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Living: The Worldliest World’s Fair

8 minute read
Michael Demarest

New Orleans throws a $350 million fete on the levee

The fragrance of the food, they say, wafts all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico. The roar of the bands washes up the Mississippi to St. Louis, maybe. The soul, spirit and stomach of the World’s Fair that started its six-month run in New Orleans a week ago is the city itself: brooding and flamboyant, raucous and urbane, devout and dissolute. The fair stirs together the razzmatazz of Mardi Gras, the harmony of New Orleans’ elegant old buildings and the French-Spanish-African-Italian-Irish-German-Creole-Cajun gumbo gusto of its everyday, every-night street life. With a generous infusion of pavilions and exhibitions from the rest of the U.S. and 24 other nations, the Louisiana World Exposition—to give the $350 million extravaganza its formal name—is the worldliest of World’s Fairs.

It is also brushed with fantasy, whimsy and quite real magic. One day before Cajun-raised Governor Edwin Edwards opened the exposition by intoning “Laissez les bans temps rouler! Let the good times roll!” the grounds had been a construction site. But somehow overnight the fair was mostly ready to go. By the end of the first week, the last two pavilions were finally finished dressing. And everything painted, powdered and primped looked alluring, if slightly deshabille.

The fete’s official theme is “The World of Rivers: Fresh Water as a Source of Life,” and the planners have taken ingenious advantage of the aqueous motif. The main entrance to the 84-acre site is dominated by a sculpture of the sea god Neptune grappling with a tail-flailing native alligator. Flamboyantly presiding over the faux-granite gates are a titanic pair of bare-breasted mermaids, who have stirred a surprising flap in a city sated with live mammary display, and a gigantoid pelican, the state bird (no flap).

The grounds inside sparkle with fountains, winding waterways, aqueducts, pools and water sculptures. The fair has permanently opened up 4,000 ft. of riverfront that had become inaccessible to the city. Tall ships and small, paddle wheelers and naval vessels will tie up there during the summer. Most of the exhibitions, including those of the U.S., China, France, Egypt, Canada, Korea and the Mississippi states, feature water-related history, culture and technology. The water theme has provided a natural cue—if one is needed—for an Aquacade, styled after Billy Rose’s hit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The most popular attraction for children so far is the Kiddie Wash, which sprays, brushes, rinses and dries young visitors like a car laundry. With the city’s near tropical summer temperatures, parents may insist on accompanying their offspring for a dousing.

“There’s water, water everywhere,” a tour guide assures the visitor. “And plenty else to drink.” Just so. Water fountains for the thirsty were in short supply last week, but a daiquiri stand was an instant success, as was the bar in the Australian Pavilion (where an oversize can of Foster’s Lager was going for $5.50, and going very well indeed). Swelling the city’s already eclectic cuisine is an international array of offerings from bratwurst and gelato to the spicy home-town jambalaya. Some food sellers, however, particularly those in the out-of-the-way market area, reported that fairgoers were not gobbling their fare at quite the anticipated rate.

When the children are abed, the fair takes on a new life. Very good children should, in fact, be allowed to see the twilight transformation as 10 million light bulbs wink alive. The computerized lighting system, designed by Richard Peters, provides soft, ever changing illumination. Focal, ambient and sparkling lamps caress the roofs and walkways and bounce stars onto the river and lagoons. The lighting patterns change six times nightly and are different each night. Each evening too a different fireworks display explodes over the sky.

Music is everywhere. Cajun zydeco and cool blues vie with big bands and hot jazz. There are marching bands and washboard scratchers, as well as beer hall oom-pah-pah and big-name oomph. Concert performers will run the scale from Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt to Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern. Naturally, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain will also drop by to blow a few notes on behalf of the local talent.

But fun and games are not the whole point. First-week visitors crowded into the Vatican Pavilion to see its rare collection of art treasures. (A ticket for the Vatican exhibit costs $5, the only pavilion not included free in the fair’s $15 general admission.) Another early favorite was Canada’s 15-minute film that takes viewers on a giddy journey careering over rapids, falls and rivers to celebrate that country’s boast of having more fresh water than all the rest of the world together. A 15-minute, 3-D film in the U.S. Pavilion is almost as good, and the prototype space shuttle Enterprise sits just outside in graceful, awesome repose.

Some exhibitions were disappointing no-shows. An early boast that Jacques Cousteau would make his own watery contribution did not turn out to be true. Belize, Honduras and the Dominican Republic were planning a rain forest that has not yet fully emerged from the mists. Nor should visitors expect the sort of vast enterprise undertaken at the World’s Fairs in Montreal (1967) and in Osaka (1970). This is officially a World Exposition, on the scale of the one in Knoxville, Tenn., two years ago. Alongside that effort, New Orleans can hold its candle proudly, and with a raffish wink that few cities would wish to match.

The image of the fair that lingers longest in the mind is half a mile of intricate shapes called the Wonderwall, which connects the two main gates. Though it was designed for a practical purpose, to divert the eye from overhead power lines, fantasy has overtaken function. The fair’s master architects, Perez Associates, claim that the Wonderwall was inspired by Piranesi’s etching of the Circus Maximus in Rome, but the multicolored Styrofoam and Fiberglas-mesh structure looks more as if it had been dreamed up in a Bourbon Street bar by the design team of Dali and Disney. Grecian urns and Roman busts sit among the rooftops; gilded cherubs toot their horns; alligators double as seats; a peacock spreads a vibrant tail. The wall’s up and down hurly-burly has performing areas, water sculptures, flowers and 41 fountains.

Not the least of the fair’s merits is its convenient location, adjacent to the central business district, only blocks from the French Quarter. More than 15,000 of the city’s 24,000 hotel rooms are within walking distance. (Most hotels will continue the usual summer practice of discounting rooms 10% to 25%.) A 60-acre parking lot provides space for 7,500 cars and can handle about 20,000 bus passengers daily. From another huge parking lot, directly across the river in Algiers, visitors can swoop into the fair in a new 2,200-ft., $12.5 million gondola (gon-doh-la to natives). The ride in the six-person cars is worth it on its own for the spectacular views of the Mississippi, Lake Pontchartrain and the city 350 ft. below.

The fair will make a welcome permanent mark on New Orleans. Taking over a swath of the levee that had been cut off by wharves and railyards, the big show will leave behind the riverfront promenade, the gondola system and the Great Hall, which will become a convention center. It has also hastened the refurbishing of more than two dozen 19th and early 20th century warehouses, whose harmonious blend of textures and styles—Greek revival, Italianate and postmodern—is unmatched in any other U.S. city. These will be converted into badly needed offices, apartments and stores. The future star of the levee will be a $55 million shopping-and-entertainment mall called the Riverwalk, to be designed and run by the Rouse Co., which developed Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Baltimore’s Harborplace.

After some preopening financial difficulties, the fête accompile could still use some luck to go with its magic. It needs 65,000 visitors a day—12 million in all—to break even, and the first week was below that. Thin crowds on a few days left some attractions half-filled and dimmed part of the fair’s delight. But word of mouth among those who came was virtually all enthusiastic, and official confidence remains high. Win or lose, the city is looking better than it has in memory. And it is palpably feeling good, with reason. Let the good times roll.

—By Michael Demarest.

Reported by David S. Jackson and David Snyder/New Orleans

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