Notes from the World’s Fair Memory Project

Written by Eileen Townsend. Eileen Townsend is a Curatorial Intern at the museum and a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. For more from Eileen, check out her website.

“The nights at the fair were gorgeous. The weather happened to be nice for the bulk of the season in 1939: a nice pleasant spring; the summer wasn’t too hot. The people came out to see the fair at night, with its fountains and colored lights in the fountains…

In ’64-65 I worked as a projectionist. So, I saved film because film was the thing. A new technology! You were affected by that!”

-Oral History of Norman Perse, Brooklyn, NY, speaking about his experience at the New York World’s Fairs

Official Souvenir Book of the New York World's Fair 1965, Published by New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation Pamphlet, 10 x 7 in., From Collection of Queens Museum of Art

I’ve learned, over the past couple months working as the intern for the World’s Fair Memory Project at the Queens Museum of Art, that every New Yorker has a World’s Fair story. Museum visitors tell me that their uncles worked as projectionists in the IBM Pavilion, that their Moms sold Bel-gem Waffles in the Belgian Village, or that they happen to have a Fair-themed postcard or mug or guidebook collection that they have stashed in their closet for almost 50 years. I have had the chance to hear about intrigue (mafia-controlled concessionaire stands?), love (“It was our first date, and I knew I’d met my wife…”) and disappointment (“’64 couldn’t compare to ‘39” or “The neighborhood is not like it was when I was a child”.)

I was worried, when I first began collecting histories for the Museum’s archives, that I wouldn’t know what questions to ask. I’m a senior in college and originally from Tennessee, so I’m one of the odd presences around the neighborhood that knew nothing about the Fairs until a few years ago. My worries were unfounded. I’ve never had to draw a story of a person I’ve interviewed. On a typical day of interviewing, my interviewee and I will walk through the Panorama, pass through the Museum’s collection of commemorative plates, posters and maps, and take a look through the back window of the Museum, of the 1964-65 Unisphere. Looking out at the park and walking around the museum triggers memories. People want to say, “I was there!” or “I remember when…”

Here are a few “remember-whens” from recent interviews:

 

 

The theme of the 1964/65 Fair was “Peace Through Understanding”, and its symbol was a giant steel globe, meant to represent understanding and unity between distant communities and cultures. It’s my opinion–as a lover of oral history, and also as a New-York transplant from a far-away state—that one of the main ways understanding is achieved is through storytelling. In ’64, General Motors told stories of cities of the future and the Spanish Pavilion told stories of Europe’s rich artistic past. On Saturdays, visitors to the Museum tell me stories of how their Mom was a performer in the New York State Pavilion, or how they kept every disposable map of the fairgrounds they ever used. I’m honored to get to hear people’s stories; they help me understand what it means to live in this city. I think, also, that in so many of these small moments, the best of the Fair’s spirit lives again.

Were you at the 1939 or 1964 Fairs? If so, we would love to hear your stories! Leave a comment below to schedule your interview.

Share on TumblrShare via email

Tags: , , ,

10 Responses to “Notes from the World’s Fair Memory Project”

  1. Mitch Paluszek says:

    I went to the 64-65 World’s Fair three times (I think)(I was 4-5 years old) but I have a few really great memories. And my dad (now gone) worked at the Polish Pavillion in 1939. (Regrettably, there was no open Polish Pavillion in 1940, for obvious reasons.)

  2. Eileen says:

    Hi Mitch! I’d love to interview you for the project. I interview at the museum on Saturdays, from 1-4. Please stop by if you’re in the area.

  3. Bill Cotter says:

    I believe Poland was included in the 1940 Fair as well. Like Czechoslovakia, it was operated by anti-Germany resources hoping to draw attention to the plight of their kinfolk trapped back at home because of the war. The operation might have been scaled back from 1939, but I have photos showing the pavilion in 1940 and it’s on the map of the Fair as well.

    Actually, in 1939 there were two Polish pavilions, which was not uncommon. One would have been operated by the government, and the smaller one near the Court of Peace would have been run by companies from the nation. There were about 6-8 countries that had these dual set ups. I don’t see the smaller pavilion on my 1940 map, so perhaps that’s where he worked in 1939 and it was closed in 1940. I imagine businesses saw little value in returning for 1940 under those circumstances.

    Eileen, I’m glad you and the museum are doing this!

    Bill

  4. Lauren Serpagli says:

    I grew up hearing great stories from my mom about her Worlds Fair experiences. Her uncle was one of the doctors so she got to ride around with him and see some behind the scenes stuff. Her find memories would be a great addition. I know she would love to share!

  5. Cindy Bell-Deane says:

    Since my parents were both transplanted New Yorkers with my Mom having been raised in Flushing, we went to the 1964 World’s Fair several times. One time I remember standing in line for what seemed forever to see the GM exhibit. They handed out tickets and they were hard to get. We were with another large family and did not have quite enough tickets. When we got to the front of the line my father rushed us all through, handed the ticket taker the tickets we did have and we moved so fast the ticket taker just let it all happen. The exhibit landed at Disney World when it opened and the same for its a small small world. I bought a “dutch girl” doll at the store after seeing its a small small world and over the years have revisited the transplanted exhibits and told my kids some of these stories. My sister became enamored of the Japanese Emperor and Empress that she saw there but they were very expensive. Later my Uncle who traveled to exotic Japan for a living brought her back even nicer dolls from Japan!!! I loved the Belgium waffles but my real favorites were the Indonesian pavilion and restaurant and the Indian restaurant. I remember eating rice with gold leaf or silver leaf.

    Finally and on a much sadder note my sister was one of surely several young children who brought German Measles with them to the World’s Fair. Since you are most contagious before the rash shows up and public school in Massachusetts was on break we had no way of knowing she had been exposed. Alas to this day I wonder how many people were infected by innocent school children in the crowed environs of the Fair.

  6. Winifred Bell says:

    I lived walking distance from the Fair of 1939-40. The N.Y.C. Schools sold books of 20 entrance tickets for $2.00. I used up two books and the last day was free so I visited that fair at least 41 times. I knew every nook and crany and every free deal and how to cut lines.

    Later we took our children many times to the Fair in 1964 from our home in Massachusetts. (The comments above are from my daughter).

    Anyone who wants to know more details may contact me: bellw1@mindspring.com. I am 84 years young.
    Winifred Bell

  7. Eileen says:

    Hi Ms. Bell-Deane and Ms. Serpagli,

    Sounds like you and your family have some great stories to share for the project! Would it be possible to set up interviews with you via email? My email is etownsend@gm.slc.edu, or I am at the museum on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons. Please do get in touch, as we would love to have your memories as a part of our project.

    Mr. Cotter,

    Thanks for your input! I’ve really enjoyed becoming a part of the World’s Fair community in the past months, and your research has been very helpful in learning about the Fairs.

    Mr. Bell,

    Wow! I’m particularly interested in memories from ’39, so I can’t wait to speak with you.

    Allbest,

    Eileen

  8. Margie Locke says:

    I grew upin Queens and in Oct., 1964 my girlfriend and I went to the Fair after work. We saw 2 good looking Sailors and we kinda followed them around for awhile. Eventually. we met them at the Unisphere and we hooked up. The one I ended up with was eventually going to be my husband. On May 29, 1964, we got married in Alabama. His ship was docked in Pensacola, FL. He lived in Kalamazoo, MI., & when he was discharged, I moved to Kal. This May 29, it will be 48 yrs. of marriage. We still hold the fair dear to our hearts, especially the Unisphere, and the Movie Men in Black. We have 2 sons, 4 granddaughters and 2 greatgranddaughters & 1 greatgrandaughter due in July.

    Thanks for letting me share my story
    Margie

  9. Margie Locke says:

    The iron ic thing about the tire ferris wheel, that it was taken from the fair in 65 and transported to Michigan. If you are driving “E” on I-94 “E” of Detroit Airport, you will see the tire. They have it on display as a real tire, only it is HUGE. Me being from NY and moving to MI. and seeing the tire, brings back memories. How awesome.

  10. Jane says:

    My uncle’s painting one first place but i have not been able to fine any information on winners. His name was luis Mayorga. Ay ideas how i can find out info?

Leave a Reply