Friday, September 19, 2008

EPCOT 1939: The Original Illuminations

Walt Disney World's pyrotechnic displays have been long recognized as state-of-the-art spectaculars. Epcot's Illuminations, in its series of incarnations, has in particular been lauded for its truly amazing combination of fire, water, music and pyrotechnic elements, with many observers especially praising its stunning originality in both concept and design.

However . . .

"This Lagoon of Nations display centers in a giant fountain which rises from an oval lake two blocks wide by four blocks long. Water, geysering in beautiful patterns from 1,400 nozzles, is painted in constantly changing rainbow hues by batteries of powerful electric lights from below. At climaxes in a performance, towering gas flames roar through the columns of scintillating water, from more than a hundred jets. Showers of fireworks burst overhead. Stirring music thunders an accompaniment to the display from the heart of the fountain."

From the article "Fountains of Flame" by Kenneth M. Swezey;
Popular Science, August, 1939

Welcome back to EPCOT 1939.

I have been for some time wanting to continue this series of articles from the very early days of 2719 Hyperion. Those posts demonstrated the very distinct theme and design parallels between EPCOT Center and the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. The Fair's Lagoon of Nation's Fountain Spectacle and its clear connection to EPCOT's Illuminations afforded me such an opportunity.

As we noted in previous EPCOT 1939 articles, the overall design of EPCOT Center was distinctly analogous to that of 1939 exposition. Similar to World Showcase, the Fair's Government Zone, which was comprised of pavilions representing both states and nations, was located in similar fashion behind the technology and commercial zones and featured a body of water at its center. It was there that the Fair's designers decided to create " . . . a scene to thrill thousands," as noted in the Popular Science article. The article was accompanied by a detailed illustration of the behind-the-scenes mechanisms that produced the show.

Click on illustration to enlarge

The article explained that "The whole complex mechanism is 'played,' as if it were some mighty organ, by three operators at electric consoles located in a near-by tower. Regular programs, based on such themes as “The Spirit of George Washington,” “Creation,” “Isle of Dreams,” “Fire Dance,” are presented to tens of thousands of spectators each evening." Some of those themes do not sound very far removed from that of the current Illuminations presentation, Reflections of Earth.

In his book, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, author David Gelernter observed:

The critics raved. Fountain displays like the ones at the Lagoon of Nations and San Francisco's 1939 fair "deserve to be called examples of a new art," wrote Talbot Hamlin. "The best of them are as emotionally compelling as they are visually exciting." The show at the Lagoon gave the New York fair "its most unique and perhaps its most artistically memorable element." "Dramatic and indescribable beauty" wrote Gardner Harding.

And so the Fair closed out its daily operations every night, over a half a century prior to guests at EPCOT Center being entertained in similar fashion around the World Showcase lagoon.


Unknown said...

Fantastic post, Jeff.

The influence of the 1939 World's Fair, the Chicago Railroad Exposition and the 1964-65 World's Fair cannot be underestimated.

Thanks for bringing another element to light for us!

Stephen said...

The similarities you keep finding are fascinating. I'm actually writing a paper that, in part, aims to cast EPCOT Center as a cultural landmark with rich precedent rather than a one-dimensional commercial park (basically what many of us have been doing online for years). These parallels between EPCOT and previous World's Fairs help is much easier for those fairs to be accepted as "art" than it is for EPCOT to be. I will have to point some people in your direction...

Anonymous said...

so sad...we've lost an excellent column to general trivia at boom pop :-(

Jeffrey Pepper said...

To anonymous--

I'm not sure I understand your comment. My reduction in posting extends to both 2719 and Boom-Pop.

My hope was to be able to continue to post to both sites, but I'm afraid that time has not been on my side since I announced the impending content reductions on September 15. The project that I am currently working on is my primary focus at the moment and I have not had any time to spare to devote to content for either blog.