Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meet me in Saint-Looey, Looey. (Or in Shanghai)

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing better than to go to a World’s Fair.

Ideally, it would have been via way-back machine. This would have enabled me to see the Crystal Palace, built for the first world’s fair, in London in 1851.

More important, a way-back machine would have let me attend the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, perhaps the most important fair of all time, given that it gave us the ice cream cone. Not to mention that it spawned Meet Me In St. Louis, one the favorite movies of my childhood (as seen in B&W on Boston Movietime – I was not yet on the scene in 1944 when the movie came out).

I saw that movie several times when I was a kid, and I wanted to move right in with the Smith Family of St. Louis, the apotheosis of everything I craved in a family during my haute-WASP envy period. I wanted the nice, comfy house – as a child, I thought all Protestants lived in two-story, upper middle class homes, while Catholics were more likely to be relegated to three-deckers or modest single-family houses. I wanted the big brother, the blustering father, the wise-cracking housekeeper. I wanted my sister Judy Garland to sing to me, and I wanted Margaret O’Brien – the essence of cutie-pie kid – to be me. (Or, rather, I wanted to be Margaret O’Brien: darling, cute, and the family dote.)

And I really wanted to meet somebody, anybody, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, as, god knows, no World’s Fair was going to be caught dead in Worcester, Massachusetts – which is the only way in which I would have been able to get to one.

I envied my mother, who got to go to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. And I would have loved, loved, loved to have seen the pylon, or the krylon, or the trylon, or whatever they called the symbols of the New York World’s Fair of 1939. In fact, I have a pin made out of this very stamp. That’s how much I love, love, love the pylon, or the krylon, or the trylon, or whatever you call it.

Alas, all those World’s Fairs were before my time.

Then there were the ones during my time….

My parents had some friends whose son was stationed in Europe in the service during the late 1950’s, and he brought back slides from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Now, there’s a running joke about how boring it is to watch films of someone else’s vacation, but in a kinder, gentler time, we were just delighted to see pictures of someplace more exciting than Worcester, Massachusetts, or even Chicago, Illinois, the only other place I’d ever been. Needless to say, the Brussels World’s Fair was way in the outer limits – it might as well have been held on Jupiter.

New York City is closer, however.

And I was envious of my friends who, a few years later, got to go to the New York World’s Fair (Queens, 1964-1965). I’m still a bit wistful whenever I fly into NYC and see the Unisphere. Sigh. Queens, NY. Only 180 miles from Worcester, Massachusetts. So near and yet so far. By the mid-1960’s, our family travel horizons had expanded to a couple of weeks on the Cape each summer. But New York City to see the World’s Fair? It might as well have been held in St. Louis or Brussels. Or on Jupiter.

In truth, the closest I’ve gotten to anything World’s Fair-ish – other than a glimpse of the Unisphere out of a cab window – is the Seattle Space Needle (World’s Fair, 1962), which I went up in during a business trip a while back. It was weird, and I didn’t feel entirely secure on its tilting floor.

Somewhere along the line, as everything got more pumped up, heightened, and extreme, World’s Fairs morphed into World Expo’s.

There’s one on in Shanghai now.

Truly, in this day and age, the World’s Fair/Expo seems like such an anachronism.

Unlike in 1851, when most world travel was done by immigrants fleeing to America, it was probably pretty darned exciting to see exhibits of what was out there in the big, wide world. Ooo. Aaah.

Same goes for St. Louis.

By 1904 you had stereopticons, so you could look at postcard images of far away places. But motion pictures were just getting going. Not to mention that most world travel was still being done by immigrants fleeing to America. Again: Ooo. Aaah. (Plus the ice cream cone….)

But now, in our incredibly shrinking world chocked full of globalization and telepresence, it just seems like a colossal waste of time, money, and jet fuel to hold a World’s Fair.

Sure, China wants to show off – but didn’t they just do that during the Beijing Olympics? And doesn’t everybody in possession of a flat panel TV, computer, or Barbie doll have at least an inkling about what China can produce?

Deals seem to be getting done. What’s going to happen at the World Expo that wouldn’t happen anyway?

Okay, a World’s Fair does provide opportunities for face-to-face encounters. And maybe strolling around the Finish or Kuwaiti or Brazilian pavilion will provide some fresh understanding of other cultures that can’t be gotten through reading, films, the ‘net, shopping at Sharper Image, or regular old travel. And why do I think those experiences will be filtered – bier garten at Busch Gardens is not quite the same as seeing where Hitler ran his beer hall putsch.

I dunno. Just sounds like a big trade show to me.  And while I do enjoy a trade show every once in a while, someone will have to convince me that World’s Fairs contribute to world peace, or even whirled peas, rather than just providing an opportunity for gawking (on the part of most of the hundreds of millions of visitors), or hawking (which would probably happen, anyway).

Of course, the US has a presence, with the theme “Rise to the Challenge.” (Gulp.) This was paid for by corporate donations – so it’s at least not taxpayers money leaching out here. (Or course, there is an argument that World’s Fairs are a diplomatic outreach and, thus, should be tax-payer supported.)

Anyway, my days of wanting to attend a World’s Fair are long passed, and now they seem like a colossal and foolish waste of time and money. But I’m sure it wouldn’t have been particularly good for Sino-US relations if we had dissed Shanghai and not shown up. We are, after all, somewhat in debt to them for all those flat panel TVs, computers, and Barbie dolls.

So I won’t be attending.

If someone has slides they want to show at my house, just let me know. (You’ll need to bring your own Bell & Howell projector.)

Meanwhile, there’s a nifty site I found devoted to the history of the World’s Fair: The Expo Museum.

Like all good museums – virtual or not – this one has a curator.

In keeping with the commercial underpinnings of World’s Fairs, The Expo Museum’s curator is Urso Chappell, a designer who specializes in these types of events.


valerie said...

Loved this post. Classic Maureen.

Urso Chappell said...

Thanks for the mention. Always good to hear folks find the site helpful!