cover_story2 (2007-14)

Giving the World’s Fair its Media Due

A journalist’s recollections of

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Giving the World’s Fair its Media Due

by Barry Henderson

Covering the 1982 World's Fair was a task the Knoxville media weren't up to in the run-up to the international extravaganza, originally billed as Energy Expo '82.

The Fair, hammered into existence by a cabal of politicos, mostly local and mostly Democrats, engendered a tornado of controversy from the outset of its planning in the late 1970s. Mayor Kyle Testerman, a Republican, was among the first to propose it, and he still claims it was mainly his baby, but it was Dems who ran with it.

The Knoxville newspapers covered the arguments for and against such an ambitious enterprise pretty superficially. There was Joe Dodd, the UT political science professor, leading the citizen opposition to the exposition on fiscal grounds, and there was Cas Walker, the aging Knoxville power broker and opponent of practically everything, who was declaring in the days before the grand opening that the city would get a black eye from ripping off the visiting public with exorbitant prices and too little to show for its organizing efforts.

The Knoxville Journal , then the growing morning daily that was to come under the Gannett aegis before the Fair started, had put a tough, recalcitrant reporter named Ernie Beasley on the pre-Fair beat. Beasley milked the opposition while quoting the Knoxville backers, led by banker Jake Butcher and Mayor Randy Tyree, but it was like the same song and dance, repeated over and over. Tyree eventually convinced the City Council to approve the deal, and it went forward.

Butcher, who had run twice for governor on the Democratic ticket, enlisted the backing of the late Atlanta banker and financier Burt Lance, who had the ear of President Carter, and federal participation in the Fair and some of its financing were assured. Lance's own dealings were scorched by scandal before the Fair opened.

A News Sentinel reporter of the day was convinced, he said, that the clearing of the Lower Second Creek Valley for the Fair site would result in a sort of glorified Tennessee Valley Fair, with Gooding's Million-Dollar Midway, a few exhibits and freakshows, and the "World's Fair" as he envisioned it would end up an embarrassment.

It didn't work out that way, but there were hitches in the plans as its development progressed. The Journal , which eventually supported the Fair idea, worried in print about cost overruns, and financial shortfalls, which resulted in the sale to mostly East Tennesseans of season passes to the half-year-long Fair. Tens of thousands of people kicked in $60 apiece for the passes to bail it out. Then, there was an 11th-hour miscue in Fair management. Just two weeks before the Fair was to open the management team proposed in public that Fair ticket prices might have to be increased from the published $9.95 per day, and that the season passes might not be honored on busy days when the Fair site was filled with out-of-towners.

A Journal editorial reviled that thought, and it was discarded forthwith, but the Fair opened with a bittersweet taste in journalists' mouths from the slight the Fair management had accorded the strong area support. The newspapers had staffed up to meet the demands of day-to-day coverage, with talented interns taken on by the Journal in unprecedented numbers and fulltime reporters and photographers hired specifically for the period of the Fair.

The Journal devoted a special issue to opening day, Saturday, May 1, 1982, and the front page banner read, "Welcome World--The Scruffy Little City Did It," referring to the "scruffy little river city" title a Wall Street Journal story had bestowed on Knoxville in a story about the Fair's preparations.

I remember being sent down to the site to gather my impressions of the Fair's weekend opening for Monday publication.

It was a sobering experience, even though the official opening began with a "champagne reveille" at the U.S. Pavilion and the spacious elaborate pressroom offered free beer to "working" journalists. The Fair site itself was mightily impressive, with 22 nations represented.

Dinah Shore, the ageless chanteuse, emceed the ceremonies, at which President Reagan delivered the opening speech. It was a mild disaster. Reagan did not recognize any of the Democrats on the podium there at the International Court of Flags, and he spent at least 15 minutes attacking the energy policies of the prior Democratic administration of President Carter.

Jake Butcher stalked off in mid-speech to watch the Kentucky Derby on television, and the rest of the Democrats in attendance stood around in shock.

But the opening got generally good assessments from the nation's press. It was front-page news in New York, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago the next morning, and the big-city writers mostly praised the Fair's presentation.

The phone banks and typewriters that festooned the Fair's pressroom had been busy for hours that Saturday, but by late afternoon, several reporters from big and small media were observed sleeping on the lush couches provided there for their relaxation.

First visits by the Knoxville media reps to the pavilions set up by other countries were eye-opening experiences. China's and Egypt's pavilions focused on ancient artifacts, more than they did energy exhibits. Energy took a back seat to tourism-promoting features for the pavilions of Australia, Hungary, Mexico and most of the other countries that participated. The U.S. Pavilion was the only one that was dedicated almost entirely to energy issues and displays. Ironically, it was destined to be torn down because of its own energy inefficiency.

The Fair also became a mouth-watering experience. Besides those assigned to cover special events or entertainment, Journal staff people ambled down to the Fair nearly every day for lunch. The Journal had been accorded a stack of one-day passes by the organizers. It was so deep we never ran out, and the food offered at the Fair became its most distinctive feature as a daily lure from the newsroom, five blocks up the street.

Once we rode what was billed as World's Largest Ferris Wheel or the roller coaster and the rest of rides along the riverfront midway, and saw what the pavilions had to offer, we stuck to the food and special entertainment. There was no Hungarian restaurant in Knoxville outside the Fair park, and we took advantage of its excellent fare, including authentic gulash, regularly. The Stroh Haus had the best of the wursts along with good beer and an oompah band, and the Aussies' appeal was mainly beer-based. There was a Chinese restaurant that was pretty good and stayed crowded, and there were kiosks offering assorted delicacies from funnel cakes to barbecue all up and down the grounds. For locals with passes, the chance to eat from a variety of sources like that was a great part of the Fair's appeal.

There were also more name entertainers in town that year than there'd ever been, although they didn't all play the Fair itself. Other downtown venues were blessed with shows by such draws as Bob Hope. I don't recall where they all appeared, but comedians such as Red Skelton and Victor Borge were also in town, as were musicians such as trumpeter Al Hirt, clarinetist Pete Fountain, blues fiddler Papa John Creach and many more. There was a wonderful drum and dance troupe from Ghana, and a performance by ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev.

The Journal   previewed or reviewed all the big-name performances. The Fair provided a smorgasbord of photo opportunities for us for its entire duration, plus fireworks displays that we used to troop outside to watch nearly every evening, and it was a pretty downcast group of journalists who gathered for the closing ceremonies that October . The party, we felt, was over. In a way, we were right, but the World's Fair Park has turned out to be a great party venue ever since. The parties there just aren't as continuous and other-wordly as they were in that glorious Fair season of '82. Why don't we do that again sometime?

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