An urban son remembers visits to both World’s Fairs

By Kenneth Kowald

We moved to Elmhurst from Borough Park about six months before the World’s Fair opened in 1939.

I remember one trip with my mother and sister Elizabeth. I guess we used a bus or perhaps a trolly since just as today transportation between north and south Queens is not the best and we did not have a car for many years.

It was a hot day, but I remember enjoying the fair, billed as “Building The World of Tomorrow.” It was bright, shiny and hopeful. We saw quite a bit.

My mother developed a fierce headache. We found a place which had something like an aspirin, but because it was not Bayer my mother refused. We left early and Bayer did the trick on 57th Avenue.

World War II started before the Fair ended and the second year was a kind of unhappy remembrance of what everyone was so hopeful about.

I can’t remember going to the Fair again that year or the next. Did a class go from JHS 73? Was I there?

I do remember a souvenir. It was a pickle pin, with the word Heinz on it. You pinned it on a shirt, sweater or jacket. I had it for many years; it is long since gone. Might be worth something today.

My wife Elaine remembers marching in the opening ceremonies with her Jackson Heights Girl Scout Troop.

I don’t think I ever went to the 1964-1965 World’s Fair as a visitor. I did go to some pre-Fair receptions of organizations I belonged to and to one of the pavilions which my corporation in Manhattan helped sponsor. That was a reception, too.

I did see many of the exhibits during those visits and maybe it was age or ennui, but I found the Fair in the Sixties to be overly commercialized. Both Fairs were big money losers, the second worse than the first.

I had contact with that area between the Fairs when I edited The Queens Post, a forerunner of the Forest Hills Ledger. The site of the Fair had become Flushing Meadows (Corona was added later) Park.

The Valley of Ashes in “The Great Gatsby” was no more. But World War II and financial problems meant the new park was not in good condition, to be charitable.

We ran a series of harsh articles about the park and I sent each one to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. There was no response until one day a cyclist went over a worn-down bridge, fell into the water and died. It was a sad vindication of what we printed and portrayed. Money was found for repairs.

One great remainder of the Fairs became the wonderful Queens Botanical Garden. It had been “Gardens on Parade” and it, too, suffered, but Queens residents saved it and it is one of our gems.

Let us hope that our borough president, other officials and civic leaders will save Philip Johnson’s Tent of Tomorrow from the second World’s Fair. It has been on the National Registry of Historic Places since 2009. It was a joy 50 years ago. It can be a joy for generations to come. Let’s do it!

One of the great exhibits in 1964-1965 was of the Michelangelo Pieta, his only signed sculpture, on loan from the Vatican. Thousands — including Elaine and me — waited on a moving platform to see this wondrous work of art, which speaks to all human beings. Thank you, Pope John XXIII, for making this vision of love available to so many.

The second fair opened on April 22, 1964. Had it opened a day later, it would have coincided with the observance of the death date (and some think his birthdate) of William Shakespeare. If so, I could have ended this memoir with Prospero’s great speech beginning “Our revels now are ended.”

Failing that, I will remember a terrible song from the corporate pavilion I mentioned. It went (and I can still sing it, too) “Hear that hum/It’s coming from transmission wires/Hear that music ringing in your ears!”

I don’t like to end fond remembrances with a piece like that, but it does resonate.

And they tell me the world has not improved.

Of a Bayer aspirin, a Heinz (non-edible) pickle and a time when some things were almost sacrosanct. Of a boy’s wonder and an adult’s pleasure. Thank you.

Happy birthdays, New York City World’s Fairs!

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