Queens History Robert Moses

Assorted mishaps from the 1964 New York World’s Fair — in its first month and before it even opened

Certainly Robert Moses expected there to be a few little problems to arise at the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair on April 22, 1964.  And for the most part, the most popular attractions launched without a hitch.  But a host of bad press on opening day and a litter of minor issues created a sense of unease among some organizers.

The fair was already a controversial venture by Moses — unsanctioned by the official World’s Fair organizers and sold wholesale to a bevy of corporations as a way to fund the hugely expensive endeavor.  Moses’ own reputation was on the wane by 1964; the fair would further tarnish it.

Whatever enthusiasm New Yorkers had for the fair in 1964 evaporated with its completion in the fall of 1965, with reports of ludicrous financial mismanagement and a gradual indifference by fair-goers to its line-up of generally un-amusing amusements.

So these first few mishaps from the months before and after opening, in retrospect, seem to be a harbinger for the greater fiascoes which followed.

Money issues, faulty machinery, injuries, lack of planning — welcome to the World’s Fair of 1964!

1) The World of Food never opens
With hundreds of new temporary structures going up, you wouldn’t think that a single building lagging behind would be much of an issue.  But the prominently placed World of Food  — standing 75 feet from the fair’s entrance — was one of the largest pavilions on the fair, and little work had been done on it since ground-breaking in January.

The building was to celebrate cooking and gardening, with weekly festivals devoted to a particular food (shrimp, apples), a rooftop ‘edible garden’ and a model kitchen with the most innovative home appliances.  A teen center on the ground floor would host cook-outs and clam-bakes with appearances by the hottest young stars of film and television.

It would have, that is, except the organizers ran out of money, and a large gaping construction site sat like an open sore marring the fairgrounds.

Moses and fair organizers wanted to level the site immediately, fighting it out in court with the World of Food organizers.  Finally, two weeks before the opening, the uncompleted venue was finally torn down.

But there was no time to fill the lot, so on opening day, an odd gap in an otherwise tightly organized grounds greeted visitors.  Gift shops sold World of Food souvenirs anyway.  Meanwhile, the fair paid thousands of dollars to store the unused construction materials off site. [More information at Bill Young’s excellent World’s Fair site. Image above is also from there.]

2) Ceramic catastrophe
The most spectacular displays were often at the pavilions hosted by foreign countries. The Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion, for instance, would become one of the most popular attractions.

The organizers from Spain, however, would have to scramble when they opened crates containing a 50-foot ceramic relief by Antonio Cumella called ‘Homage to Gaudi,” only to discover that much of it had been crushed in transport.

Welders furiously labored to repair the work before the fair opened. Some semblance of the work was eventually displayed.

Courtesy New York Daily News

3) Rain on Opening Day
The April 22nd opening was to be one of the greatest events in New York City history, and in volume, it certainly was. Ten of thousands clogged the highways in one of New York’s ugliest traffic days. Over 90,000 made it to the fairgrounds to witness opening ceremonies that included a speech by president Lyndon B. Johnson, president for only a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But fair organized had planned for 250,000 attendees. Â Keeping people away was the “November-like weather,” torrential morning rain and a chilly, cloudy afternoon.

The New York Times reported: “The World’s Fair opened yesterday morning with a parade that had everything. But mostly it had rain, and 4,000 sodden marchers outnumbered the hundreds of sodden bystanders.”

4) Protesters and arrests
President Johnson and fair organizers were met with picketers and sit-ins, mostly civil rights organizers. They managed to heckle Johnson through his entire speech at the Federal Pavilion and sit in at several fair venues.

In particular, protesters camped out in shrubbery outside the pavilion and had to be forcibly removed. Â “It was dreadful, dreadful,” said one state official.

By the end of the day, over 300 people had been arrested by police. What had particularly incensed protesters was a variety show at the fair called “America, Be Seated,” a “minstrel-style” show that meant to turn the derogatory stereotypes of old into something fun and jazzy for the 1960s.

“I think we’ll start a whole new wave of minstrel shows,” hoped producer Michael Todd Jr, (stepson of Elizabeth Taylor), promising no “burnt cork” and that every performer in the integrated cast would be wearing “his own face.”

It was still deemed too offensive for many and quickly closed within two days, raking in a grand total of $300.

Below: From the New York Times, April 23, 1964

5) City locked down
If you weren’t at the fair, you were probably cursing it out. Â A planned “stall-in” by demonstrators to stop traffic throughout the city failed to materialize, but the city planned for it anyway, created a veritable police state that day.  “Police cars and tow trucks waited sometimes as close as every half mile along Grand Central Parkway.”

This tension led to a near-disaster at one subway station, when four protesters and three police officers were injured “when a crowd tried to stop one morning subway train.” [source]

6) No hospital
Five days after opening, seven fair goers were injured inside fair transportation sponsored by Greyhound Bus Lines. One of these “Glide-a-Ride” vehicles hit one of the eleven General Foods arches (pictured above), causing minor injuries.

But there was no hospital facility on the fairgrounds — “[T]he hospital was expected to open late next month” — so the injured were treated at the employee’s dispensary and advised to see their own doctors at once. [source]

Leonidoff’s Wonder World. Pic courtesy Randy Treadway at World Fair Community. There are many more rare photos of this event there.)

7) Water and Ice Catastrophes
Two big-name entertainments at the fair were plagued with constant accidents and delays before they opened.  Leon Leonidoff, famed producer at Radio City Music Hall, watched as his “Leonidoff’s Wonder World” befell perpetual mishaps, mostly associated with a faulty mechanical swimming pool.  The show was hugely expensive and not a big draw (see photo above).  It closed within two months.

Meanwhile, Olympic champion Dick Button was having similar issues over at Dick Button’s Ice-Travaganza. His woes involved transportation costs and salaries associated with his mostly European cast. This show, too, was considered a failure, closing a few weeks after its opening opening.

However it did have a skating chimpanzee in a dress, so that’s something to celebrate.

8) Elephant Attack
Six days after the fair opened, a trainer was “stepped on” by a chained elephant named Anna Mae.  Again, as no fair hospital had been opened, the trainer was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital.

You can imagine what the conditions for this poor animal were probably like.  The animal, known for “her erratic temperament,” was chained to two other elephants at the time of the attack.

Above: the Ford Pavilion (NYPL)

9) Ford Pavilion Smoked Out
Nine days after it opened, a transformer at the Ford Pavilion — featuring Walt Disney’s Magic Skyway — caught fire, issuing smoke into the attraction and causing 2,000 people to be evacuated.  The conveyor belt Skyway was also prone in its early days to malfunctions, leaving fair-goers trapped in late-model Ford vehicles in front of caveman and space-age dioramas. [source]

10) The World’s Fair Bus “Riot”
May 16 was a day of record attendance at the fair, so it should be assumed that it was also a day of high tensions and long lines.

People were especially impatient that evening while waiting to board shuttles back to the parking lot.

“A shoving, yelling crowd of 15,000 persons went into near panic,” creating four blocks of mayhem as people attempted to squeeze into an inadequete number of vehicles. A “riot call” was made on the fairgrounds, with additional police and several ambulances called to treat minor injuries and several women who had fainted.

“They acted like animals,” commented one bus inspector. Said another, who had been grabbed and lifted by his tie:  “If we lived through [Saturday] night, we can live through anything.” [source]

Top image courtesy Flickr Marsmett Tallahassee

18 replies on “Assorted mishaps from the 1964 New York World’s Fair — in its first month and before it even opened”

I was there as a little kid, and I have to say, it was magical. I have great memories of it all. The fountains, the lights, fireworks, modern architecture, exotic food. It was wonderful and it spurred my life-long interest in travel, architecture, foreign culture, etc.

My brother and I were leaving the Fair in 1965. We took one last look at the fair when we spotted a guy standing on the edge roof of the United States. He either jumped or fell off the building. We both thought it was a worker, who fell off the building. We expected to something about on the news, but we never did. If it were my recollection alone, I’d say it was my crummy memory ,but we both saw it. And from that day to now, we both remember it. Anybody have any inclining of a worker getting hurt by falling off that building?

I know for sure my Dad, an iron worker named James Hynes, died there in 1963. He fell off the heliport building and I have the death certificate to prove it

It was never reported. No TV news or newspaper coverage. Nothing. I know Robert Moses was in charge and he ruled with an iron fist. The Faire was in trouble already and he did not need to have worker death on his hands

Do you have any other information? Your building and day of death are not the same as my Dad’s but close

Wow !
All these memories n death while
Working at the Fair
I was 12 when I went there on my class trip.
I loved it !
From a kids perspective it was
All the girls on my class went to one a building where we could try on different wigs n styles.
We laughed so hard.
Gave me some ideas for future
Doo’s as a teenager
We also went to the futuristic home show
All the fancy appliances
So much fun
Not fun at all for all of you who lost
Family there.
In those days I guess it was hard to sue.

My dad lost his life as a construction worker at the 1964worlds fair…a crane toppled over killing him and another man…was on the front page of a local news paper…I was then years old at the time…seeing that headline was trumatic to say the least…prayers to all who suffered loss there…

I am trying to find information about my Grandfather, who I was told was also toppled over and killed by a crane or some sort of truck. After reading what you wrote I’m wondering if he was the other man killed. His name was Salvatore Montanino

My father was killed by a fallen crane also. It was September 6, 1962. I remember the front page news articles also. My mother refused to go to World’s Fair. This is more than five years after your post but first time I have seen this. It was an event that changed my life forever, very painful.

was that building the heliport? I ask because I’m doing some genealogy work for a friend and his father was an ironworker on the heliport and fell off and was killed. it’s not in any of the stories of the fair; almost like they tried to suppress it. I sent him your comment. He might reply.

I spoke to my friend and this has stirred up memories but he gave permission to give a couple more details except for the name.
His father was an ironworker and fell off the edge of the heliport landing and was killed. I have a feeling this isn’t the one you saw because it was April 27, 1963 and you mentioned 1965. But there is a WF blog on NYT and people have been writing about a number of accidents, injuries and deaths and none of them seemed to be reported very widely.

I just learned about a little mishap from my uncle…. that could have been huge. My father and uncle had an ecclesiastical marble company and were honored to have built the marble pedestal that held Michaelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican Pavilion. Story goes that under the high stress situation the man responsible for moving the statue onto the pedestal had a nervous breakdown the night before, so the responsibility fell onto my father’s business! They did not have the insurance for it, would have been millions…but they did it….apparently someone used a crowbar to better position the statue–marble being so soft it’s a no no. Well, let’s just say a crack was heard and the room fell silent ….could you imagine!

Can anyone verify a tv news item about a murder that happened on a summer night in 1965. Here is a sketchy summery of the details I remember from the tv news item: a teen or young adult had a confrontation with a gang member at the fair. The gang member got some other members to help him seem revenge. That night they use a van to grab someone who they thought was the male in the conflict, pulled him inside and stabbed him. I am uncertain of the following events but I think the police made the arrest, determined the victim was a case of mistaken identy. I am uncertain about how the news was reported in print.

I was at the fair as a small child and remember being in awe. I also remember seeing a man fall from the roller coaster to the track below and then got knocked off that to the ground which killed him. His hat had come off just after the crest and he jumped up to grab it and fell out. I was too little to ride so was watching with my mom while my older brothers rode. I wasn’t able to find any news coverage of it. Otherwise, the fair was amazing

My Uncle George Parry from valley stream Long Island, New York died in July 1963 during the construction of the worlds fair. He worked for Bethlehem Steele and fell a short distance and was killed. I can find nothing in it in my search so the historical papers

My brother and I (6th+7th grades) were conveniently separate first thing thing in the morning, in the IBM building. He had hidden on me after planning a get-away. I don’t think I had much money, and figured we’d meet my older brother and his date at the end of the day. I did a lot of wandering and after dark found a fairly deserted area still inside the gate. I turned around and headed back in the opposite direction. A man in a gray overcoat appeared and asked me where I was going. I’m 71 and would know his face anywhere. I told him I was going back to meet my family at our meeting spot (no such thing but at least there was the front gate). He smiled and said something like “Go back then.” I’ve never told my brother, but he later confessed he’d stayed out of sight while I lost him in the morning.

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