Smack dab in the middle of San Francisco Bay is an island of relatively recent manufacture called Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson made so much money from his book of the same name that he spent his entire fortune building this 400-acre island.
His aim was to grow dental floss, which he predicted would both thrive in the damp climate (excellent for floss farming) and have a fervent adjacent customer base in the Bay Area; a place where the citizens are celebrated for their terrific dental hygiene.
It didn’t work out as planned but he made a quick pivot and persuaded the City of San Francisco to use the island for a world’s fair and, in fact, this did work out—though it was long after Bob died.
The fair was envisioned as a celebration of the two new bridges, Bay and Golden Gate, and of 36 nations adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.
The symbol of the 1939 Golden Gate Expo was the newly crowned goddess, Pacifica, depicted as an 80-foot-tall statue to ‘Peace in the Pacific’ and was accompanied by a cacophony of deafening ‘peace chimes’ which clanged for peace all night long. Well so much for that. By ‘39 everyone knew Japan and the US were on a collision course.
At the opposite end of the Gayway (really, the Gayway?) was an even bigger structure called The Tower of the Sun. I have tried to decipher the message that San Francisco was trying to send to the Land of the Rising Sun, but I haven’t figured it out so far.
This promo film illustrates the grandeur of the affair. It’s worth a look for its sliver-tongued narrator alone. The writer of the voiceover was a real poet with phrases like: “The fair was a rare broach on the bosom of the waters” (Hey, maybe it was Stevenson)
Speaking of bosoms: One of the more successful attractions on the Gayway featured Sally Rand, who starred in “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch” (styled as “Sally Rand’s N
Dude Ranch”); a contemporary publicity postcard shows Rand posing with female ranch hands, called “Nudies”, as strategically placed fence boards conceal the dirty bits. Today this mishigas is almost tame enough for an 10th grade talent show.
Sally already had quite an impressive reputation dancing with the carcasses of swans and huge balloons.
Other sights included sideshow-style attractions, such as little people in a Western setting and a racetrack featuring monkeys driving automobiles. My friend Jim Warren was just a kid when he attended the fair and is still a bit miffed when he was barred because he was too young to get into Sally’s show. There was, and still is, a vast mural painted by Diego Rivera. Mural, schmural.
They’ve got monkeys and naked cowgirls! Save me a seat!
President Franklin Roosevelt said during the opening ceremonies on the radio: “Washington is remote from the Pacific. San Francisco stands at the doorway to the sea that roars upon the shores of all these nations, and so to the Golden Gate International Exposition I gladly entrust a solemn duty. May this, America’s World’s Fair on the Pacific in 1939, truly serve all nations in symbolizing their destinies, one with every other, through the ages to come.” He failed to mention Sally or the monkeys to the best of my knowledge.
A couplet from the song mentions the Expo in ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ from At the Circus.
After the fair, two of the buildings were converted to giant aircraft hangars to service the Pam Am Clippers. These were also called flying boats and were the only aircraft that could make trans-oceanic flights. It cut the travel time to Shanghai by fast steamship from San Francisco from 25 to 5 days and a seat cost about $18k in today’s money. There were three Clippers and they all ended up crashing in 1945.
In the 1980s, the hangars were used as sound stages for movies and TV, some memorable —The Caine Mutiny, The Matrix, Indiana Jones and Myth Busters. Others forgotten like Charlie Chan at Treasure Island and the Pursuit of Happyness. I haven’t seen the Chan movie though the gringo actor playing Charlie had buck teeth, and a bad Chinese accent. He is certainly having his statue pulled down. I doubt that the film was a hit, which can’t be said of the forgettable Will Smith Pursuit of Happyness (for some reason purposely misspelled in the title).
It’s the story of a San Francisco guy who thinks the world owes him a living. It did well at the box office, but you can skip it except for a couple of key scenes. This was back in 2006 when my son Tyler was making his living as a professional hippy. That’s part of much longer story but, trust me, he was making a half million a year as a hippy. Anyway in the film Tyler’s character, a hippy, steals a medical device from Will and they have a confrontation on a bus as Will flights Tyler to get it back.
A couple of years later I happened to be standing next to Will Smith at the TED Conference and I mentioned to him that my son was in the film with him. We chatted about that and this for a moment. Cool. But the story gets better. Later that night at a party I find myself standing in someone’s kitchen with Larry Page, Elon Musk and Will Smith. Larry turns to Will to introduce me (keep in mind we are all wearing name badges) and Will tells Larry, “Oh I know Jamis.” After that I stopped going to TED as it was downhill from then on.
Oh, and the Robin Lois Stevensen dental floss farm is fiction but it could have happened…