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The now sound of today’s electric toaster: “Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair”

26 August 2009 Stories and Appreciations 12,713 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

To my regret, I was born years after the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair closed its gates forever. I will never lay hands on the all-laminate surfaces of the House of Formica, or get a whiff of the giant smoke rings issuing from General Cigar’s Hall of Magic. I will never feast my eyes on the Tower of Light, or dine at the Festival of Gas. However, thanks to Walt Disney Records, I can hear what the 1964 Fair sounds like, and one out of five ain’t bad.

Robert Moses, the powerful New York builder who basically threw the 1964 New York World’s Fair so his kids could see it, once bragged to the press, “The stars of my Fair are Michelangelo and Walt Disney.” Michelangelo’s “Pieta” was displayed at the Vatican Pavilion, where you could glimpse it briefly from a moving walkway like the kind you encounter in airports. Walt Disney’s four World’s Fair exhibits – General Electric’s “Carousel of Progress,” Ford’s “Magic Skyway,” the State of Illinois’ “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and the Pepsi-Cola/UNICEF mash-up “It’s a Small World” – were actually a bit more tasteful, even though they featured a robotic approximation of our 16th president, a musical that glorified appliances and the most diabolically insidious song known to humankind. “Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair” a five-disc set featuring music, sounds and backstage ephemera from each exhibit, brings you as close to these exhibits — and to Uncle Walt — as you can get without time travel.

This CD set is easily the most bizarre media product that Disney has released in the past five years, and I’m saying this of the company that made “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” The intended audience for this CD set is tough to fathom: It will bore kids and befuddle anyone who doesn’t know what the Fair was about; is filled with long narrative passages that make little sense divorced from their original context; and it contains only two recognizable Disney songs, both in overkill. (If you like “It’s a Small World,” you’ll really like the ten different versions of the song presented here.)

Suffice it to say, if you’re enchanted by cheesy science fiction, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” the school educational films of the 1960s, Martin Denny-like cocktail swing and the idea of covering the entire world in ten-lane highways, you’ll probably like this set. It’s full of crackpot notions masquerading as wild-eyed idealism, and by golly, it’s fun to listen to those deep holes being dug. Forget alternative fuels: In his narration for the “Magic Skyway” attraction, Uncle Walt practically sweet-talks the dinosaurs directly into your gas tank. GE’s “Carousel of Progress” guilelessly links human development directly to the evolution of the washing machine. (One of the instrumental tracks by the great Sherman Brothers is actually called “Music to Buy Toasters By.”) And two of Disney’s “audio-animatronics” talking birds – entertainingly voiced by Paul Frees and Wally Boag – have a spirited discussion with a utility pole. I promise you that these things actually happened in Robert Moses’ kingdom of the senses.

Remarkably, the box set omits an amazing event that occurred while actor Royal Dano was recording lines for Disney’s mechanical “Lincoln.” One of Disney’s “Imagineers,” Bob Gurr, described the incident to Amy Boothe Green and Howard E. Green in their book “Remembering Walt”:

“…I thought (Royal Dano’s) first reading, which lasted ten to fifteen minutes, was good. But Walt jumped up, ‘No, no, no!’ So Royal performed it again, but he was draggy this time … ‘No! You haven’t got it, damn it!’ Royal sighed and started the long speech again… His performance was terrible; he was obviously tired.

“Then Walt jumped up and started directing us in singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ This technical even suddenly became very emotional… (Walt) wanted Royal Dano’s performance to sound weary and worn.”

Even without that audio, “Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair” is a mind-bending anthropological journey to an era when Americans actually believed that humans could live in plastic houses and not feel shrink-wrapped, and that more and bigger freeways were a pretty good idea.

Geoff Carter


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  1. “…if you’re enchanted by…the idea of covering the entire world in ten-lane highways…”
    “…journey to an era when bigger freeways were a pretty good idea…”

    This is Robert Moses’ REAL lasting legacy around the country–during the late 50s/early 60s he consulted with cities around the US and proposed carving up each city through building many large highways. He is despised in the circles I run in (progressive transportation planners and liveability advocates), as many of his freeways created a lot of economic and social problems for the neighborhoods they bisected–impacts which last to this day.

    It’s more well-known among planners these days that building/widening freeways does *not* help congestion, but Robert Moses was a proponent of more, larger highways, and wielded a lot of power at the time. Fortunately here in Portland, citizens stopped the planned construction of a couple of his proposed projects (most notably the Mt. Hood Freeway)–both in neighborhoods which are now arguably the most desirable to live in inside city limits. We even tore out a six-lane highway along the waterfront of downtown Portland, transforming it into an enormous park which is loved by all.

    Sorry for the slightly off-topic tangent, but the very mention of Robert Moses makes me hiss and want to share an aspect of American history that isn’t discussed much. Namely, a man who accompanied America on a giant step towards the pervasive car culture we find ourselves in today, and all the problems that go with that.

  2. I worked at the WORLD FAIR in l964 (in the New England Pavilion) as a hostess etc. for 6 months and in my innocent youth fell madly in love with a co-worker who happened to be a beautifully Caribean black man (which then was not done). Later I discovered that he was the private detective for this World’s Fair pavilion -working undercover to discover who was stealing dollars from the over abundantly flowing cash registers in this circuit of rainbow of restaurants. This was for me a revelation that the boss hired someone then to secure his own wealth. I wrote his reports for him. All these poor students trying to get away by throwing the customer’s dollars under the cash register in a shoebox and leaving with a flow of 500 extra bucks unregistered. He caught them all. He wanted to marry me, but I was not brave enough then ( I might have had a sweet little Obama) but left NYC for Europe but always I will remember the grace of Jack the Black ( I never knew his last name)and the over eager manipulation of the false electricity of the Fair and the magnificance of Michelangelo’s Pieta. And above all, the multitude of daily nuns in full habit- ordering sherry -in tea cups getting deliciously drunk in this chic restaurant in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. I would love to see Disney’s creation of this rare Fair.

  3. […] I think we'll never see it in a Disney theme park again. Also in Monkey Goggles: I reviewed the "Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair" CD set, cracked wise about Disney's acquistion of Marvel, and wrote an homage to the late, […]

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