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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.

In mid-May a Gallop poll confirmed what the serpentine lines already showed – Futurama was a HUGE hit. People stood in line up to three hours to view Futurama. At times the lines blended in with those waiting to get into Futurama's next door neighbor – The Ford Exposition. Eventually the Fair police were forced to reroute the end of the lines so traffic could move more easily across the Bridge of Wheels connecting the Transportation Zone to the main fairgrounds.

Most visitors rushed to the General Motors pavilion immediately on their arrival on the fairgrounds, believing the earlier the better to beat the long lines. The exhibit opened at 10:00 A.M. and by an hour later the wait time had increased to between two and three hours. In fact, from 8:00 to 9:00 P.M. the lines were extremely short and the wait time almost non-existent.

As word circulated that the lines were excruciating, GM's chairman of the board received 26,810 requests for special passes. All were refused. Even John J. Raskob, a board director and principal stockholder, stood for half an hour waiting to see his exhibit.

Stories abounded over line etiquette. One middle-aged woman, having eaten her lunch while waiting, asked a General Motors employee to throw her trash in a nearby receptacle so as not to lose her place in line. He complied, only to be met with dozens of similar requests.

Another more resourceful sort paid another man $5.00 ($84.00 in 2017) to hold his spot until he reached the front.

The Ramps and the Line to Get In

Once inside, and all entrances merge there, visitors were confronted with another series of ramps, however this time carpeted, that zigzagged down to the moving chairs. The room itself was dimly lit blue that gradually segued into purple and then "redding dusk." On the far wall a map of the United States constantly changed colors. A low, unseen voice described the effect of highways on the growth of the country.

By the time the visitors reached the bottom of the ramps, they stepped onto a slowly moving platform and then into a blue velour chair with rubber on the foot base to quiet any shuffling of feet. The six-foot, six-inch chairs suggested a private traveling opera box. A reassuring voice intoned: "The world of tomorrow seen from the world of today" and visitors revolved into the black. The voice narration was specifically hushed in the first few minutes of the ride, encouraging visitors to relax into their seats.

Early on Bel Geddes determined the best way to view the exhibit was for the visitors to be transported through Futurama with an on-going narration describing the what was being seen. (This was unlike the Persiphere show with its continuous narration and confusing visitors that often confused visitors when they arrived at varying times of the show.) However, this decision did limit the number of people who could view Futurama on any given day – 28,000.

Westinghouse developed the "Carry-Go-Round" chairs for Futurama. The cost to run the chair system was an amazingly low twenty-one cents an hour. There were 322 chair-cars moving along the 1,586 endless track circumnavigating Futurama.

In order to produce a continuous narration to match what was being viewed, engineers broke the soundtrack into twenty - two segments of thirty- nine seconds each and then recorded them onto the audio track of motion picture film. The individual segments were then looped so that the narration seemed to be continuous.

The first scene was a long valley with gently rolling hills, inspired by the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills. Other areas visited on the trip across the 1960 landscape included stylized versions of, Council Bluffs IO, New Bedford CN, Concord NH, Rutland VT, Keene NH Oneida NY, Colorado Springs CL, Omaha NB, the Yellowstone Range in California and Yosemite Valley.

The ride concluded with a stylized St. Louis, MO, the one without skyscraper shadows. The chair turned and the voice said "Welcome to the future." The riders stepped onto a slowly moving 32-foot moving ring that tilted slightly downward and into the exterior "Street of Tomorrow" – a living representation of Futurama's final scene. However, the street of 1960 was packed with GM models from 1939. However, interested motorists could purchase these models at the Fair's conclusion in October.