The spring of 1964 in New York City; what an exciting time to be in The Big Apple’s fourth borough, Queens. On April 17th, LaGuardia Airport’s brand new main terminal opened replacing the original 1939 art deco classic. Yes, it’s true; this is same building that Vice President Joe Biden recently decried as being so awful, it’s worse than aviation facilities in third world nations. But 50 years of wear and tear can do that to a building and in 1964, it was a state – of – the – art edifice for both the city and the country opening just in time for the start of domestic jets service by 727s and DC-9s that would revolutionize our national travel habits.
Less then two miles away from LaGuardia, on the very same day, Shea Stadium opened. The Amazin Mets hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates for this first baseball game in their brand new ballpark. William Shea christened his namesake by pouring the contents of two small champagne bottles onto the infield. One contained water from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “You couldn’t see the Gowanus from Ebbets Field,” Shea said, “but you could smell it.” The other bottle contained water from the Harlem River that flowed by the Polo Grounds the Mets first home then being demolished.
Robert Moses gave the shortest speech, “My friends, this is no time for oratory. Mere words are superfluous. Let lunch begin.”
Casey Stengel, naturally, was the most obtuse: “We got 54 rest rooms, 27 for the men and 27 for the ladies and I know you all want to use them now. And the escalators, no stairs. I tell you, you’ll keep your youth if you follow the Mets.”
The Mets lost that game to the Bucs, 4-3. I sat in the upper deck on the third base side and watched together with 50,312 other fans as Willie Stargell hit the first home run out of the stadium.
I was in my Junior Year at St. Francis College in Brooklyn that spring and I already had a summer job. I was in a teller training program at First National City Bank’s main office in Manhattan to be a teller at their World’s Fair Branch once the fair opened on April 22nd, my mother’s birthday. Alas, I never did make it to that branch, missing the cut and being assigned instead to a money counting facility deep in the bowels of 399 Park Avenue where the fair’s deposits were sent. Instead of becoming a bright eyed, young teller garbed in his Citi-bank blazer and chinos happily assisting the banks customers visiting Mr. Moses’ grand creation, I was a mole working 12 hours a day, three days on, three days off in a sub-terrenean vault so deep that when the E and F subway trains rumbled by in their tunnels on Fifty-Third Street just on the other side the wall of our vault, they were above us!
But I did get three days off in a row every fourth day and I did have a bank pass to the fair. I practically lived at the World’s Fair that summer and on the night of June 5th; I met a girl in the Red Garter banjo bar in the Wisconsin Pavilion (also the home of the world’s largest cheese.) Her name was Mary Ann Donlon of Flushing, Queens and she would become my wife on November 11, 1967.
The fair was held at the height of the era when technology was king and the automobile reigned supreme. The member nations of the international association that controlled these fairs distained the New York Fair as it broke their rules. Germany, England, the USSR, and Canada chose not to attend as did all Communist countries following Moscow’s lead. (China attended, but it was our China: Taiwan.) R.M. said screw’em. He grabbed the Vatican for the space reserved for the USSR. Using his clout with Cardinal Spellman and the Archdiocese of New York, a relationship no doubt fashioned at Toots Shor’s, he pushed enough buttons to finance a Vatican Pavilion and have Pope Paul VI loan Michelangelo’s Pieta to the Fair. As a throw in, the Pope agreed to visit the Fair during the 1965 season: brilliant!
R.M. also went after the corporate giants who turned this world’s fair into a grand display of the American way. And these corporations responded spectacularly, especially those that commissioned the incredible talents of Walt Disney and his Disney organization to produce their exhibitions. Pepsi Cola’s “It’s a Small World After All” was one of Disney’s triumphs. Walt loved it so much that when the fair ended, he had it shipped to Disney World in Florida where it still operates today. Even if you don’t know the words, you can hum that incessant melody until it drives you nuts…It’s a small after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small, Small world. La, la, La, LA, la…
General Electric commissioned Disney to build a circular ride where the audience went from scene to scene in Progressland watching as a robotic family acted out “… a warm, whimsical drama, from the days before electricity to the present.” Anyone who saw this will remember the same family dog appeared in each scene.
RCA, AT&T, the Bell System, Kodak, Coca Cola, General Cigar and IBM and its amazing egg vied for our attention. Bell created a, “400-foot floating wing (housing) an exciting ride that tells the story of human communications.” At IBM, “Audiences of some 400 at a time are lifted on a ‘People Wall’ of moving seats into the egg by hydraulic mechanism.”
And Moses touted religion. Besides the Catholics, we had the Mormons, The Russian-Orthodox – Greek Catholic Churches, Christian Science, Sermons from Science, American – Israel, Billy Graham and the Protestant & Orthodox Center. R.M. rules – religion: good – honey-tonk: bad
Moses ban on fun did not extend to the consumption of beer, wine or spirits. The Red Garter where I met Mary Ann featured Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller and Schlitz on tap. West Berlin had Lowenbrau; Ireland had Guinness and Irish coffee. Two of our local Brooklyn breweries, Schaeffer and Rheingold put up their own brilliant pavilions. (Schaeffer produced a beautiful World’s Fair 12 oz. beer glass that I will write about soon.)
But Ford and GM stole the Fair. Ford, that boasted the largest pavilion, used their latest model convertibles including brand new Mustangs first unveiled in April to carry visitors on a technology ride through their building. As super as that was GM ruled with a canopy over the entrance to their 200,000-square pavilion. “Behind the canopy, the main portion of the 680-foot-long building houses the exciting 1,700-foot Futurama ride.” Actually, “Futurama II” it was the modern version of the first ride introduced at the 1939-1940 Fair. Visitors rode chairs to see “…gigantic machines for conquering the oceans, the deserts and the Arctic. What was then jungle – rain forest, in today’s parlance – would be conquered by an atomic – powered 300-foot-long machine that would cut trees with lasers, spread herbicide and extrude behind it a four – lane freeway at a rate of a mile an hour.”
Pop Art was represented by U.S. Royal’s tire – shaped Ferris wheel, “An 80-foot-tall pop concept worthy of Claes Oldenburg. It still greets motorists alongside Interstate 94 near the Detroit airport, as if it had rolled there from the World’s fair site down the Grand central Parkway, over the Triborough-RFK and the George Washington bridges and out to the Midwest.”
What a Fair, what a time to be young and living in Queens!