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The Quick 10: 10 World's Fairs

Forty-seven years ago today, the Century 21 Exposition opened its doors to the public. You're probably saying, "The what?" I would be, anyway, if I hadn't researched this - the Century 21 Exposition was also known as the Seattle World's Fair. So, in honor of the historic event that gave us the Space Needle, we're going to check out 10 notable World's Fairs today.

1. The 1962 Seattle World's Fair is why the Space Needle was built, obviously, but it's also notable for another reason "“ it's where the Elvis flick It Happened at the World's Fair was filmed and marked the screen debut of Kurt Russell. The Seattle Center Monorail was also created just for the Century 21 Exposition.

disney2. The 1964 World's Fair in New York was where Walt Disney tested his latest creation out on the public "“ a little boat ride filled with animatronic dolls singing in various languages. I bet you know what I'm talking about, but I'll refrain from mentioning it by name lest you get the infernal tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day. But that's not all "“ this was also the Fair with "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," which featured a speech-giving Honest Abe so real you'd almost swear it was him. A version of the attraction popped up at Disneyland and has been there in some form or another ever since. Well, almost ever since. It has been replaced a time or two with different attractions such as "The Walt Disney Story," but the public rallied to get Mr. Lincoln back and Disney listened. Abe is on vacation right now, letting "Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years" lease out his Disneyland condo, but he'll be back in September of this year.

3. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco in 1915. There were a couple of reasons to celebrate: the Panama Canal had recently been completed, but the city had been devastated by an earthquake nine years earlier and wanted to show how it had successfully rebounded. Exhibits included a telephone line that went from New York to San Francisco so people on the east coast could hear the Pacific Ocean. And the Liberty Bell was packed up from its resting place in Pennsylvania and shipped over to California just to make a special guest appearance at the International Exposition. It was sent back to Philly afterward and hasn't budged since. Like Seattle, this Fair was also the subject of a film: Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco. It starred Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle seeing the sights and clowning around.

music4. The Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y., was notable for not for its amazing inventions and innovations, but because it was the site of the shooting of President William McKinley. Leon Czolgosz met McKinley in the Temple of Music (pictured), where the President was shaking hands with the public. An X-Ray machine that would have located the bullet lodged somewhere in McKinley's back muscles was on display at the Fair, but it had only just been invented and doctors were scared to use it on the President without knowing its side effects. Any of them would surely have been better than his resulting death, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.
5. Expo '70, a World's Fair in Osaka, Japan, was one of the biggest and most successful World's Fairs ever held. One of the most popular exhibits on display was a moon rock brought back just months before from the 1969 Apollo 11 expedition. Expo '70 also touted the first IMAX movie ever created.

6. Much like the 1915 San Francisco Fair, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held in Chicago because the city had something to prove: that Mrs. O'Leary's cow couldn't keep them down. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same guy who did Central Park (and lots of other parks and campuses). The layout and the building design were so impressive and gorgeous that it's thought L. Frank Baum used it as inspiration for the Emerald City. It was also the first time people saw and rode on a Ferris Wheel and included exhibits by Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. John Phillip Sousa's marching band was a daily feature. Food that debuted at this particular Fair included Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum and Cream of Wheat. It would have a been an awesomely successful Fair if it hadn't ended in tragedy "“ Chicago mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated. Although it was in his home and not at the Fair, he was a much-beloved mayor and his death shook up Chicagoans pretty badly.

eiffel7. Just as the Seattle World's Fair gave us the Space Needle, Paris' Exposition Universelle of 1889 gave us the Eiffel Tower. If you were there in 1889, you also would have seen Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show featuring Annie Oakley.
8. Just 11 years later, the Exposition Universelle came back to Paris and the city really put on the dog. The buildings erected for the expo were so impressive and beautiful that many of them still stand today "“ the Musée d'Orsay, the Grand Palais, the Gare de Lyon and the Petit Palais among them. The Summer Olympics were also being held at the same time and were considered part of the Fair, just in case the new inventions of escalators and movies with sound weren't enough for you. And if you've ever noticed the gold seal that adorns the front of Campbell's soup cans, here's a bit of trivia for you: it was awarded this seal at this particular World's Fair.

palace9. On May 1, 1851, Queen Victoria proudly announced the opening of the Great Exhibition in London. Art and architecture students will know this for the construction of the Crystal Palace (you can tell I'm a student of neither because my first thought is of the buffet at the Magic Kingdom). The Crystal Palace housed the Great Exhibition and its designer was later knighted for his amazing contribution. Sadly, the Crystal Palace was the victim of fire in 1936. This Fair was wildly successful, perhaps in part to the Palace. More than six million people showed up, which was about a third of Britain's population at the time. It was so profitable that the surplus went to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Notable events included a yachting race that eventually evolved into the America's Cup, the display of the Koh-i-noor Diamond and the exhibition showing the Jacquard Loom.

rubik10. Knoxville, Tenn., was home to the 1982 World's Fair, which turned a profit of a whopping $57. But hey, most World's Fairs lose money, so at least they had that going for them. It's notable for debuting inventions such as Cherry Coke, boxed milk and touch-screen technology, but what I'm particularly excited about is the giant, rotating Rubik's Cube Hungary sent over. The puzzle toy had swept the nation and Hungary was proud that the inventor was one of their own. After decaying for the past 25 years, a junior in engineering at the University of Tennessee took its restoration on as a project. The 10-foot, 1,200-pound toy is now restored to its former glory for tourists to enjoy. The Knoxville Fair was also home to the Sunsphere, which Simpsons fans will remember from the episode where Bart, Martin, Nelson and Milhouse rely on an outdated guidebook for vacation tips and choose the World's Fair instead of Disneyworld. Photo from Joel K. on Roadside America.

Have any of you actually been to a World's Fair? I feel like I kind of missed their heyday and I'm a little bummed about it, so it would be great if I could just live vicariously through you.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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