By 1939, the American public needed a respite. Although the GNP and unemployment figures improved slightly, every region of the nation still reeled from the ten-year Great Depression. Throughout the spring, Adolf Hitler's increasingly belligerent protestations, abetted by Mussolini's pompous posturing, and Japan's aggression against China threatened to embroil Europe and Asia in yet another worldwide conflict. With a sense of relief, the country seized on the New York World's Fair's April 30th opening as a much - needed antidote to its world- weariness.
Opening Day Jitters
For over a year, the Fair's publicity department churned out a plethora of promotional articles, stimulating public interest. Stories highlighting the transformation of the Corona waste dump into a magical World of Tomorrow enchanted prospective visitors. Accounts of a walking, talking robot, a sky-ride over the United States in 1960, and an indoor lightening show intrigued others. And, by the opening day, the department's most effective campaign transformed the fair's iconic Trylon and Perisphere into corporate symbols as recognizable as the Ford or Coca Cola logos.
On April 6, the Fair's administration wisely closed its Flushing Meadows gates to sightseeing visitors, nominally to allow final construction without interference, but also arousing increased curiosity. The cryptic syndicated columnist, "j. p. h.," informed readers New York business interests existed in a state of suspended animation, awaiting the anticipated fair crowds. Reassuringly, Earle B. Steele reported thousands of visitors flowed into the city days before the gates' opening, but warned that the $137,000,000 exposition required a minimum three day walking-around visit.
Yet a controversy and a concern persisted. Acknowledging the Fair's nominal celebration of the 150th anniversary of George Washington's first inauguration, the Fair administration decided to open on April 30. However, The Harrisburg Patriot's editors decried the Sunday opening: "There are six other days in the week, any one of them more appropriate than that to which by Biblical mandate and the strong traditions of this nation is set aside for a different purpose." Even President Roosevelt came under fire for his participation on the Christian Sabbath, but the Fair held firm.
Likewise, due to the early spring opening, weather concerns plagued the fair. An underwriters' insurance syndicate determined it could not guarantee more than $50,000 in foul weather insurance. As fair officials expected receipts totaling more than $500,000 for the day, they determined the $50,000 policy would only yield $116.25 for every .1 of an inch of rainfall per $1,000. The Fair's administrators refused the offer, banking on Henry H. Tippenhauer's prediction. The weather forecaster for the transatlantic liners predicted a rainy day and night on the 29th, but an all clear for the 30th. Unfortunately, "Whalen weather," which always held up for the fair president's previous outdoor ceremonies, failed – dark clouds gathered throughout the 30th and a light rain drenched those surrounding James Earle Fraser's statue of Washington to hear the first president's inaugural address.
Who's in First
As April 30th drew close, the NYWF publicity department presaged the opening day attendance to be one million individuals. The New York media intensified the anticipation of this hefty figure by covering a variety of individuals determined to be the first to officially enter the fairgrounds. One of the most colorful hopefuls was Goliath Messiah. The seventy-three-year old self-proclaimed aesthetic soul pitched a tent beside Gate 1 as early as April 26, waiting to purchase his ticket. Messiah settled in with two quarts of wine, a dozen doughnuts, two cans of Brazil nuts and pecans. With a distinctive long black beard, Messiah perched on a folding camp chair, reading Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat.
Hearing of Goliath Messiah's anticipated claim to fame, Omero Cesere Catan, a twenty-five year old New York "celebrity" know as Mr. First, challenged the older man to the NYWF's Mr. First crown. Catan rightfully noted, "There are eleven entrances to open simultaneously and I ... will be one of the first inside." Likewise accepting the challenge of being first-in-at-the Fair, twenty-year-old George Horn, the first westbound passenger through the Lincoln Tunnel, set up camp at the Corona Gate, North on Friday evening at 7:00 p. m.
As the opening day crowds surged through the gates, One-Eye Connelly's admittance drew special attention. Known for his ability to attend major events without paying admission, Connelly arrived at the Corona Gate at 12:20 and strolled through without paying the requisite seventy- five cents. Before visiting the Strange As It Seems exhibit in the Amusement Zone, One-Eye reassured fair officials he did not intend crashing the other ten gates, asserting his first day maneuver sufficiently demonstrated his skill and technique.
Send in the Crowds
However, the crowd never swelled to anything near the predicted one million visitors. The official figures announced to the media reported a total attendance of 605,504 for the day. Whalen put on a brave face, declaring: "The tremendous assemblage of people, the very great enthusiasm of the public, and the reactions in general indicate that the New York Fair has passed its crucial test with flying colors ..." The magic number of one million visitors was never realized until sometime the following Thursday. The Herald Tribune postulated the Fair had out-publicized itself, frightening people away from the grounds with the million individual figure. But those who did attend, raved over their experience.
The Terrence Martins, father, mother and three children, rode a bus from The Bronx, and spent a total of $7.00 for the day. General Motors' Futurama particularly enthralled the senior Martins while the Trylon and Perisphere impressed the boys, with seven year-old Charles misidentifying it as a snowball. As any true city dweller would, four year-old Dorothy enjoyed the cows populating the Borden exhibit.
A thirteen year-old from Brooklyn, George Lissauer, purchased a long-term, $5.00 admittance ticket after selling his bicycle. Up at 8:00 a.m. and then procuring a free ride on the subway, through a minor deception, George arrived at the fairgrounds and exclaimed, "So this is the World of Tomorrow." Meeting up with his friend Kenneth Fitch, who supplied a lunch of sandwiches and cookies from home, the two easily spent George's $1.25 by 1:00 on the rides in the Amusement Zone. However George issued one complaint: "Can you imagine, not having a shoot-the-shoots?"
Even though the anticipated million failed to show up, Dan Anderson of the New York Sun thoroughly enjoyed those who did. "What made the opening ... an event was the crowd – the people for whom the Fair was made and who will make the Fair." Anderson enthused over their wearing special, "best clothes," their holiday spirit and general politeness and friendliness. And he especially appreciated "people breaking into a unanimous 'ah' of delighted astonishment" at each new attraction.
Columnist H. J. Phillips waxed poetic over the opening day crowds:
"I attend the World's Fair opening;
The crowds were rough and raw;
I guess I'll have to go again
To see just what I saw."
So ... if not to the Fair, where did people go? Apparently to the beach! The Newark Evening News noted "World's fairs may come and go, but Coney Island goes on forever." The Long Island and Brooklyn attractions totaled: Rockaways: 75,000 – 100,000; Jones Beach 12,000; Riis Park 1,000, and Coney Island 250,000. And ... 23,712 watched as the New York Yankees suffered a second defeat at the hands of the Washington Senators. But, to everyone's great surprise, they witnessed the end of Lou Gehrig's record- breaking 2,130 game streak. No one that day, or in the weeks to come, realized that the Yankee's great slugger had succumbed to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig disease.
One for the Money ...
Americans have always enjoyed a statistical look, and a great background story, for any event, and the opening of the New York World's Fair was certainly no exception. The May 1st papers reported on the Fair's first day, parents reported seventeen missing children, 225 were treated at the first aid stations, one worthless coin (a fifty-cent piece) was passed at the gates, the police sought two runaways, and one patron died.
Six year-old Alan Jarlasson (also identified as Carl Jarlson) became separated from his mother, Mrs. Astrid Jarlasson, while (variously reported) watching the soldiers and sailors parade on the Avenue of Pioneers around 12:30 or wandering away at the Glass Center. Policewoman Isabelle Kenny found Alan either playing marbles with officials at the Glass Center or meandering near the Trylon, but promptly took him to the nursery where he met up with Samuel Lipman, whose mother left him on the subway platform while she powdered her nose. Carl's mother picked him up at the children's station three frantic hours later. When photographers requested he pose for a picture, Carl responded with a throaty raspberry.
The first injury occurred when a visitor, rushing onto grounds without looking, tumbling over a wooden horse. He refused medical aid. Meanwhile, the Fair's police force combed the grounds for two runaways from Oxford, Massachusetts. Martha Woods, 16, and Norma Harrison, 13, told a friend, before leaving home, they were headed for the fair. More tragically, Nancy Winselman, who felt ill at the fair, died of an apparent heart attack while being driven from the fairgrounds.
And ... the Fair employees rejoiced at the news of the birth of a young son to Mrs. Jean Davidoff at 12:04 a.m. of the opening day. On February 21, Mrs. Davidoff's husband, Sam, fell from the scaffolding while painting the Home Building. From her bed in the Williamsburg Maternity hospital, the new mother said: "He will help fill the void left by Sam. He looks just like Same and I'm going to give him the same name."
And the Reviews Are In
The print media could not restrain the hyperbole over the opening. The New York Daily Mirror datelined: "Perisphere, U.S.A – At 11:00 this morning this 1216½ acre miracle, which was nothing at all on June 28, 1936, becomes the center of the world's interest. Dave Boone, the New York Sun's columnist enthused: "It was a Yale – Harvard football game, a world series, a circus, a super-carnival and the show of shows all rolled into one." But the out-of-town press often held a dissimilar view. Editors for The Boston Globe decried: "Among the many things that New York does well is showmanship. As their World's Fair opens you would be struck to think of many top-flight features which have been overlooked." However the often critical Chicago Tribune capsulated the opening: "To the accompaniment of hullabaloo and ballyhoo seldom surpassed in this hemisphere, the New York World's Fair, 1939, opened its gates today."