In the spring of 1964, in an asphalt meadow in Queens, New York, mothers in Laura Petrie dresses, fathers in “Mad Men” suits, and kids in thrall to their sci-fi dreams boarded a ride called Futurama for a seven-minute trip to the next century.
With its limitless faith in material and social progress (the official motto was “Peace Through Understanding”), the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair was in many ways the apex of the American Century. The General Motors Pavilion—shaped like a ’64 Cadillac Fleetwood with soaring tail fins—was just one of dozens of government- and corporate-sponsored exhibits that aimed to show a tomorrow-scape of rocket-packs and picture phones, an expanding cosmos of commerce and transportation (the day the fair opened, the first Ford Mustang was unveiled).
For 10 cents a ticket, fair-goers could watch the film To the Moon and Beyond inside the Cinerama Spacearium 360. They could marvel at Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway and Kodak’s Magic Moondeck. And in Space Park, they could see NASA’s real-life rockets up close, at a time when astronauts were taking the first steps into the cosmos.
“There’s a great big, beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day,” visitors were promised by Walt Disney’s Animatronic robots gliding through General Electric’s Carousel of Progress. Over two six-month seasons, more than 51 million people visited the fair.
But tomorrow turned out to be not so easily predictable. It was the year the Beatles came to America and Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. While President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the welcoming speech on the fair’s opening day, April 22, 1964, the chants of civil rights protestors could be heard. By the time the World’s Fair closed—having lost money—in October 1965, America had changed, and so had its view of the future.
Someday We'll All Have These
“In ten years, maybe less, some of you will be up here flying with me,” promised high-flying Robert F. Courter Jr. of the Bell Aerosystems Corporation, who performed three times daily in Leon Leonidoff’s Wonderworld spectacular at the fair’s 10,000-seat (but often nearly empty) Lake Amusement Area amphitheatre.
With his 125-pound jet pack providing a maximum of 21 seconds of air time, Courter’s specialty was to lift off, orbit the globe-like Unisphere, and land in the arms of Broadway star Chita Rivera.
Courter made hundreds of jet-pack flights during the fair, and for 25 years thereafter. A former P-51 Mustang combat pilot during the Korean War, he died in 2013.
Say hello to a real-live spaceman
On May 1, 1964, the American who had spent more time in space than all other U.S. astronauts combined paid a visit to the fair. Gordon Cooper’s destination was Space Park, an outdoor display next to the Hall of Education. There, visitors could see dozens of real and mocked-up U.S. launch vehicles, satellites, and spacecraft on loan from NASA. Among them were Scott Carpenter’s heat-scarred Aurora 7 capsule and a replica of the S-IC first stage of the Saturn V, the launcher that would send the first astronauts to the moon four years later. It was “very important” for the United States to be first to the moon, Cooper said at Space Park, “as a matter of national prestige.”
Land of wonders
At Futurama, travelers rode past deserts rendered fertile by irrigation from the distant sea; through jungles tamed by super-freeways; past the skyscraping City of the Future; and, of course, to the moon.
In those days, Jim Pirkl was a young draftsman seconded from GM’s Frigidaire appliance division to help plan the Futurama exhibit. “We didn’t think it was the impossible dream,” Pirkl, 83, recalls today. “Farming the jungles? We’d go in with big machines, clear the jungles, and grow food for mankind. Irrigate the deserts and provide food? We could do that too.
“Man on the moon? We made models where people would vacation on the moon and live in space capsule motels. It was a very, very optimistic time.” Pirkl went on to become one of America’s most distinguished industrial designers and chair of the Department of Design at Syracuse University.
Robert Renfro, now professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, also worked on the City of the Future and other fair exhibits. “The concepts were not guided; they were my own speculation,” he says. “We read a great deal about landing on the moon and the kind of things that could happen there. Unfortunately, what we really lacked was a visionary like Ray Bradbury or Buckminster Fuller. All our people came from car styling.”