Meet me at the river … river/ meet me at the fair./ Don’t tell me the lights are shining/ anywhere but there …
That’s pretty much the song I was singing through the summer of 1984 — in a poor imitation of Judy Garland’s “Meet me in St. Louie, Louie …” Her 1944 movie was set around the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis.
Eighty years later — 30 years ago — locals and more than 7 million visitors trooped to the Louisiana World Exposition in an area that’s now the site of Riverwalk and Fulton Street and the first structure in what was to become our long convention center.
It opened on Saturday, May 12, 1984 and ended on Sunday, Nov. 11, 1984. And for those of us who bought tickets for the entire six-month run, it was a hang-out place, somewhere fun to go after work and on weekends, a place to meet friends, to dig into Fritos bags — but more about that later.
I enjoyed the fair so much that I still think it’s one of the best “festivals” New Orleans ever put on.
It wasn’t a financial success; things got kind of shabby in the last two months and the effort ended in bankruptcy. But my friends and family and I loved it, loved it. And it still calls up memories of bouncing to the chicken dance in the German beer hall, drinking all kinds of delicious brews, eating bratwurst and sauerbraten; riding the monorail; sampling sushi for the first time in the Japanese pavilion; wondering at the “Wonderwall” and the NASA exhibit; watching the panoramic movies provided by some of the 95 countries participating.
In the arts pavilion I first met artist George Schmidt, who was installing his painting of a Louis Armstrong performance in 1919, and checked out an intriguing piece: a small stretch of dirt and highway debris — fragments of tires, litter, etc. — enclosed in triangular curbing. It was accompanied by a speaker issuing sounds of trucks passing, horns blowing, brakes screeching. I loved it, would have tried to buy it, but couldn’t think of where I’d put it.
In the Egyptian restaurant the chef told me, “The kitchen of the Middle East is the kitchen of the world.” I’ve remembered that; I hadn’t heard it, but he was right, of course.
In the amphitheater on the river’s edge, my daughter and I took in a performance by singer Julio Iglesias, a sexy Spanish singing star, then big on television variety shows and in Las Vegas. We loved it, loved it, and I’ve never understood why our city fathers did away with this venue after the fair closed.
My scariest memory of the fair is the ride my husband and I took from Algiers, in a gondola traveling high on wire across the Mississippi, to the fair and back that night amidst the fireworks that closed every night’s partying.
I’d been so afraid to do it that I’d told friends at work of our transportation plans and set an ETA to ensure that I’d really show up. They met us with flowers or balloons or both. I’ve never understood why they took the gondola down after the fair closed.
Of all the gourmet delicacies I enjoyed at the fair, my favorite was from a bag of Fritos. On top of the corn chips the vendor poured spicy ground beef and topped it with cheese and diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce. You were given a big spoon to dig it out with and it was yummy. Finish that with a mango freeze and you’d enjoyed some of the best food at the fair. We loved it.
The next year my season-ticket friends and I had a Frito bag party to remember the good times. It’s waaay past time for another one.