May 2012
B. Alexandra Szerlip

Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity

Norman Bel Geddes and the Surprising Genesis of the Most Iconic World’s Fair Exhibit of All Time

Discussed: Miniature Golf and Miniature Cow Paddies, A Forest’s Worth of Imported Moss, A Quantification of Horseyness, The Chance Machine, Hysterical Wives, Willful Men, Journals Devoted to Cavalry, Imaginary Countries, Russian Chess Champions, The Occasional Brigadier General, Presumed Excelsior
Lines outside the General Motors exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes at the 1939 World’s Fair Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc.; image courtesy of the Library of Congress

A maverick theater and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes is best remembered for creating the undisputed hit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Mounted in the midst of the Great Depression, the Fair focused on America’s promise of a utopian tomorrow. Geddes’s Futurama, a piece of “immersion theater,” took six hundred visitors at a time on a swooping, simulated airplane ride across America circa 1960. Few people in 1939 had ever ridden in a plane. Looking down, they saw everything from experimental farms and “floating” airports to seven-lane highways, multi-decked bridges, and radio-controlled traffic moving beneath suspended pedestrian walkways—all radical concepts at the time. More than twenty-four million people waited for up to five hours, in rain and hot sun, to experience it. Today, Futurama is considered the most iconic Fair exhibit of all time.

Sponsored by General Motors to the tune of seven million dollars, the equivalent of ninety-one million dollars today, it was the largest animated model ever built: 35,738 square feet. It required the labor of some three thousand carpenters, electricians, draftsmen, and model-makers, and the manufacture of five-hundred thousand miniature buildings varying in scale, two million handmade miniature trees (eighteen different species, with imported moss for foliage), and fifty thousand futuristic silver automobiles—ten thousand of them designed to move. More astonishing still was that the exhibit required complex technological innovations (a twenty-ton sound machine that played 150 individually synchronized loops; a massive conveyor belt that turned corners and changed elevations) that had existed only in theory when, eleven months prior to the Fair’s opening, General Motors jettisoned its previous exhibit plans and gave Geddes the green light.

The City of Tomorrow, a model of Manhattan that Geddes created, in 1937, to promote Shell Oil Company’s new “motor-digestible” gasoline, is often cited as the inspiration for what was to come. But Futurama’s beginnings actually harken back much further, to the meticulous, insanely detailed private games he created in the 1920s and early ’30s for the amusement of his friends.

In esoteric circles, gamester Geddes is acclaimed Manhattan’s greatest. Auction bridge and poker are dismal to him, and so with the fervor and precision of a half-mad mathematician, he creates games colossal in scale, appalling in complexity.              Time, March 4, 1929

One of Geddes’s first small-scale amusements was a five-by-three-foot football field, with players kicking, passing the ball, running, blocking, and tackling. He followed up with a mechanical baseball game. Players pitched the ball, hit it, and ran the bases. More ambitious was an indoor golf game, conjured up years before Garnet Carter’s first Tom Thumb Miniature Golf Course set off a national craze.

The still-struggling young designer was living in a University Heights walk-up with his wife and two young daughters. Stuck in bed with the flu, he suspended a drafting board on wooden sawhorses, built up a nine-hole relief course of wooden blocks, wire screen, and paste-soaked newspaper, then added an overlay of green velvet and “shrubbery.” The clubs consisted of inch-high, spring-loaded cylinders. Applying pressure at the top contracted the spring, swinging the club forward; released, the spring drove the club down through its arc with considerable force. Three-sixteenth-inch ball bearings, painted white, stood in as golf balls. Par was set at seventy-two for eighteen holes. Beginners averaged one hundred, with loyal Geddes game player Howard Dietz coming in at the all-time low of sixty-five. The golf game, which took over the dining-room table, became so popular that it disrupted any possibility of a family life.

A year or two later, with Geddes’s career on the rise, the family moved into a spacious Manhattan brownstone on East Thirty-seventh Street that doubled as his office. Busy designing everything from Broadway shows and Hollywood film sets to Fifth Avenue window displays and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats, he was stunned when his wife of ten years announced, one afternoon, that she was leaving and taking the children with her.

Weeks of misery followed. Geddes was barely able to work at all, until journalist and Algonquin Round Table habitué Heywood Broun dragged him off to the Belmont Stakes for an afternoon’s distraction. The pageantry and theater of the racetrack, ending with the victor posed, like a Caesar, under a blanket of white carnations, enthralled him, and the seeds of a plan were planted. He would funnel his self-recriminations into an elaborate new entertainment.

The Nutshell Jockey Club would usurp all of Geddes’s previous games, despite his insistence that he’d “never been the slightest bit horsey.” He immediately got to work, commandeering several of his employees to help. In a matter of months, the Nutshell was ready for a trial run.

“The only two-mile track in the heart of Manhattan, located on the beautiful estate of Norman Geddes,” boasted the official program. Crafted from unevenly dyed and waxed felt, the twenty-inch-wide track was built to scale atop a twenty-eight-foot-long straightaway table. Races ran from four furloughs to the full track length. Running times were identical to real track times, with a new event every half hour. There was green velvet turf, white fencing along the sides, and sixteen boxes behind a locked brass rail reserved for stable owners, who got to view the proceedings at eye level. Behind the boxes was a triple tier of bleachers and a judges’ stand, opposite the finishing post. The setup, which had required the removal of several partitions, took over the entire basement of the house.

The game was entirely electrical and featured eight hundred cast-iron horses, each three inches long, all realistically painted. Each contender had a motor controlled by a rheostat dial set at a winding speed based on the horse’s past performance. Emerging from the stable, the horses lined up behind a thin steel gate, a device Geddes would claim predated by four years the introduction of electrical starting gates at nationwide tracks. The horses ran twenty abreast on pairs of copper rails, pulled by nearly invisible silk threads connected to unseen pulleys.

Randomness was provided by the Chance Machine, a mechanism that worked against the individual motors. A second series of motors shuffled fourteen large ball bearings across the copper rails; the ball bearings completed the electrical circuit, which doubled a horse’s speed by one half-furlough. “Thus,” observed Time magazine, “any horse might suddenly frisk ahead, outdistancing rivals with a higher starting speed, only to ‘stumble’ in the middle of the race or ‘blow up’ at the finish.” They could even jump hedges and ditches. So exacting was the Chance Machine that it gave averages comparable to those on any recognized track. The entire Nutshell apparatus was reported in the press as having cost four thousand dollars, minus the considerable hands-on labor of Geddes and his minions. Lit and locked under glass, it was on view to all just beyond the finishing line.

Every Thursday afternoon, for three consecutive springs and summers, the dials were tested and set. Every Saturday evening, eight races were run, beginning at 9 p.m. and shutting down (at least officially) at 1 a.m. Races were announced over an amplifier, and an authentic recording of racetrack bedlam, from shouting to the sound of horses’ hooves, lent atmosphere.

An on-site printing press was kept busy cranking out rule sheets, term definitions, billboard cards, weekly event programs, forms for purchasing a stable and for buying, selling, or trading additional horses. All transactions were made through the racing secretary. Other game officials included stewards and a clerk of the course. A betting board at the rear of the room listed which horses were running, their past performances, and their odds to win or place. A notice board listed the purses, ranging from two to fifteen dollars. With the exclusion of breeding, weather conditions, and crooked jockeys, it was a live horse race in all the particulars.

Un-run two-year-olds cost one dollar apiece, and their owners were responsible for naming them. Names tended toward the witty and the suggestive: Hotpants, Snuffsniffer, Off Color, Wet Kiss, Sugar Taffy. Alexander Woollcott christened all twenty in his stable after characters in Dickens novels. Naturalist William Beebe’s Arcturus (named after the steamship that carried his recent expedition to the Galápagos) quickly proved himself, winning thirteen of his first eighteen starts and placing in the others. Before the game was two months old, nearly one hundred people owned stables. The number would eventually double.

It was strictly invitation only, and players approached their task with serious intent. Emotions ran high, fueled by prodigious amounts of alcohol. Rumor had it that, on one particular evening, three thousand dollars changed hands in a friendly wager. The boy from Newcomerstown, Ohio, whose grandfather spouted hellfire and brimstone and believed black snakes were the devil’s minions, was now playing host to an elite set of friends. Amelia Earhart and Cole Porter were known to stop by. Regulars included New Yorker founder Harold Ross, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, and theater critic Kenneth Macgowan.

The game was also a magnet for Hollywood notables who happened to be in town, as thoroughbred racing wasn’t legalized in California until 1933. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., King Vidor, Leslie Howard, Adolphe Menjou, Mr. and Mrs. Basil Rathbone, Natacha Rambova (the former Mrs. Rudolph Valentino), and Ethel Barrymore were among the silver-screen luminaries who crowded into Geddes’s basement.

One evening, when the Classic for two-year-olds was running, one of Raoul Fleischmann’s horses was the favorite. The New Yorker cofounder got so caught up in the excitement that he forgot his family and luggage were waiting for him at the dock, scheduled to sail for Europe that same night. “It was a tense race and a close finish, but Raoul’s horse won,” Geddes would recall decades later. “Not until five minutes before sailing did someone remember, and shouted, ‘Raoul, your ship!’ into his ear. Raoul dashed from the house without hat, coat, or winnings, and arrived at the pier in time to watch the Europa—her gangplank in, her docking lines aboard, her whistles wide open, and her railings draped with wives and children hysterically sobbing—set sail without him. Raoul won his second race of the evening, however, when an amiable tug captain put him aboard the ship in mid-channel.”

By the middle of its second season, the Nutshell Jockey Club was already famous. Gate-crashers and a disturbing criminal element quickly followed. Horse auctions were held after each evening’s last race. The bidding was always fast, furious, and loud, and long after Geddes went off to bed, which was rarely before 3 a.m., taxis would be screeching up to the door, expelling the inebriated and the tardy—reputedly several hundred on one particular night—and infuriating the neighbors. Geddes appealed to Mayor Jimmy Walker, one of the game’s enthusiasts, who assigned a patrolman to keep “the wrong people” out.

Geddes would claim that the game, which tied him down to the point that he couldn’t leave town for a vacation, died “of extreme popularity.” It was, observed fellow industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, “perhaps too expensive” to be commercial and “not crooked enough” to survive as a professional gambling enterprise. “It got to be too much of a good thing,” wrote Edwin C. Kill, in the New York Sun, “because Geddes, hospitable soul, served Scotch, rye, gin, and such things to guests and they nearly drank him out of house and home.”

In the end, Geddes put the whole thing into storage. A gambling syndicate twice offered the “blonde little Leonardo… with habitually tousled hair” one thousand dollars per night to operate the Nutshell at Saratoga Springs, New York, for a season. Harry Payne Whitney, whose real-life stables had already garnered numerous Triple Crowns, also expressed interest. Several years later, financier “Barny” Baruch begged to be allowed to re-inaugurate the Nutshell, promising to provide a Manhattan venue. Geddes declined.

By the end of the ’20s, Geddes’s mind was on other things, not the least of which was a major career shift and falling deeply in love for the first time in his life. The list of“other things” would soon include the first of two major World’s Fairs; an elegant, members-only venue to replace the Algonquin’s now-defunct Round Table; a handful of theater productions (and a set that would leave Broadway audiences literally gasping when the curtain went up); and another at-home entertainment for his friends, one that would make the Nutshell seem a very modest endeavor. Just as the Jazz Age was ending and the Great Crash was about to steep the country in a debilitating, protracted depression, Geddes was entering the most creative, diverse, and lucrative decade of his life.

Geddes’s War Game—a sequel, of sorts, to the Nutshell—was an idea that dated back to World War I. He’d viewed that slaughter and destruction as a “hopelessly futile” exercise enacted, under the guise of patriotism, by ambitious, willful men, criminals in positions of power. An anti-enlistment pacifist, he was, nevertheless, fascinated by military history and tactical maneuvers. Now, with a second European conflagration brewing, he decided it was time to clear away the mothballs and develop the game in full.

Not for the last time, he had a finger on the zeitgeist. Flagpole-sitting and bathing-beauty contests were on the wane, but the new decade was inspiring a growing national interest in board games (the hugely successful Monopoly allowed would-be entrepreneurs to make a killing that the real economic landscape all but prohibited), more obvious forms of gambling (bingo, the Irish Sweepstakes), and participatory sports (dance marathons, roller derbies, six-day bicycle races). These activities offered escapism, camaraderie, and community—free of politics and religion, and laced with a sense of hope—at a time when large-scale cooperation seemed largely absent.

Though quieter and slower-paced than his horse-race game, the War Game was far more complex. Geddes’s set of rules, cranked out on his faithful printing press, was thick as a phone book. Not one to do things in half measures, he supplemented his research with a personal library of twelve to fifteen hundred books, along with declassified military records, some of which were translated at his request. He also subscribed to the Quartermaster Review and a handful of military journals, including one devoted to cavalry. What had begun modestly, years before, with Rand McNally topographical survey maps pinned to the wall and two chess sets pushed together, now expanded into an alternate universe soon to be frequented by flesh-and-blood five-star generals, retired naval commanders, and international chess champions. This particular “toy” reputedly ended up costing Geddes thirteen thousand dollars out of pocket, a whopping nine-thousand-dollar jump over the Nutshell.

The board was twenty-four feet long and four feet wide, its surface a varnished relief map of the coastline of two imaginary countries. It represented twenty thousand square kilometers, approximately the size of the Western Front. There were a dozen layers of land above sea level, each measuring an eighth of an inch vertically; the water had three measured depths. One journalist reported that nine thousand cities and towns, along with every mountain, valley, tunnel, bridge, and river, were delineated with fictitious names. Pins of various colors, sizes, and shapes (twelve thousand to twenty-five thousand of them, depending on whom one talked to) stood in for forty-plus types of military units. Each pin had a different kind of move, and each occupied the approximate amount of space on the map that its equivalent force would occupy in the field or at sea. There were at least four thousand on the board at all times.

Originally based on World War I technology, the game’s parameters were stretched to include equipment “within the realm of probability”: motorized supply carriers and artillery, PT-like patrol boats, mine sweepers, submarines, tanks and armored cars, machine guns, and landing barges. Geddes had the complete navies of all five leading powers constructed in the model shop of his office. The battleships were built to exact scale (one inch to one hundred feet), complete with brass hulls, armaments, and planes. As time went on, there were also destroyers, aircraft carriers, capital ships and cruisers, tankers, tenders, barges, depot ships, and merchant vessels (ranging from the Queen Mary to a Chinese junk). In all, they would eventually number more than seventeen hundred.

Each country had the same railroad mileage, resources, and imports. Military units moved at speeds contingent upon the terrain they were covering; their artillery’s range (and destructive power) increased a kilometer for every contour level it occupied above its target. The same applied to ships other than patrol boats. Those who found themselves several positions down could rally by sending up aircraft or engaging in other maneuvers. Three dice in a specially designed case were used to determine how much destruction the attacking force might enact when it got within range of an objective.

Each side had a general staff (equipped with maps, charts, typewriters), field commanders, and assorted advisors. But the remarkable thing was that despite there being twenty-eight belligerents—fourteen on each side, simultaneously engaged—there was no need for an umpire. While one side maneuvered, the other watched and conferred among its ranks. A Geddes-designed electric clock, circa 1919—“Before,” he noted “there were any commercially available”—was jury-rigged to tap a ball at ten-minute intervals. Three short warning taps marked twenty-five minutes, and a sharp gong announced the half-hour mark—the other side’s turn.

During each half-hour interval, field commanders could move units and cause them to fire, but only once. Thirty minutes were rarely enough to move more than half one’s forces; much advanced planning and discrimination were required. Stenographers kept score. At the end of the evening, captured enemy pins were placed in coffin-like boxes and handed over to a special secretary, who tabulated the dead (one of every sixty-seven casualties, just as in real wars) and staked them out in graveyards. Wounded troops were returnable in three weeks. Other rules applied to prisoners.

The game ran once a week throughout the winter months, as the Nutshell had in spring and summer. Tuesday nights the battles commenced, or more often continued, from 8 p.m. until midnight. Whereas several horse races had run on any given night, a “war” could last indefinitely. An evening of play was commensurate with three and a half days of war. One conflict dragged on for six months, another for three years. “The battles witnessed by this correspondent were slower than usual,” wrote Richard Massock in his syndicated “About New York” column, noting that an armistice might be the only solution, but then “Geddes explained that several sectors were under the command of recruits who were still learning the rules…”

Sunday was “staff day.” Both sides were allowed to study their opponent’s formation on the board (which, like the Nutshell’s mechanism, was secured beneath a locked plateglass cover to prevent tampering), to make notes, maps, and charts, and to strategize for the following week’s play. This privilege, however, required one to sacrifice five airplanes and climb a ladder to reach the vantage point. According to Dietz, the game’s “associate genius,” Geddes often neglected his professional work in favor of strategizing. He would spend the whole day reading Foch and Joffrey and planning out his tactics.

As with the horse races, players took the proceedings seriously. Tensions tended to run high; faces would redden, lips tighten, fists clench. So much Prohibition liquor was consumed that Geddes was finally reduced to serving water. Many participants wore felt hats, headbands, or eyeshades to keep perspiration from running down their faces, and carried handkerchiefs to dry sweaty hands. Theater critic Bruce Bliven doubled as a referee and war correspondent, madly punching away at a typewriter set up between the opposing sides. Records of every battle were scrupulously kept in huge loose-leaf notebooks. In the game’s early days, Geddes chose to play; his prodigious memory allowed him, one journalist noted, to point out “just wherein the strategic failure was made” during particular battles. Later, he often preferred to watch, pacing up and down “like Jove,” as one reporter said, “overseeing the assault ofTroy.” He saw his creation as an elaborate puzzle “in which a sensitive intellectual could really take an interest.” Dietz described it as chess on a heroic scale, chess “carried to infinity,” a concept seemingly confirmed by the frequent appearance at East Thirty-seventh Street of five-time international chess champion Edward Lasker.

One evening, Geddes’s houseboy announced that someone who couldn’t speak English was at the door. The business card read: Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine. Alekhine was widely considered chess’s greatest and most inventive player. Lasker, who had competed professionally against the Russian, compared Alekhine’s chess obsession to a morphine addiction. Alekhine had read about the game in a Russian newspaper published in Paris. He was intrigued enough by what he found to return for four consecutive weeks before leaving town.

As commander-in-chief of the Red Force, Edward Lasker subsequently lost an entire field army, his whole command, plus a quarter of his side’s total force; thus failed, he was up for court-martial. The future author of Chess for Fun & Chess for Blood, and an expert at the strategically challenging Japanese board game Go, he threw himself onto Geddes’s sofa and sobbed like a baby. Geddes felt obliged to ban him, but after three months of heartfelt requests he was reinstated.

“It’s a game, of course… but an extraordinary one… A bird’s eye view of modern warfare for players who can see like birds and reason like mathematicians,” crowed the New York Sun. “Navies, complete from battleships to minesweepers… A flight of airplanes is a tiny symbol on a two-inch-long pin stem. Submerged submarines are invisible, but there…”

One morning, a pair of government agents appeared on Geddes’s doorstep, sent from Washington, D.C., to ascertain if the designer was a spy. Geddes obligingly commenced a tour and proceeded to explain the game’s finer points. His guests managed to escape partway through.

The stalwarts forfeited everything from vacations to business and family commitments, returning week after week, month after month. (Some wives came and knitted through the proceedings.) There was a broker, an architect, an underwear manufacturer, a rare-books dealer, and a shipping magnate. Regulars included a member of Woodrow Wilson’s Peace Commission at Versailles, a British brigadier general (retired), an Italian cavalry captain, and the former chief of New York City Detectives. Annapolis football coach Tom Hamilton credited the game for inspiring one of his primary technical strategies. “Had the Kaiser had one of these to work over,” remarked a former German officer, “there wouldn’t have been a war!”

Rear Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher, former commander of the Atlantic Fleet, “flurried the veterans by an incorrigible attack,” noted the New York Times, “disabling a cruiser and three destroyers in one move, at the cost of three squadrons of airplanes. Even the game’s inventor… will [not] be able to tell how the tide of war is flowing for at least a couple more weeks.” Rear Admiral and World War I veteran W. B. Fletcher dropped in of an evening, only to lose eight capital ships. Humiliated, he never came back. Broadway playwright Austin Strong, a veteran of Geddes’s golf game, left under less dramatic circumstances: “I keep thinking about the widows and children,” he said.

As with the Nutshell, rumblings about possible merchandising came to naught. In the mid-’30s, when Geddes finally put the War Game into storage, it was partly, he would claim, because the game’s complexities required having “a school for the recruits.” Between his new industrial-design career and ongoing theater commissions, he simply didn’t have the time. Besides, he’d embarked on a new hobby: amassing hundreds of live reptiles and amphibians for experimentation, study, and to “star” in his elaborate home movies.

The miniaturization and three-dimensional landscaping that Geddes devel for his games made Futurama possible. The War Game’s imaginary countries morphed into a reconfigured United States—California’s coastline juxtaposed with the Mississippi, cities composited, mountain ranges borrowed and shifted—and instead of waxed felt and papier-mâché, as in the past, Futurama’s geographical surfaces were made of a quick-hardening material that various textures could be applied to. Thirty-five thousand square feet were covered “with the stuff used to stuff birds,” presumably excelsior; after asking a taxidermist for twenty-five tons of it, Geddes ended up buying his shop. And along with all the handmade buildings, trees, and silver automobiles, Geddes’s fanatical attention to detail now manifested as “working” waterfalls, low clouds (fashioned with chemical vapors) clinging to mountainsides, and exacting replicas of clotheslines and cow paddies that World’s Fair visitors would never notice. What he called “human interest” details, his workforce referred to as “nuisance architecture.” Much of the crew considered him “nuts.” Geddes got his first look at the on-site office they built for him when the 408-panel model was trucked to the fairgrounds for assembly. The desk was nailed to the floor and a lamp nailed to the desk. There were bars on the window, and the walls were upholstered to resemble a padded cell.

A quarter century after the 1939 World’s Fair, and six years after Geddes’s death, General Motors reprised Futurama as Futurama II for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Aside from the “updates” of underwater vacation resorts and a trip to the moon, it was the same concept and design. Geddes might well have been proud. Then again, he might have wondered why, after twenty-five years, they hadn’t come up with something even better. He would have.

B. Alexandra Szerlip was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow. When she’s not working on her Bel Geddes biography, she’s writing about nineteenth-century Oriental rugs. Her mixed-media sculpture can be seen at www.redroom.com.

Lines outside the General Motors exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes at the 1939 World’s Fair Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc.; image courtesy of the Library of Congress

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