Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began 4

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young. But what was going on when the first Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s? How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek? This is Part 4 of 4. Part 1: Fear Itself is here. Part 2: Must It Be Again? is here. Part 3: Palaces of Imagination is here. A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

The World of Tomorrow

In the 1930s, visions of the future were evoked by the science fiction pulps (and their memorable cover illustrations), by comic strips and through the mind’s eye from stories on the radio. Such visions could be seen in a few movie serials (mostly Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers) and in a very few movies that didn’t make it into every movie palace: Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and Metropolis from Germany, and especially H.G. Wells’Things to Come from England—which among other futures, accurately forecast what the Nazi bombing of London would look like in a few years.

 But the 1930s ended with the most famous example of a three-dimensional, scaled-up future that millions of people could walk around in. It would remain the most famous physically represented and sustained future until Star Trek in 1966. It was the 1939 World’s Fair in New York: The World of Tomorrow. 

 The vision of the 1939 World’s Fair influenced many science fiction writers over the years, though I don’t know if it had a direct impact on Gene Roddenberry (who was 18 when the Fair opened) or other Star Trek creators. Yet it was so famous in its time—even unavoidable—that those who were young then must have had it imprinted somewhere on their psyche.

 Spread over 1216 acres at the far edge of New York City, the 1939 World’s Fair was one of the largest ever attempted, with participation by more countries than any before it, and it was the most carefully planned to be more than an international trade show or patriotic pageant (though it was both of those.) It was, noted Harper’s, “revolutionary in its contrast to other Fairs.”

 “See the sun through the gray/It’s the dawn of a new day,” went lyrics to the World of Tomorrow song, as belted out by Ethel Merman.
In the anxious drabness of the 30s landscape, the Fair built a gleaming and hopeful future.

 President Franklin R. Roosevelt opened the Fair, promising those who came that “they will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” Though there were only 200 TV sets to receive it, the opening was the first public event in America to be broadcast on television.

 One of the tragic ironies of the Great Depression was that America had productive farms, massive factories, willing workers, skilled technicians, but they were idled by mysterious forces of finance. The Fair expressed pent-up creativity as well as hope, a practical ingenuity as well as positive spirit. Strip away the hokum and hucksterism and self-serving corporate forecasts, and the Fair envisioned modern solutions to current and age-old problems, in a cooperative if not united world.  A kind of vision that we've seen again.

 The technology was beautiful as well as amazing, and this future was nestled in the embrace of green nature. Exciting design characterized the Fair, with every expression of technology and scope streamlined towards the future.

The Fair was centered on the slender Pylon, soaring 50 feet taller than the Washington Monument, and the balancing Perisphere, a globe with space enough inside for two Radio City Music Halls, but which actually contained the Democrcity exhibit depicting America of 2039. These were the gleaming white trademarks of the Fair, and now its enduring symbols.

Chrome doors at the foot of the Trylon opened to the longest escalator in the world, made of clean stainless steel and nearly silent, that moved upwards into the gleaming white interior of the Perisphere. Author Stanley Applebaum wrote of the Trylon and Perisphere in particular, “a walk around them at ground level yielded innumerable views of subtle geometric elegance, reminiscent of William Cameron Menzies breathtaking sets in the 1936 science fiction film Things to Come.”
 But the key words are “a walk around them.”

 Inside the Perisphere, under the tall blue dome, visitors stood on balconies to look down to a dramatic model of a landscape a hundred years in the future, in 2039.  A city of elegant tall buildings stood near a flowing river. Rolling countryside radiated out from it, dotted with towns and parks where people lived in bright modern homes, connected to the city and to factories by white ribbons of superhighway. A recorded voice told the story of Democricity, and projected faces floated over the scene as the music swelled.

At the Fair itself, hundreds of buildings, thousands of exhibits fanned out from this dramatic center, in organized sections subtly marked with changing colors.

 After Democricity, the most popular show at the Fair was Futurama in the streamlined General Motors Building.

In its theatre, visitors sat in plush chairs, each with its own sound system. The chairs moved along a track flying over another vision of the future—this time depicting 1960. Superhighways linked the entire nation. Cars were faster, more affordable and more comfortable. Superhighway travel was safe—lanes were banked and separated, lit at night by radiant strips, while traffic was controlled automatically to (as the narrator said) “make automobile collisions impossible and to eliminate completely traffic congestion.”

They left this experience bearing a white button with dark blue lettering that said simply, “I Have Seen the Future.”

 There were many other impressive exhibits, including the first demonstration of television in the RCA building, and Elektro, a rudimentary robot that interacted with crowds in the Westinghouse display.

 The Aviation Building simulated a futuristic airport. (At the time a cross-country commercial flight could take 26 hours.) Among the technologies introduced at the fair were FM radio, florescent light and nylon. And in Chrysler’s building, visitors could take a simulated rocket ride through outer space, to Mars and back.

 Among the shows and amusements were some that seemed to enhance the excitement of this future: the nightly dances with the latest swing music, and especially the displays of fountains, lights and fireworks at the Lagoon of Nations.

There was always a star attraction—including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Hot Mikado, Albert Einstein, the King and Queen of England, and in his first personal appearance, Superman.

 It wasn’t all show. Design and exhibits were meant to demonstrate the rationality and practicality of innovations—and their benefits for all.

 “We were great believers in Science in the Thirties, the Depression time,” wrote Arthur Miller, in his foreword to works by Czech science fiction author Karel Capek. “Our problem seemed to be that scientific objectivity was not being applied to social problems, like that of scarcity in the midst of plenty.”

One exhibit admitted the extent of poverty in the present. It showed four economic categories—subsistence, maintenance, the good life and luxury. A third of the nation was indeed below subsistence (as President Roosevelt had famously said), and 90% of Americans were below the “good life” minimum income.

But the exhibit also asserted that to raise the income of the entire population to the good life minimum was no fantasy. “With modern technology and power production, it is not long physically impossible...we need now to discover a workable formula for its distribution to ‘Three-Thirds of a Nation.”

 Showing this future as exciting and dramatic was a key principle of the Fair. Applebaum noted that the Fair’s designers—“men like Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague,” came from “careers in theatrical design or other artistic backgrounds... without them and their decisive influence, the Fair might well have been a stodgy curio show.” It would be an insight made again with Star Trek.

It was this physical aspect that gave the fair its particular power. These were not just words or artist’s paintings. The fair was a vast area of real buildings of a kind never seen before, carefully and artfully arrayed around a lagoon and a lake, dramatically lit and accompanied by sounds emanating from the Perisphere that one fairgoer described as “space music.”

 So it was little wonder that the first World Science Fiction convention was held in New York the summer of 1939 in conjunction with the Fair, attended by Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (among others), who explored the grounds.  And it during this convention that editor Mort Weisinger came up with the character made famous by Edmond Hamilton’s novels: Captain Future.

 It seems that everyone who could afford to go, went to the Fair. Both major long-distance bus companies—Greyhound and Trailways—advertised transport to the Fair, as did railroads, airlines and ships. Transportation choices from other parts of New York included subway, train, bus and boat. And of course, automobile.

 Some 44 million attended, many of them returning four, 20, 100, even 200 times. A third of those attending in the Fair’s closing month of 1939 were making at least their fifth visit. According to a survey, 90% of Americans said they wanted to see it.

 “I have talked to people who went to the Fair only once but were struck by the experience and still vividly remember some of the details,” wrote David Gelernter in 1995. “I have met people who visited nearly forty times. I have encountered people who were inspired to make their careers by what they saw there.”

 “I think it stayed with every child who saw it,” wrote John Crowley, author and science fiction writer, who himself first visited as a ten year old. It certainly stayed with Carl Sagan, who said that being taken to the Fair at the age of four was a defining moment in his life. He marveled at science exhibits, Futurama and television. He loved the Fair’s time capsule, an inspiration for the record and items he later sent on with the Voyager spacecraft.

 But even children and others who didn’t get there could hardly escape knowing about it, and seeing its images—even in far off California, for instance.

The Fair was the star of newsreels at the movies: one called it “the greatest peacetime project ever undertaken,” another “the greatest exposition in history.”

The Fair was the cover story in Life Magazine the month before it opened, with a 16-page preview inside. It was on Life’s cover again the month after it opened, in May 1939. The Fair’s opening was covered on radio.

A Collier’s magazine cover had a cartoon version of New York Mayor LaGuardia cutting the ribbon opening the Fair, and a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration showed enthusiastic young people hanging out of two cars passing each other, with “World’s Fair or Bust” scrawled on both cars. (There was a smaller but similar World's Fair in San Francisco.)

More specialized periodicals, from Household Magazine to magazines for camera and railroad buffs featured stories on the Fair. Mechanix Illustrated had two cover stories, as did Popular Science magazine, including one illustrating the rocket to Mars ride.

 Radio-Craft revealed the internal workings of Electro, the robot that interacted with fairgoers in the Westinghouse building. Superman and Batman visited the Fair in Action Comics.

The Fair’s symbols—the Trylon and Perisphere—were seen on postage stamps and posters, roadmaps and brochures, tie clasps and rings, children’s games and women’s dresses, carpet sweepers and typewriters—and on the side of Howard Hughes’ airplane as he circled the globe. They were everywhere.

The future the Fair portrayed sparked imaginations partly because it was so different from the present. Outside in the real world of 1939, almost half of American families did not own a car. There was yet to be even a four lane highway with no crossings or traffic lights anywhere in America. The first would be a 160 mile stretch of what became the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It opened just as the fair was closing.

An animated cartoon of the time by Max Fleischer suggests the cultural implications of this future, depicting a rural couple that arrives at the Fair in a horse and buggy, and thanks to various automated processes, they leave as swinging cosmopolitans in a fast new car.

 With the economy at a standstill during the Depression, businesses provided little support for innovations. (Some New Deal programs, on the other hand, did show that intentionally shaping the future was possible.) But the Fair provided the opportunity for visionaries to show that the creativity and practical ability to create a new future were just waiting in the wings.

 So the Fair did not portray the future as an unrealizable dream. Its slogan was Building the World of Tomorrow. “The tools for building the world of tomorrow are already in our hands,” said the Fair’s science director. “Action is our slogan...If the world is awry we can change it.”

 And why not? The 1930s had already built parts of the future—from the TVA dams to the Golden Gate Bridge, from highways to airports and national parks. America had the know-how, the factories, the creative spirit.

 But in 1939 that energy and skill was already turning in a different direction.

The New York World’s Fair closed in 1940, as German bombers and British fighters battled in the English skies. The Trylon and Perisphere and most of the other buildings were torn down. Their steel was used to make weapons.

 Some Europeans working at the Fair, fearing a return to war-torn countries, tried to stay in America. The cooking staff of the French pavilion went into the restaurant business in Manhattan. But many of the cooks at the Italian pavilion were sent to an internment camp as enemy aliens.

At Star Trek conventions and elsewhere, Gene Roddenberry would later speak with pride and wonder of human accomplishments, of what humanity had built, despite its sad and violent history. While ignoring the meaning of an apocalyptic present might make some utopian dreams seem deluded and insipid, the fact remains that it is often in such deadening times that utopian visions arise most clearly and strongly. A horrific present seems to clarify what people want in a different time to come.

 Envisioning a better future and ways to attain it become more tangible, more emotionally powerful and more urgent. The 1939 World’s Fair gave physical form to the hopes that had endured, grown and flowered in those dark, tumultuous days. At least for awhile, the future was almost real.

And the New York World’s Fair of 1939 lived on in the dreams of those who walked its avenues, or even those who gazed at the brilliant, mysterious color renderings that remain magical today.

Meanwhile in 1940, Gene Roddenberry was attending college classes, dating his future wife, and learning to fly. He’d been recruited for an aircraft pilot training program instituted by a U.S. Army Air Force general. Aviation was still so new that the general (Henry “Hap” Arnold) had himself been trained in flying by the Wright Brothers.

 Even though the United States was not yet in the war, Gene knew what he was training for. Still, for the rest of his life he remembered the exhilaration and feeling of complete freedom of his first solo flight.

 Many others who helped create Star Trek would also soon go off to war. The dream of a gleaming white future would stay with some, though it seemed to fade in the fog of war, the smoke over European cities and the mushroom cloud. But it didn’t die.

1 comment:

Michael P. Sakowski said...

Thanks for your enlightened, well-written commentary about the greatest of world fairs.

Some very nice insights, and facts that I had not known. You are a good writer.