A Contrarian in Polyester

Secret History

What was the 1982 World's Fair about, really?

By Jack Neely

At my daughter's high school, kids wear new T-shirts adorned with the World's Fair logo. Real World's Fair souvenirs are envied. She knows a couple of teenagers who even have Sunsphere tattoos. At long last, the 1982 World's Fair is cool. It's a quality that eluded the exposition and its marketers 25 years ago.

The 1982 World's Fair was fun, but it wasn't cool. It was the exposition equivalent of the Kodak Disk camera, which, with some fanfare, it introduced.

It was supposed to show us new ways to use energy more efficiently, but after the fair, the consumption of fossil fuels actually increased in America and especially in the Tennessee Valley. People didn't go to the fair to be preached to. They went to be entertained.

World's Fairs are expected to be futuristic. In terms of entertainment, the 1982 World's Fair wasn't even quite modern.

Most who performed at the Tennessee Amphitheater were folks who had been much bigger stars in the â‘50s, â‘60s or â‘70s than they were in 1982. Jimmy â“Dyn-o-miteâ” Walker; Slim Whitman; Red Skelton; Glen Campbell; Skitch Henderson; the Inkspots; Mary Travers; the Kingston Trio. At the Tennessee Amphitheatre, I saw Richie Havens singing â“Freedom,â” exactly like he did at Woodstock 13 years earlier.

Some of it was good. But almost all the performers who headlined at the fair were folks who had already seen their day; it was almost as if familiarity to the middle-aged were the chief requirement.

There were crowded kiosks where you could buy bathroom mirrors that said, â“FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?â” It was a line from a Clint Eastwood movie from a decade earlier. If the world had indeed come to Tennessee, I hoped the world wouldn't look at these things too closely.

My girlfriend's favorite exhibit at the whole 1982 World's Fair was a TV showing a continuous loop of Elvis Presley's 1968 Comeback Special.

There were lots of new things in 1982. The new things in music were punk, New Wave, rap. There was none of that at the fair. The perky theme of the Energy Express that toured the fair every evening had a persistent disco beat.

There were, in fact, hardly any undeniably 1982 moments at the 1982 World's Fair. One was when the Warsaw Philharmonic played, during the Solidarity crisis in Poland, and applauded a SOLIDARNOSC banner in support of the rebels back home.

And there was the day the B-52s visited the Fair, in beehives and thrift-store day-glo, their full crypto-retro New Wave regalia; they drew stares from Fairgoers who probably thought they were merely out of style. They walked through the fairsite, apparently just as tourists; they probably wouldn't have been allowed to perform.

It was a lively era. MTV was new. REM made its first album. It was the year of Grandmaster Flash's â“The Messageâ”; it was the year of Madness and Culture Club and the Go-Go's and the Police and Prince.

The Fair allowed nothing in the way of new music. But its employees, many of them carnies from all over, helped pack the clubs on Cumberland Avenue. REM played a show in a short-lived club called Hobo's on Cumberland near the end of the fair. Hobo's closed soon after the fair did.

The few futuristic references were to a former era's futurism that, by 1982, were almost quaint. A geodesic dome, a solar-powered car, an IMAX theater.

Some of these wonders seemed to hail from previous world's fairs. Working in crowd control, I got tired of tubby tourists complaining, â“How come there's no jet pack? In New York, there was a jet pack.â” They wanted to be sure I knew that they were at the last New York World's Fair, held in the Thunderball era of 1964, which did boast a jet-pack rider. Back then, my friends and I were all pretty certain we'd be riding jet packs to school by 1970, at the latest. By 1982, jet packs were retro, and certainly weren't any sort of fuel-efficient alternative vehicle. But the 1982 World's Fair administration apparently got as many complaints about the fair's dearth of jet packs as I did, and they aimed to please. Late that summer, they did succeed in recruiting a guy to bring his jet pack down to Knoxville. A couple thousand people showed up to see him off and wish him well. He took off from a spot near the Tennessee Amphitheater and noisily drifted around in a circle above the Waters of the World before landing again without a flourish a few seconds later.

In the early days of the Fair I tried hard to look out of place among these tens of thousands of people who were mostly dressed like kindergarten children, even though some of them were as old as my grandparents, with shorts and brightly colored T-shirts with logos and funny sayings on them, and sneakers, and sometimes funny hats mounted with plastic toys.

I don't often wear a tie, but frequently did when I went to the World's Fair on my own time. But I worked in crowd control for most of the fair's duration. I didn't know much about fashion, but in 1982, cotton was cool, in all senses. If you were a young man with any prospects at all in 1982, you wore a cotton shirt. But the official-issue uniforms for crowd-control staffers was a bright red shirt with a multicolor pocket bar, made of solid shiny polyester. In 1982, polyester was distinctly '70s. And therefore, probably, the official fabric of the 1982 World's Fair.   

At least it was better than the T-shirts I saw every day. Though the T-shirts the tourists wore were arguably the freshest and most modern sight at the fair, they could make one weary with repetition. I think the first obscene T-shirt I ever saw was on a sunny afternoon near the Japan pavilion. A young man was wearing it. Its statement was simple, and pungent:   â“If you ain't from Tennessee, you ain't shit.â” Security checked their books, and seemed perplexed about how to deal with him.

A great many of the T-shirts had to do with a motion picture called E.T. One I saw over and over in the China Line had a phone message that said, â“E.T. Phone Home.â”

All the tourists thought it was quite funny. Almost everybody, the old ones and the little kids, had seen the movie, and repeatedly described it to me as they were waiting in line to see the wonders of the East. I got tired of the movie before I ever saw it. To this day, I have not ever seen E.T ., and have not yet developed a desire to. I've been told it's a very good movie. I'm still tired of hearing about it.

Today my daughter asks me why I never wear my World's Fair windbreaker, or T-shirts with logos or funny sayings on them. And I have to tell her that I was at the World's Fair, almost every day of it, and just decided not to, ever.

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