On April 28, 1939, Adolf Hitler stood on the podium of the German Reichstag. In front of Hitler sat his Nazi sycophants; behind and above the German dictator sat the party leaders. Hitler told the Reichstag he had received a “curious telegram.” He then read aloud a letter written to him, the Chancellor of Germany, from the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The American president had asked the German chancellor to respect the rights of specifically named European countries. With a sarcastic smile Hitler read the names of each nation; the room erupted in laughter after each name. Filmed by newsreel cameras and broadcast live on radio, the speech was seen and heard around the world.
Forty-eight hours later, at the opening of the New York World’s Fair, President Roosevelt stood on the podium looking out at an area described fifteen years before by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as “the valley of ashes.” From the ashes of the Corona dump in the borough of Queens, New York City, now rose the The World of Tomorrow — the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The President told the huge opening day crowd that the world will find “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Our wagon is hitched to a star. But it is a star of good will, a star of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international good will, and, above all, a star of peace.”
The idea of a New York world’s fair grew out of Chicago’s successful Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34. New York officials felt that if the nation’s Second City could run a top-notch fair and make money, so could the nation’s Premier City. For the fair’s theme, planners decided to carry Chicago’s look back at a century of progress forward to the world of tomorrow. The fair’s goal, besides making money, would be to “demonstrate the vital interdependence of communities, peoples, and nations. Thus in submitting to the world of today a new layout for life, we are engaged in building the world of tomorrow. The New York World’s Fair will predict, even dictate, the shape of things to come.” In the long term many predictions came true; in the short term, during a two-year run, the fair sadly mirrored world events.
The keynote for the World of Tomorrow was the fair-sponsored theme center exhibit, Democracity. Located inside the Perisphere (a round white building 180 feet in diameter) next to the Trylon (a 610-foot white triangular shaft) that together formed the fair’s symbol, Democracity drew huge crowds. After waiting in lines foreshadowing the Disney experience, fairgoers stepped onto a moving platform that carried them inside the Perisphere, where they saw the city of 2039 in miniature laid out on a floor space twice the size of Radio City Music Hall. The six-minute peek at the future ended with a “vision in the sky” projected onto the dome above. Fairgoers of 1939 saw the march of the men and women of 2039 and heard the voice of radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn: “They are marching in triumph…they have triumphed over chaos…they have built the world of tomorrow.”
The fair’s biggest draw (27,500 per day) was General Motors’ Futurama. Created by theatre stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, the trip to the United States of 1960 began in one of 600 moving chairs. A voice from a speaker within each chair described the world of 1960 unfolding below. The chairs glided along like low-flying planes, passing over model trains that sped through mountain tunnels, winging down valleys filled with working farms, soaring over small bustling towns, and finally coming to Futurama’s vision of the city of 1960: ninety blocks of synchronized city streets featuring elevated pedestrian walkways and several decks of fourteen-lane super highways teeming with automobiles — 50,000 miniature cars, 10,000 of them always moving. On the last turn the chair descended into an enlarged version of a city intersection revealing store signs, cars moving on the thoroughfare, people walking on the pedestrian walkway. Finally, the chair stopped in a life-size version of the same intersection, where the chair’s rider became a walker on the elevated moving sidewalk of the future. Exiting back into 1939, the fairgoer received a button — “I Have Seen The Future.”
Other popular exhibits: Westinghouse presented Nimatron, an electrical brain weighing one ton (an ancient computer); Dupont displayed their newest creation, nylon stockings; in the Ford building’s courtyard was Hammond’s Novachord, the original musical synthesizer, made the only way they knew how in 1939 — with vacuum tubes; and at the RCA exhibit everyone marveled at television, which began regular programming by televising FDR’s opening speech to a few hundred local sets.
While science and technology took center stage in the fair’s first year, amusements also beckoned fairgoers. Along a two-mile loop hugging the shores of Fountain Lake on the fair’s south end, one could find attractions such as the 250-foot drop on the Parachute Jump, Frank Buck’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” jungle show, “The Hot Mikado” starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the most famous and profitable draw at the fair: Billy Rose’s Aquacade starring Johnny Weismuller (Olympic free-style champion and MGM’s Tarzan), Eleanor Holm (Olympic backstroke champion), and hundreds of “Aquabelles” and “Aquabeaux.”
Also exhibiting at the fair were 33 states and 58 foreign countries, every major nation except China (contending with Japan’s undeclared war) and Nazi Germany. Germany had been invited, but the outcry from many groups within the United States kept the Nazis away. New York’s Mayor LaGuardia suggested that any German exhibit should be called “The Chamber of Horrors.” A group of exiled Germans tried to create a “Freedom Pavilion” to showcase the works of the real Germany, but nothing came of it. Unrepresented at the fair, Hitler’s Germany would have a greater impact on the fair than any other nation.
Six months before the fair opened, Hitler gobbled up the democracy of Czechoslovakia. Mayor LaGuardia led a fund-raising drive to finish and operate the incomplete Czech exhibit to “symbolize the spirit of freedom.” But good intentions could not stop the Nazi Blitzkreig. At the end of the summer of ’39 free Poland disappeared from Europe’s maps. At the fair, Poles handed out pictures of the destruction — a stark contrast to The World of Tomorrow. And every evening following the Nazi invasion, the “Hejnal,” marked by its last sad note, echoed from a horn blown high atop Poland’s Golden Pavilion tower. The Hejnal commemorated the death of a Polish watchman who, in 1241, saved the city of Krakow from Tarter invaders. The watchman’s last note was broken and jarred when a Tarter arrow struck him in the throat.
The fair’s second and final season, in 1940, saw many changes. “When the fair reopened,” wrote Zim, Lerner, and Rolfes in their colorful and informative book The World of Tomorrow, “the tone of the event had changed. Gone was any talk of international interdependence. The new slogan, ‘For Peace and Freedom’ played down internationalism and emphasized all things American…Hitler had successfully changed the World of Tomorrow into a super county fair.” An editorial in the Bronx Home News noted: “An evil fate has pursued the Fair. When it opened in the spring of 1939…dedicated to freedom and democracy and brotherhood, it was hailed universally….But the fair’s mission of world peace was set at naught by the coming of war, and its international section was decimated and its Court of Peace made a travesty by the hand of Mars.”
On Sunday October 27, 1940, the New York World’s Fair closed forever. Exactly one month earlier, on September 27, Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed the Axis Pact in Berlin. The forces of totalitarianism, of militarism, of evil loomed as the real world of tomorrow. Hitler once again laughed at the democracies; he had crushed the French democracy in June, he was then pounding the English democracy in their little island. And the Americans? They were finishing their World of Tomorrow Fair — silly, stupid, inconsequential Americans!