OFF TO THE WORLD'S FAIR - IN A RIVETING NONFICTION BOOK THAT READS LIKE A THRILLER @ 17 February 2011 06:44 PM
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Even though this historic nonfiction story took place in the 1930's, in many ways it could be now or tomorrow. Part of the fascination, I think, is in making the comparisons. A promising future? Neat attractions with corporate sponsors? Backstabbing bureaucrats who take credit for others' ideas? A public who largely didn't want high-minded stimulation as opposed to mainstream entertainment. A cynical critical mass that scoffed at lofty dreams of a better world? Sound familiar?



It's all in this book, written with great detail from historical sources, but in a narrative/dialogue form with occasional ironic side comments. It's a credit to Joe Mauro that a heavily researched book like this is so surprisingly breezy and readable. But by "breezy," I don't mean all happy peppiness. There are moments of terrible violence and sorrow upon which the story pivots.

The central character, so to speak, is Grover Whalen, a self-created New York media figure who made himself famous for being famous (how 21st century is that?). Whalen is the "Walt Disney" behind this early Disneyland/Walt Disney World/Epcot, from its flashy beginnings to its money-losing end. I can't help but draw parallels to the Disney parks, especially Epcot, because its the high-tech, futuristic leanings -- as well as the multinational presentations -- of World's Fairs that bear so much resemblance to Epcot, which by the way was briefly marketed in the '90s as the "World's Fair of the Future." It's to Epcot's credit, though, that it is still one of the world's most popular destinations where some of the biggest World's Fairs (New York '39 and '64) had gone into the red.

The book does not detail each pavilion because that is not its purpose, which is to tell a story that straddles Whalen's career and the stories of others who orbited the '30 Fair, including Fiorello LaGuardia, Robert Moses, Albert Einstein and two "regular guy" police detectives who are among the many assigned to follow up on the many bomb threats.

All of this in the context of one of the most volatile turning point in history -- the start of World War II, the rise of fascism in Hitler's reign, the creation of atomic weaponry and the great irony of such a fair in the midst of economic depression and social chaos.

The one fair attraction that Mauro does detail, over all others, is the most popular one at the time, GM's Futurama. A symbol of the hope, irony, and subsequent trial and change, Futurama was a ride through diorama that made parkgoers feel as if they were flying over modernizing cities linked by superhighways. And like The Jetson, some of it came true, for the good and the not so good. When the fair ended, the workers rode it one last time, filled their pockets with parts of the gigantic sets, then started to tear it down.

Makes you think. As does the whole book.
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