Can Shanghai Expo top past world’s fairs that brought Eiffel Tower, Ferris Wheel, microwave?

By Leanne Italie, AP
Monday, May 3, 2010

Is there any wow left for the Shanghai Expo?

NEW YORK — In 1964, a bus to Queens led 12-year-old Jeff Blumenfeld to the world.

It was there at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows that he savored “Bel-Gem Waffles” with strawberries and whipped cream, gazed at Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and watched a microwave miraculously cook food in seconds.

There was a 12-minute boat ride of rollicking robotic children called “It’s a Small World,” phones with pictures and buttons instead of dials, and a computer that assigned him pen pals in Finland and India. A lifelike Abraham Lincoln offered wisdom for the ages and carbonless encapsulated paper worked like magic.

“The defining moment of my young life was going to the World’s Fair,” said Blumenfeld, who treasures a box of keepsakes from the 18 visits he made to Queens from his childhood home in nearby suburban Long Island. “It was a way to visit every corner of the earth.”

World’s fairs and expositions have introduced technological innovations and marked cultural shifts for the masses since the first one was held in 1851 London in a glistening Crystal Palace. With the World Expo in Shanghai under way now through October, and China hoping to break attendance records with 70 million visitors, Blumenfeld and others forever changed by past fairs wonder if there’s any wow left.

“People used to go to world’s fairs to learn about the world and now they can learn about the world without leaving their computer monitor,” said historian John E. Findling, who wrote “The Encyclopedia of World’s Fairs and Expositions” and once taught an undergraduate seminar on the subject at Indiana University Southeast.

Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built for the International Exhibition of 1889, the Expo in China includes new landmarks and dazzling pavilions — and a fun-house atmosphere in some spots.

The red, flat-roofed China Pavilion towers over the Expo at 207 feet. In keeping with the Expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” to promote sustainable urban living, Holland’s pavilion is in the shape of a lucky figure 8 and has been dubbed “Happy Street” for its pedestrian walk through futuristic, green buildings.

An Alpine meadow on the roof of the Swiss Pavilion is visible from a chairlift ride. Israel’s building looks like a seashell, Romania’s like a green apple and Britain’s appears coated in long, spiky cilia.

But beyond the physical spectacles, can the Shanghai Expo excite the imaginations of visitors? Fair watchers through time have posed the question.

“The visitor who wants to get the most out of this World’s Fair will do best to regard it not as a show of things, but let his imagination off the leash of discretion for a bit. Then he may really get a glimpse of the realities of tomorrow that lurk in this jungle of exhibits,” H.G. Wells wrote in The New York Times of the first fair held in Queens in 1939.

“It will cease to look like a collection of things for sale and reveal its real nature as a gathering of live objects, each of which is going to do something to him, possibly something quite startling, before he is very much older,” Wells assured.

Such “grand illusions,” in the writer’s words, have come in packages large and small at world’s fairs.

A confection of molasses-coated popcorn and peanuts was introduced at the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893, a precursor to Cracker Jack. At the same fair, many got their first taste of Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Beer and Juicy Fruit gum. The 27 million people who strolled through also got to ride the first Ferris wheel, accompanied by a live band in one of the moving cars as they went 250 feet up for a slow turn around.

Not all of the innovations introduced at world’s fairs were embraced. Ahead of the 1889 Paris exhibition, plans for the Eiffel Tower as a welcome gate so offended some artists they took to the daily newspaper Le Temps:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty, until now intact, of Paris, hereby protest with all our might, with all our indignation, in the name of French taste gone unrecognized, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the construction, in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, that public spite, often marked by good sense and a spirit of justice, has already baptized the Tower of Babel.”

The response of the creator, Alexendre-Gustave Eiffel? “I will tell you all that I think, and all that I hope. For my part, I believe that the Tower will have its own beauty.”

The 1939 New York fair took place soon after the economic disaster of the Great Depression, and just as international chaos bubbled ahead of World War II. Amid the wonders showcased through its “Building the World of Tomorrow” theme was television.

In 1964 and 1965, during the fair Blumenfeld attended, the Apollo program prepared missions for outer space while consumer culture boomed on Earth. Blumenfeld and many of slightly more than 51 million fairgoers watched the world’s first computers whir while marveling at microwaves heating up their snacks.

“I thought it was unbelievable that you could put something in and it would come out hot,” said the 57-year-old Blumenfeld, who now works in public relations in Connecticut.

The waffles he munched at the fair, renamed “Bel-Gem” from Brussels Waffles to accommodate geographically challenged Americans, “tasted like nothing I had ever tasted before,” he said. “I was a country bumpkin. What did I know?”

There have been about 100 world’s fairs and expositions — depending on how you categorize them — in more than 20 countries since the one counted as the first official Expo in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. The idea for that one came from Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, to promote trade under the guise of a “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.”

Findling said trumpeting colonial might was a primary motivation to host early world’s fairs. “Lots of fairs between 1890 and 1940 were colonial expositions, where the chief attraction was to show what wonderful colonial masters they had been and what good they had done for the natives,” he said. “That was undoable after World War II.”

So is there a waffle left for China? Findling’s not so sure. Blumenfeld is hopeful.

The future Blumenfeld saw at the ‘64 fair “delivered on push-button phones,” he said. “They delivered on the microwave, but where are the flying cars they promised me? I’m still waiting.”

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