Whizzing by the Nut Tree on I-80 reminded me of what it used to be – a mini theme park. As kids, we sat in the back hoping Mom would stop there or at the putt-putt golf at Cordelia Junction. But no. Much later, as an adult, I finally entered the Nut Tree to meet my aunt and uncle for lunch. It looked like a hopped-up Howard Johnson with a sprawling “general store” offering country-style gifts. I wish I could remember whether the employees wore costumes.
Everyday we walk into imagined spaces. Businesses and homes with intentional décor serve us up a universe, complete with soundtrack. These purposeful environments make us feel things. Sofia asked a couple of weeks ago what that means for us. In a way, we enter somebody’s stage. When a place is a crazy, dressed up fantasy world we might call it a Disneyland or a Times Square. At the other end of the spectrum, a museum curates its own classier world. There was a time when the World’s Fair set a stage for entertainment, commerce and the noble goal of cross-cultural understanding. In San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 we meet such a place. Author Laura Ackley takes us through the history, politics, money, art, and, yes, scandals, of this elaborate imagined space.
Only nine years after the city’s apocalyptic earthquake, San Francisco nabbed the rights to host the fair (sorry, New Orleans) celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. In no time, a fantasy world sprang up across the northern end of the city and hosted millions of visitors for two years. As extravagant as it was, it made money. As extravagant as it was, it came down just like a stage set. Only scant evidence remains, most notably, the Palace of Fine Arts.
In reading about the grand spectacle, I kept thinking of Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and its Double. All the elements of the mise en scene (and then some) came together on the city’s stage. What a production. The gorgeous archival photographs bring to life the use of color and shape, illumination. To those elements, Ackley adds a precise conveyance of the smells, sounds and tastes. It housed the spectacularly exaggerated: a giant pyramid of canned food, a mammoth ear of corn, freaks. Alongside the exhibits, there was World War I roiling across the water, art nouveau and the women’s vote at home.
And the celebrities came: William Saroyan, Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, Helen Keller, Ansel Adams. Besides prostitution and gambling, Italian futurist art also caused a scandal.
Changemakers in today’s Bay Area, all of us clamoring for attention through our own productions, may be amazed and intrigued by the machine behind the PPIE.
- The politics
- The expense
- Expert teams
- Division of Exploitation (current day Public Relations, Cause Marketing, Communications)
The keynote address was on “Service” (social change), and changemakers will find parallels to their contemporary issue areas in themes of:
- Displacement (quake shacks)
- Technology for good
In the end, it seemed the Panama Canal and its grand opening took a back seat to all this. And then, it was curtains.
(Haleh; Illustration by Ramin)