We had a World's Fair and everybody came -- so what?
by Jack Neely If you want to see how history
Is being made in Tennessee
You've got to be there!
If you want to see how history
Fifteen years ago, television airwaves were hyping Knoxville to the nation, showing children agog at an apparently exploding Sunsphere. It worked. Very much of the nation did feel some urgency to be there.
Knoxville's 1982 World's Fair was, and remains, the most popular international-theme World's Fair in the history of North America. (With that statement, though, we should supply a footnote: the 1964 New York Fair and the 1967 Montreal Fair did draw more, but they weren't classified as "international-theme" fairs.) The Knoxville Fair attracted well over 11 million visitors--more people than the World's Fairs in Seattle, Spokane, San Antonio, Chicago, New Orleans--even more people than the near-mythic 1939 New York World's Fair.
We had the world for an audience; but what did we do for them? Those who came to be dazzled by an inspiring vision of the Future characteristic of other World's Fairs were likely disappointed. The Fair's original purpose was to be a forum for ideas about the production and conservation of energy; several of the international exhibits were as charming as the rich kid's Science Fair project. Others--especially those of nations that signed up after the Fair relaxed its morals about the Energy thing--were at least worth waiting in line to see. Most visitors, in fact, found things to enjoy at the Fair, but few left it changed, elevated, seeing life on this planet in a whole new light. It just wasn't that kind of show.
It definitely brought us three or four good hotels we might not have had otherwise; fixed old malfunction junction with federal highway funds, reshaped Knoxville's skyline in a more distinctive way; and supplied a nice space for an art museum, a few good restaurants, an arts-and-crafts colony, an urban playground--and maybe amazing things to come in the future.
A World's Fair is a macrocosmic concept, and this one was once touted as "historic." But today, when we talk about the legacy of our World's Fair, we generally limit our comments to a 70-acre Fair site.
The 1982 World's Fair opened 15 years ago this month. With the notion that a sesqui-decade might give us some sense of perspective on Knoxville's Biggest Party Ever, we thought, it might be time to look for clues about the Fair's legacy.
A random survey of a few dozen modern histories about American culture in the '80s--the Greed Decade, the Reagan Era, as it's variously known--fails to turn up much about the 1982 World's Fair. There apparently hasn't been a book about the World's Fair published since World Class Politics, the locally distributed acid assessment of the city's Fair-related political tangles, a book written by UT Political Science professor Joe Dodd ten years ago. That same decade has produced several non-fiction books, a big PBS documentary, a children's story, and at least one major novel about the 1939 World's Fair.
One rare assessment of the Knoxville Fair in a nationally published book comes as Chapter 16 of Chinese journalist Liu Zongren's 1984 American Odyssey, Two Years in the Melting Pot. For a month Liu lived in a UT dorm and worked in the Chinese Pavilion, "the best part of the whole fair." Liu wasn't much impressed with the rest of it; though he did enjoy "feeling the excitement of the cheerful crowds," he concluded that "only the gigantic film screen in the American Pavilion [IMAX theater] seemed worth the time." Surprisingly, he seemed more impressed with Knoxville's quieter spots. "The scenery along the Tennessee River is at least as beautiful as that along the Li River, the legendary scenic spot in southern China." Liu was also awed by the size and multitude of Second Creek carp--and by the fact that we didn't eat them.
On the Internet now there's a short and rather idiosyncratic web site run by a former Oak Ridger in Charlotte, N.C., about the 1982 World's Fair, which has reportedly gotten almost 4,000 visits since it went on line in December. It spotlights a four-frame homage to the collapse of the rusty Sunsphere in that notorious Simpsons episode.
According to the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, no national magazine has seen fit to publish an article about the Fair since it happened--not even a Southern Living retrospective. The 1982 World's Fair is generally ignored even in most histories of the modern South. And when it is mentioned, references are curiously disparaging. In the massive, ordinarily reliable Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989), the Fair gets only half a paragraph in a chapter called "Fairs." "Both the Knoxville and New Orleans fairs," it concludes, "suffered from disappointingly low attendance..." This, concerning the best-attended Fair of its kind in the history of the continent.
The comprehensive Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions (1990) emphasizes the Fair's contribution not to the world, but to Knoxville, especially the $224 million in highway construction and its improvements to the Second Creek valley, which was, after all, its original purpose, as far as Knoxville was concerned. The entry concludes, with an almost audible sniff, "the Knoxville fair may be remembered primarily for the fact that such a small, provincial city could host an international event drawing over 11 million visitors."
The reference book does allow that Knoxville was "fortunate in attracting China, which had not appeared in a World's Fair since 1904."
In doing so, they may have raised expectations that couldn't be met. Chances are Knoxville's Fair could never have been a World's Fair on the scale of the '39 New York World's Fair. Not just because Knoxville wasn't New York, but because 1982 wasn't 1939. Many are convinced the age of World's Fairs died sometime in the middle of the century. Television--introduced to the masses, ironically, during that fabulous 1939 Fair--made Americans much less impressionable and seemed to make future World's Fairs obsolete. Furthermore, World War II, the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, and other horrors likely undermined American optimism. Many believe the Knoxville Fair may turn out to have been the next-to-last in American history.
The year 1982 was an awkward time of the century, with little consensus about how to interpret it. America once put enormous faith in progress, especially in industry, science, and technology, as the answer to all our problems. But by 1980, it was much harder to convince Americans that maybe they'd one day fly to Mars, or live to be 150, or live on a peaceful planet. To many, society had already changed far too rapidly, and Ronald Reagan was just the fellow to bring back the good ol' days. Fifteen years ago this month, he was on hand to christen the 1982 World's Fair.
Still, the '82 Fair did churn out a few firsts. Several say they saw their first cellular phone at the 1982 World's Fair, amazed to speak to relatives long distance on a little cordless walkie-talkie.
Petros, the Fritos-and-chili concoction that's become a fixture at both Knoxville malls, recalls its origins in its brand name. Invented by Joe and Carol Schoentrup, an enterprising couple from Spokane, the Petro began life as a World's Fair novelty, a tremendously popular snack sold near the base of the Sunsphere that for some became the very taste of the 1982 World's Fair; even its name was in keeping with the Energy Expo idea, with varieties of regular, premium, and super-premium. Dale and Keith Widmer, who were selling plastic trolls at a Scandinavian boutique across the way, couldn't help noticing the phenomenon.
"You've got a captive audience and you think, man, this'll work anywhere," recalls Keith Widmer. "People are enthralled with almost anything you have there."
The Widmers followed the Schoentrups down to the Big Easy, where things turned out to be anything but. The Schoentrups gave up on Petros; the Widmers gave up on trolls. The Widmers acquired the Schoentrups' baby and opened a Petro stand in West Town in '85. There they struggled for a couple of years, then opened another in East Towne in '87. Since then, sales have slowly climbed; Petros now has 15 stores in Tennessee (three in Nashville) and Kentucky. Advertising themselves as "The Hit of Two World's Fairs"--today, they may be the Fair's most conspicuous business legacy.
Kodak introduced its Disc camera at the Fair, apparently under the impression that America was ripe to sacrifice picture quality for novelty and convenience, and was sufficiently encouraged to manufacture it for a couple of years, apparently a mistake. Its ease made it a national marketing sensation for a few years, until people started getting their prints back and noticing they had a rubbly cave-painting aspect to them. After 15 years, Kodak is reportedly phasing the Disc out altogether.
At the Fair, some witnessed one-hour film developing for the first time; though the relatively new technique had been available in a few other big-city locations for a couple of years, the Fair astonished middle America with the technique that, despite its expense, became de rigeur in commercial photo labs nationwide in years to come.
And, primarily through Thompson Photo Products (its store was only a few blocks from the Fair's east gate), a Florida inventor introduced the NIMSLO camera, a consumer-grade 3-D camera. The results were sometimes striking, but only if the picture was carefully framed to have some depth to it, and then processing was more than a dollar per print. The NIMSLO was available only in Knoxville and in the inventor's home in Florida. Thompson's sold about 80 models during the Fair, but the project soon slipped out of focus.
Touch-screen computers, unrefriger-ated but still marginally-potable milk, solar-powered cooling hats...much of the new technology touted in an almost token way during the Fair has fizzled, or never was much to begin with.
Commercially, the most enduring national legacy of the 1982 World's Fair may well be Cherry Coke--that is, right from the can or the fountain, not the previously popular soda jerk's concoction. During the fair, in fact, Coca-Cola experimented with several other flavors: lime, lemon, even vanilla, served by buxom Coke girls strategically placed near the China Line, in a kiosk blasting a nostalgic soundtrack of Coke radio ads from the '60s and '70s. The placement required two full-time crowd-control personnel to govern cross traffic. (Excuse me, Madame, are you waiting for China or Cherry Coke?)
Obviously, Coca-Cola would be a visible and audible presence at the 1982 World's Fair--after all, no World's Fair was ever held this close to their Atlanta headquarters. Officially introduced in cans and bottles in 1985, Cherry Coke has endured. But don't figure on Coke coming out with a 15th anniversary World's Fair Cherry Coke commemorative can. The fact that Cherry Coke was introduced at a World's Fair was news to one Consumer Information Hotline staffer at Coca-Cola headquarters who seemed befuddled by a call from a reporter in a place called Knoxville. "And which World's Fair would that be, sir?" she asked politely, referring the query to others with more seniority--who didn't recall it, either. About a week later, one Coke marketing old-timer (he started back in '84) called back. He couldn't prove it, but, yes, he thought maybe Coca-Cola did test-market Cherry Coke at the 1982 World's Fair.
Maybe--but Knoxville's population actually declined during the '80s. Both in terms of actual population and in relative size compared to other American cities, Knoxville is technically a smaller city now than it was before 1982 (though those numbers can be misleading, because during the same period, extra-urban Knoxville has boomed).
If Knoxville became a "city" in 1982, it wasn't the first time it did. Knoxville, once a state capital and later a major regional manufacturing and wholesaling center, certainly thought of itself as a real city 75 or 100 years ago. Knoxville, "the Marble City," "Queen City of the Appalachians," gracefully accepted the national spotlight almost as its own birthright back in 1913, when Knoxville hosted the progressive National Conservation Exposition--which attracted over one million visitors to Chilhowee Park in only two months. It was, in proportion to its length and the U.S. population in 1913, almost as popular as the 1982 World's Fair, and in its impact on science and industry, arguably more "historic."
To be sure, mid-20th-century Knoxville's image had slipped a few notches in the national consciousness by 1975 and may have needed a boost.
To then-Mayor Kyle Testerman, a World's Fair was just the tonic. By the '70s, Testerman says, "Knoxville had become a laughing-stock, mainly because of some of our high-profile political figures, our Cas Walkers. The country was laughing at us rather than with us." Testerman says the Fair banished that image and much of the more severe divisiveness that had afflicted Knoxville for years.
If world history wasn't made in Tennessee in 1982, it's fairly safe to say that Knoxville history was made that year, isn't it?
Bruce Wheeler, UT professor of history, has been studying Knoxville since the '70s. His book Knoxville, Tennessee (1983), co-authored with Michael McDonald, is often cited as a guide to the complicated downs and ups of political and economic Knoxville in the 20th century.
What will the World's Fair be remembered for? "I'm not sure it'll be remembered at all," Wheeler says. "I'd say its legacy has been zero. I teach a class in urban history, and every year, students are quite surprised to hear that Knoxville had a World's Fair. And these kids are East Tennesseans!"
"I do think that, for that brief moment (say, 1982-1984), Knoxville overcame its sense that it couldn't do anything"--a euphoria that he says has slipped closer to the city's mid-century malaise. Since the 1920s, Wheeler says, "there was always a negative feeling" dominant in Knoxville. "Somebody would propose something, and hear, We can't do that! We can't do that! If [Nashville Mayor] Bredesen had moved to Knoxville, he would have blown his brains out! They're attracting a major-league hockey team, while we're losing a minor league one."
"Knoxville is a better city than it was in 1982," Wheeler concludes, "but I don't think the Fair had a lot to do with that."
Culturally, 1982 doesn't have as much excuse; it was a time of cultural ferment, when new electronics and world influences were remixing, recombining, diversifying popular music; Knoxville, which already had a history of musical innovation, might have been a great place to hear it all. But very little new music made its way onto the fairgrounds. The World's Fair played it safe with a conservative list of major entertainers, many of them legends: Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Hope, Roy Acuff, Red Skelton, Rudolph Nuryev, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dinah Shore. Scanning a list of them, you realize nearly all of their careers had peaked long before their appearances here; looking at the World's Fair schedule, you don't see names of many future greats.
With the possible exception of Imelda Marcos--who visited the site not once but twice--few visiting celebrities went on to greater fame or influence after the Fair.
That six months had its stirring moments, of course: an extremely rare Western appearance by Japan's Kabuki Theater was certainly one. And one summer evening in the Tennessee Amphitheater, as the Warsaw Philharmonic played a Rachmaninoff concerto, someone in the audience displayed a Solidarnosc! banner and the violinists paused long enough to tap their fiddle bows in approval--a small but moving display of defiance when Poland was still under Soviet control. (The Soviet Union, by the way, had every intention of participating in the Knoxville Fair, encouraged by the local response to a Soviet sports exhibition downtown in 1979, but dropped plans in retaliation for America skipping the Moscow Olympics in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)
However, just like its energy-conservation theme, which in the minds of most Americans was a throwback to the Arab Oil Embargo, the Fair was more backward-looking than forward-looking. Some other World's Fairs had looked backwards gallantly, like Chicago's quad-centennial celebration of Columbus's landing. But in 1982, the rhythms were a little off. More than energy or international cooperation, the dominant theme of the 1982 World's Fair, what was most obvious when you walked in the gates, was a garbled pop-culture nostalgia.
Jimmie "Dyn-o-mite" Walker's sitcom was canceled long before he played before a packed amphitheater. The Rubik's Cube fad had waxed and waned before Hungary installed a giant semi-mobile Rubik's Cube in front of its pavilion. After complaints that the Knoxville Fair didn't have a Jet-Pack Man like the 1964 World's Fair had, Knoxville promptly invited Jet-Pack Man to make a quick tour over the Waters of the World. At the Strohaus, middle-agers from Ohio bunny-hopped around the room to polka bands. Richie Havens flailed away at a guitar and shouted Freedom! Freedom! just exactly like he had 13 years earlier at Woodstock. The Tennessee Pavilion showed an endless loop of Elvis' 1968 CBS TV special. Every evening, the Energy Express chugged around the site, pumping out a cheery tune with a '70s-style disco beat.
Moreover, for six months the Fair brought thousands of footloose consumers with incomes and liberal tastes to central Knoxville. Several new, unusually diverse restaurants opened in the wake of the Fair; Perry Starkey, proprietor of Perry's on Market Square, worked for the Fair and observed the Knoxville palate was markedly more liberal just after it.
Before the Fair, neither of Knoxville's papers offered live-entertainment listings. But in the summer of '82, for the first time in memory, Cumberland Avenue was suddenly supporting three nightclubs that regularly featured live touring bands, sometimes even competing on weeknights. They weren't Fair-sponsored or Fair-approved, but many of the patrons who came out to see these new bands from New York, Los Angeles, or Athens, Georgia, were Fair employees at loose ends after work. They may have shamed previously sedentary UT students into stepping out occasionally. Though none of the Fair-era nightclubs lasted for more than a couple of years, it got Knoxville used to live music and was the beginning of the current wave of nightclubs that feature live original music. Knoxville has hosted enough live music to justify an entertainment calendar ever since.
For old-school Knoxvillians, especially those thrifty Scots-Irish anxious to get their money's worth out of a season pass, the Fair broke some old homebound habits. Since Prohibition, mainstream Knoxvillians had rarely ventured out after dark except to sit in a movie theater or a familiar restaurant. As Jim Dykes recalled the nightly fun at the Strohaus in a 1987 Journal column, Knoxvillians "had never before known that that many people could get together to dance and drink beer without somebody getting cut or shot." After the Fair, Knoxvillians began trying it more often. The Old City, which caught fire just after the Fair (spearheaded by former Fair hostess and restaurateur Annie McCarthy), arguably profited from the Fair's energy and Knoxville's newfound social boldness.
After the Fair, Knoxville seemed to be reacquainting itself with itself, by way of uncommonly popular and boisterous festivals, like Riverfeast, Saturday Night on the Town, and Boomsday, seemingly the thriving spawn of the Fair, often teeming across its old site.
Knoxville was suddenly a much more attractive city to a demographic of educated singles under 40. Whittle Communications' decade-long phenomenal growth just after 1982, though it flamed out in the early '90s, contributed much to the city's economic and cultural life during its successful years. Though Whittle--then 13-30--had little involvement in the Fair itself, this international phenomenon unusual for Knoxville might have resembled the tail of the Fair's comet. That globe that dotted the "i" in the mid-'80s Whittle logo did bear an eerie resemblance to the Sunsphere.
Keith Bellows, a Whittle group editor originally from Canada whose father had been instrumental in the Montreal World's Fair in '67, said he was persuaded to give the Whittle gig in Knoxville a try when he heard Knoxville would be hosting the Fair. For the record, Bellows hated the '82 Fair--"It did not live up to the hype," he says--but he liked Knoxville. What he expected to be a brief editorial gig turned into a 15-year romance with a city. He now owns the nationally-oriented multi-media company West World, which is based in the Old City. Bellows says the Fair's reputation gave Knoxville-based Whittle a greater nationwide credibility; nightclubs, restaurants, and other likely side effects made it easier to recruit fresh talent to the little-known company. Bellows hired scores of young collegiates in a nationally-competitive field, most of whom had never thought of living in Tennessee before.
There's no question people were more aware that there was an American city called Knoxville. Several noticed when NPR, in its national radio reports about events in Knoxville, assumed listeners knew where we were and called us Knoxville, and not Knoxville, Tennessee. The one-word distinction's usually reserved for big cities. It lasted for a couple of years.
And, of course, some are quick to remind us that there was negative fallout from the Fair's fireworks: the national embarrassment about over-speculation by ill-organized and greedy housing opportunists, the enormous debt burden the city incurred and Knoxville's subsequent loss of face in the bond-rating market, and the Butcher collapse, the 4th-biggest bank collapse in U.S. history followed the Fair's closing by only four months. "Jake's Fair" didn't wholly cause the Butcher failure, but it was never fully absolved from it, either.
Somehow, though, others are convinced the Energy Express is still chugging through the streets of Knoxville. Even if the Fair didn't put Knoxville on the world map, they say, it may well have put the world on Knoxville's map. In 1982, Don Parnell worked for an engineering consulting firm associated with the Fair. "Because of the World's Fair, Knoxville began to look outward instead of inward. It said we can do things of international significance." He mentions one example that might be less-than-obvious: the Knoxville Sports Corp., which brought events like the National Track & Field Championship Meet in 1994 and the U.S. Gymnastics Trials in 1996 to Knoxville, not to mention the likely Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
In a community as complicated as this one, it's hard to assert with absolute confidence where a city's energies originated; even with another 15 years of hindsight, it may never be easy to know how much influence the 1982 World's Fair had on the scruffy little city that hosted it. For now, Knoxvillians seem content to wonder that it really has been 15 years since we bunny-hopped around the Strohaus, gaped at stone Chinese warriors, caught a glimpse of Bob Hope, and enjoyed the most extravagant party we've ever thrown.