Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair

Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***

Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***


I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.


*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

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Movie Review: The Warriors (1979)

Title: The Warriors
Release Date:  February 9, 1979
Director: Walter Hill
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions

Yet another cult film I’ve never watched, The Warriors is take on the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s by way of an Ancient Greek story.  The Warriors are a gang based in Coney Island who with dozens of other gangs travel to the Bronx for a summit called by a charismatic leader Cyrus (Roger Hill).  Cyrus proposes unifying all the gangs and working together against the police to control the city but before he can finish his speech he is assassinated.  (The killer appears to receive his gun from the cops and thus be a police informer but this is never followed-up upon so maybe I misread what was happening).

The Warriors are falsely accused of killing Cyrus and have to flee back to Coney Island for the safety of their home turn, pursued by all the other gangs and the police.  They lose their leader in the initial scuffle and war chief Swan (Michael Beck) takes over shepherding the rest of the gang on their journey home.  He’s challenged by the heel of the gang Ajax (James Remar) who prefers conflict to diplomacy.  The cast overall does a good job of capturing the youth and vulnerability of the gang members and seeing the story from their point of view rather than a societal judgment.  The only actor who didn’t really work for me is David Patrick Kelly as Luther, who really hams things up, although he also delivers the movie’s most famous line.

For a 1970s film, the cast is very diverse although the production company insisted on white actors in the lead.  For a story about gangs of men, the women in the movie have a lot of agency and call out the men on their bullshit.  The most prominent woman character is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who initially taunts The Warriors but then joins them as a valuable contributor to their effort to get back to Brooklyn as well as a romantic interest to Swan. There is homophobia and attempted sexual assault as you might expect from gangsters in a 70s film, but it’s almost all from Ajax, while the rest of the gang appear almost noble.

For an action film, this movie takes things slow, reveling in the scenery of the on-location settings and the quirky costumes of the various gangs while building the tension.  This really works to the film’s advantage, although the choreography of the fight scenes is also good.  Somehow the cartoonish fantasy element of the story also undergirds the gritty reality of the movie and allows for some great character moments. I was particularly impressed by a scene where the exhausted Warriors share a subway car with some wealthy kids and the contrast of their lives is quietly emphasized.

I ended up liking this movie a whole lot more than I expected I would and think it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino

Author: Michael R. Virgintino
Title: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2019)

It sounds make believe, but for five seasons from 1960 to 1964, a theme park that legitimately claimed to be bigger and better than Disneyland operated in the northeast corner of the Bronx.  In fact, the park was designed by the firm of C.V. Wood, who had worked on Disneyland before having a falling out with Walt.  Many Disneyland veterans worked for Wood’s company as well. The park was shaped like a map of the lower 48 states and was divided into seven themed lands:

  • LIttle Old New York – an entry land in a late 19th-century style
  • Old Chicago – which included regular reenactments of the Great Fire of 1871
  • The Great Plains – which featured a replica army stockade and a stagecoach ride
  • San Francisco – home to an earthquake dark ride and the Northwest Fur Trapper boat ride (Freedomland’s answer to the Jungle Cruise)
  • The Old Southwest – where the park’s train ride was often boarded by masked robbers
  • New Orleans/Mardi Gras – opened before Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and had a pirate-themed ride called Buccaneer.  Also home to a Civil War reenactment.
  • Satellite City – The Future – where visitors could visit a recreation of a Cape Canaveral control room and watch a simulated space mission

This book includes detailed description of the lands, attractions, restaurants, and memories of park-goers and employees.  A lot of the book is written in list format rather in narrative that makes it less fun to read, but the material is fascinating nonetheless.

A lot of reasons are given why Freedomland failed.  The biggest is that unlike Southern California, the climate of New York meant the park could only operate seasonally.  Although Virginitino notes that proposals to open Freedomland for special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas were never followed-up on (the same types of things that regional parks in the northern climes do today for added revenue).  Another reason for the failure, one that the park’s owners harped on, is that Freedomland could not compete  with the New York World’s Fair (and its Disney-built attractions) which opened in 1964.  Virginitino notes that in reality, Freedomland was planned with the knowledge of the World’s Fair coming and the hope to piggyback on the fair’s success.  By 1964, Freedomland had already downsized considerably and sold off some of its most ambitious attractions, so that probably affected attendance more than the fair.

Virgintino also puts forward the idea that the property owners (real estate developers separate from the management of the park) had always intended for Freedomland to be temporary.  Plans for Co-Op City, which was eventually built on the site, were put forward in the 1950s.  The author’s evidence suggests that the the Freedomland structures built on the marshy landfill served the purpose of convincing the government to allow the variances to build the more profitable

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Freedomland being able to persevere through the Bronx’s really bad times of the 1970s and 1980s. Also the the superpatriotic theming of the park would’ve been a hard sell as early as the counterculture era of the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, I wish Freedomland had survived. My mother, who grew up in the Bronx, has fond memories of visiting Freedomland in her teen years, and I wish I could’ve gone there with her when I was young.

Oddly, little bits of Freedomland have showed up in my life without me even knowing it. A sternwheeler that sailed at Freedomland was renamed the Mark Twain and was docked for many years by the Steamboat Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Two of the Freedomland trains were loaned by Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts.  And a 20 foot cutout figure of Paul Bunyan later stood outside of United House Wrecking in Stamford, Connecticut during my childhood.

This video from Defunctland will give you a glimpse into Freedomland’s all-too-short history:

Favorite Passages:

Freedomland’s employees were slotted within 54 categories, some of which were not listed by big city employment agencies at the time. Many employees were required to possess unique skills, including buffalo wrangler, carrousel horse jeweler, totem pole carver, and stage coach harness-maker.

Other odd occupations at the park included pretzel bending, seal keeping, doughnut rolling, can-can dancing, glassblowing, and space tracking. The park also employed a skin diver who regularly inspected the Great Lakes for purity and maintenance

A new attraction was five new-born burros appropriately named Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

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Rating: ***

Movie Review: After Hours (1985)

Title: After Hours
Release Date: September 13, 1985
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: The Geffen Company | Double Play Productions

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a nebbish computer data entry worker, meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a coffee shop and they apparently hit it off and exchange phone numbers.  Calling Marcy later that night, she invites him to come to the SoHo loft where she’s staying with her friend the sculptor Kiki (Linda Fiorentino).  Paul begins to feel that he’s not connecting with Marcy and decides to leave. But because he lost all his money, and eventually his house keys, he finds himself stuck in SoHo involved in increasingly bizarre situations and eventually pursued by a Frankenstein-style vigilante mob.

This is a movie that could not be made in the time of cell phones and ATMs, and of course SoHo has long since been tamed and commercialized so that it no longer feels eccentric to outsides.  When you think about it there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about this film but it all holds together with a kind of dream logic.  The most unbelievable thing about this movie is that almost everyone in mid-80s Manhattan is white, with the major exception of Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin who are stereotypically cast as burglars.

The biggest flaw of After Hours is that Paul is just an unlikable character which makes it hard to care about him as the protagonist.  The great performances by the women in this film make up for it though, starting with Arquette and Fiorentino. Additional great performances include Terri Garr as a waitress with a beehive who becomes mysteriously obsessed with Paul, Catherine O’Hara as a Mr. Softee truck driver with a twisted sense of humor, and Verna Bloom as a sculptor who helps Paul out.

By all accounts this is a quirky outlier in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, but I like it a lot more than his violent crime thrillers.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle

Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

TV Review: Russian Doll (2022)

Title: Russian Doll
Release Dates: 2022
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 7

In the first season of Russian Doll Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and Alan (Charlie Barnett) must figure out why they keep dying and returning the same moment of their lives.  The second season, set 4 years later, finds them traveling in time on New York City’s 6 train.  Nadia ends up in 1982 in the body of her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny) when she was pregnant with Nadia.  Alan ends up in his mother’s body in East Berlin in 1962 when she was an international graduate student from Ghana.

The show feels very different from the first season although maintaining the same level of humor and cleverness.  The main theme of the show is dealing with generational trauma and Nadia coming to terms with her disappointment in her own mother while also anticipating the grief of losing her mother figure Ruthie (Elizabeth Ashley in the present day, and Annie Murphy in the past).  I feel that Alan’s story gets short-shrift and the whole series concludes rather abruptly.  But these are small quibbles regarding an entertaining and high-quality series.


Performance Review: La Nozze de Figaro

La Nozze de Figaro performed by the Metropolitan Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, April 16, 2022.

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: James Gaffigan

My mother wanted to take my daughter to the opera.  I was uncertain about how well that would go, but on the night before Easter the three of us watched Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” from the Family Circle and we all made it through the three and a half hour performance with no complaints.  It was fun to used opera glasses to get a closer look at the fantastic costumes and stunning set design.  And the music is good too.  I personally think that soprano Ying Fang stole the show as Susanna.  The story doesn’t make a ton of sense but is basically a Twelfth Night style of comical pranks and revenge plots among a group of people who alternate between being horny and angry at other people for being horny.

Note: This trailer has the same set and costumes but a different cast than the production we saw.

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Movie Review: When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Title: When Harry Met Sally…
Release Date: July 14, 1989
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Nelson Entertainment

When Harry Met Sally… is kind of the uber-romcom, a story so successful that Hollywood spent the next 20 years trying to recapture it, often in movies starring Meg Ryan.  Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) first meet sharing a car ride to New York City after graduating from University of Chicago in 1977 (and good work by the makeup artists in making Crystal look convincingly like he could’ve graduated at the same time as Ryan when he’s actually 14 years older).  They meet again five years later on a flight.  Despite not getting along well on either occasion, when they meet for a third time in 1987 they form a friendship that gradually leads to romance.

The central premise of this movie – “Can a man and a women just be friends?” – and the gender essentialism (“all women/men think that way!), has always bothered me.  But on this viewing it doesn’t feel as didactic as I remembered.  There’s also the fact that for most of the movie, Harry is really a jerk (what in 80s parlance would be called “a male chauvinist pig.”)  It’s really a credit to Crystal’s charm that both Sally and the audience can grow to like Harry enough to care about this relationship.

The movie also succeeds on just one iconic scene after another enriched by Nora Ephron’s dialogue (not too mention Reiner and Crystal’s additions).  Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are terrific in supporting roles as Sally and Harry’s best friends Marie and Jess.  And there’s the soundtrack of jazz standards with contributions from Harry Connick, Jr.  Really it all adds up to one of the best comedies, best romances, and best movies of all time!

Rating: ****1/2

Documentary Movie Review: The Queen (1968) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Q that I have previously reviewed include:

TitleThe  Queen
Release Date: June 17, 1968
Director: Frank Simon
Production Company: Grove Press

There was no before.

Set at The 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, this movie documents the preparation and competition for a drag queen competition in New York City.  In this pre-Stonewall era, when homosexuality and transvestism were illegal in New York State, this feels like a very dangerous thing to do.  And yet the mood among the participants feels surprisingly relaxed, apart from the catty in-fighting among some of the contestants.  The only sign of an outside threat is when the contest’s organizer Flawless Sabrina says they need to find a hotel “hip enough” to welcome drag performers.  Of course this scene also show’s Sabrina’s odd lack of organization in not reserving hotel rooms until the contestants had all arrived in New York.

The best parts of the movie are the more candid moments when the participants talk about their families and hometowns (where some of them found acceptance), whether or not they would undergo gender reassignment surgery, and encounters with the draft board.  The obvious comparison for this documentary is Paris is Burning which takes place 20 years later and uptown in Harlem.  There’s a largely unspoken racial dynamic in the mostly white Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest that comes to a head in the films conclusion when one of the Black contestants, Crystal LaBeija (who would later organize the house and ball culture documented in Paris is Burning) protests the crowning of Sabrina’s protege Rachel.

The movie offers a fascinating time capsule view and shows that a lot of familiar aspects of gay and drag culture go back a lot farther than I’d realized.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: On the Bowery (1957) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter O that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: On the Bowery
Release Date:  March 18, 1957
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Production Company: Rogosin Films

The Bowery is one of the oldest streets in New York City, it’s name coming from the Dutch word for “farm” since it originally lead out of town to the more rural areas of Manhattan. In the early 1800s the Bowery was New York’s theater and entertainment district before Broadway.  But by the end of the 19th century, the street and the surrounding area fell into dereliction and became home to itinerants and the poorest of the poor.  Only in the last few decades has the area been cleaned up by gentrification, but that has also come at the cost of affordable housing and services for the poor.

On the Bowery is set in the 1950s, when the street was predominantly populated by men who came their to drink, sleep in flophouses, and maybe find work long enough to pay for more to drink.  This is “docufiction” rather than a true documentary, as filmmaker Lionel Rogosin shaped the actual narrative, but had actual “Bowery bums” play as themselves and create their own dialogue.  The film depicts a few days in the lives of Ray Salyer, a younger itinerant new to the Bowery, and his relationship with the older Gorman Hendricks, a long time resident of the area.  Hendricks actually died of cirrhosis of the liver before the film was even released, giving an indication of how true to life he was to his character.

Despite the fictional aspect of On the Bowery, it feels very honest and a sympathetic portrayal of poverty and substance abuse.  It’s almost more shocking to watch this film now knowing it was made in the 1950s because of the squeaky-clean image of that decade.  The stories told in On the Bowery are all-too-relevant to us today.  I think of Mass and Cass, the tent city in Boston where people with opioid addictions have gathered in recent years, and their stories can be very similar to Ray and Gorman’s.

Rating: ***1/2