Lileks: Who needs a World's Fair when we have our Get-Together?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 12:14 AM

A recent news story about Secretary of State Mark Ritchie noted he’d be leaving office soon to work for an interesting project: bringing the World’s Fair to Minnesota in 2023. If “bringing it here” was defined as moving a large, prebuilt fair to Eagan and setting it down at no cost to anyone, I’d say go ahead. It would put Minnesota on the map. Have you seen a map lately? There’s just a vague hole where Minnesota should be.

But that’s not how it works. Someone has to pay for it, and it seems unlikely you can wring another billion out of e-pulltabs. So, no — and I say that as a World’s Fair fan.

Or as a collector of fair stuff, if you wish. I have an old scrapbook of some folks who left Iowa to attend the 1939 World’s Fair, and it makes Hannibal’s trek across the Alps with elephants look like a walk to the corner store. They stayed in bedbug-infested roadside courts, ate at diners that gave them horse-meat gut aches, suffered flats and blown radiators, and probably got scurvy in Ohio from a lack of citrus.

But it was worth it. Once they got to New York they saw a gleaming white modern city unlike anything on Earth, let alone Iowa. There was a robot who talked and smoked. Exotic pavilions dedicated to distant cultures. The Futurama show laid out the skyscraper-and-highway future that would be just around the corner, if it wasn’t for Old Man Depression and Middle-Aged Man Hitler.

The Iowans left notes in the scrapbook that have the power to reach across the decades and remind you what an impression it must have made:

Very hot today

Lunch: 15 cents

Well, maybe you had to be there. I wish I had been; the ’39 fair was the best. But you may prefer Chicago’s 1893 fair, which made every town in the country want to build classical palaces ashine in the wash of electrical lights. Or the 1964-65 New York edition with its Disney robots and the great Unisphere model of the world and statues of astronauts reaching for the stars. Or the Knoxville event of 1982, with its … its … (googling) mirrored tower that captured the rays of the sun and made the entire town smell like burnt bird.

Or Seattle ’62. At the end of “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” a movie shot at the Seattle fair, the most American thing ever happened: Elvis Presley joins NASA. Right there at the NASA Pavilion with the logo in the sky as big as the moon.

Unless you can hold an event that can match the Cool Factor of Elvis volunteering for spaceflight, don’t bother.

Do you know where the 2017 Fair will be held? Kazakhstan. The theme: “Future Energy.” Don’t everyone make plane reservations at once.

Boosters say it would result in billions of dollars of economic activity, partly from construction, and that’s true; if the state decided to dig a 250-mile trench through the state to attract the America’s Cup yacht competition, that would also create jobs. Knocking down the new Vikes stadium a year after it opens and building another would create jobs.

After the Fair’s over, though, what becomes of the site? Say we build a big grand Fair that out-Kazakhs them all, complete with the obligatory landmark. Say, a 20-story statue of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Blue laser beams that shoot out of his eyes as his head revolves.

Twenty years later the buildings are unused, the Doughboy is filthy with rust, and a community group petitions the Legislature for money to restore him.

DOUGHBOY’S LASERS ONCE MORE LIGHT UP THE SKY is a headline I’d like to see, but it’s not necessary.

I don’t mean to upend the ice bucket on the head of a grand dream, but we have a Fair. You may have heard of it. A little shindig in Falcon Heights. Around this time of the year you see ads for “Concrete driveway repair on a stick,” which everyone understands, because the end of August is the Time of Festive Impaling, and we all load up and head out for a day or two or 10 at the Get-Together.

We might not want the rest of the world to know we go to a big hot smelly place and look at boars with testicles the size of zeppelins, and eat french fries from buckets and think, “I’d better hurry up and finish these fries before I get to Sweet Martha’s, where another bucket shall be obtained.” It is a fair in the truest sense of the word.

Market that as a World’s Fair. It has the International Bazaar, so it qualifies. OK, you say, why not build a duplicate Falcon Heights somewhere in the outskirts of town and run that as a World’s Fair for a year? Well, A) You’re a silly, silly person, and B) because the lure of the Fair rests partly in the brevity of its duration. If the State Fair lasted a year, I don’t think attendance would be half what it is after 10 days. You have to go there before it vanishes and takes summer with it.

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