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Golden Gate International Exposition: SFs Final World’s Fair - Part II

by James R. Smith

The world found itself at war on February 18, 1939, just as it had been on that very date for the opening of the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The United States claimed neutrality both times. Accompanied by a light breeze, the sun shone brightly on San Francisco Bay. Automobiles jammed the causeway exiting the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, and loaded Key System ferries steamed across the Bay that Saturday morning, all awaiting the grand opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco’s third world’s fair. San Francisco was again in celebration mode, and the fair openly supported peace with all nations.

The fair charged an entrance fee of fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children under age 12. A ride by ferry from the San Francisco or Oakland Ferry Terminals was a dime for adults and a nickel for children. Drivers paid a parking fee of fifty cents per car plus fifty cents for bridge fare.

Fair management quailed at the thought of servicing the expected 200,000 people. They warned of big crowds and recommended folks bring sack lunches. Heeding the warnings, only 130,000 attended the first day, and the food vendors suffered. Word quickly spread that the fair was indeed all the advertising claimed. The grounds lent themselves to long walks for tours of the magnificent structures, lush colorful gardens and courts, spectacular water displays, and soaring statuary. The fair cost $65,000,000, and every dollar showed.



The graceful Tower of the Sun proved the most prominent feature, visible from San Francisco and Oakland as well as anywhere on Treasure Island. Alec Templeton, the innovative blind piano virtuoso, played the carillon imbedded inside the tower, sometimes performing the unexpected, such as Bach fugues. The composer of Bach Goes to Town and Mozart Matriculates, Templeton delighted in using the carillon to demonstrate his latest arrangements and interpretations of classical music.

The fair’s theme celebrated “The Pageant of the Pacific,” featuring the countries of the Pacific Rim, including Japan and some countries who were in her grips as the war in the Pacific region escalated. China, in the throes of occupation, declined the invitation. The Japanese put on a good face toward the West, extending the hand of friendship while swarming over our openly displayed military ships, planes, and weapons.

Each country offered examples of the best they had to offer, either in goods such as Japanese pearls and Columbian coffee, indigenous art consisting of anything from baskets to finely turned pottery, or archaeological treasures that included a reproduction Mayan temple. The depression showed signs of breaking, and each country sought the growth in trade that the fair promised. Cultural activities abounded, fed by the hopes of luring travelers to participating countries to bolster local economies.

Entertainment, much of it free, proved the big draw for the fair. The sweeping outdoor Cavalcade of the Golden West in 1939, and 1940’s Cavalcade of a Nation, offered casts of 300, with horses, wagons, and costumed actors re-enacting historic events including battles, land rushes, and migrations. Art Linkletter wrote and narrated the pageants, with the voices of the characters spoken by actors reading a script backstage through microphones. Johnny Weissmuller and newcomer Esther Williams starred in Billy Rose’s Aquacade.

Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” agreed to take a major risk by playing “for free.” Swing, the hottest musical craze, packed the Treasure Island Music Hall and then the outdoor Temple Compound when the performances demanded more space. After twenty days, the fair awarded Goodman a scroll declaring his unprecedented achievement of playing to a million people in that short time.

Based on Goodman’s success, the fair hired Kay Kaiser and his College of Musical Knowledge to perform at forty cents a head in the Treasure Island Music Hall. He consistently packed the house with no loss of attendance to Goodman’s shows. Other name entertainment followed, including Jack Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone with Phil Harris’s Orchestra, Edgar Bergen with his wooden Charley McCarthy, and the biggest draw ever, Bing Crosby. Fair attendance soared, especially on discount days like Dime Days for kids. The management recognized a winning formula and continued to present the best they could find in musical and entertainment attractions.

The Gay Way provided other forms of enter-tainment, including the Joy Zone with its roller coaster and amusement park rides. Marquees read Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, Follies Bergere, and Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Barkers lured patrons to games of chance with “A spin of the wheel to win a ham by placing just one thin dime on the winning number” and the like. Food vendors offered familiar fare.

The fair also remained a stage for the latest commercial and scientific ventures. The University of California presented the Cyclotron, demonstrated through the use of ping-pong ball-like spheres to simulate the process for smashing atoms, the balls racing around the device while another ball was injected into the fray. Fiberglass was introduced, as was magnetic sound recording. General Electric displayed the kitchen of the future, and the Vacationland exhibit touted the value of vacationing via Pullman cars, streamlined buses, and modern cruise ships.

The Agriculture Hall presented the latest in high volume farming techniques, a way to feed America and the world. The Hall of Air Transportation featured the new Pan Am Clippers, a class of commercial seaplane capable of carrying passengers across the Pacific. The China Clipper and its hanger-mates took off for the East via Clipper Cove, situated between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island.

The fair remained in the red but popular at the end of 1939, and the board decided to keep it open one more year. 1940 found some of the original countries dropping out due to the war in the Pacific and their imminent involvement. Regardless, attendance remained high and the fair was extended a couple of times that year until September 29, 1940, when the closing program was presented on radio across the nation with a full crowd in attendance. Though it never made money and was lambasted by critics, our third and final world’s fair was a great success according to those who attended.

James R. Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007), is a frequent contributor to GuideLines.

Photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Aerial view of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

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Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, viewed from Yerba Buena Island.

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Chinese actors in full theatrical costume at the GGIE’s Chinese Pavilion in July 1939.

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Gay Way at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

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Translucent Pontiac on display at the General Motors exhibit.

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