Thursday, July 12, 2012

Scenes From The World of Tomorrow

"But from the large glass skylight of this larger room, everybody saw the weird arc of flaming lightning that came from the very heavens above, from the top-most point of the skyscraper high Trylon that adjoined the great ball...There was a single scream of horror from the doctor...Then there was only the stench of flesh and the ozone smell... Alexis Mandroff had died the death of white-hot fire."--  Kenneth Robeson, The World's Fair Goblin, 1939

The first time I really thought about the 1939 World's Fair in New York probably came courtesy of a Bantam Book's reprint of a Doc Savage pulp novel.  I felt a certain delight to learn this particular Man of Bronze adventure featured Doc's cousin, Pat.  She was quite the firecracker who took a perverse pleasure in hinting straight-laced Doc might decide to permanently quit hanging around with his five erudite male associates if he spent a few days in a remote cabin in the woods with her...

Pat owned and operated a toney uptown spa and salon in the Big Apple when she wasn't helping Doc and The Boys deal with werewolves, sea serpents and a plethora of maniacal sociopaths bent on world domination.  In the case of the World's Fair Goblin, the insane genius was one Dr Alexis Mandroff who'd figured out a way to turn folks into hairy eight-foot goblins.  He was well on his way to creating an army of said man-apes when Doc, Pat, and The (chronically inept with women) Boys foiled his nefarious and clever evil master-plan...

Bantam Books reprint of the 1939
Doc Savage pulp novel about the evil
Alexis Mandroff's plot to create an

Kenneth Robeson (a house pseudonym for writers of the Doc Savage adventures for Street and Smith Publications) set his story at an international exhibition touting itself as a gateway to the World of Tomorrow...
1939 World's Fair at Night

In retrospect, Robeson's tale of technology gone awry in lunatic hands may have been put in the perfect setting.  The beginning of Common Era year 1939 found Americans nearly a decade into the financial nightmare triggered by the Great Depression.  Across the Atlantic, a genocidal dictator had set himself on a collision course with World War II.  In Japan, Inspector-General of Aviation Tojo Hideki was positioning himself to become Prime Minister-- a post he held on December 7, 1941.  Industrialists in Germany, Italy, and Japan were in love with fascism and offered it the best in battlefield technology...
Latin American dancers added to the multicultural
celebration of the World of Tomorrow

A group of retired New York City cops had the notion in 1935 that what America needed was something that both took the public's mind off the Great Depression and celebrated American know-how.  They formed a committee that attracted the attention of prominent businessmen like Winthrop Aldrich and reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican who enthusiastically supported the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Aviator Howard Hughes would fly around the world in 1938 to promote the World's Fair born from that first meeting of retired policemen... 
Trylon and Perisphere at night with statue of George
Washington.  The 1939 World's Fair opening was timed
to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first
President's inauguration

Scientists Albert Einstein and Harold Urey came on board to support the project under the assumption it would celebrate science.  The Fair did celebrate science but in its applied form-- i.e., golly-gee-whiz- Buck-Rogers-Ain't-Got-Nothing-On-That-state-of-the-art gadgetry (such as RCA's transparent Lucite-enclosed television set) that wowed consumers...

RCA's "transparent television" captivated Fair visitors
with its promise of a world where moving images of
actual events could and would be transmitted almost
instantaneously over a distance of hundreds of miles
[ ELEKTRO the ROBOT amazes the audience:

Organizers had faith in the days to come.  An official pamphlet for the 1939 World's Fair spread the Gospel of Optimism:  "The eyes of the Fair are on the future-- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made"...
The 1939 World's Fair celebrated the future that would come to
us through American Business and Industry

Equally important to the retired police officers and their banker/industrialist friends was a profound and abiding faith in basic principles of democracy and human rights.  Opening day of the New York's World's Fair was carefully timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as first President of the United States.  Great Britain contributed a rare and carefully preserved copy of the Magna Carta used by medieval barons to force a tyrannical king to acknowledge the rule of law... 

The Magna Carta had been used by medieval barons in 1215 to force tyrannical king John to acknowledge certain basic rights.  No free man, the nobles compelled their Monarch By The Grace Of God to say, could be punished except in accordance with the law of the land.  "The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, and of the Liberties of the Forest" stayed in the United States well past the end of the Fair-- locked away in protective custody for the duration of World War II.  Alongside it in a vault at Fort Knox lay the Declaration of Independence, the most sacred of our national documents...   
The Four Freedoms, revered and
celebrated by Fair organizers, as
sculpted by Leo Friedlander

Four statues graced the entrance of the World of Tomorrow and forced all visitors seeking a glimpse of mankind's future to accept their massive presence.  They represented Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Assembly...

Two modernistic structures--  the 610' spire-shaped Trylon and the 180' in diameter globelike Perisphere--  symbolized a Utopian future city.  They were connected by the world's longest escalator.  The Four Freedoms guarded the way to these Art Deco masterpieces.  The Trylon and Perisphere would be razed to the ground after the Fair closed, their metal hauled away to smelters to be used in the free world's desperate effort to prevent the Nazi vision of the world of tomorrow from becoming reality...

The World of Tomorrow-- a Free Press, Gratitude for
America's Founding Fathers, and Cities built
upon Utopian Dreams come true

Artists, some say, have a clearer vision of the future than businessmen.  This may or not be true but it's a theory that seems to hold water when applied to the 1939 World's Fair.  Surrealist Salvador Dali created an exhibit for the first of two World's Fairs held at the same site in Flushing.  He called it "The Dream of Venus."
Entrance to Salvadore Dali's "Dream of Venus"

Dali with head: the surrealist artist in a publicity
photo showing him at work in creating the Dream
of Venus

Salvadore Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Dali had become known to the general public in America four years or so before the World's Fair.  A 1934 New York showing of his work included 1931's The Persistence of Memory, which depicted melting watches along a barren seashore ending at the base of an equally barren cliff.  When many of us think of surrealism, the picture that comes to mind is often this enigmatic painting with its hint time is more fluid than we think... 

Taxi Rider-- one of Dali's disturbing visions of the world of tomorrow
Dali described his artistic style as "paranoiac critical"--
the juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated objects in
disturbing images meant to force the viewer to expand his
perception of the world by finding associations between
the objects

Ticket-buyers to "The Dream of Venus" stepped into a world of dark, dreamlike scenes meant to force the mind into making associations between apparently unrelated images, a technique Dali referred to as "paranoiac critical".  In one of the works, a woman's nude body becomes a keyboard for a piano...
Souvenir Postcard from the World of Tomorrow

Dark and disassociated from the normal world of reality would be a fair description of the hell on earth unleashed by the fascists who had a very different vision of the future than the one retired American cops believed in...
Artwork viewed by Fair visitors included Frank Paul's

[For lovers of futuristic literature, we note the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in conjunction with the 1939 World's Fair from July 2 to July 4.  Attendees included John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury.
The Post Office helped celebrate the
World of Tomorrow through a special
commemorative issue.  This image is the
author's reworking of that stamp.

Campbell, incidentally, had pretty much reached his peak as a science fiction writer at the time of the convention.  He remained an extremely influential figure in the genre for decades as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) until his death in 1971.  Movie buffs may know 1951's The Thing from Another World is based on Campbell's "Who Goes There?"  In the story, scientific researchers in Antarctica stumble a spaceship, deep-frozen in the ice for untold millennia.  They foolishly unthaw its pilot, learning too late that the alien is a shape-shifter with a taste for people, preferably uncooked.

Isaac Asimov, a likeable but rather immodest expert on every subject known to man and major science fact and science fiction writer in his own right, eventually parted company with Campbell.  He was deeply pained by the editor's increasing fascination with Dianetics and any number of pseudo-scientific devices whose inventors claimed would invalidate the basic laws of physics.  More painful to Asimov was John W Campbell's strident defense of the pre-Civil War South and argument that slavery might be the most "natural" state for blacks.  Eventually, other major talents of the genre stopped sending stories to Astounding as Campbell's editorials turned into little more than anti-socialist rants and arguments that cigarette smoking could not be linked to cancer but could be shown to increase one's ability to think clearly and rationally.]

Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm take a break
between performances at the Aquacade attraction

Perhaps easier for the average visitor to understand was Billy Rose's Aquacade where Olympians Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm dove into pools and swam gracefully through the water.  (They would later be replaced by Buster "Flash Gordon" Crabbe and a newcomer named Esther Williams.)  Even gossip-lovers got something out of the princely eighty cents they paid to see the Aquacade.  Rose was married to the famous comedienne Fannie Brice.  Or should we say he was married to Fannie until he met lovely and liquor-loving Eleanor... 

1939 World's Fair Promotional Poster

For more about the 1939 World's Fair:


A commission examining the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan concludes, painfully, that basic cultural dynamics in Japanese culture contributed significantly to the nation's nightmare.


Artwork by Louis R Nugent now available:  For fine art prints and greeting cards, visit:

Featured this week:

Fine Art America now features West Texas painting, drawings, and photographs by Karen Slagle of Amarillo, Texas,  Linda Cox of Graham, Texas, Suzanne Girard Theis of Houston, Texas, Judi Bagwell of Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, Karen Boudreaux of Houston, Texas, Joe JAKE Pratt of Kerrville, Texas, David Pike of Lubbock, Texas, Ken Brown Pioneer of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, and Louis R Nugent of San Angelo, Texas at:

This week's featured artist: Joe JAKE Pratt


Note: All photographs and other images for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: 1939 New York World's Fair at Night and National Cash Register Exhibit from; Dream of Venus, Taxi Rider by Salvador Dali and Dali With Head from, Trylon and Perisphere Behind Statues, Trylon and Perisphere At Night and Four Freedoms Sculptures by Leo Friedlander from 1939nyworld'; RCA Phantom TRK-12 Television from; Latin Dancers from; World's Fair Postcard from; Micromegas by Frank Paul from; 1939 New York World's Fair Poster from; World's Fair Goblin with cover art by James Bama from Bantam Books; 1939 World's Fair Stamp by Louis Nugent and available through

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