There were two world’s fairs in 1939. After a decade of depression, America tried to lift itself up by her own bootstraps by launching international expositions on either side of the continent.
The New York World’s Fair had been in the works since 1935. It transformed Flushing Meadows into the largest fair of all time.
The Golden Gate International Exposition was in the middle of San Francisco Bay, on landfill over shallow shoals just north of Yerba Buena Island.
Treasure Island remains a flat, artificial island accessed from Yerba Buena Island, where the graceful suspension portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge connects to the now-troubled cantilevered section on the Oakland side.
Built by members of the federal Works Progress Administration, Treasure Island was intended to become an airport for Pan American World Airways’ — known commonly as Pan Am — flying boats epitomized by the China Clipper. By the time the giant statue of Pacifica, the Tower of the Sun and the Court of Reflections were completed in gorgeous Art Deco style, the costs rose to more than $50 million.
When the fair opened on Feb. 18, 1939, visitors thought that it was worth every penny. The nighttime illuminations were based on cutting-edge technology using so-called black light, artificial moonlight, neon and fluorescent lights to create what was heralded as “a magic city of light, floating on the waters of San Francisco Bay.”
The fair closed for the winter on Oct. 29, 1939 and re-opened for another season on May 25, 1940. Unlike its New York counterpart, it was a financial success and helped to boost the regional economy. Most of all, it provided a last moment of recreation for thousands of young men who would soon be in uniform.
Morro Bay-Cayucos artist Al Musso recalls coming up from Los Angeles for a “good time.” Within the year he would be mobilized with an Army Air Corps unit flying as a photographer over Camp San Luis Obispo.
The “flesh shows” on the Fair’s “Gayway” did in fact become one of the most popular attractions, including ecdysiast — a striptease artist — Sally Rand and her world-famous fan dance.
Pearl Jespersen Thoma was a high school student living in Templeton in 1939. Members of the school board saw the fair as an opportunity to broaden the education of their rural charges. They arranged to send two school buses to San Francisco. Pearl recalls that for only $2.50 or $3, a student could enjoy two nights in a hotel, meals and admission to the fair with two shows.
“When we arrived on Treasure Island, the restroom was the first stop. We went in, and horrors — you had to put a nickel in the slot to open the door into each stall.”
Such a tariff was unknown in San Luis Obispo County. Pearl says that the farm girls soon found a solution: “I remember, someone crawled under a door, opened it, and then held the door open so the next person could enter.”
“The high school principal arranged for us to attend a ‘follies presentation’ complete with fans. Some of my friends came from strict Mennonite families. They joined me and several others in deciding that this was a show that we should not be seeing, so we walked out.
Being the naive ‘little hicks from the sticks,’ we were shocked! I can tell you that there was one worried principal, since one of our group was the daughter of the school board president and I was a daughter of the state senator from San Luis Obispo County.”
Pearl and Bud Thoma did, after many years of marriage, attend a joyous follies show in Las Vegas. Most memorable though was a two-hour show featuring Ethel Merman.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.