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Noisey

50 Years Later: Reimagining the Music of the World's Fair at the Fairgrounds in Queens NYC

Unfortunately, Will Smith wasn't there.

by Courtney Dudley
Apr 23 2014, 7:56pm

All photos by the author

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of New York's 1964 World Fair and to commemorate the occasion, supporters of the site's restoration organized for the New York State Pavilion or "Tent of Tomorrow" to be open for three hours. Their facebook event page had 500 confirmed attending, but that number easily doubled and may have quadrupled by the days end. People arriving after 11 o'clock would wait around 5 hours to tour the inside of the pavilion. If it sounds like a headache, that is because it was! Every time I see I line longer than 30 people I get real anxious and shaky, probably because of that one SXSW in 2010 when I waited for four hours outside of an abandoned power station in Austin to see Kanye perform as a tiny, angry dot hidden behind massive, swooping camera cranes. During that time I racked my brain, trying to think of a reason worth wasting precious minutes when I'd likely be able to see it all on the internet the next day (or as it happens now, a live stream). I wouldn't have guessed that I'd find myself at that same crossroads now, on a sunny day surrounded by cherry blossoms and lots of little kids. Is this massive, crumbling structure worth waiting four-plus hours to see from the inside and up close? Luckily for you, dear readers, my answer was yes. Or, halfway yes. I never really went inside the structure because I was too busy listening to the carefully selected and edited songs and sounds playing just outside the pavilion. Jim Brown of the New York State Pavilion Paint Project curated tracks for visitors by culling through the top 10 tracks of each week the fair was open in 1964 and 1965. He imagined that, along with the soundtrack created for the fair's exhibitions and animatronic performances, the hits of the 60's would echo across the fairgrounds. These songs and a few others I've added give us a closer look into the history surrounding the fair and the lasting impact it made.

"G.T.O." by Ronny & The Daytonas

This single, Ronny & The Daytonas first and most successful hit, would reach #4 on the charts in 1964. It's no surprise if it was on repeat during the fair; fast and fancy cars were ubiquitous in pop culture and even more so at the fair. The Ford Company debuted it's prized Ford Mustang, one of the first cars specifically marketed toward young people, for the very first time at this fair. On the same day, April 17, the car became available in showrooms and nearly 22,000 of the model were purchased immediately. Maybe if Ronny & The Daytonas had written a second single about the Mustang, they could have had a hit in 1965, too.

"It's a Small World"

This song, perhaps the most annoying, innocuous diddy to ever have emanated from the cabinets of a console stereo was created by the Sherman Brothers, Walt Disney's staff songwriters, specifically for this fair. I picked the least irritating and shortest version on YouTube I could find. It was the soundtrack to the ride that still thrills hundreds of thousands of visitors to Disney World each year. Initially, the ride was supposed to have a recording of every national anthem in its native language playing, like, all looping on top of each other, one of Walt's shittier ideas. But the Sherman Brothers came to the rescue with this plea for peace that was especially heartwarming in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The brothers went on to write numerous Disney classic songs, winning two Academy Awards and two Grammys for hits from Mary Poppins which is essentially a gold mine of some of the best Disney songs ever (deal with it, Frozen!). It's also been suggested that "It's a Small World" is the most widely translated song and most performed song ever, but that must be due to it playing every time the gates are open at all five Disney theme parks across the (small, small) world.

"Ronnie" Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

When Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons started crooning over the speakers outside the pavilion, a fellow visitor sporting cat-eye sunglasses squealed, "Oh, you just gotta write about Frankie Valli. He's from Jersey!" I looked around and men and women everywhere were nodding along to this song and I immediately felt like lame kid at the party, backing into a corner hoping that I didn't get passed the karaoke mic. But there are just so many other Frankie Valli songs to love! Valli was so successful that this song hitting #6 on the charts doesn't even cause a blip on his biography. He made 29 Top 40 singles including "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and everyone's favorite, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Simon and Garfunkel "Sound of Silence"

One would be remiss to talk about the history of music in Queens and not include it's darlings, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Did you know the pair met at a school production of Alice in Wonderland? Paul played the White Rabbit and Art as the Cheshire Cat! OMG! Squee! Although most of their hits would reach the top of the charts in 1966, "The Sound of Silence" was written and recorded as an acoustic version in 1964 presumably as the fair was happening just a few miles away from the neighborhood they grew up in- Forest Hills, Queens. The song initially flopped and the band broke up, but after a rework and some electric instrumentation added, the song hit #1 on January 1, 1966.

David Bowie, "Space Oddity"

The focus of the fair was heavily skewed toward making dreams of the future a reality. It was one of the first times that being into space was super trendy and it took a few years for this trend to become a major music movement, culminating when David Bowie would finally make "Space Oddity" for us in 1969. At the fair, real rockets were on exhibition! Facetiming in its earliest form was debuted. New appliances at the "Kitchen of Tomorrow" promised to lessen time for Mom cleaning kitchen and more time for her hobbies like canning... in the kitchen. But thank god for the dishwasher, amiright? OH wait. I live in Brooklyn. What's a dishwasher?

"Men in Black" Will Smith

What remains of the grounds -the Tent of Tomorrow, The Hall of Science, the Unisphere and others- are Mid-Century Modern mammoths. Somehow, 30 years later, those towers and the Unisphere still looked futuristic enough to serve as part of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith's set in Men in Black. Watch them blow up in the music video.

A few years after the fair, the grounds hosted big act like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and the pavilion had a short stint as a roller skating rink, but is now padlocked from trespassers, except on this anniversary for a few hours. Though fixing up the space seems insurmountable, the thousands of people waiting in line make it known that people still want to and experience new things together and this isn't that far off from a usual festival experience. In that light, why not save the fair grounds?

The "It's a Small World" ride was sponsored by Pepsi. All of the different stages had sponsors (GE, Ford, Kodak, Johnson Wax) and were set in a sprawling park with beer gardens and cocktail lounges spread throughout, kinda exactly like our festivals! With each subsequent year of festivals, we create more inventive and accessible ways for fans to experience the magic from the comfort of their own homes.

Many of those gadgets that were imagined during the fair are the very things that make events like this obsolete. You didn't need to come stand in line for three hours to see the inside of a crumbling structure that was once the largest cable suspension roof in the world. Myself and about 2,000 other people did it for you- just check out below or at #NYSP50, #worldsfair or #nyspavilion.

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