Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Glimpsed Destination, Part Two

Last time, E. B. White took us on “The Road to Tomorrow” -past the chimney pots of Queens to the trylon and perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Philip Liebson retraced that journey in “Transformations” :

The Fair was set in what had previously been a marshland covered by mountains of ashes, with rat-infested garbage and debris with a perpetual fire wafting smoke eastward to the nearby town of Flushing – transformation indeed!

An excellent description of the ash heap was provided in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, on his way to visit Daisy while rolling from the Plaza through Queens. It was “a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes can take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke, and finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men…”

The idea of the Fair, planning the World of Tomorrow, was based upon the concept that the future could be controlled with adequate planning. The basis of the Fair was the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inaugural on Wall Street, and not a small factor, to bring revenue to New York at a time of a post-depression slump, although it was planned as early as 1934.

Watch the Kodachrome home movies of that exposition and you might be struck by the unabashed celebration of pulchritudinous flesh along with the technology. But why should anyone be surprised by that? The Great American Future depicted in 1939 is, in many ways, precisely the America we occupy today.

The Fair might have intended some educational, cultural, and brotherhood-of-man uplift for the masses, but it was also a platform for some serious corporate hype, such as Futurama, GM’s hellish vision (now largely realized) of a whole continent sacrificed on the altar of Asphalt.

And nothing goes better with corporate hype than a little Hoochie Coo. True in 1939. True today.

Along with the miracles of nylon and Smell-a-Vision, along with the revelation of a perfect future on one vast freeway, fairgoers were treated to more immediate and visceral wonders.

Scantily-clad “Sun Worshippers” in their see-through brassieres cavorted and danced outdoors.

Topless models in the Jack Sheridan Show posed in living recreations of magazine covers.

Then there was Le Danse Barebareic (starting about twenty seconds into this reel):

(Problem viewing? Click on )

A word about the film – these amateur-shot color movies of the 1939 World’s Fair are (mostly) from the Prelinger Archive. The Medicus collection alone runs several hours, with candid silent movies (in Kodachrome!) filmed throughout the “World of Tomorrow.”

When I see old crowd scenes, I try to figure out if or how those people were different from us. I can never decide.

The most disturbing thing about the Fair images borrowed for a Youtube music video is that the women sometimes look like restless animals caged in a zoo.

If not for these old films, I might not have believed it.

E. B. White did say that in some exhibits, a sheet of glass separated the performers from the “sailors” – to use White’s term.

The Bendix Lama Temple was among the many bizarre spectacles of the 1939 Fair:

The building was a reproduction of a 1767 Buddhist temple in Jehol, China. The replica was built in 1930 and in 1933 was transported, piece by piece, to Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition at the behest of watch magnate Hugo Vincent Bendix. Sven Hedin, Bendix's explorer contact in China, was unable to find an actual temple or pagoda to purchase and move to the States. So instead, Hedin proposed to build a replica and ship it across the Pacific.

Bendix Lama Temple

That way they could easily claim the building had been transported, piece-by-piece from China, and by that claim infer it was the genuine thing, instead of having to outright call it a duplicate from the start. Inside, the "finest existing example of Chinese Lama architecture" displayed Tibetan art, relics and interior decorations as part of a "working Chinese village" demonstration.

The temple was also the venue for a popular girlie show. A 19-year-old barker named Herbert I. Taffae delivered the following spiel to attract dance fans:

It might sound strange and a trifle incongruous having lovely girls in front of the million dollar temple of Jehol whose gold leaf roof you can see over the top of this façade, but the fact is that we have a girlie show in here and a good one.

The author of the book, Forbidden Tibet, Horizon Hunters and technical advisor of the picture, Lost Horizon, he doesn’t want his good name associated with this scandalous enterprise as brought back from the land of the lost horizon, those Terpsichordion aphrodisiacs, the love temptation dancers from the lamaseries of Tibet.

A lama is a Buddhist priest and as such he must remain celibate. He must be deaf to the calls of the flesh, immune to the pangs of passion, and adverse to the charms of beautiful women. In other words he must not marry or anything.

Once each year he is given a test. The questions of which are the unquestionable figures of questionable young ladies, courtesans brought from the outside world to corrupt the young lama and seduce him from his holy way of life.

Now ladies, this show has been approved by Good Housekeeping, but in case a stray moron seeking a racy spicy girl show is in this otherwise obviously intellectual audience, he too can go in there and not know the difference, but you, you lovers of art will surely recognize this show to be the apogee of oriental choreography.

The whole thing rises to a climax when Sasha and her hilarious horde of vivacious vestal virgins unite in that unclad climax, that orgiastic ecstasy at the tail end of our performance, the passion dance of love. It’s terrific. Now once inside sit down as long as you like and admire the bare beautiful temple but those beautiful bare forms and they I say are not too formal. Go on right away. This being the first show of the afternoon I am going to cut the price of admission in half.

Everybody goes.


Now, THAT’S a pitch!

What does all this mean, this odd marriage between the Man of the Future and the Dancing Girl? I could attempt to dissect the utopian misogyny of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but fortunately, I don’t need to. E. B. White deftly addressed the topic in the concluding lines of his essay, “The Road to Tomorrow.”

So (as the voice says) man dreams on. And the dream is still a contradiction and an enigma – the biologist peeping at bacteria through his microscope, the sailor peeping at the strip queen through the binoculars, the eyes so watchful, and the hopes so high.

Out in the honky-tonk section, in front of the Amazon show, where the ladies exposed one breast in deference to the fleet, kept one concealed in deference to [fair manager] Mr. Whalen, there was an automaton – a giant man in white tie and tails, with enormous rubber hands.

At the start of each show, while the barker was drumming up trade, a couple of girls would come outside and sit in the robot’s lap. The effect was peculiarly lascivious – the extra-size man, exploring with his gigantic rubber hands the breasts of the little girls, the girls with their own small hands (by comparison so small, by comparison so terribly real) restrainingly on his, to check the unthinkable impact of his mechanical passion.

Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aseptic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast.


Meanwhile, one robot from the Fair stars in the short "Leave It to Roll-Oh"

(Roll-Oh was created by the engineers at Chevrolet to demonstrate the potential of electro-magnetic relays...)

More Prelinger Archive footage from the Fair, including the Jack Sheridan magazine covers and Salome without her veils...WHOSE "World of Tomorrow" was this?

(Problems viewing? Click on )

It starts getting a little 1939 erotic at the 7:30 point in the film. The "World of Tomorrow" in beautiful Kodachrome.


Anonymous said...

E. L. Doctorow has a great novel set at the World's Fair that touches on some of the parts you've highlighted.

Anonymous said...

E.L. Doctorow's book seemed to me to borrow heavily from Lance Bird and Tom Johnson's documentary film "The World of Tomorrow," which came out a few years before his book "World's Fair." Interestingly, the film makes very heavy use of the Philip Medicus home movies of the Fair, which you point to above. They're in our collection (6 hours of Kodachrome) and may be seen and downloaded at

-- Rick Prelinger

GULAHIYI said...

I went to check out Doctorow's novel, but my library doesn't have it. However, waiting for me on the new book shelf was James Mauro's "Twilight at the World of Tomorrow - Genius, Madness, Murder and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of War." Looks like a good read.

Anonymous said...

Next time you're at the Maniac Lending Library of Webster and Planets Beyond remind me and you may borrow it.
The Mauro book sounds familiar, is it relatively new?

GULAHIYI said...

Yes, the Mauro book just came out this year and has drawn mixed reviews. To his credit, he didn't resort to the T&A angle as shamelessly as I did in the hopes of attracting a few more readers. He pretty well left that aspect of the Fair untouched.