People of all stripes came out for 1939 World’s Fair

By The Greater Astoria Historical Society

The official opening of the 1939 World’s Fair came with the president’s opening remarks at 3:12 p.m., along with Gov. Herbert Lehman, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and fair President Grover Whalen, who headed the list of other speakers from 60 other participating nations.

The talks topped a parade of 20,000 marching soldiers, marines, sailors and costumed representatives of foreign nations who formed at the Perisphere and then tramped majestically through Constitution Mall to the speech site.

Whalen expressed satisfaction with the turnout.

“Our fondest dream and expectations were fully realized today,” he said. “The tremendous assembly of people and the great enthusiasm of the public indicate that the New York Fair has passed its crucial test with flying colors. It was a marvelous turnout.”

The following day was opening day of the World’s Fair, when Queens took the visit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his entourage and other world celebrities in stride. Human carloads of fair-goers streamed into the borough until dusk.

Visitors, who came from all over the world, arrived by train, airplane and boat to establish the exposition opening as one of the most orderly and colorful events of it size in history. On the first day, more than 600,000 visitors flocked to the premiere of the exposition.

That first week was also dubbed “Queens Week” and the first Monday was “Borough Day,” where school and civic groups took part in performances.

Whalen’s face must have turned red with Sheriff Maurice FitzGerald’s official visit on his spicily ballyhooed girlie show. While adjective slingers had been building up the World Fair’s nude lane as “sensational,” “shocking,” “nerve-tingling,” etc., to draw in the suckers from Corncob Corner, the sheriff took a peek and observed, “Why, they’re no better nor worse than 90 percent of New York’s night club shows. I can’t see how they’d even corrupt a kindergarten.”

Festivities for Queens Week continued briskly at the fair. Hundred of young ladies lined up for the Typical Queens Girl contest. Representing the borough’s girlhood, there were girls in gingham dresses and low-heeled shoes, girls statuesque in evening cloths, girls smartly clad in fur capes and business girls, school girls and models. They climbed the dais one at a time, then retired. They lined up for the judges, removed their hats and smiled bright and hopeful.

Balmy weather the first week let four musical concerts go off on schedule along the fountain-splashed, tree-lined malls of the fair grounds. Two score drum and bugle corps of Queens veterans organizations and their junior affiliates were at the Court of Peace, where just the day before the 140-strong Bayside High School band and chorus gave a rousing performance.

The day before, the Flushing band and chorus gave their concert at the Washington Statue in Constitution Mall. The Choral of the Women’s Club of Queens Village held forth in the Court of Peace. Other groups included Masonic lodges, Knights of Columbus, trade unions and civic groups.

The surroundings of a modern-day fairyland provided the setting for the president’s renewed pleas for world peace as he stood before a crowd of 40,000 in the Court of Peace.

“Our wagon is hitched to a star,” declared the chief executive, who was both seen and heard by millions of radio and television listeners the world over.

He continued, “it is a star of good will, a star of promise for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship and, above all, a star of peace.”

He then declared the fair open to all mankind.

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

More from Around New York