On April 30, nothing seemed impossible for "The World of Tomorrow." But by early June, the fair corporation managers felt jittery. What was going wrong with all of their lofty ambitions?.
So, what happened?
When the corporation initially promoted the idea of a New York fair in 1939, estimates ranged between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 fairgoers and "an even larger attendance is not an impossibility." These extremely optimistic projections guaranteed a not-less-than profit of $8,269,555 for the year. But, even by early June, it became apparent that something was drastically amiss.
The expected million visitors on opening day totally missed the mark by over 300,000. And the average weekly attendance ran just a little over one million. At this pace, the twenty-seven-week season would only net between 27,000,000 and 29,000,000 visitors passing through the turnstiles. What was wrong?
The prognosticators failed to take into account some very basic statistics. A large brokerage house inquired of its 20,000 investors whether they intended a visit the fair. Only ten percent indicated they resolved to do so with an additional three percent on the cusp. If the nation's "money people" seemed reluctant to visit "The World of Tomorrow," who would?
The fair continually received very mixed messages. A late spring Gallup Poll issued a truly worrisome statistic: when asked if any members of their family expected to attend the fair, only 21.9% said yes, down from 25.6% the previous November. But an American Express Travel Service's survey of its families with an income over $5,000 found 83% intended a visit.
However, the information gathered through American Express failed to take into account two very important factors: 90% of the households in the United States had an income of less than $2,500 and 33% made only $800 a year.
Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen stated the obvious for her readers: "I invaded Trylon-town to squint at the situation and discover no matter how many visitors are clocked up on the giant cash register (atop the NCR pavilion), the big area of the Fair never looks crowded." And Geradldyn Dismond added: "When you arrive at the largest Fair in the history of mankind and find only a hand full of people, your spirits are dashed."
What and who was to blame for what many now called The Deficit of Tomorrow?
Damon Runyan chimed in: "The second guessers are the fellows who wait until someone of more daring and initiative has made a play, so to speak, and if the play does not pan out as expected, the second guessers tell you what was wrong. There are more second guessers in New York City than in any other similar area in the world."
"Before the Fair came along, it was the weather that was hurting business, or maybe Roosevelt." The New York Age felt "The fair began with too much 'Whalen.'" Many observers made a great deal over the fair's early, over-optimistic predictions of fair attendance. Most felt the advance publicity literally scared people away.
Others complained about the atmosphere, the lack of "circus, country fair and Coney Island." Columnists suggested substituting popular personalities such as Dizzy Dean, Jimmy Durante, the Marx Brothers, Walt Disney, and Fannie Brice for the top-hat-wearing dignitaries that filled the daily news columns.
Almost everyone agreed the fair corporation simply over – priced itself for the common consumer. Even before the fair opened, The Boston Globe complained: "Naturally, we would want to attend the New York Fair's opening if we had, say, $500."
Charles Driscoll, who gleefully noted his "New York Day By Day" column did not run in The Big Apple, warned readers: "I am able to offer a suggestion to readers who have been planning to come to the New York World's Fair. Postpone your visit until June 1 or later. I have been out to the World's Fair many times. The fair is unfinished. Prices at the fair are high. I think it is a gyp to take their money and not give them the performance."
And the reputation for being expensive lingered throughout the first season. The Brooklyn Citizen warned: "If the Whalen enterprise is to succeed, it must have the support of Mr. and Mrs. Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan." The seventy-five cent admission price was simply out of reach for many.
But the fair staggered on. In early July, the always-optimistic Grover Whalen sent a report to members of the National Advisory Board reporting the Fair early-month success. The fair's president noted visitors' enthusiastic responses to the free nightly spectacle in the Lagoon of Nations and the "gay flowers contrasting with the multi-toned greens of trees and shrubs."
Out-of-towners seemed missing. "The yokels from the hinterland are not flocking to the exposition in the droves that were anticipated. Perhaps it is New York that repels the populace, but New York will never admit it."