'Century 21': The inner children of the ever-present future

Bob Korth, of Central Point, remembers well the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. He was a 20-year-old fly boy, as those who stacked paper to go into a press were called. He lived near Seattle and worked for Acme press, the company that printed the fair's programs.

"It had to go through twice," Korth says of the full-color publication.

To leaf through Korth's program is to go back to 1962. This is not the '60s of the counterculture, protests and assassinations; this is the go-go '60s with a vigorous, young president, tail fins and a fascination with space.

The Fair's theme is "Century 21," its symbol, "Man in Space," its most visible icon, the Space Needle.

"Men living today will land on the moon," is the promise.

Here on the first page of the program is a map of the fair's "worlds" (Science, Century 21, Entertainment, Art and Commerce) color-coded in soft greens, yellows, blues, purples and oranges, the colors of sherbet.

"I thought for some reason I ought to keep them," Korth says of the program's unbound pages. "I have the big masters somewhere. The press was 60 inches. You had to get the paper in a nice, even stack."

The program sets forth the fair's predictions for the year 2000.

"Some, they hit pretty well," Korth says.

Let's enter the Century 21 theme theater. Ready?

"This is the year 2000," it begins. " ... the mechanics of livelihood are more complex but living itself is less complicated."

"That didn't work," Korth says with a laugh.

We rise in a bubble elevator bathed in pearly light. "What time is it?" asks a disembodied voice.

"It is your time, child of the ever-present future," says another voice.

Here are automatic highways, planes that reach any point on the globe in under an hour, cars with engines "the size of a typewriter" (a primitive machine). The home of 2000 has a private heliport and rotates to maximize its solar energy gain.

There are jet monorails everywhere. We farm the sea. Executives earn $12,000 a year for a 24-hour workweek. Perhaps the biggest howler is this: "We'll work shorter hours."

The GE Pavilion presents a family called the Larsons. The Larsons have "colored TV projected onto large wall surfaces, an electronic home library, movies that can be shown immediately after they are filmed ... and the home computer for record-keeping, shopping and check-writing."

Not bad. Certainly better than the IBM pavilion, which shows men in suits tending to vast rooms of computers.

Here are the voices of industry. Here is Norton Clapp, the president of Weyerhaeuser, declaring openly that, "industry will turn to many remote areas" for "new sources of raw material." Well, yuh. In the mid-1960s Weyerhaeuser acquired the rights to six billion board feet on of timber in Indonesia. By the late '60s it had logging operations in Guatemala, the Caribbean, the West Indies and Venezuela. Within a decade it would have logging rights to two million more acres in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Look at the entertainment world. Here is Nat King Cole, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, not to mention Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. The Old Vic is presenting "Romeo and Juliet," "St. Joan" and MacBeth." The San Francisco Actors Workshop is doing "The Birthday Party" and "Waiting for Godot." Isaac Stern, Van Cliburn and Igor Stravinksy are performing.

There are rides and junk food. There is Show Street, with "girls whose manifold charms, it would seem, are no less fascinating in the space age than in the stone age." Here are "statuesque beauties" performing in a revue with the double-entendre title of "A Night in Paradise."

There is a whiggish, 1950s optimism in all this, as if the wonderful scientific world of the future were unalloyed with complications. Conspicuous by its absence is any sense of the environmental consequences in having 6 billion people moving into this scientific future on this fragile blue and green planet.

The exception — the only sobering note in all this — comes from the French, whose exhibit mentions "the psychological and social problems which will confront man in Century 21" and "the mass problems which may be created by future inventions."

"Automation and mass information are posed as threats to individual identity and sensitivity," the French say. "The social and psychological implications may affect man's philosophy of living."

Meanwhile, back in our Century 21 bubble (remember the bubble?), the snow that's been falling gives way to sunshine and spring blossoms. The image of a family that's been huddling in fear of The Bomb fades, and a voice asks, "What time is it?" The answer comes from everywhere and nowhere: "It's a good time ... and almost yours."

Almost. But not quite.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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