John Shearer: Remembering The New York World’s Fair

Friday, May 16, 2014 - by John Shearer

Fifty years ago this spring, the New York World’s Fair opened its two-year run in the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park area of Queens, which today is the site of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

During its second year of operation -- the summer of 1965 -- I attended the fair with my family at the ripe old age of 5.

Despite my young age, however, I still have vivid memories of the visit due to the fact that the fair was such a fascinating experience for me.

Some of those memories have been coming back to me even more in recent days with all the reminiscences taking place in New York and elsewhere on the 50th anniversary.

Also, I recently discovered a number of family mementoes from the fair that I did not realize existed, and that also helped me recall the event even more vividly.

At the time that we went to the fair, we had just moved from Mountain Creek Road into our newly built ranch-style home in the Valleybrook subdivision in Hixson – a residence in which my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, still lives.

I can remember the time connection because I recall looking down at the concrete floor of my bedroom about the time we were to leave for New York. We were supposed to have carpet, of course, but it had not yet been installed for some reason.

However, I did feel like I was walking on a red carpet at the New York World’s Fair getting to enjoy so many special moments.

Although the fair was to offer glimpses into the technology of the future, as world’s fairs at that time often did, I also associate the fair with an old piece of technology – the train.

The reason is that we took the train from Chattanooga to New York, leaving from the old Terminal Station, which is now the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, I believe. As a result, I can say that I was able to experience old-fashioned train travel during those last years when it was still in vogue in the Southern states.

I am not sure why we went to the New York World’s Fair, but my late mother, Velma Shearer, who liked to experience different places, may have been behind it. She had attended the 1933-34 Chicago world’s fair as a child, so she may have wanted to give my older sister, Cathy, and me some similar experiences. And she was probably interested in going as well!

I seem to remember that we stopped in Washington, D.C., on the way up to the fair for perhaps a day or two, but I could be wrong.

When we were arriving in New York, I recall realizing how different the rows of buildings looked from anything I had previously seen in Chattanooga.

I still remember a scene or two from our suite-like hotel room after we arrived with some wicker-like suitcases, and I also recall visiting the top of the Empire State Building and seeing how the cars on the ground below looked like ants. We may have also gone to the Statue of Liberty while in New York.

I know we did go to the Broadhurst Theatre to see a Broadway musical – the Tony Award-nominated “Half a Sixpence,” starring former British teen idol musician and actor Tommy Steele. I don’t remember much about it, but I know we were there because my mother did save the program from it.

But I do have several strong memories of attending the New York World’s Fair after getting to the fair grounds via the crowded and vibrating subway car.

They include seeing the Unisphere globe and the giant car and engine that Chrysler had, riding in the U.S. Royal Ferris wheel shaped like a giant tire, and visiting the Sinclair life-sized dinosaur statue exhibit. The latter traveling exhibit also came to the Eastgate parking lot either right before or right after the fair, and I believe I may have seen it there as well.

Also after the fair, the giant tire, later repainted with the new Uniroyal name, was disassembled and put up in the Detroit area along the freeway as a non-Ferris wheel statue.

Other fair memories include getting to sample the new Canada Dry Wink soft drink, as well as being upset that my sister, but not I, was able to ride an amusement park ride one evening. If memory serves me correctly, I think maybe my parents had let me do an activity or buy something earlier in the day, and now it was my sister’s turn for some enjoyment.

I remember crying and watching her ride the ride – and she did not seem the least bit concerned over my sad state.

The happiest memory I probably have about the fair, though, is riding some type of amusement park-like car as it moved very slowly inside a building past all these 3-dimensional models, including one of a future highway system. I remember being totally fascinated with that at the time.

Only in recent weeks when I started looking at some historical information about the fair did I realize what it was – General Motors’ Futurama ride.

Although I do not remember much about them, Disney had or helped produce several New York World’s Fair exhibits, including the Pepsi-Cola “It’s a Small World” show. It, along with some other presentations the company had at the fair, would be featured at Walt Disney World in some form after the Florida attraction opened in 1971.

Among the other features at the New York fair, the new Ford Mustang was also unveiled there, as were a number of new kinds of technology, including lower-priced color television sets, picture phones, a computer terminal with a keyboard, and a teletype machine.

And an old piece of history – Michelangelo’s marble sculpture, Pieta -- also drew attention, as did the General Civil War train locomotive that had formerly been at Chattanooga. I remember seeing the train at the New York fair as well as at the Union Depot in Chattanooga before it was removed and later given to the state of Georgia following a court battle.

The New York World Fair of the 1960s was organized by some New York businessmen, who fondly remembered the previous New York World’s Fair in 1939-40 on the same grounds. The 1964-65 one was run by New York parks official Robert Moses and encompassed 647 acres, much more than the 70 acres that took up the Knoxville World’s Fair grounds in 1982.

The New York World’s Fair was actually not sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions. This was due to such issues as disagreements over the length of the two-year New York run and the fact that another American city, Seattle, had just held an expo in 1962.

But none of that seemed to matter to this 5-year-old, who would carry memories of enjoyment with me over the years along with the two wooden elephants and a reproduction toy of the U.S. Royal tire ride that I took home as souvenirs.

Recently while at my father’s house, I remembered that my mother had saved a World’s Fair program, and I seemed to think it was in the dresser in the entrance hall of the house.

Wanting only to find it, I was quite surprised when I uncovered not only it, but also the Broadway show program and about a dozen other brochures and mementoes from the New York World’s Fair of 1965.

It was as if my mother had left them there for me to rediscover some day.

I felt that I had found, not an eBay treasure, but a priceless collection of reminders of a happy family time from the long ago summer of 1965.

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