by Terry Hogan
On September 13, a new DVD will become available that traces the construction, operation, and destruction of the 1893 Columbian World Exhibition, better know as the ChicagoÕs World Fair. The DVD is nearly two hours long and crammed with an unbridled array of facts and figures. That is both its strength and its greatest weakness. Gene Wilder, a great comedian, is the narrator, but you have to wonder why. He was not funny. To me he sounded like he was reading the script for the first time, and even then, seemed a little bored with it all.
The DVD is most akin to a PBS documentary, but less well edited, perhaps. If the World Fair is an important topic to you, or if you read the excellent book, The Devil in the White City (2003) written by Erik Larson, and you want a visual history of the Fair, this would be the DVD for you. Perhaps its greatest weakness was the tendency to go off on several tangents including WWI (which had not occurred yet at the time of the Fair), the Civil War (which ended 30 years before the Fair), labor unrest, segregation, and a mass lynching in New Orleans, to name a few. It also seemed to have a particular fascination with beer and an attractive but too-often-shown contemporary belly dancer. I can only speculate about this particular diversion of focus.
But it also has strengths. There is a great collection of photos showing the construction of the fair site, and the fair during its brief existence in 1893. It does have a brief segment on the Ferris Wheel that has Galesburg ties, but showing an obvious bias on my part, it seemed too brief. Nevertheless, it did have some very impressive views of the Ferris Wheel, itself, while unfortunately overlooking many of the amazing engineering achievements associated with it. It also has facts and figures for those in need. For example, the average wage was reported to be 10¢ a day, but the entrance fee was a staggering 50¢. Of course, this did not include rides or food or souvenirs. Photography was prohibited on site, without an expensive license and the police apparently spent more effort enforcing that rule than trying to catch pickpockets who preyed upon the hundreds of thousands of tourists.
The DVD has something for everyone. For me, I have been most fascinated by the rapid pace at which the site was selected, dredged, and filled and the magnificent buildings that were constructed. Frederick Law Olmstead is an under-appreciated hero in that process. He selected Jackson Park as the Fair site in Chicago. He made use of Lake Michigan as a backdrop for the Fair. He established the design for the lagoons and canals and the city of water that resembled Venice. He created a 600-acre site for the Fair.
The DVD correctly notes that the Fair buildings were design to be only temporary. They had neither the time nor the money to build permanent structures of the scale used for the Fair. These gigantic white buildings that appeared to be marble were only plaster, cement, and fiber overlaid on a framework of wood and steel. They were of such size and timing was so tight, that the painting of the structures could not be done by technology of the day - labor and a paint brush. Instead, spray painting, on a grand scale, was invented and implemented.
One notable exception of the temporary nature of the buildings is the current Museum of Science and Industry building which overlooks some of OlmsteadÕs aquatic design. It was designed using more permanent means in order to get insurance for the artwork that it would contain. Thus, the relic remains, but often unappreciated for its history.
There is a niche for Magic of the White City Expo. It is probably for those who enjoy Chicago history; for those who have a fascination with the 1893 WorldÕs Fair; and for those who read The Devil in the White City and want a broader historical and visual context for that book. I think the book and the DVD, together, probably add value to each.
Perhaps IÕve been a little too hard on the DVD. I probably had a pre-conceived bias of what it should have been (to meet my interests), rather than just watching it without that existing framework of anticipation. The WorldÕs Fair was an amazing achievement in a time of optimism when optimism may not have been justified.
Is it for you? Only you can decide that.
Magic of the White City Expo. (2005) Inecom Entertainment Company. Pittsburgh, PA. www.ColumbianExpo.com.
Larson, Erik. 2003. The Devil in the White City. Crown Publishers. New York.