Disney at the 1939 New York World's Fair

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When Disney fans think of Disney and the New York World's Fair, it is understandable that they think of the one that ran 1964-1965 and introduced some attractions (e.g. "it's a small world," Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, The Carousel of Progress, the transportation technology used in the Ford Motor Skyway to create the PeopleMover) that would later be transplanted to Disneyland.

However, Disney also had a prominent presence at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair that had some elements (e.g. the huge nearly 200 foot tall round ball known as the Perisphere at the entrance of the park, nighttime fireworks and dancing water and light show on the lagoon, the working model for Futurama that showed the world of the future in 1960, etc.) that many think influenced some aspects of Epcot.

The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, located on the current site of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was also the location of the later 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, and was one of the largest world's fairs of all time.

More than 44 million people attended its exhibits in its two seasons.

There was also the competing Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Sponsored by 11 of the Western states of the United States and 28 foreign countries, this "World's Fair of the West" was built on Treasure Island, a man-made island in San Francisco Bay.

The 1939 New York World's Fair was divided into seven zones, from Amusement to Transportation, and 60 countries, as well as 33 U.S. states or territories, showcased their heritage. In all there were roughly 375 structures that included about 100 major exhibit buildings.

Although the Fair planners aimed at high culture and industrial progress, there were plenty of carnival-like delights (including the Florida's pavilion life-size talking Ponce De Leon statue).

The 1939-1940 World's Fair was held in Flushing Meadows, also the site of the 1964-1965 World's Fair.

The operators of the Fair stated, "In the interests of many of the millions of Fair visitors, amusement comes first" which also included a naked girlie show in one of the pavilions that was highly popular.

According to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (also responsible for the 1964 version), in the mid-1930s an obscure Belgian engineer named Joseph Shagden and a Colonel Edward Roosevelt (cousin to the U.S. president) came up with the idea of a World's Fair at Flushing Meadows, which was basically a swampy landfill.

It was Moses who pitched the idea to NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as a great civic improvement and that the infrastructure would later be the foundation for a beautiful park to be known as the "Versailles of America."

Construction began June 15, 1936, and the fair opened on April 30, 1939, which coincided with the 150th anniversary of George Washington's presidential inauguration. Within one year, 10,000 trees had been planted, as well as improvements like the Grand Central Parkway connection to the Triborough Bridge.

Many of the companies that had exhibits at the New York Fair were later the first lessees at Disneyland and Disney historian Todd James Pierce (a reliable source) believes they were specifically targeted by Disney because of their participation in this similar outdoor entertainment venue.

In fact, Fred Schumacher had worked on the 1939 World's Fair and established relationships with these companies. Years later, along with C.V. Wood, Schumacher was responsible for making the Disneyland pitches to these same particular companies.

Disney Merchandise

At the 1939 New York World's Fair, A.W. Robertson, chairman of the Board of Westinghouse, and Grover Whalen, president of the 1939 New York World's Fair, placed an Ingersoll Mickey Mouse wristwatch into a sealed time capsule not to be opened for 5,000 years (the year 6939). Westinghouse actually coined the term "time capsule" and this is the first time that term was ever used.

The capsule, which was 7-feet long and weighed more than 800 pounds was buried 50 feet deep. Also included were a kewpie doll, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Gillette safety razor, a dollar in change, copies of Life magazine, and more.

The very first Mickey Mouse wristwatch was featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago (considered an official World's Fair). At the Exposition, the Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watch outsold the World's Fair commemorative watch by a three to one margin, with as many as 5,000 Mickey Mouse watches selling each day, usually to adults who stood in long lines to purchase one.

Both former Disney Archivist Dave Smith and Disneyana collectibles expert Tom Tumbusch have confirmed that the 1933 Chicago World's Fair pocket knives with Mickey Mouse on them often offered for sale on eBay are fake.

"No Disney characters appeared on any 1933 World Fair items. The first authentic Mickey Mouse knife was made in the late 1930s by Imperial Knife," Smith said.

"The only official pocket knives with Mickey Mouse were made by the Imperial Knife Company starting in 1936 and ended production in 1938," Tumbusch said. "All these 1933 World's Fair knives with Mickey are modern fakes made starting around the 1970s."

The 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco was the first known World's Fair that Walt attended. He visited at least four others during his lifetime, including the 1962 one in Seattle. Walt said there would be "Space Needles cropping up all over after the success of this one," proving that even Walt was not always right.

A round pin for the 1939 New York World's Fair was issued with Mickey walking and waving in front of the Trylon and Perisphere. That pin is authentic Disney merchandise.

Mickey Mouse and Nabisco

Both of the 1939 New York World's Fair venues had exhibits sponsored by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) that presented a very special Technicolor Mickey Mouse short cartoon titled Mickey's Surprise Party.

Mickey Mouse in an exhibit and a special cartoon short presented by Nabisco.

The N.B.C. National Biscuit Company Magazine issue of January-February 1939 (Volume 26, Number 1) has an article titled "N.B.C. Theaters at New York and San Francisco World's Fairs."

Here is an excerpt:

"In New York, we have a circular space in Food Building North, and hellip; are erecting an air-conditioned motion picture theater seating approximately 266 persons.

"On Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay our Company has erected a modern motion picture theatre in the Food and Beverages building. The theatre is rectangular in shape with rounded corners, and seats about 130 persons. There will be no charge to either theatre.

"At both Fairs, the N. B. C. screen program will be the same (except that in San Francisco a few of the products featured are different from those in the New York Version). …"

Mickey's Surprise Party produced for National Biscuit Company might be considered one of the very first "infomercials."

Obviously a lot of money was spent on this cartoon, since the color is much richer than some of the other Mickey cartoons at the time and when Mickey first appears on Minnie's front porch there is shadowing (even around Mickey's nose) that doesn't appear in other Mickey cartoons of the time because of the labor and expense. It helped make the characters look more three-dimensional.

Minnie Mouse and her dog, Fifi, are in the kitchen with Minnie stirring a bowl because they are going to "surprise Mickey with some cookies like his mother used to make."

When Minnie leaves the room, Fifi barks to shoo away an annoying fly from the batter. When Fifi gives chase, she accidentally knocks an entire box of uncooked popcorn into the batter.

Minnie returns unaware of the accident and puts the cookies in the oven.

Mickey shows up with flowers for Minnie. Pluto shows up with a dog bone for Fifi. Mickey is curious what surprise Minnie has planned as she sits coyly at the piano.

Suddenly, there is the smell of smoke of burning cookies.

Mickey scoops up a bug sprayer and fills it with water from the gold fish bowl, leaving just enough for the poor fish. Using the sprayer and hiding behind an overturned table, Mickey battles valiantly against the exploding (because the popcorn inside them is now popping) and burnt cookies.

Pluto also joins in the fray but accidentally swallows one of the cookies that continues to pop inside of him for awhile.

Minnie is distraught and collapses into tears on the living room couch while Fifi howls. Her surprise party for Mickey is ruined.

Minnie cries that "I wanted to make them the way your mother did." Mickey tries to comfort her with his flippant response: "Aw, my mother used to burn the whole batch all the time!"

Mickey suddenly gets an idea and he and Pluto zoom out of the house.

They return shortly with a variety of Nabisco cookies: Lorna Doones, Fig Newtons, Social Tea Biscuits, Ritz Crackers, Oreos, and Animal Crackers.

Pluto has even brought Milk Bone Dog Biscuits for Fifi.

"Mother used to buy them all the time and here's my favorite!" says a happy Mickey as he offers Minnie a Fig Newton. Minnie smothers Mickey with kisses and the film fades out on the Nabisco logo.

A censored version of this cartoon eliminating specific product references appears on The Spirit of Mickey video.

However, an uncensored version appears as an Easter Egg on the Disney Treasures Mickey Mouse in Living Color DVD (and don't we all miss that wonderful series of DVDs hosted by Leonard Maltin).

On the second disc, press the "up" arrow on your remote when "play all' is highlighted. Mickey's head appears in the "o" of Mouse. Press enter to see the entire cartoon with a short introduction by Maltin.

It is a very interesting cartoon because we learn a lot about Mickey's mother who is never mentioned in any other Mickey Mouse cartoon and we learn that Mickey Mouse loves Fig Newtons!

Frankly, I think most people would think that Mickey's favorite would have to be the round black and white Oreos that are so close to his own design and original coloring.

The roughly five-minute cartoon was directed by Ham Luske with animation by Ollie Johnston, Walt Kelly (yes, the father of Pogo), Riley Thompson, Charles Nichols and, of course, Walt Disney doing the voice of Mickey.

While The Pointer (1939) is officially credited as the first appearance of pupils in Mickey's eyes, this film released several months before that film features Mickey with pupils.

The cartoon was officially delivered to Nabisco on February 18, 1939, and Disney was paid $41,000 for its production.

The National Biscuit Company had actually started producing the popular selling Mickey Mouse cookies starting in 1937. This may also be one of the reasons they went to Disney for the cartoon for its pavilion.

Roy Tomlinson and Walt Disney signed the papers allowing the National Biscuit Company to use Disney's characters in their advertising. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and more could be used exclusively advertising Nabisco's various cookies and crackers. In later years, the characters would appear on Nabisco cereals.

You can watch this cartoon here.

Donald Duck Day

Not to be outdone, Donald Duck made an appearance at the fair was well. He was especially flown in from Hollywood for a special Donald Duck Day event held August 14, 1939.

It was not unusual for the Fair to hold special days to help increase attendance. On July 3, 1940, the fair hosted "Superman Day" with the first public appearance of someone costumed as Superman.

Since this was in the years before Disney developed costumed walk-around characters, Donald was a 3-foot-tall model that was occasionally used for public appearances.

He arrived at the Fair at noon that day. He was just in time to attend the official premiere of his latest cartoon, Donald's Penguin (1939), even though the short had been released to theaters three days earlier.

Admiral Byrd (spelled as "Bird" in the cartoon as a gag) ships Donald a gift of a baby penguin from the South Pole and, of course, the cute penguin proves to be nothing but trouble. This cartoon and its showing at the fair were meant to tie in with the Admiral Byrd Penguin Island exhibit in the Amusement Zone at the fair.

That day, the short was shown every half hour from noon to 6 p.m. at the National Biscuit Theatre in the Food Pavilion in place of Mickey's Surprise Party.

At 12:15 p.m., Donald's helpers handed out gifts to the first 500 lucky children and met comedienne and singer Judy Canova.

At 12:30 p.m., Donald was paraded past the Perisphere accompanied by marching bands and other entertainers. This "Parade of Bands" included Troop 186, the Boy Scout Band of Brooklyn, who were winners of the World's Fair Boy Scout contest and was composed of 56 pieces, as well as Captain Ed Hummel's Band of Brooklyn.

The parade concluded at 1 p.m. at Carnivaland, where a special luncheon was held at the Children's World Restaurant for Donald and international children.

Carnivaland was located in the Fair's amusement area zone that was adjacent to Fountain Lake.

The main event of Donald Duck Day was a special ceremony held in Carnivaland, hosted by a costumed performer named Abie the Clown dressed as a policeman.

Donald Duck with singer Judy Canova on Donald Duck Day at the 1939 World's Fair.

At 2 p.m., Donald was presented with a honorary degree of Doctor of International Friendship from Dr. Frank Monaghan, a professor of American History at Yale University. In his speech, Monaghan noted that Donald, "never pretended to be a statesman, nor an ambassador nor even a politician; he has only wanted to be and has only been himself. But his antics and his quacks are more sensible and inspired than the grave nonsense of many who pretend to higher things."

The professor continued, "He has given the world joy through laughter; he is the ambassador extraordinary of good will to the world."

There were also "speeches by various notables including Dickie Lee, a five year old Chinese boy, and reception for foreign children, frolic, folk dancing, entertainment and free gifts".

Unfortunately, this World's Fair dedicated to the World of Tomorrow was ill-timed, because World War II broke out roughly six months after it first opened and the investors in the fair lost two-thirds of their investment.

However, that first year, huge crowds flocked to see the great, big beautiful tomorrow that was promised it was coming soon and what they could expect from it. Disney was very much a part of that future and the fair.