NEW ORLEANS -- My daughter enjoys wearing a 1984 World’s Fair t-shirt she bought not long ago. She said that sometimes people see it and ask whether she actually went to the fair, thinking she doesn’t look old enough.
She assures them she was there, and she was many times. But she was an infant.
She was born two weeks before the Louisiana World Exposition opened May 12, 1984. I did something I never did before, and haven’t done since. I took an entire month off, to be with my wife as we welcomed our new baby, and started on the most important journey of our lives.
But I went to work opening day. I wanted to be one of the first in the gates. It wasn’t like it would be my first trip there. Like many of my colleagues, we had been covering the fair since it started as an idea, through the planning and funding stages, right through the construction that continued up to the moment the fair opened.
But it was one of those moments I knew I would always remember. We rode the shuttle bus from the parking lot. It was jammed with an excited crowd, including many New Orleanians, along with others from around the country.
Admission was just $15, about the same as a 3-D movie today, and much less than major events like concerts or Jazz Fest. But in 1984 dollars, it was not cheap, at least according to one man riding the bus with his family.
“The tickets to get in, they were $44, and the parking is another $5 or so, so I’m up to $50, and I’m not in the gate yet,” he said as the bus reached the gate on opening day.
They lined up, eager to get through the turn stiles. Then I watched as their heads swiveled back and forth, up and down, trying to see everything.
And there was so much to see. As you strolled down the main avenue, what is now Convention Center Boulevard, there was the Wonder Wall in the neutral ground, a riot of color and architectural shapes, from the controversial bare breasted nymphs to giant alligators reaching skyward with mouths open.
“Wonderful,” was how one young man summed up his first impression on opening day.
“Pretty good so far,” said a man.
While a few standing in line were victimized by pickpockets, and one man didn’t like what he saw so much he regretted buying the Fair’s season passport, most were happy to be there.
“Marvelous,” said a young lady. “The best thing that ever happened to New Orleans, I think.”
Even though the theme of the Fair was ‘The World Of Rivers- Fresh Water As A Source Of Life,’ due in part to the location next to the Mississippi River, it seemed the exposition really challenged everyone, especially locals, to look skyward, to look for things to be better than expected.
There was the Monorail, touring the 84-acre site. Some backers thought monorails could catch on as public transportation in New Orleans, perhaps ferrying passengers to the airport.
The classic ride was the Gondola, hoisting passengers a breath-taking 200 feet into the air on a trip across the River. I remember my chest tightening as the tiny car rattled across the wheels atop the huge pylons, wondering whether that would be the moment when the cable jumped the tracks.
And there was the Enterprise, the only space shuttle that didn’t fly into orbit (it was used to test whether the craft could safely glide to a landing strip once it re-entered the atmosphere). I reported on the Enterprise from its arrival, mounted atop a 747 jet, when thousands rushed outdoors to see the dual aircraft fly over the city, to its installation as a fair exhibit, to its departure once the fair closed.
I tried to walk by it as often as I could during the run of the fair, endlessly fascinated by the huge vehicle that looked like a giant black and white bird, wings spread, ready to fly.
Once my daughter was a month old, we took her to the fair regularly. We each fought to carry her in the little pouch where she lay against our chests, looking up at us, or around at this fascinating world. She was as fascinated by all the sights as we were.
And my wife and I, new parents that we were, quickly learned the etiquette of viewing exhibits with an infant. When she napped, we visited the walk through exhibits. When she was awake and alert, we enjoyed the riding exhibits that held her interest as well. We must have timed things pretty well, and she was a very good baby, as I don’t remember seeing many dirty looks aimed in our direction.
There was so much to see, exhibits from Canada to China to the stunning artworks from the Vatican, many located in space that would become the Riverwalk. There was a faux oil derrick near the Hilton Hotel parking lot, designed to show the rudiments of oil drilling to the crowds. Remember the Louisiana exhibit, where the chain of boats took visitors on a voyage through scenes from across the state?
It was housed in the just completed first section of the Convention Center. There was the Aquacade, one of our favorites: the show was funny, the water ballet dancing incredibly synchronized, and it felt so much cooler than just about any other spot in July and August.
Well, except the Kid Wash. Though our kid wasn’t old enough to enjoy it, we thought it was an inspired idea, a combination playground with car wash style equipment delightfully spraying the kids. Our executive producer, a youngster at the time of the fair, still laughs with joy as his memories of getting deliciously wet, and the parents didn’t mind.
But there was so much else to do that we nearly wore out the season pass. In a town that lives to eat, you could sample local staples, savor international favorites, and try some exotic cuisines, maybe even on the same night, if your stomach was big enough.
One of the highlights of the fair was how well designed it was as a place to enjoy a pleasant stroll, a romantic meal, a fast burger, or a high energy nightclub and dance floor. We spent a lot of time at the Italian Village, probably consumed a rice-field worth of dishes at the Japanese Pavilion, and also the German Beer Garden, though I did not do the Chicken Dance (my mechanical ineptness would have endangered those around me).
The fair even had its own personality, named Seymour. Seymour D. Fair was a larger than life (human-sized actually) pelican dressed in a light blue tuxedo and top hat. His huge smile never faded (it was sewn in, of course), but we always marveled at the actor inside the suit, who had the ability to dance, cavort, pose for pictures, and charm kids and adults, all while coping with the summer heat. Seymour, wherever you are, we miss you.
The Louisiana World Exposition was the perfect answer for New Orleans residents wondering what to do with the summer after popular Pontchartrain Beach closed in late 1983. It also stirred civic pride that we were once again in the international spotlight, a century after the 1884 Cotton Exposition turned part of Audubon Park into a wonderland.
It was also designed to increase tourism, and the fair led to a boost in hotel construction in the Central Business District and French Quarter that would give the concentration of hotels, restaurants and other tourist amenities that help make New Orleans a destination city for major conventions, Super Bowls, and other mega events that continues to this day.
The fair did much more for New Orleans. The Convention Center would be expanded to become the sixth largest in the country. The Riverwalk is still there, reopening this summer as an upscale outlet mall. The Warehouse District went from a ratty, run-down collection of century old storage sheds to a showplace of high-fashion condos in a new, sought-after residential district. And where the Shuttle Enterprise once perched, cruise ships now dock, bringing thousands of tourists to New Orleans each week.
But it was also a failure. Ours became the only World Fair to declare bankruptcy. As a reporter, it was a surreal time, covering both the fun of the fair and its severe financial problems.
The signs became evident even before opening day that the $350 million project would have difficulty breaking even, and might not reach the goal of 11 million visitors. In the end, the fair attracted just 7 million people.
The reporters had the task of documenting it all, as the state had to pick up the tab, so it was our job to let people know where things stood. We talked to workers waiting for late paychecks, attended meetings where frustrated contractors pleaded for money (and eventually sued) and watched the fair decline physically. By closing day, Nov. 11, the paint was peeling, the staff had dwindled, some rides and exhibits had closed. The fair lost $100 million.
That was how we spent our days. But once we got off duty, we ran back to the fair at night and enjoyed the sights, sounds, and tastes of an event we knew was special.
There was so much sadness that November. As coats replaced the short sleeved shirts of summer, residents and tourists rushed to make the last visits to what had become special haunts, to buy souvenirs (I still have mine), and to try to imprint the memories of a very special time so they would remain fresh in our minds forever.
My daughter just celebrated her 30th birthday, and it made me a bit nostalgic. It reaffirmed that I am truly old, but it made me think about the six months when New Orleans put on a great show for the world, and those of us who lived here had the front row seats.
The memories are still so vivid it seems like a year ago, not 30.