Remembering the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans
On your ordinary Saturday in downtown New Orleans, the stroke of noon might not bring much other than the tourist lunch rush. But May 12, 1984, was no ordinary Saturday. It was the first day of the 1984 Louisiana World’s Exposition, which at midday officially opened its six-month run along the city’s riverfront with daytime fireworks, the release of 70,000 helium balloons, no shortage of high-toned oratory and an appearance by the MGM swimming sensation Esther Williams. Though the fair — spread out over 82 acres — professed to be global in scope, it also became a popular spot for locals to head after work for drinks, dinner, music or just a stroll along the meandering, ornately crafted Wonderwall.
Many of the bigger attractions, such as the whimsical Wonderwall and the gondola that took passengers over the Mississippi River, are gone, but prominent remnants of the fair can still be found on the 82-acre site. The fair’s Great Hall became the nucleus of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and nearby warehouses that were converted to bars and shops during the fair have become popular restaurants and nightspots. The Federal Fibre Mills, which housed the German Beer Garden, where fairgoers could perform the chicken dance, is an apartment building.
- Although several pavilions weren’t yet ready on day one — including those for Liberia, Peru and a combined pavilion for Honduras, Belize and the Dominican Republic — an estimated 62,746 people attended the first day of the fair.
- U.S. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige officially opened the festivities on behalf of President Ronald Reagan.
- “There will be no strangers at this fair,” Mayor Dutch Morial said at the opening ceremonies. “Let the good times roll. … Finally it is here. We celebrate this fair as beneficial to the enjoyment of everyone.”
- The fair’s theme was “The World of Rivers – Fresh Waters as a Source of Life.” Its mascot was a top-hatted, spats-wearing, second-lining pelican named Seymore D. Fair.
- Seymore got his name through a contest sponsored by the local Timesaver chain of convenience stores. The winner: Susan Shambra, a computer operator at an insurance company. Losing names, according to a Times-Picayune story, included A. Toofay, Crazy-Laid-Back-Fred, Puddin’ Puss, Huey P. Longbill — and Christie Brinkley. More common submissions included Pierre, Louis, Frenchie and Dixie.
- One of the fair’s most popular rides was the gondola, which soared 350 feet above the Mississippi River. Its maiden voyage was hardly auspicious: Archbishop Philip M. Hannan was one of the passengers in the first car, which was stalled for 15 minutes above the river.
- In addition to the international pavilions and the gondola, attractions at the fair included a Ferris wheel, a monorail, a riverfront amphitheater and a visit by the space shuttle Enterprise, which arrived at the fair site via barge.
- Among the most photographed scenes at the fair was the ornate City Gate entrance, which was highlighted by two 30-foot-tall mermaid sculptures, both created by Carnival float designer Joe Barth III — and both of them scandalously topless.
- The 1984 world’s fair came exactly 100 years after the city hosted the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Like the 1984 fair, construction on the 1884 event wasn’t entirely complete on opening day. Also like the 1984 fair, it went down as a financial failure.
Technically, the fair — which cost a reported $350 million to stage — was a financial flop. Attracting slightly more than 7.3 million visitors, less than two-thirds of the projected attendance, it was the first exposition to file for bankruptcy protection. It was also the last world’s fair to date to be held in the United States. But it was undeniably successful when it came to its goal of reinvigorating the city’s then-moribund riverfront. With the fair, the eyes of entrepreneurs and real estate developers were opened to the potential of the riverfront and the adjoining area, which had been full of rundown warehouses before the exposition. Since then, that part of New Orleans has become the lively Warehouse District, which is now full of restaurants, nightspots and art galleries. On an intangible level, the fair was a wonderland for New Orleanians, many of whom were regular visitors, and the source of decades of memories.