The last New York World’s Fair, celebrating “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” lives on in John Riccardelli’s tiny New Milford, N.J., apartment.
Riccardelli is a foremost collector of memorabilia from the 1964-65 exposition, which was underway 50 years ago at Flushing Meadows, and from its 1939-40 predecessor.
The first two 1964 tickets issued by the New York World’s Fair Corp.?
Riccardelli’s got them.
The TelePrompTer script that President Lyndon Johnson read from on opening day, April 22, 1964?
Riccardelli’s got it.
The leather-bound registry that visitors to the British Pavilion signed at the 1939-40 fair?
He’s got that, too. Two signatures stand out: George R.I. and Elizabeth R — aka King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
“Some of this stuff I can’t believe I own,” Riccardelli exclaimed in a pinch-me sort of way.
Riccardelli, who works for a photographic agency, was a small boy when his parents took him to the 1964-65 fair. (He remembers walking along the rim of the Unisphere, the stainless steel globe that was the fair’s symbol and is still a Queens landmark, and falling into the water.) He started collecting a decade later, after he found a box of fair souvenirs in the family’s Dumont, N.J., attic.
Today, Riccardelli’s collection fills every cranny of a one-bedroom apartment; boxes of things are stacked to the ceiling.
There are buttons and badges and pins and guidebooks and maps and signs and postcards and brochures and uniforms and photographs and the banner that Robert Moses, urban mastermind and president of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair Corp., kept in his office.
There are souvenirs: a chunk of maple syrup candy from the Vermont Pavilion in 1939-40, a canister of tea from the India Pavilion in 1964-65.
There’s the press kit and poster from “Lucy Day” on Aug. 31, 1964, when the fair honored comedian Lucille Ball.
There’s a never-opened box of Chux disposable diapers promoting a “Wing-Ding-Fling” — first prize, two round-trip tickets to the 1964-65 fair, baby sitter included.
“It’s so wild I just had to buy it!” its owner gushed.
Riccardelli won’t discuss the value of the culturally significant collection. Nor will he say how many objects he has; suffice it to say, thousands. He lends to museums, notably the Queens Museum, which occupies the New York City Pavilion from the 1939-40 fair. That, too, was held in Flushing Meadows.
Louise Weinberg, registrar and archives manager of the Queens Museum, put Riccardelli among the “top five” New York World’s Fair collectors.
“This is his life; it’s what’s meaningful to him, and he’s been exceedingly generous in bringing us these prime artifacts,” she said. “We have no budget to speak of, and we’re dependent on the kindness of strangers. John’s right up there.”
Objects from Riccardelli’s collection will be included in the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Behind the Curtain: Collecting the New York World’s Fairs 1939-1965.” Riccardelli is only too happy to contribute.
“We’re all just temporarily watching this stuff and I want the public to enjoy it,” he said. “Us collectors are doing what the museums can’t do — they don’t have the money anymore.”
Riccardelli has amassed his trove by transacting with other collectors and dealers and by going to auctions and shows. He also scours obituaries for people with a World’s Fair connection. That’s how he got the script LBJ read from. It had been in the possession of a reporter who covered the fair — an assignment mentioned in the obituary.
Years ago, Riccardelli went to an estate sale in River Edge, N.J. Unbeknown to him, it was the home of architect Reino Aarnio, who designed the Hawaii Pavilion at the 1964-65 fair. Riccardelli bought all of Aarnio’s documents relating to the pavilion.
Other World’s Fair enthusiasts are in awe of what Riccardelli has, especially the one-of-a-kind artifacts such as the guest book signed by royalty.
“I’ve seen portions of John’s collection on display at various museums — it’s breathtaking,” said Bill Cotter, co-author of three books on the 1964-65 fair. “It takes real dedication to pursue, and get, what he’s interested in.”
Riccardelli’s most recent acquisition was a photograph of the testing of the lighting at the 1939-40 fair. Thomas Edison’s image is projected onto the Perisphere, that fair’s signature structure along with the spire-shaped Trylon.
Riccardelli just had to have the photo. He was at a loss to explain why.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I just do it. It’s part of me.”