Tuesday, December 26, 2006

EPCOT 1939 - Part Eight: A Slightly Smaller Universe of Energy

We're a few weeks overdue, so what do you say we jump in our time machine and venture back to that particular World’s Fair we’ve come to call EPCOT 1939.

The universe of energy was a much smaller entity in 1939. While automobile manufacturers were represented in three major pavilions and dominated the 1939 New York World's Fair transportation zone, oil companies were consolidated to the Petroleum Industry Exhibition and relegated to one building in the Production and Distribution Zone.

Sponsored by eighteen different companies, the Petroleum Exhibit was a generally modest endeavor compared to many of the Fair’s other attractions. The official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair reflected the exhibit’s lack of flair with the following fairly brief and uninspired description:

Plainly land marked by a towering oil derrick in actual operation, the Building (Voorhees. Walker. Foley & Smith, architects; Gilbert Rohde, designer) fronts on the Avenue of Pioneers. Shaped like an equilateral triangle, the structure rests on four huge oil tanks, its metal walls rising in flaring tiers. Four large murals by William T. Schwarz decorate the inner walls of the Great Hall of Industry, each depicting respectively one phase in the story of Petroleum — Production, Transportation. Research and Refining. Here on a mammoth stage a motion picture in technicolor, its actors three-dimensional puppets, portrays the importance of petroleum in man's daily life. The Petroleum Garden on the roof is featured by an animated map on which miniature oil derricks depict the growth of oil production since 1860. A model of an oil refinery demonstrates the most up-to-date refining methods. Sponsored by fourteen major oil companies, the Exhibit shows how the industry has made possible and contributed to the advance of civilization during the past 80 years.

The subject of energy was pretty much as dry then as it was at EPCOT Center in 1982, and a certain amount of window dressing was required for both to create interesting and entertaining presentations. At EPCOT, animatronic dinosaurs, sprawling theater cars and snappy songs generally countered the Universe of Energy pavilion’s mostly low key films and Exxon sponsored public relations. Lacking the sophistication and flare of late 20th century technology, the Petroleum Exhibit had to settle for a motion picture called Pete Roleum and his Cousins. And what an incredibly weird bunch of characters they were.

Animated oil droplets tell the story of petroleum production in a disjointed and often extremely strange series of vignettes, ending with a chorus line musical number that is both bizarre and more or less incomprehensible. This is partly due to the fact that a person at the exhibit interacted with the film's narrator, and those scripted lines are absent from the film.

What makes Pete Roleum somewhat notable is that the stop-motion puppetry was created by silent filmmaker Charles Bowers. Bowers, largely unknown today, was a pioneer in stop-motion special effects photography during the mid to late 1920s. He was famous at the time for two reel features that incorporated his innovative special effects with the typical slapstick antics that hallmarked the comedies of the day. He faded from the movie business in 1930, only to resurface nearly a decade later, assisting director Joseph Losey in the making of Pete Roleum. Bowers also provided the film’s narration.

It was an odd way of promoting the virtues of energy production back in 1939. But then, here it is the 21st century, and Epcot’s presentation of energy innovations is communicated via the combination of a sitcom star, a kids’ TV program host, and a popular game show. Maybe Pete Roleum and his Cousins weren’t all that strange after all.