BOOTLEG FILES 529: “A World’s Fair Diary” (1964 NBC-TV special starring Edwin Newman).
LAST SEEN: The program is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Rare TV special focusing on a controversial event.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Fifty years ago this week, the New York World’s Fair of 1964/65 opened its gates to the public. Unlike other world’s fairs, this endeavor was plagued with controversy from its inception to its closing day. And despite the hoopla surrounding the event, it turned out to be a financial failure.
Roughly three months after the fair opened, NBC News decided to send one of its chief correspondents, Edwin Newman, to visit the fairgrounds and comment on what he saw. Today, it is highly unlikely that a major network would devote an hour of its prime-time programming for a journalist to present a highly idiosyncratic and deeply subjective essay on a major tourist attraction – but 50 years ago, NBC had enough faith in Edwin Newman (and in its viewers) to allow “A World’s Fair Diary” be broadcast.
For anyone expecting a let’s-visit-the-fair travelogue, “A World’s Fair Diary” will come as something of a shock. Newman was brutally honest – and, often, just plain brutal – in examining the fair. Although he clearly made an effort call out the positive and highlight the fair’s merits, the special’s resonance comes in Newman’s cynically intellectual dissection of the fair’s many mistakes.
Newman began his visit to the fair by recommending an early arrival. He noted that Saturdays tend to be heaviest attendance days, owing mostly to working New Yorkers getting a free day for a visit, while Sunday afternoons tend to be the lightest in terms of human traffic. At the time of his visit, Newman claimed that the fair was receiving 185,000 visitors per day, which was “somewhat below expectations,” according to Newman, who quickly added that this number was “hardly a failure.”
The fair’s central theme was a focus on the future, and many of its pavilions opted to embrace architecture that suggested a bold new world. Newman, however, felt that the fair’s visual appeal was “futuristic in a comic book way” and he added that the fair’s overall architectural design was the subject of much criticism.
Because the fair did not receive approval from the Bureau of International Expositions, many nations declined to participate. That void was filled by pavilions hosted by state governments, but Newman dismissed most of them as being on the “dull and unimaginative side.” There were some exceptions: Oregon’s lumberjack sporting exhibitions and the weird hodgepodge of the Florida Pavilion – bikini gals and a dolphin show outside, rare works of European art from private Floridian collections on the inside – earned the taciturn journalist’s grin. Still, Newman added there was “talk of closing” at the Florida Pavilion due to lower-than-expected turnout.
Newman looked up the fair’s amusement area as a “pocket of poverty” and blamed its failing on a lack of attractions and a dismal placement in the fairgrounds. “A little bit of Coney Island is needed,” Newman stated, adding that the amusements were merely “routine and uninspired” while an adjacent circus was failing to meet its projected audiences.
The absence of many national pavilions enabled major corporations to present themselves for exhibition. IBM had an imaginative puppet show that used Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in a case involving a primitive form of computing. Oddly, this special presented nearly all of the puppet show. The National Cash Register Pavilion also mixed early computing technology with a display of then-contemporary cash registers, while American Express planted a “money tree” outside of its pavilion. Newman wryly observed these attractions by insisting that they “should allay any fears that creeping socialism is ruining our children.”
Perhaps hoping to escape the belief that he was a sourpuss, Newman gamely took a ride on the “Clairol Carousel” and got to see how he would look with a bouncy Tuesday Weld-worthy blonde hairdo. He noted, with a bit of pride, that he was the first man allowed to take part on that ride since the fair opened.
Newman then pointed out the pricey aspect of dining at the fair’s better restaurants – dinner with drinks at the Spain Pavilion cost $15, a hefty sum for that time – and he recommended bringing a picnic lunch to save money. Alas, Newman added, the fair had limited picnic areas and an inadequate supply of water fountains.
Despite other indignities that included long lines, paying a lot of money for relatively brief rides and a lack of shade, Newman found some things to admire: Michelangelo’s “Pieta” at the Vatican Pavilion, the innovative Philip Johnson-designed New York State Pavilion, the whimsical Tic-Toc the Robot at Japan’s Pavilion, the Disney robots that appeared at several attractions, and priceless art including Goya and Picasso paintings plus El Cid’s sword in Spain’s Pavilion. A recreation of a Belgian village, unfortunately, was still under construction when Newman came calling.
Although Newman bemoaned the inability to soak his tired feet in the fair’s fountains, he was inspired by the surplus of lovely ladies walking about. “The fair abounds in pretty girls,” he declared. Newman even allowed himself to drop an utterly ridiculous pun while purchasing headwear at the Moroccan Pavilion – he pretended to leave without his purchase, only to pause and utter, “I never forget a fez.”
By the end of the special, Newman insisted that “in some particulars, it is exciting and even brilliant.” However, this closing proclamation seemed at odds with much of the commentary that came before it.
“A World’s Fair Diary” was broadcast on Thursday, July 30, 1964, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. This was a bit of a dead spot on the NBC line-up – most of the hit programs were in rerun at the time, so having an original special (even as one as offbeat at this) helped to add a bit of original spice to a dull night of rehashed shows. I don’t know what impact this program had on the fair – quite frankly, if I was watching this special when it was on the air, I would resolve not to visit the event based solely on Newman’s commentary and his inventory of the high costs and underwhelming attractions at the fairgrounds. And considering that the fair never reached its attendance projections, one has to assume that poor word-of-mouth kept many people away.
I don’t believe “A World’s Fair Diary” was ever rebroadcast after its premiere. NBC has licensed some of the footage from the special as stock footage relating to the World’s Fair, and the entire special (albeit in a badly faded print without commercials) can be found in an unauthorized posting on YouTube.
If there is a lesson to be learned from “A World’s Fair Diary,” it would be on the importance of controlling the media. Perhaps the folks at Disney were aware of this because of Newman’s special. When Disney World and Epcot Center would later open in Florida, Uncle Walt’s heirs kept a very tight control on media access and ensured that only the happiest coverage got on the air. Today, Disney owns ABC-TV and jolly coverage of the Mouse Empire is par for the course on the network’s news, sports and entertainment programming. “A World’s Fair Diary,” like the elephantine exhibition it covered, was strictly a product of its time – and one that would never be allowed to be repeated elsewhere.
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