Looking Back: The History of Flushing Meadow: Come to the Fair

BY DAVID OATS

(Editor’s Note: In the summer of 1980, the Queens Tribune began a series of articles by editor and parks advocate David Oats on the history of Flushing Meadow Park and the creation of the World’s Fair in 1939. This article originally appeared in the Queens Tribune in the July 31-Aug. 6, 1980 edition.)

They came by the thousands, every day pouring through the turnstiles where a 75 cents admission gave the visitor a ticket to a new land where the Depression and world tensions seemed far away.

The crowds flocked to the fair by I.R.T. Subway (where the fare was 10 cents instead of the usual 5 cents token) and by the Long Island Railroad, both of which had constructed modern new stations and ramps to usher riders into the exposition. A new, and temporary, I.N.D. railroad station was constructed at the south end of the fairgrounds by the Lake and Amusement area.

16 1939 Worlds FairThey came by car, filling the huge lots daily with automobiles bearing license plates from Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, California, Florida, and the other 48 states. But most of the cars bore plates from the Empire State which all carried the imprinted message, “New York World’s Fair 1939.”

Those lucky enough to afford it came to the fair by boat and docked at the beautiful new marina constructed on Flushing Bay. Many flew to the fair from foreign nations, landing at the newly opened airport on North Beach, adjacent to the fairgrounds; an airport soon to be named for the town’s feisty mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.

Entering the grounds, the fairgoer was treated to a carefully planned environment of lush, tree-shaded boulevards, daring and innovative architecture, splashing fountains and monumental statuary.

And everywhere – color. The fair’s design board created a color-coded layout scheme for the grounds, dividing the fair’s buildings into various theme areas. Radiating out from the fair’s Theme Center, the all-white Trylon and Perisphere, were the zones of the exposition – Communications, Community Interests, Medicine & Public Health, Food, Production and Distribution, Transportation, Government and Amusement. All of the buildings within a zone reflected the color for that area as well as the central message of the fair – “Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today.”

1939 was the year that Hollywood gave the world “The Wizard of Oz” and fairgoers found their own tangible Land of OZ at Flushing Meadow. But despite the planner’s careful attempts at crowd control through zone-demarcations and clever color codes, the visitors wandered about the grounds as the spirit moved them, taking in all of the wonders and colorful pleasures of the land over the rainbow.

They came again and again. Many visited the fair over twenty times to take it all in. A Gallup poll at the time showed that 97 percent of those who visited the fair thoroughly enjoyed it. Those who stayed home said it was too expensive. In those hard times, 75 cents admission and the average $7 one might spend at the fair on food and entertainment could take a huge bite out of a $20 weekly paycheck. Not to mention the money one might spend on one of the thousands of souvenirs bearing miniature Trylons and Perispheres, or for a ride on one of the fair’s tractor rides that played “Sidewalks of New York” on its horn.

But there was so much for free at the fair that many visitors discovered that once inside the gate, there was a whole world of wonders and unforgettable memories waiting to be found – without a fee.

Like the samples of soup, cheeses and milk, cross-country phone calls at the A.T.T. Pavilion, the beer samples at the Schaeffer pavilion and the rides on the latest model Ford.

There was always a band concert, an international festival, a look at Mayor LaGuardia at work behind his desk in his summer city hall in the N.Y. City Building, or conducting the municipal orchestra. There were free booklets, badges and buttons and everyone had to have a free Heinz pickle pin or a button from the GM Futurama that proudly said, “I Have Seen The Future.”

The Industrial displays of the big companies were the most popular. The Futurama, the talking robot at the Westinghouse pavilion, the real trains that came right out on stage at the Railroads exhibit and a 3-D movie in the Chrysler pavilion were always the exhibits with the longest lines.

But across World’s Fair Boulevard (today the Long Island Expressway) was the lake Amusement area where the inspirational message of the fair could be put aside in favor of good old fashioned fun. It was here that Georgie Jessel presented his “Little Old New York,” Gypsy Rose Lee showed off her charms, Salvadore Dali created a surrealistic show called “Dream of Venus.” Abbott & Costello, Mike Todd, Carey Grant, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolsen all performed there. Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin frequented the place.

There was a midget village, animal shows, a circus, a symphony concert hall, oddities of nature, incubator babies, thrill rides, cotton candy and plenty of girly shows. The biggest thrill was a ride on the Parachute Jump, a steel structure 360 feet high where visitors were strapped into chairs and slowly raised to the top for a spectacular and breath-taking view of the fair, and then dropped to earth under the protective canopy of a parachute. The ride was so popular that after the fair it was moved to Coney Island.

But everyone saved a quarter for the biggest hit of the fair – Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Here in one of the fair’s three permanent structures, the master showman featured his wife Eleanor Holn opposite Olympic and Hollywood heroes Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe in a spectacle of mermaids and aquamen in a musical extravaganza that wowed over 30 million fair visitors.

A walk around the fairgrounds alone was worth the price of admission. James Earl Fraser’s giant statue of George Washington on Constitution Mall was only one of many huge outdoor sculptures that lined the malls and plazas of flowers and lagoons. Colorful and creative murals decorated many of the pavilions and the entire spectacle formed the backdrop for a visitor’s own personal photographic record of the World of Tomorrow. It is impossible to estimate the number of pictures and photographic albums that the acerage fairgoer created out of this special moment in their lives.

Whether frozen in film or in memory, the fair was an unforgettable time and place for those who experienced it. Couples met and married at the fair. For many, like future Governor Hugh Carey, it was a memorable first job as a tour guide, guard or vendor. By day, it was a superlative good-time place; by night it was enchanting.

Bathed in a soft, quiet color, the fair used the latest lighting techniques to turn the grounds into a nocturnal fantasyland of phosphorescent trees and glowing fountains. After free dancing to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, the fairgoer would conclude his visit by watching the spectacle of lights, fire and water on the Lagoon of Nations where the fireworks leaped to the sound of music. Finally, at midnight, there was a barrage of pyrotechnics and searchlights over the lakes.

A visitor would stroll out of Flushing Meadows tired but refreshed with a hope for a better day. In her catalogue introduction to the Queens Museum’s retrospective on the 1939 World’s Fair, Helen Harrison states that, “…by and large people went to be amazed, amused and distracted. That they also came away affected. Educated – changed – was a function of the Fair and the era which gave it meaning.”