World’s Fairs have always been a showcase for a variety of things, industry, government, amusement, and culture – in particular art, and music. Though essentially irrelevant today, in the past they presented a showcase, primarily for the host country, but others as well, to display their latest offerings. With the recent 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 (’39-’40) and the50th for the 1964 (’64-’65) New York World’s Fairs, Jazz’s involvement, particularly in 1939, bares exploration.
In 1939 Jazz, more often called Swing at that juncture, was synonymous with American popular culture. The music had become the primary exponent of popular music; its players were stars, and its delivery the primary accompaniment to social dancing. As it was riding high, it is no surprise then that Swing figured very prominently in the amusements of the 1939 NY World’s Fair.
Having opened April 30th, the Fair was held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (in the NYC borough of Queens). Built out of a former ash dump, a park was created which would host both fairs, and ultimately become the property of the NYC park system. An incredibly large exposition, Jazz could be found mainly in the amusement area in three locales surrounding “Fountain Lake”; and one other, located in the manufacturing zone. They were: the Dancing Campus; the Savoy Ballroom Theatre; the World’s Fair Hall of Music; and the Mardi Gras Casino. All of these, with the exception of the Casino – the venue in the Manufacturing Zone – were ticketed ‘pavilions’ meaning an additional entrance fee was charged.
The Dancing Campus was one of the most popular areas of the amusement zone. It was designed in faux-Tudor style, giving it an Ivy League air, with two bandstands, an elevated dance floor, and refreshment stands surrounding it. With two platforms, there was continuous music, one band would break while the other played. The top orchestras of the day performed including Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Gene Krupa. There was even a contest, with Krupa, involving young drummers; the winner was a young Shelly Manne!
The Savoy Ballroom Theatre aka “The Temple of the Jitterbug,” featured the latest dances and hottest orchestras by their greatest exponents. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performed to the music of Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Teddy Hill, Erskine Hawkins, and Duke Ellington. Audiences were seated, witnessing spectacular displays of footwork and acrobatics to dances including the Lindy Hop, Shim Sham, Big Apple, Shag, and Susie-Q. It was also extremely popular, so much so that a Lindy Hop contest was held on May 21st, with many enthusiastic participants.
At the World’s Fair Music Hall one could attend a modern Jazz version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. The Hot Mikado stared the one and only Bill Bojangles Robinson, and a large cast, including Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (who joined the show after the Savoy Ballroom Theatre closed in mid-August). The show came to the Hall following its close on Broadway in mid-June, and proved immediately popular. Swinging versions of “Three Little Maids From School,” “I The Living I,” and “Let The Punishment Fit The Crime” were all featured, with the previous two being recorded by Erskine Hawkins’ Orchestra April 8, 1939. The public loved it, and it was one of the few exhibits to turn a profit (much to the relief of Fair organizers).
The Mardi Gras Casino was opened late into the Fair’s first year, on or about September 1st. It replaced the exhibit in the failed Textiles building, was free, had a dance floor, Swing bands, and a viewing and refreshment area. It was far more interesting than textiles, and with no additional entrance fee proved a very popular draw. Advertised as a “free jamboree for Jitterbugs,” from 8pm to closing, one could jive to the music of many of the aforementioned bands, as well as those of Jack Teagarden, The Casa Loma Orchestra, and Hal Kemp’s.
There is one other major Jazz - 1939 World’s Fair connection worth noting: music specifically created for the fair or music inspired by its goings on. Red Norvo recorded “Yours For A Song,” the fairs unofficial theme on April 6, 1939, Vocalion 4818, Cab Calloway recorded “Trylon Swing,” (after the Fair’s theme buildings the Trylon and Perisphere), on July 17, 1939, Vocalion/OKeh 5005, and Les Brown waxed both “Trylon Stomp,” and “Perisphere Shuffle,” on Bluebird B-10314, June 1, 1939.
Today it is difficult to imagine both the concept of a World’s Fair, and that Jazz could have such a prominent and overt display at an international event, but such was the case. In 1939 Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Tommy Dorsey, and Chick Webb were household names, the pop artists of their day. At an exposition heavily featuring American culture it was only fitting, and proper they be included – one of those rare moments where art and commerce intersected, providing entertainment which was also of high artistic merit. Though the fair itself was only temporary, it explored wondrous possibilities for “the world of tomorrow” providing hope and much needed relief to a population in a moment between the depths of the Depression and the horrors of World War Two - with Jazz providing the perfect musical backdrop.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]