A Century of Progress – In Color and In Motion


Our recent post about transportation to and from the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair (aka A Century of Progress) jogged my memory a bit.  I recall reading a while back about the discovery of early color films from the fair, taken in 1933.

There had been color films of a sort prior to 1933, however most of these were much less successful “two-color” processes, which showed red and green but not blue.  For a list of early two-color Hollywood films prior to 1935, go here.  (The technically minded can also delve into great detail on the early Kodak color processes here.)

During 1933, there were experimental versions of either Technicolor or Kodacolor being tested, but these products were not commercially available until 1935.  A national spectacle, attracting millions of visitors, the fair was an obvious event to try out the new three-color films on.

Chicago’s second World’s Fair was also more colorful than its first one in 1893.  The World’s Columbian Exposition featured a neoclassical “White City,” while the 1933 version had multi-colored buildings and lighting of a more modern style.

Fortunately, some color footage from the 1933 edition of A Century of Progress has survived, and can be seen in some of the video links later in this post.  Without these films, our only evidence of color at the fair would be hand-colored postcards, posters, and such.

By comparison, by 1939-40, the time of the New York World’s Fair, 16mm Kodachrome movie film was available to the amateur market.  Consequently, there is a tremendous amount of color footage showing that fair.

The films include footage of the impressive Sky Ride, an aerial cable car that transported visitors to Northerly Island, which was built on landfill in 1928.  Fairgoers were transported nearly 2,000 feet at an altitude of 215 feet above ground.  The cable tram was suspended between to 628-foot high towers at the ends, with observation decks, the highest such points in the city.

Each streamlined “gondola” gave out wisps of steam from its tail, in a manner not unlike the rocket ships in the contemporary Buck Rogers comic strip, which first appeared in 1929.  (The competing Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond did not begin until January 7, 1934.  You can read some of those early strips here.  The movie serial versions of these comics did not appear until after the Chicago fair had closed.)

Apparently, each gondola was named after a different character in the extremely popular but controversial Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program, which had its roots in Chicago.  (While I have read that there were 12 such gondola cars, I’ve only seen pictures of three, named “Amos,” “Andy,” and “Brother Crawford.”)

Both my parents visited the Chicago World’s Fair.  My late father described how he had been stuck on one of the aerial cable cars for several hours when it broke down mid-flight.  My mother, who is now 86, still recalls her trips to the fair when she was 5 or 6 years old.  As you can see from the film footage, it was the type of event that many Chicagoans dressed up for in their finest clothes.

There were other novel modes of transportation at A Century of Progress.  Although the Chicago Surface Lines brochure in our earlier post shows a Dirigible or Zeppelin in the air (and one did visit Chicago in 1933) the films show a Goodyear Blimp in frequent use at the fair.

There was also an experimental auto on display, the streamlined three-wheeled “Dymaxion” car designed by Buckminster Fuller.  Unfortunately, interest in this car was quelled after it was involved in a fatal car crash, although the driver of the Dymaxion was not at fault.

The Chicago World’s Fair had an influence on the city that extended far beyond the 1930s.  Many of its scientific exhibits wound up at the Museum of Science and Industry, where they can be seen today.

The fair site was used for the successful 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair, which was also headed up by Lenox Lohr. Among its many exhibits, this fair featured an actual operating San Francisco cable car– the last cable car to be operated in Chicago to date.

While an attempt to continue the railroad fair for a third year was deemed a failure, this did lead to the Chicago Tribune‘s Col. Robert R. McCormick to envision a permanent site for summer exhibitions and fairs on the lakefront.

After years of discussion and planning, this effort resulted in the creation of McCormick Place, which opened in 1960.  Rebuilt after a disastrous 1967 fire, McCormick Place is now the largest convention center in North America.  Since A Century of Progress and the Chicago Railroad Fair successfully brought millions of people to Chicago’s lakefront, it was considered an excellent location for McCormick Place.

As a result, it is perhaps the most important legacy of those earlier fairs.  You can also read more about the genesis of McCormick Place in the book Political Influence by Edward C. Banfield, which we mentioned in an earlier post.

There are still a few traces of the World’s Fair, if you know where to look for them.  Five experimental houses from the fair were moved by barge across Lake Michigan to Beverly Shores, Indiana in 1935, where they remain today, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, comprising the A Century of Progress Architectural District.

Finally, using the final Youtube link below, you can listen to the rousing Chicago Worlds Fair Centennial Celebration March (1933) by composer Carl Mader.

 -David Sadowski

PS- Walt Disney (who was born in Chicago) is known to have visited the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair several times (one of at five such fairs he visited in his lifetime), and after watching some of these videos, it’s not difficult to see how A Century of Progress could have influenced Disneyland.