This fair was really only fair
Published 8:30 pm Saturday, January 7, 2017
Before Busch Gardens, Kings Dominion and the Disney extravaganzas, folks could spend a day getting family entertainment and enlightenment at the world’s fair.
So, when did it all begin? Most likely in 1851 in London. It was an opportunity to explore the outside world and take a look at scientific advances and new inventions.
At each event, several countries represented themselves.
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As a kid, I visited what is still deemed to have been the best — the 1939-’40 New York World’s Fair. It was only a 10-minute subway (elevated) ride to the grounds, so most of the kids in our neighborhood were there on weekends and, often, during the week. We knew enough that we could have been guides.
That was for pleasure. For work, I visited the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, which, to put it bluntly was, for the most part, a bummer.
An earlier fair in Knoxville was also deemed a zero but, the Loo-zee-anna to-do had an advantage. It was in one of my favorite cities, New Orleans. Knoxville is as fascinating as Allentown, Pa.
I was in N. O. doing a story on the Western Branch Cloggers of Chesapeake. At one time, clogging was quite popular. This group was there by invitation and did so well they were held over three times.
Another attraction was the $12 million Mississippi Aerial River Transit, a gondola crossing Ol’ Man River, connecting Algiers on the West Bank to downtown New Orleans, offering a breathtaking look at that part of the world from 350 feet above the water.
Another attraction was the monorail, which took you in and out of the various buildings. It was the fair’s only free ride. It landed you along the city’s waterfront, next to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.
“I liked the exhibits, but there weren’t enough; it just wasn’t what I expected,” said Harry Edwards of Portsmouth, a member of the adult clogging team. “The prices were too high, and I didn’t like the attitude of the people working there. Many of the fair’s employees I encountered wouldn’t last five minutes at Busch Gardens.”
I wonder if that gent remembers, today, what he noted in 1984. “Too often,” he said, “visitors are either ignored in favor of conversations with friends, or are treated rudely.”
Kristen Fulcher also had something to say: “Once, while waiting in line for a small 90-cent Coke, I was chewed out by an employee who accused us (she had a 10-year-old with her) of stepping in front of her. She was a few feet away, and we thought she was working there.”
“Also,” she said, “forget about asking the employees for directions. Few of them seemed to know what was around the corner.”
There were complaints about food and drinks being overpriced.
“It was too expensive for the average person,” said JoAnn Bryant, the Cloggers’ business manager. She had thought ride prices would be included with the price of admission. “They weren’t and they were expensive.” Well, there were only seven rides anyway.
The exhibits were “free” with the $15 admission cost, except for The Vatican Pavilion costing an extra $5.
The outstanding offering came from our country’s pavilion, which covered its subject scientifically, musically and artistically. Another country that did well was Korea, with its exotic dance exhibitions.
The Aquacade, introduced in the N.Y. World’s Fair in ’39-’40, looked like scenes out of Esther Williams movies. But, as I remember it, too many of the attractions could be described as mundane.
There were, of course, star names offering concerts, including Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, Lola Falana, Gladys Knight And the Pips and James Taylor.
When the fair closed, officials reluctantly noted that the $350 million enterprise was $150 million in debt, with money owed to 400 creditors, including the state of Louisiana which loaned it $27.5 million just to stay open.
Lots of folks think the idea of “worlds’ fairs” is all done. The U. S. hasn’t had one since 1984.
During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at email@example.com.