Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Jul 5, 2022
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The World’s Fair comes to New Orleans
By Tim Allis |

IF THERE’S ONE thing New Orleans knows how to do-and do better than any other city-it’s how to throw a party. That’s not all the Crescent City knows how to do, of course. No way. New Orleans knows how to sing the blues and filet the sole and let the good times roll. She’s an incongruous world of weather-beaten facades, opulent interiors and Bourbon Street bawds that is sometimes less than a first-time visitor expects and always more than a returning guest has any right to ask for. She can entice-nay, seduce -with history, with habit and with gumbo, to be sure. But her real forte is her ability to roll up the rug. New Orleans needs no excuse to party, although she comes up with some of the best ones: Saints’ days, the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, Mardi Gras -even funerals. But when the excuses are exhausted, New Orleans isn’t.

This month, New Orleans is throwing her biggest bash ever: the Louisiana World Exposition, an honest-to-goodness world’s fair. Twenty-three nations are joining nine states and two Canadian provinces in a six-month extravaganza that opens May 12 and runs through November 11. Major exhibits and pavilions will be supplemented with tall ships and steamboats, a monorail, an oil derrick, a water park, the space shuttle Enterprise, an aerial gondola across the Mississippi River, three acclaimed art exhibits, the nation’s tallest Ferris wheel, food from all over the world and around-the-clock entertainment provided by everyone from local street musicians to the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Boy George’s Culture Club.

For a city that is a perpetual carnival anyway, hosting a world’s fair seems both appropriate and odd. New Orleans doesn’t really need one. On its own, it attracts six and a half million visitors each year. And traditionally, world fairs tend to be so sanitized, so spiffy, often so facile-nothing like New Orleans. This one promises to be different. After 10 years of planning and an investment of $350 million, New Orleans is putting on not only a world-class fair, but one with a bountiful infusion of the community’s own rich culture.

Aside from performances by internationally renowned entertainers, smaller stages and pavilions will spotlight artisans of jazz, blues, gospel, country/western music-even New Wave. Mardi Gras parades will stream through the fair daily. Dozens of restaurants and cafes will sate visitors with the food and drink that has made New Orleans famous: Creole gumbo, crawfish etoufee, red beans and rice, shrimp and oysters, hurricanes and Sazerac cocktails, beignets (donuts) and chicory coffee. And just down the street lies the French Quarter, which the city has nicknamed the “New Orleans Pavilion to the Fair.”

The theme of Expo ’84 is The World of Rivers: Fresh Water as a Source of Life,and what could be a more appropriate place to address this topic than at the mouth of the nation’s mightiest river in our second largest seaport-a city that is 5 feet below sea level? The fairgrounds consist of 150 acres spread across the banks of the Mississippi just a few blocks north of New Orleans’ central business district and are within walking distance of the French Quarter. When it was first announced that the fair would be centrally located, even natives cried out, “But where will they put it?” Usually, when a large city hosts an exposition, a site is chosen outside of the city’s hub. But the Louisiana World’s Fair organizers realized that this fair could succeed only if it were integrated with the city and its spirit. The chosen locale is a relatively abandoned area of town largely composed of old shipping docks and warehouses, some dating back more than 150 years to a time when this neighborhood was the very heart of New Orleans commerce and social activity. In fact, the off-beat site spurred skepticism on the part of New Or-leanians who couldn’t believe that area of town was going to be magically transformed into anything more than a mess. Yet veteran events planner Petr Spurney (who headed up the Spokane World’s Fair and the Lake Placid Olympics) and his enormous staff worked virtual wonders, even under the glare of a large electric billboard at the end of Canal Street that read off the fair’s countdown in days, minutes and seconds.

A long stretch of riverfront warehouses has been converted into the International Pavilion, which will house most of the foreign exhibits, including those from France, West Germany, Liberia, Japan and Australia. Nearby sits the just-completed Great Hall, a 15-acre monster that will be home to the state and province exhibits, particularly the large Louisiana Pavilion. The fairgrounds have been divided into six neighborhoods in much the same way that New Orleans is a city of different neighborhoods. A 1.4-mile monorail travels throughout the grounds and through the Great Hall, giving an ideal overview of the fair and making getting around easy. The Mississippi Aerial River Transit gondola lifts fairgoers 350 feet into the air and 2,200 feet across the river. A chairlift runs along the river inside the fairgrounds, which affords visitors a view of the Mississippi, the boats and the many riverside exhibits.

Without being too compartmentalized, the Expo is many worlds in one. Guests can get a feel for old Italy in the Italian Village, which has a number of shops and restaurants bunched together in a classic piazza. At the Aquacade, water maidens swim in sync in an elaborate Esther Williams-esque review. Nearby, the unique Vatican pavilion is hosting a never-before-assembled art exhibit from the formidable Vatican Museums’ collection. For hands-on adventure, The Wat-ergarden boasts a multitude of fountains and water contraptions that spin and spew, including water games for adults. There’s even something called a Kid Wash, which sends children through an altered version of a car wash-dry cycle and all.

At the Petroleum Industries Pavilion, a working oil rig will drill 300 feet into the ground, first plunging through a large salt-water tank that will be filled with fish from the Gulf along with native sea plants. Visitors can watch deep-sea divers at work while roughnecks demonstrate the rig equipment above. The Great River Road exhibit is a full-scale replica of a steamboat, housing displays from the 10 states and two provinces through which the Mississippi River flows. Union Pacific Railroad is sponsoring an exhibit called “Rivers of Steel” that highlights the growth of the railroad industry in the United States and includes their famous steam engine, No. 8444. And the Chrysler Corp. has built a 20,000-square-foot pavilion that details the company’s growth and its move from a smokestack industry to one of computer technology and high-tech electronics.

Most exhibitors have incorporated the fair’s water theme into their presentations, while displaying other facets of their respective cultures, commerce, industries, arts, crafts and traditions. While strolling through the International Pavilion, a visitor may spot Australian sheep-shearing, Japanese kabuki theater or Danish pastry-making. Jugglers will roam the Italian Village; Appalachian cloggers will demonstrate their skills on one of the many small stages spread across the grounds and in Fulton Street Mall, the neighborhood that captures the architecture and nightlife of Bourbon Street; and tap-dancing street musicians will strut their stuff.

For those so inclined, there are rides such as the 20-story Ferris wheel. Or something faster: a new one called Sky Lab. Or something slower: an antique carousel. For thirsty fairgoers, there’s a German beer hall, as well as a bounty of innovative drinking foun-tains. And for those who just like the idea of water, the fairgrounds are crossed with lagoons, streams and aquaducts, which, along with an extensive air-conditioning system, should help keep the summer heat at bay.

The organizers of the show say that they will offer 40,000 hours of entertainment throughout the Expo’s run, and the center-piece of all that entertainment is the new International Amphitheater. Located next to the riverside, this 5,426-seat, roofed-but-open-air facility will be center stage for the amazing lineup of performers coming to the fair during the six-month run, including Bob Hope, Linda Ronstadt, the Stuttgart Ballet, Tom Jones, Julio Iglesias, George Burns, Red Skelton, Isaac Stern, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the National Symphony, Tammy Wynette, the Vienna Boys Choir, Rick Springfield, Willie Nelson and the Black Light Theater of Prague, to name just a few.

Since New Orleans’ own musical heritage is of paramount concern to the fair’s organizers, perhaps the most exciting pavilion of all will be the Jazz and Gospel Tent. Here, jazz, blues, soul and gospel musicians from all over-including, of course. New Orleans -will perform continuously every day (and night) of the fair. Special appearances will be made by the likes of Mel Tonne, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and hometown heroes Pete Fountain and Al Hirt.

More music can be heard on the Folklife Festival stage, which will feature regional music and dance acts from across the country, and at the American Festival Pavilion, the fair’s showplace for everything from marching bands from Idaho to square dancers from Maine. As in the French Quarter, music will seep out everywhere: strains of a harp wafting past reggae; progressive jazz just down from old-time rock ’n’ roll.

What surely will be the signature of the Louisiana World Exposition is a 2,300-foot curiosity called the Wonder Wall. Once described as a “Mardi Gras parade in suspended animation,” it is art, it is architecture, it is. . .different. The 10-foot-wide structure, which rises almost three stories in some places, is a colorful hodgepodge of such diversified styles as 18th-century Italian, art deco, Gothic and ancient Greek. It divides part of the fairgrounds and includes shops, food stands, stages and restroom facilities, but mostly it is a bold, outlandish mesh of exotic pastel colors, whimsical fairies, mythical creatures and classical forms-a fitting embodiment of the spirit of this very eclectic world’s fair.

The fair’s commitment to New Orleans extends far beyond the November 11 closing date. Expo ’84 is leaving behind an unprecedented number of “residuals”: things the city can one day call its own. After the fair, the Great Hall will become the new convention center, one of the largest in the country. Some of the warehouse space along the docks will be converted into a specialty shopping center by the Rouse Co., the firm that designed the now-famous Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and New York’s South Street Seaport. The complex will be unique because the lower level of the buildings will continue to be owned by the city and will be used as shipping warehouses, while the upper level will serve as a “people place.” Scores of warehouses-some on-site, some nearby-are being renovated and developed for commercial and residential use when the fair ends. The gondola will remain. Streets have been improved. Even the old Jax brewery several blocks down the river is being renovated and converted into a mall for shopping, eating and drinking.

The total economic impact of the fair isestimated at $2.6 billion and some 11 millionpeople are expected to turn out. With the1984 World’s Fair, New Orleans has seizedthe opportunity to create an exciting futureand to celebrate its equally exciting past byextending one more party invitation to theworld.