Vaudeville and The Great World’s Fairs

This delightful subject is a little bit of a tangent for this content stream, especially at this early stage, but it does have its relevance, and a couple of outfits have attached themselves to the concept this week (see here and here)  so it seems like a good time to spill a few words.

World’s fairs, beginning with the first one at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, are essentially large international trade shows. There have been scores, perhaps hundreds of them since then, but a handful are of particular relevance to the usual themes of this blog:

* Philadelphia, 1876

This was the first world’s fair held in America, and it was timed for the U.S. Centennial. Show folk were not allowed to have concessions on the grounds, so a nearby shanty town arose full of dime museums, fortune tellers and the like (see here tomorrow for more on dime museums). On view in this tawdry row were a 602 pound fat woman and “man-eating Feejees”.

But what was INSIDE the fair was not without its relevance either. Years ago, the Smithsonian re-created exhibitions from this fair, and let me tell you, brother, it was steam punk pornography. Hall after hall of the latest machinery of 1876, all cast iron, painted red, steam-motivated, pistons and wheel and gears?

My main takeaway was another aesthetic aspect, however. Every spare bit of wall and ceiling space was draped in American flag bunting. It impressed me so much that it I made it the main aesthetic feature of my American Vaudeville Theatre’s set design, especially during the Surf Reality days. We’ll go for this look in the revival this coming August in the New York International Fringe Festival.

* Paris, 1889

Held on the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, this is the fair that gave the world the Eiffel Tower. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley performed at this fair, which was so grand that it spurred the U.S. to try to devise one even greater, which they did, with the 1893 World Columbia Exposition four years later.

* Chicago, 1893

I’ve already written on this one and its Midway Plaisance here. Suffice it to say that this fair was enormously influential, and its repercussions were felt throughout show business, from amusement parks (Coney Island’s three great parks sprang up immediately in its wake) to side shows, to subsequent fairs, to vaudeville and burlesque.

* St. Louis, 1904

This one was held in honor of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, and is the setting for the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The ice cream cone, cotton candy and Dr. Pepper were all introduced at this fair. It remains the largest world’s fair in American history.

* New York, 1939

The 2nd largest U.S. fair ever and the last of the great ones, with its influential art deco industrial and architectural designs and its futuristic inventions, like for example — television! Numerous world’s fair came after it, but none remotely as great or memorable. My theory why (and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist) is the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and Walt Disney World in 1971 (with Epcot Center in 1982). These year ’round attractions draw the millions who might otherwise be interested in a world’s fair if it was spectacular enough. And without sideshows or midways like there were a century and more ago, an exposition is just…well, what it originally was, a trade show.

To find out more about the history of the variety arts, including world’s fairs,  please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.




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