated the 300th anniversary of the British taking over New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renaming it New York. It took place 25 years after the 1939 fair, which was held at the same location.
The creator and president of the fair was Robert Moses, the city’s controversial Parks commissioner, who also ran the 1939 extravaganza. Despite his experience and vision, there were problems before construction even began at the fairgrounds.
Official sanction from the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris was not granted because the fair was to exceed one year and countries would not be given 5,000 square feet of free space.
Only Spain, Belgium and Vatican City had major foreign pavilions. Not participating were Canada, the Soviet Union, most European countries and Australia. Instead, Moses was able to rely on exhibits from smaller countries, U.S. companies and states.
Because the 1939 World’s Fair lost money, it was decided to use the old fairgrounds as a template for the 1964 endeavor. Much of the infrastructure was already there, including pools, streets and the basic layout. Moses was hoping to use profits from the later fair to make permanent improvements at the park.
The theme was “Peace Through Understanding” and the event was dedicated to “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” At the center of the fair was the Unisphere, a 12-story stainless steel globe that remains today as a beacon of hope, much like the Statue of Liberty.
The fair’s colors were orange and blue, which were also used for the 1939 fair. The colors are the same as the city’s flag, which reflects the Dutch influence here. Coincidentally, they are also the colors of the Mets, who began play at Shea Stadium, also at Flushing Meadows, at the same time the fair opened. But management says their colors are a reminder of two teams who used to play in the city: Dodger blue and Giant orange.
It took five years and $1 billion to build the infrastructure for the fair, which featured 150 pavilions. There were also 1,400 public telephones with brand-new touch-tone dialing, 3,500 benches, 110 restaurants, four parking lots for 20,000 cars, 60 mailboxes, a fully operational post office, 11 reflecting pools, nine fountains, 95 sculptures, five first-aid stations and a hospital that could handle 30 patients, 300 fair police and a fire department comprising 100 retired city firefighters and special 17-foot pumpers to maneuver around the fairgrounds.
There were 5,300 trees planted for the fair and about 140 million hot dogs eaten.
The Bel-Gem, or Belgian, waffles were introduced at the fair, but while there’s no estimate on how many of the confections served with whipped cream and strawberries were sold at 99 cents each, they were a big hit. Also introduced at the fair was the Ford Mustang.
The most popular exhibit was General Motors’ Futurama. It featured a peek at a future that mostly still has not come to pass, with an underwater hotel, a visit to the moon and a look at the city of tomorrow with midtown airports, high-speed buses and trains and moving sidewalks.
The great imaginer Walt Disney designed four popular attractions at the fair: Pepsi-Cola’s It’s a Small World, the GE Carousel of Progress, Ford’s The Magic Skyway and an audio-animatronics President Lincoln for the Illinois exhibit. After the fair, Disney moved Small World, the Carousel of Progress and Lincoln to Disney World.
Some of the more elaborate pavilions provided moving cars that took visitors through the exhibits. The Vatican had three moving platforms that went past Michelangelo’s famous statue, “La Pieta,” while New York City’s Panorama had simulated helicopters that went around the display. IBM may have been the most unusual with a “people wall” that took guests up into a 90-foot-high theater.
The Simmons Pavilion had resting alcoves with beds that tired guests could rent for a $1 for 30 minutes. At the Clairol exhibit women were allowed to enter for a complete hair-coloring analysis.
There was an underground house that may or not still be buried at Flushing Meadows and a time capsule suspended at the Westinghouse pavilion that was definitely buried there after the fair closed.
The largest pavilion was General Motors and the tallest was one of the towers at the New York State Pavilion, rusty but still standing today.
There were several ways to get around the park, from the popular monorail to tractor-powered Glide-a-Ride trains.
There was also an amusement area overlooking Meadow Lake that had such attractions as a circus, a porpoise show sponsored by Florida, a lake cruise and a log flume ride.
The fair remained open for a total of 360 days, from opening day, April 22, 1964, to closing day, October 17, 1965 — six months for each year.
It was open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission was $2 for adults and $1 for children. Experts said it would take 30 full days to see every attraction.
As with the 1939-40 event, the 1964-65 fair lost money. The projected attendance was 70 million, but only 51 million showed up over the two-year period and there was talk of money mismanagement.
Despite the financial disappointment —and historically world’s fairs never make money — the 1964-65 World’s Fair will be long-remembered fondly by baby boomers and others as Queens’ shining attraction of 50 years ago.
This is the first in a series of articles about the 1964-World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.