BOOK REVIEW: “Tomorrow-Land” by Joseph Tirella

Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America
Joseph Tirella
Lyons Press, 2014

Ah, the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The last gasp of 50’s optimism, where good ol’ American Know-How and “can do” spirit would solve all the problems of the world and make the future wonderful. A showcase for America’s industrial might and corporate prowess, as well as a sort of “coming out” party for the new nations of the world that had just achieved independence.

Tirella doesn’t look at the Fair itself. This is not a guidebook. Rather, he uses the Fair as a focal point for all the changes taking place in American culture and society. For the Fair seemed to somehow draw them all into its orbit.

Tirella brings everything together in a wide-ranging but somehow coherent narrative. On the civil rights front, not only does he describe the killings and marches in the Deep South, but also the planned protests and demonstrations at and around the Fair.

In popular music, he covers the careers of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, who both played at the Fair – Shea Stadium for the former, and the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium for the latter.

It’s a matter of nitpicking to say whether or not those two facilities were part of the Fair. While Forest Hills was about a mile away from the Fairgrounds, Shea Stadium was almost literally across the street. Shea, which opened just four days before the Fair, was included as one of the reasons for hosting the Fair at that site in Queens and was shown on the official maps of the Fair.

While The Beatles were surrounded by a sellout mob of over 55,000 fans screaming so loudly that they couldn’t hear themselves play, Dylan was practically booed off the stage by fans angry at his experimental fusion of folk and rock, and that he had “sold out” by using – gasp! – an electric guitar! After that, Dylan pretty much decided to go “where the music took him”. The Beatles would follow a similar path, continuing to expand and innovate.

A few other indications that the times they were a-changing get Tirella’s attention. Andy Warhol was one of the new artists commissioned to create a mural for the New York State pavillion. “Thirteen Most Wanted” was deemed too edgy and was painted over (presumably on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller). Writer Ken Kesey saw the Fairgrounds being constructed, he realized something special was in the works. So he and his friends refurbished an old school bus, and these “Merry Pranksters” set out on a cross-country “trip” to the Fair.

While each of these threads can easily be the subject of their own books (and they already have, of course), by bringing them all together and showing their concurrency, Tirella is able to show just how radically America was changing in those few years. The Fair, coming so soon after the assassination of President Kennedy and just before the Vietnam War really blew up, really was a watershed in American history.

It’s funny, but it probably was one in the history of World’s Fairs, too. While I can name several of these great “world expos” prior to this one, I can readily recall only one that happened after it (Expo 67, in Montreal – and I only remember it because it marked the debut of the Montreal Expos baseball team). I understand that World’s Fairs are still happening, but they have become pretty much irrelevant.

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