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This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hollywood’s glitziest contribution to the 1964 New York World’s Fair was staging the black-tie premiere of What a Way to Go! on its 646-acre grounds. It was quite the production: Stars and guests passed through turnstiles at the Times Square subway station, then were serenaded by a guitarist/bassist/bongo drummer trio as they boarded a specially outfitted IRT 7 Flushing Express to Queens.
The bouffant hairdo of star Shirley MacLaine, then 30, rose so high it brushed against the balloons floating on the ceiling as she rode in a car painted pink for the occasion. “That was all my hair. There might be one little piece on it, but I had admirable red hair,”MacLaine, who just finished filming an episode of Glee (“so much fun”), tells THR. “What I remember most about the premiere is the diamond dress I wore, how difficult it was to fit into and how I had to hold my stomach in all day.”
In the end, both the Fair and Way to Go! lost money. The 50 million visitors to attractions such as Disney’s “It’s a Small World” (sponsored by Pepsi and a precursor to the popular parks ride) were only two-thirds of what had been expected. The corporation behind the Fair, headed by Robert Moses, the man credited with (and criticized for) shaping New York’s infrastructure, went bankrupt, defaulted on a $24 million loan from the city and paid other creditors only pennies on the dollar. The comedy did slightly better, bringing in $11 million at the domestic box office on an estimated budget of $20 million ($150 million in 2014 dollars).
Today a debate rages over whether to tear down the Fair’s iconic — but rusted and derelict — Philip Johnson-designed trio of towers, “the Eiffel Tower of Queens,” in one activist’s words, at a cost of $14 million, or to renovate them for up to $72 million. (In 1997’s Men in Black, they were simply blown up.) On April 22, the Fair’s 50th anniversary, the tower site will open to the public for the first time in 27 years for just three hours.
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