NEW YORK — The 1964 world’s fair in New York drew 51 million visitors to gaze in awe at its Technicolor visions of the future, sample exotic cuisines and join in singing along at the wildly popular “It’s a Small World” attraction.
Fifty years later, New York City on Sunday will celebrate the fair’s remarkable impact with the hope of recapturing some of its wonder and promise in an anniversary festival.
The site, at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where the monumental 140-foot steel Unisphere can still be readily seen from nearby LaGuardia Airport, the anniversary marking both the 1964 and 1939 fairs offers free exhibits, walking tours, memorabilia and performances.
“We want to attract both the world’s fair enthusiasts, the people who may have fond memories and want to relive it, and also just families and people who weren’t even born at the time,” said Janice Melnick, park administrator.
The fair that opened in 1964 was an exuberant cacophony of water skiers and porpoises from Florida, slick cars from Detroit, futuristic underwater houses, DuPont’s Wonderful World of Chemistry, moving pedestrian sidewalks and a monorail gliding overhead.
“What is to come, through the fair’s eyes at least, is wonderful,” science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote at the time. “The direction in which man is traveling is viewed with buoyant hope.”
Astronauts made appearances, the Beatles did a helicopter flyover and Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture was on loan from the Vatican.
“It was a real period of optimism, that life was good in the ’60s, but it was going to be great going forward,” said Bill Cotter, a world’s fair historian in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, life has not turned out to be quite as utopian as the fair.”
Yet it left indelible memories.
“It was just something so magical,” said Karen Vati, 56, of Massapequa Park, New York, who recalls attending the fair 16 times.
“I was just a little girl, and things that I remember then were probably more vivid than things that I remember last week,” she said.
Her favorite, as was the case with countless other children, was “It’s a Small World” with its singing costumed dolls, along with Sinclair Oil Corp.’s life-size dinosaurs, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress and the international fare — egg rolls and Belgian waffles.
Bits of the fair — statues, fragments of decorative mosaics and street signs — still remain at the 1,255-acre park in the city’s Queens borough. Observation towers and the Tent of Tomorrow from the New York State pavilion stand vacant and in disrepair.
The 1964 world’s fair marked the last of the greats, said Cotter. Ensuing fairs were disappointments, permanent sites such as Walt Disney World and EPCOT made them redundant and cheaper air fares allowed people to travel farther, he said.
But it lives on, anniversary organizers note. Many immigrants working at the international exhibits stayed to make New York City home, especially in Queens, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse places, and foods such as pizza and shish kebabs popularized at the fair have become commonplace.