When he was a kid in 1964, Randy Richter visited the New York World’s Fair. He’s been hooked on world fairs ever since. Now, as an adult, the Bellevue resident is the founder and president of the World’s Fair Historical Society. He oversees a collection of World’s Fair memorabilia including a recent acquisition – a scale model of the New York fair that so fascinated him.
“The model is a major piece that is in near mint condition,” Richter said. “It came from a family on Long Island (New York). It shows the layout of the fair, is covered with a dome and traveled from place to place starting in about 1961 to advertise the fair.”
It is the star attraction in the World’s Fair Historical Society’s small display in Seattle. The group shares a room with the Northwest Museum of Legends and Lore in the Inscape Building (the former Immigration and Naturalization Services building), 815 Airport Way South.
Ideally Richter would like to have larger display space or even a building to house the growing collection of World’s Fair treasures. A couple in Ohio had said they're planning to send him two boxes of their material and a collector in California would like to donate his collection of World's Fair memorabilia. But the World’s Fair Historical Society, like many historical groups, operates on a minuscule budget.
“Our membership is about 50 people,” he said. “Basically I’m a one-man show. I do have seven board members but we communicate through email. Most of the members are in New York, there’s one in Minnesota and one in Florida.”
An East Coast museum has contacted him, he said, about putting together a show showing the futuristic things that have come out of world’s fairs. Something like that, he believes, would give the Historical Society a boost in membership and visibility.
Richter wouldn’t mind relocating if a good site could be found at a reasonable price.
“We hope to have a full-fledged museum that covers the history of fairs,” he said. “Ideally we’d have space to do preservation, to digitalize old photographs, preserve artifacts and host educational exhibits.”
Moving would lose him some local visibility. Richter is known in South Bellevue. He owned the Newport Hills Shipping Center for a couple years and made good friends through his business. He sold the business a couple years ago and currently works two jobs to survive and keep his World’s Fair Society afloat.
On the other hand, Richter has studied World’s Fairs enough that he’s got the expertise to pull together several different shows. For instance, he has tracked the impact and significance of fairs. They’ve gone from displays of achievements in the 1800s and early 1900s, to the futuristic dreams in the 1960s and on. Today’s fairs, he noted, always include environmental themes.
World’s Fairs, he said, are fascinating for what they’ve done for us in a number of ways. First there are the obvious landmarks – the Space Needle in Seattle from the 1962 Fair, the Eiffel Tower from the 1889 Fair in Paris and the French Pavilion from the 1939 New York Fair. The first Ferris wheel was built for the Chicago Fair in the 1890s. It was so big that the enclosed cars were the size of box cars. Each had a lunch counter and could hold 40 people. It was moved to the St. Louis Fair in 1904 but destroyed after that.
Early fairs reflected a not-so-pleasant aspect of humanity. They showed how society treated minorities.
“Many cultures were just put on display in the 1800s and early 1900s,” he said.
World’s Fairs have influenced the way we Americans eat. The French Pavilion from 1939 introduced a lot of Americans to French food. The ice cream cone, hot dog and “angel hair” – now called cotton candy, came from the 1904 St. Louis Fair. Our fascination with Belgian waffles – covered with strawberries and whipped cream – started at the 1964-65 New York Fair.
Richter commented that his first Fair, the 1964-65 one in New York, also gave Disney fans something enduring – the ride called “It’s a Small World.” Walt Disney created the ride as a tribute to the United Nations.
Richter hopes to recruit society members who fondly remember fairs. He could use more volunteers, he said, to help maintain the current collection. He can be reached through the society’s website at www.crystalpalace51.org. The website name, of course, references the first major world’s fair.
The first big fair, Richter noted, was born out of the industrial revolution in England when a Crystal Palace was erected in London in 1851. The building that housed the fair had 1 million square feet of exhibition space and actually enclosed or was built around trees that were growing on the site. It combined art with industrial exhibits and was a huge hit.
“From that point on, fairs took off,” Richter said.