Putting a few pieces of the Fair back together again
Where is It Now?
by Kevin Crowe
The World's Fair exploded, in a sense. Not long after the festivities came to a close at the end of October, 1982, many curiosities found their way into unlikely places, only to be rediscovered and re-appreciated years later. Maybe 10 years from now, at some nondescript garage sale, we'll still find pieces of the Fair, lost flecks of 1982's ersatz. Today, for instance, a metallic " A " may be the only thing of note left of the Italian Pavilion. It comes from the sign that once hung over the pavilion's entryway; it simply read, ITALY .
For a while, local mechanic Eddie Harvey had the entire sign on display at his North Knoxville auto shop, but the ITALY slowly disintegrated. You can still see the " A ," of course, while driving along North Broadway, because the letter's hung prominently over Harvey's shop. It's now the "A" in EDDIE'S A UTO PARTS .
There's Fair memorabilia scattered everywhere if you know where to look. Forgotten pieces still turn up quite frequently in thrift stores and antique dealerships. Recently, at Mumsey's Treasures on Central Avenue, a beer mug, emblazoned with both the World's Fair and Budweiser logos, was on sale. And three years ago, just before Metro Pulse 's annual "Best of Knoxville" party, we happened upon a garage out west that was almost completely full of World's Fair Beer, the beer that was, by most accounts, undrinkable even when it was freshly brewed. All of the beer was given away as a quirky party gag, so long as folks agreed to never, ever drink it.
Even the Energy Express, the peculiar five-car tram that was used to promote coal as an alternative fuel, found its way to the small township of West Frankfurt, Ill. It's now on eBay, if you care to have a look. The asking price is $200,000.
Chris King wanted the Energy Express; he wanted it back in Knoxville for the Fair's 25th anniversary. He wanted it because he's always been unusually sleuth when it comes to finding lost pieces of the Fair. "I got it down to $40,000," King says of his attempt to purchase the tram. "Our money didn't line up, and I just couldn't buy it, basically."
After the fair, King's father purchased the Australian Pavilion for $2,500. "I spent the winter of '82 just yanking staples out of carpet," King goes on. "That's when my collection started.
"I'd hear all kinds of crazy stories from people who worked at the fair. The people who were running these pavilions were just on fire.... In the Australian Pavilion, we found four guns, just handguns. I don't even know how to explain that. We found drugs, what we think was cocaine."
And so it went, as the Fair slowly disappeared. One of the windmills from the Australian pavilion's clean energy display was donated to the University of Tennessee and could be seen off of Alcoa Highway for many years, where it provided the electricity for a house as part of Knoxville's Experiment Station project. The windmill, unfortunately, was sold at auction in the early '90s.
"It was there about eight or 10 years, I guess," says John Hodges III, director of UT's East Tennessee Research and Education Center. "I don't remember much."
Few have forgotten the giant Rubik's Cube, which the city gave to the East Tennessee Historical Society (ETHS). Not too long ago it was in tucked away below the web of interstate overpasses that funnel traffic in and out of downtown. It had previously been on display in front of the History Center. There it sat, idle and exposed to the elements, its motor no longer functioning. Vandals made off with most of its multi-colored panels. Then it went into storage, beneath a big, blue tarp.
Recently, however, local TV media-types were quick to notice that it was no longer stored beneath the interstate overpass.
"It has been our plan all along to get it as close to its original shape as we can, and that's what we're doing," says Michael Toomey, staff historian at ETHS. "As you can imagine, it's not the sort of thing that has any precedence. It has to be done right. We have a lot of different places that we're looking at. Help has come from a lot of different directions."
Toomey says that the Cube is currently being refurbished. "They're claiming that they found private funding to get it fixed," King says, rather incredulously. King once tried to purchase the Cube from ETHS. "Hopefully it's going to be fixed by July 4. But we'll see."
According to King, it will take approximately $5,000 to refurbish the Rubik's Cube.
"The Sunsphere freaks me out," says Carl Snow, a local guitar god who once worked the Fair. "I look up there and think, who thought that up? It's a tacky golf ball. I always wonder what's up there, and why it wants to be there." Snow lets out a hearty laugh when he begins to remember the days he spent at the Fair. "I'll take the 5th on that," he chortles. "I think everybody worked down there really. As the fair ate itself, we helped by taking things. If there was something there that was cool.... They'd throw the coolest shit away."
Most of Snow's Fair stories end the same way: "Man, we were drunk!" All of them but one, because in 1991, after deciding that he was going to help turn an old warehouse on Dale Avenue into a primo concert venue, Snow and his business partners became the proud owners of the bathroom fixtures from the American Pavilion. They transformed the warehouse into a club they dubbed the Orpheus. The next year it was renamed The Electric Ballroom.
"Carl was one of the partners that my construction company was working for," says Dana Wolfe, president of Lakeland Construction Services. "Although I didn't personally do the work on the bathrooms, we did nose around and found that more than enough fixtures were available."
The toilets and urinals were installed without any problems. "The bathrooms, when you walked in, were two stories tall, just open at the top," Snow recalls. "I think we wrangled a deal with some guy. I'm sure they weren't his toilets to sell.... They were just there, hanging out.... I had no idea porcelain was so expensive."
If you go to The Electric Ballroom, the toilets are still World's Fair originals. Last year, when a Misfits cover band played the Ballroom, one frenzied fan tore into the men's restroom, knocking a few stalls loose from the walls. They're still flushing, five or six nights a week.
"The toilets?" Wolfe says. "I think they're doing alright."