Norman Bel Geddes
One had to wonder when General Motors selected Norman Bel Geddes to create their exhibit for "The World of Tomorrow." He had been tossed out of high school for drawing caricatures of his superintendent on the blackboard. And ... he was now regarded as a premier industrial and stage set designer, Bel Geddes might not have been everyone's first choice. Thankfully the exposition gods on high blessed this unusual choice.
As the Sunday News noted: "There's a kind of genius that inspires vision. Perhaps it was Alfred P. Sloane of General Motors. Perhaps it was some lesser member of the GM Board of Directors who stood up and battled for what must have seemed at the time to be a highly fantastic, not to say slightly cockeye, plan to build so vast an exhibit."
The Thirties had shown Bel Geddes talent to the fullest. In 1932 he published his landmark book, Horizons, popularizing the new streamline look. Three years later, Bel Geddes won unparalleled acclaim for his realistic waterfront set for the Broadway hit drama "Dead End." But with Futurama proved he was "a master showman as well as a peerless dreamer of dreams."
Bel Geddes had an extensive background in the future of the automobile in American life. When his engineering staff had no work to accomplish due to the Depression, Bel Geddes left them on his payroll, at a person cost of $100,000, to research traffic problems of the future.
The staff's research determined automobiles would travel at steady speeds of forty to fifty mph, "if improvements in highway design and construction keep pace with similar advances." If followed through properly, fewer highway deaths would occur. His work impressed FDR enough to invite him to the White House conference on traffic problems of the future.
However, Bel Geddes believed through his research that the problems emanating from the increased use of automobiles in the future could not be addressed by private enterprise but by a public works administration. That conclusion drove the design of Futurama.
Bel Geddes conceived Futurama as a ride through the United States as it would appear in 1960. Every day he drew up plans for the layout and at 6:00 that evening the model makers built his concepts to scale model. The following morning at 10:00 Bel Geddes saw his visualizations in three-dimension. One of his most difficult concepts to carry through was when Bel Geddes designed the final cityscape spacing the skyscrapers so their shadows did not fall on one another and parks occupied one-third of the city's land area.
Work on Futurama began at the old Cosmopolitan Motion Picture Studio at 126th Street and Second Avenue. The design engineers divided the huge diorama into 408 sections, each 20' by 5', the largest size that could fit in a truck to transport it to the exhibition building. Workers had a four-foot pathway between the panels.
Having determined the basic design of the ride through multiple size cities and towns, across rivers and mountains, all by two to four land highways, a plethora of details confronted the designer. What "nuisance architecture" (put in the display for human interest and not essential to the central theme) was necessary. How should the vegetation vary from region to region. For awhile Bel Geddes experimented with different scents, such as pine trees or water, that would accompany the diorama but discarded the idea as they tended to blend together too quickly.
After 408 trips between upper Manhattan to Flushing Meadows, Futurama's 1,000,000 trees, 500,000 buildings and 50,000 miniature cars speeding along the new national highway system was ready for its debut.
The Ramps and the Line to Get In
Bel Geddes had an instinctive sense he had a hit on his hand, but, faced the problem of how to get the fairgoers into Futurama. His solution changed the crowd control forever. He developed a system of snake-like ramps leading to three different entrances: one on ground level and two ramps above it, one higher than the other.
This one quirky innovation caused a major argument between Bel Geddes and his most ardent supporter, William Knudson, the president of GM. The ramps' designer argued they would be good showmanship; Knudson saw them only as an unnecessary expense. After the first week, Knudson admitted: "You were right about those ramps."
Surprisingly, most people chose to climb the upper ramps believing they would be quicker. They weren't. However, as the summer heat and rain beat down on their potential patrons, the pavilion's management erected canopies over the ramps.