"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

50th anniversary of 1964 New York World's Fair

Your blog host, Brian Williams, w/ mother Martha at 1964 New York World's Fair.
The University of Minnesota-Morris was stretching its legs as a still-fledgling institution in 1964.
It was the year that "the world came to Queens," wrote Lisa L. Colangelo. UMM came to Queens, NYC, with its men's chorus directed by the late Ralph E. Williams. It hardly seems like 50 years ago.
I remember that towering Unisphere in its silver splendor like it was yesterday. It was a most classy world's fair. It might have done better in terms of attendance if it had your standard honky-tonk type of midway. It did not! For this I give the event a tip of the hat.
The fair was filled with fascinating futuristic thoughts. Its biggest claim to fame, OK maybe just one of its biggest, was that it was the unveiling platform for the Ford Mustang!
To continue with Colangelo's words, the world came to Queens "in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors, fountains of dancing water and mouth-watering Belgian waffles."
Frankly I don't remember the waffles but I remember everything else Colangelo touches upon. I was nine years old. I accompanied my father Ralph and mother Martha to the World's Fair. Two years earlier, the UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the Seattle World's Fair.
In 1964 UMM was getting even more solidified. Morris legend has it the institution wasn't on particularly solid footing at the very start. Our future might have been shaky. Sometimes I wonder if that's exaggerated, but let's go along with it. Our "experimental" institution with its liberal arts accent was getting its profile heightened by the world's fair appearances.
The vocalists wore their grand maroon blazers. Perhaps they saw me as a little brat just scurrying around. In their informal moments, those guys liked singling some popular songs of the day like "Henry the 8th." Remember? "Second verse, same as the first." Their precision singing turned heads.
Events to mark the 50th anniversary are being held in NYC. There is a reason why people my age who were at the World's Fair, embrace those memories in a special way. The negative stuff we associate with the 1960s hadn't happened yet. The civil rights movement was necessary and positive in purpose, but it involved a lot of negative conflict.
Foremost among the negative stuff was the Viet Nam War. In '64 we were about three years before the apex of the Viet Nam War misery. Protests hadn't grabbed the headlines yet. But the Beatles sure did. The so-called counterculture was slowly weaving its way in. I remember a street vendor in Manhattan wearing a Beatles wig (which didn't exactly complement him). I'm good at remembering "the small stuff." I remember a boy selling newspapers on the street who, as we purchased a paper, gave us a quick lecture on the importance of newspapers!
The spectacular New York World's Fair of 1964 and '65 was a showcase for mid-20th Century U.S. culture and technology. The Unisphere was a 12-story high spherical stainless steel representation of the Earth. It's still there. How would you remove something like that? I have wondered why it can't be more iconic like the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal. Its profile was heightened by the 1997 "Men in Black" movie, in which a crashing flying saucer destroys it.
The sphere seems to have become fairly obscure again. I hear the locals pay hardly any attention to it. In 1964 it was the centerpiece for the spectacular World's Fair. The UMM men's chorus applied its own special spice. The admission price to the fair was two dollars - one dollar for kids.
Yes, the World's Fair preceded a lot of the troubling stuff of the 1960s. There was a pall hanging over it, though, from a tragedy still fresh in our memories. The Fair sought to salve the sadness that was lingering. The Fair, Colangelo wrote, "brought excitement to a city and a nation still grieving for an assassinated president." She continued: "The social upheaval of the 1960s was waiting around the corner. But for two summers, visitors indulged in the optimistic flavor of the Fair, which embraced the space age and the advent of technology that would forever change American culture."
We celebrated without JFK.
The Borough of Queens is distinct for its diversity. Thus it was a most apt place for such a gathering of people from all around the U.S. and the world. It hosted a similar gathering in 1939.
Our family still has its "Viewmaster" slides from the New York World's Fair. Boomers all remember "Viewmaster" I'm sure. We also still have some of the kitschy souvenir items common for such events - kitschy but cherished. A glance brings back the memories.
The University of Minnesota-Morris party did its traveling by train in both 1962 and 1964. My first contact with an African-American was with a very nice porter on a train out East. I can still visualize him.
 
Unisphere trumpeted progress
Three rings circle the Unisphere representing the orbits of U.S. astronaut John Glenn, the first Russian cosmonaut and the first communications satellite to orbit the Earth. The silver sphere was commissioned to celebrate the beginning of the space age.
Naturally the Fair was a grand consumer show. Many fairgoers got their first exposure to computer equipment! Way back then, computer stuff was seen as belonging in the back offices, away from the public. A sea change has happened since, naturally. I loved visiting "Dinoland" with its life-size replicas of nine dinosaurs. Thanks to the Sinclair Oil Corporation for presenting this.
Then we have the Ford Mustang, unveiled for the admiring public at the Ford pavilion on April 17, 1964.
"It's a Small World" was a popular show put on by the Walt Disney Company at the Pepsi pavilion. Our family attended that. My mother worried that the repeated playing of the theme song might drive the employees there nuts.
We strongly considered attending a New York Mets baseball game at nearby Shea Stadium. So close was Shea, it appeared on fairgrounds maps. The Mets were in their first season at Shea, having played previously at the seemingly ancient "Polo Grounds." Shea Stadium was the Mets' home from 1964 to 2008. And yes, it was the site for one of the most famous Beatles concerts. Jerry Koosman did his heroic pitching there in 1969.
As it turned out, we couldn't work in a Mets game at Shea. No matter, we had a treasure trove of experiences and stimulation. Topping that list was the sounds of our University of Minnesota-Morris men's chorus.
 
Music and the sands of time
I don't know this for a fact, but I think the men's chorus faded away here because of political correctness notions. I will subject myself to a thrashing if I'm wrong on this. Alas, I think UMM music entered a time when music with a sacred Christian component might have been frowned upon or eschewed. Again, political-type pressures were at play against the idea of anything that could be construed as "proselytizing."
I remember that 3-4 years ago, when I considered having a display for my father at that annual faculty exhibition - it looks like a science fair! - I felt I might need to affix a special disclaimer or clarifying statement: "Ralph did a lot of sacred composing, but we want you to know the Williams family respects all the world's religions." And we do. My father did in fact write a lot of sacred choral pieces, but he was anything but a proselytizer. We are plain vanilla Lutherans.
My father was a "Greatest Generation" member, a generation marked by a temperate approach to all things. Why get excited about anything after we beat the Nazis and the Empire of Japan?
We just had Memorial Day in Morris. My mother and I attended. I'm always very respectful. However, I can't help but think I'd rather live under Communism than have 60,000 young men (and some women) have their lives snuffed out in a war in Indochina. I'm essentially a pacifist. The Nazis could never have ruled the world.
I worked at the Morris Sun Tribune where our custodian said he voted for the Communist candidate in national elections. If the rapacious ways of "the one per cent" continue, we may have a people's revolution in this country. We hope it doesn't come to that. The WWII generation gave us the "middle class"  that helped define our fine country in the mid to late 20th Century.
The middle class was at its apex at the time of the New York World's Fair. It was the time that produced memories that made up the fodder for "The Wonder Years" TV show. That show was way too nostalgic. There were in fact many disturbing aspects to those times. The Cold War permeated.
The Cold War is probably why I was forced to take algebra. We had to "keep up with the Russians" in everything. We thought it was such a big deal when our USA hockey team, coached by Kurt Russell or whoever, beat the Russians. I couldn't give a flying f--k about the outcome of a hockey game. All I know is I couldn't do algebra, so I probably should have been put in with the retards. I developed a defensiveness about life that I never really got over. And that's a shame.
But I cherish the memories of the New York World's Fair of 1964-65, held at Corona Park, Flushing, New York City, Borough of Queens. It was a fantasy land. And, a wonderful venue for the UMM men's chorus to ply its talent under my father, Ralph E. Williams.
Oh, and as far as sacred music is concerned today, I think colleges realize it's presented as "art" and not a means to promote religion.
Our memorial monument at Summit Cemetery acknowledges Ralph's service in World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater. The movie "Private Buckaroo" referred to the enemy as "the monkey men of Tokyo." My father wouldn't have used such words, but I do remember that when "Tokyo Rose" was identified - I think there were actually more than one - his immediate response was "what's her excuse?"
The New York World's Fair was a wonderful platform for the UMM men's chorus and its unique sound. God bless those memories. It would be nice to hear my father's original UMM fight song again.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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