The World's Fair ended 25 years ago this week. One night that final weekend—I think it was the night before closing—Jake Butcher, president of the remarkable United American Bank, threw a gala closing party and danced with his wife in the Court of Flags as people popped flashbulbs. Most of the thousands who worked at the fair didn’t get an invitation. Most of my old colleagues in Crowd Control didn’t. But the hosts wanted to invite all the international participants to the party hoping they’d go home with a positive impression of a city of which many of them had never previously heard. Because I’d gotten a job six weeks before as a museum guide at the Egyptian Pavilion, I was, as far as the Fair was concerned, Egyptian.
When I got the job, I’d checked out some books in Egyptian history at Lawson McGhee and stayed up all night reading. In short order I could stand beside cases of interesting rubble and give brief lectures on Queen Hatshepsut and Osiris, ruler of the underworld, answer questions from tourists from Michigan and Oklahoma, and tell them not to take any photographs because all the rubble was copyrighted.
To my credit, there were only three or four people on the fair site who were much more Egyptian than I was. When Jimmy Carter came through, I was disappointed that he met with one of the other Egyptians. But my international status got me an invitation to that party. It was held outdoors, under a swank banquet tent, at the Court of Flags. I wore an Egyptian flag pin on my lapel.
People from other countries were weeping, hugging, swapping pins. The Australian blokes were taking their last shots at the Japanese girls. The air was cool, with a little breeze. Jake and Sonya danced. Sonya never looked lovelier, but I watched Jake with particular interest: In the final days of the fair, one of his aides had offered me a job as Mr. Butcher’s speechwriter. Even after the fair, he’d still be a big-shot bank president; some expected him to be the next governor, maybe more. As of tomorrow, I would be unemployed, and any sort of job after the fair was appealing, but a job as a speechwriter for a governor seemed to have upward potential. I had just read All the King’s Men. I figured there might even be a novel in it.
I didn’t have a date. I knew only a few of the people there, and stood on the periphery. I swear there was something doomy about the breeze, and the evening.
It was the end of the city’s biggest party ever, but we thought it was just the beginning of a new cosmopolitan era for Knoxville, now one of a small fraternity of cities that had successfully hosted a world’s fair. Suddenly, national news reporters were referring to this place not as “Knoxville, Tennessee,” but as “Knoxville” as if its last name were as obvious as Cher’s.
And we all looked forward to a brave new post-Fair world when we’d be thriving without burning gasoline or coal—when we’d be drinking unrefrigerated milk and photographing the future with the wonderful new Kodak Disk camera.
All of that passed, like a weird dream. In November, the fair site, down the sidewalk from my Laurel Avenue apartment, was weirdly dark and quiet. In December, I got a letter from Jake’s aide that they expected some “changes” at the bank “in the near future” and didn’t yet have the expected go-ahead for my speechwriting career. They’d let me know. In February, Knoxville, no last name, became famous again, as the site of one of the biggest bank failures in American history. Jake wound up in jail. A few years later, national reporters began adding the”Tennessee” back to “Knoxville,” evidence that folks were once again forgetting, exactly, where we were.
Many of the millions who attended might have believed, like the promotional song said, history is being made in Tennessee. But I suspect the World’s Fair’s reputation ended that weekend, too.
References to the fair in history books are rare. Of course, there was that Simpsons’ episode that portrays the Sunsphere as a wig outlet. Even that was a long time ago now.
Looking at the photographs of the crowds, somehow they just don’t look legendary. They look happy, most of them, but not thrilled or ennobled or even particularly curious. They’re mostly in shorts and ball caps and brightly colored T-shirts with advertisements on them. They’re just people having a pretty good time, thinking about lunch. Maybe that’s what it was about.
As the 25th anniversary comes and goes, we seem to be on the way to erasing the last evidences of the fair. The last untouched corner of the old fair site, the quiet little stone-lined quay alongside where the real Second Creek emerges from underground, where I often took my lunch when I was an Egyptian, was plowed under a few months ago for an otherwise worthy bike-trail project. Most of the parts of World’s Fair Park that look like the remnants of a World’s Fair today were installed five years ago, for the purpose of looking like vestiges of a World’s Fair. The Court of Flags has been completely re-imagined, nothing like the site of that ominous dance, 25 years ago. I like it better now.
The U.S. Pavilion and the IMAX theater and the Solar Home were supposed to be permanent, but turned out not to be. After rusting away for years, the Tennessee Amphitheatre may have been saved, structurally at least, at some considerable expense, but we’re still trying to figure out what use to make of it. And after a quarter century, what to do with the Sunsphere remains a puzzle. The observation deck, which I never visited until this year, is open now. When I went up the other day, I think I was the only one there. I hope the latest restaurant/bar proposal works. It’s not a useless building; I’d prefer to think of it as use-challenged. An extravagant building without obvious purpose is the most persuasive proof that a city once hosted a world’s fair.