H.J., a 5-foot-7-inch perambulatory bottle of Heinz ketchup--"the official ketchup of the 1982 World's Fair"--strolls up to Virginia Joy of New York City and offers his mechanical arm for a handshake.
"H.J. here," he says. "How are you doing today? Have a pickle."
And he points to a little dispenser in his belly, laden with inch-long green pins shaped like pickles.
"Oh," says Joy. "I remember the Heinz exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. I was 8. They were giving these pins out then too."
"Glad to have you back with Heinz," says H.J.
"And welcome to the fair."
For the next six months, through the end of October,, there will be a World's Fair here in Knoxville, which Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker says will be one of the "most memorable and meaningful world fairs in history."
If the senator's appraisal seems to sound a bit provincial, he may be just summing up the real meaning of the fair. Although the official theme is "energy turns the world," much of what is said and written in the newspapers here seems to be less about the theme than direct rebuttal to a 1980 Wall Street Journal article that questioned the ability of Knoxville--which it called a "scruffy little city of 180,000 on the Tennessee River" comparing itself to Paris and New York--to pull off a $100 million extravaganza. "What if you gave a World's Fair and nobody came?" asked The Journal.
Well, the patrons--at $10 a ticket--are coming, although not quite in the numbers expected. The Knoxville International Energy Exposition, corporate organizers of the event, predicted 100,000 for Saturday's opening; half that number showed, the KIEE said last night. There were to be traffic jams and no hotel rooms; the traffic flowed, and rooms were available.
From the top of the Sunsphere, a 266-foot observation tower and restaurant, the fair seems to have been inserted right into the center of downtown Knoxville, whose old gray storefronts lay in dull contrast to the aerial gondolla cars and oddly shaped structures and colorful domes of the fair's 50 corporate and 21 international exhibits. In 1974 one of those downtown store merchants conceived of the fair as a way to revitalize the town; eight years later, after much lobbying with the U.S. government and the Paris organization that licenses international expositions, the fair is a reality, which has brought with it $225 million in highway improvements, several new hotels, charges of price gouging and the eviction of apartment tenants by landlords renting out rooms to fairgoers.
But beyond the vagaries of this massive undertaking is a substantive issue: What is there at this fair to draw the patrons? If world's fairs were once lavish showplaces of brave new worlds, Knoxville's seems a blend of stubborn provincialism, the realities of recession economics and a vision of America that idolizes the shopping mall. There is nothing here that can't be found anywhere else, with the possible exception of ultrapasteurized milk which will last for three months without refrigeration, a creation of the Flav-o-Rich Dairy, suppliers of the official dairy products of the 1982 World's Fair.
The only truly imposing pavilion is the U.S. government's $20 million glass triangle, which was to have been solar-cooled; design problems forced the solar share of the work down to 10 percent. And inside all this glass is little to stimulate the mind. The building is filled with computers, but nowhere to be found is an explanation of how they work--something so wonderfully done at the 1964 fair in an IBM pavilion created by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. The most suscinct insight to this fair may come from these paragraphs in a display about previous world's fairs:
"The 1964 World's Fair in New York, on the same site as the 1939 World's Fair, was an extravangant celebration, filled with bizarre buildings, exotic foods, moving sidewalks and multi-media 'experiences' . . . The future, as seen from the 1964 fair, was a world in which the promises of science and technology were completely fulfilled. General Motors attempted to repeat its 1939 success with an updated 'Futurama' complete with a simulated trip to the moon and a domed underwater resort. Spectators also saw an irrigated desert burst into bloom and a thick forest cleared by lazer beams. In another pavilion, a display of atomic fusion suggested a virtually limitless source of energy." At the 1964 fair, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler spent millions of dollars on sprawling exhibitions. This year, only Ford--the official car of the 1982 World's Fair--has a small display, tucked among two dozen other exhibits in a large technology hall.
"World's fairs aren't quite what they were," says Ford's Tom Foote. We certainly spent a whole lot more money in 1964. Maybe it simply has something to do with the general economic situation of the country."
This is not to say that the crowds here, largely from the Knoxville area so far, are not having fun.
"I think it's just wonderful and colorful and a lot of fun," says Quentin Walker, who lives outside the city, and right now is watching his 9-year-old son, Quentin III, standing up on a box, pump tokens, at three for a dollar, into a new video game called Zaxxon, which has a frightening realistic video display (perhaps the most sophisticated electronics at the fair) of an enemy city, through which Quentin III is maneuvering a jet, left and right, up and down, blowing up enemy planes and rockets and fuel tanks.
"The fair's okay," says Quentin. He's jumpng left and right on the box as he controls his jet. "Zaxxon is great." There must be a dozen Zaxxon units in this sprawling windowless arcade with about 250 video machines and a Pac-Man boutique, offering Pac-Man sleeping bags, pillows, coffee mugs, T-shirts, hats, key rings, lapel pins, posters, trays, Silly Putty and dart guns. The place is packed. Forget about getting near a Ms. Pac-Man unit. The enthusiasm in the noisy arcade is more tangible than anywhere else on the 72-acre site.
Perhaps a real clue to understanding this fair and America's current self-image can be found in the Federal Express pavilion, the most expensive corporate display here at $2 million--Ford and General Motors each spent about $20 million in New York in 1964. In a darkened hall, viewers watch a 15-minute filmed musical about a young boy who discovers an "inner light" and starts projecting a lazer beam from his brain. "I'm all that you can be," booms an omniscience. "You can be anything. The world is yours."
And the force be with you.
Over at the United Kingdom pavilion, browsers can see several large color photographs of the princess of Wales, made relevant to the fair's theme by this caption:
"Before her marriage to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer drove Britain's top selling car, the energy-saving British Leyland Austin Metro."
Outside a geodisic "Home of the Future," which seems more like a Quonset hut than a house with a hearth (fueled by "Recycl-log--the only manmade logs selected for display in the 1982 World's Fair"), sits a 1982 Lincoln Continental equipped with a touch-tone voice-activated telephone. Anyone can climb into this car of the future and place a free three-minute call to anywhere in the world. The only catch is that the conversation is piped out over a PA system so that viewers of the home of the future can listen in.
Chris Weil, 22, from Seacliffe, Long Island:
"Hi. How are you? Where are you?"
"I'm at the World's Fair. I'm gonna be home in a week and a half."
"Oh good. I was worried that you would be home earlier and I wouldn't be ready."
"This call is free. I'm in a demonstration."
"Oh you mean you're on TV? Can I watch?"
Kevin Thomas, 21, from Lake Park, Fla.:
"Hi Mom." I'm in a Lincoln Continental with an experimental phone in it."
"Well, bring the Lincoln home."
(At this point the woman running the demonstration opens the door to inform Mom that the car cost $23,000.)
"Well, bring two home."
Outside the Chinese pavilion, with its 17 bricks from the Great Wall of China protected by bulletproof glass, a dozen Chinese workers in blue suits are shoveling horse manure into a methane generator.
"Hell, them Japanese sure do work hard," says a man with a mouth full of South, standing under a dogwood tree from Leaf & Tree, "the official dogwood tree of the 1982 World's Fair." He is sipping a cup of JFG coffee--the official coffee of the 1982 World's Fair, which has been brewed with the Bunn-o-matic coffee filter, the official coffee filter of the 1982 World's Fair.
"Hey, Chuck," he calls to a friend. "This fair is all about energy and I'm wore out."