Take me out to the fair
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Take me out to the fair

Franklin Lakes shul to host contemporary film on 1939 World’s Fair

Westinghouse featured the Middleton family in an ad; the family, played by actors, this time, features in the film that will be screened at Emanuel. (Don O’Brien/Flckr)
Westinghouse featured the Middleton family in an ad; the family, played by actors, this time, features in the film that will be screened at Emanuel. (Don O’Brien/Flckr)

Yes, this is a little bit of Queens geography.

But Bergen County’s not so far from Long Island, and you have to go through Queens to get there, so it’s not likely to be foreign to our readers.

You know how you see the old World’s Fair grounds — Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, to be technical — when you take the Grand Central Parkway or the Van Wyck Expressway? You can’t really tell from the road, but those once-glorious monuments to the future are crumbling. They’re the remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair, the postwar ode to progress that introduced some of us of a certain age, wide-eyed children then, to such wonders as picturephones (not nearly as good as FaceTime or Skype but purely miraculous then), moving sidewalks (an idea whose time has not yet come and most likely never will), and a stunning showcase for DuPont’s immortal slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

Not to mention Belgian waffles.

Before the 1964 World’s Fair, though, that same park hosted the 1939 World’s Fair, also a paean to the future but this one built during the Great Depression, with World War II looming. For our readers’ parents, grandparents, or maybe even great-grandparents, were they lucky enough to have made it to this country by then, and have gotten to the fair, it represented hope, progress, and a better life. We remember the ‘64 World’s Fair in Technicolor and the 1939 one in moody period black-and-white, but really the ‘39 fair blazed with color and life.

Charles Sokol of Wayne is a semi-retired chemist (and a Ph.D. who chooses not to use that title outside his professional life) who describes himself as “a collector of various things,” among them “probably the world’s largest collection of early English-language comedy recordings — and by early I’m talking from 1897 to the early 1950s,” he said. He also collects other early audio and visual recordings. Among those treasures is a six-hour silent film of the 1939 World’s Fair.

The facade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion showed a copper relief sculpture, Maurice Ascalon’s “The Scholar, The Laborer, and The Toiler of the Soil.” (Wikipedia)
The facade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion showed a copper relief sculpture, Maurice Ascalon’s “The Scholar, The Laborer, and The Toiler of the Soil.” (Wikipedia)

“There was a gentleman — I assume he was a man, but I just know his last name, Medicus,” Mr. Sokol said. “This person — Medicus — had a 16 millimeter silent movie camera. It wasn’t just 8 millimeter, so that it was decent quality.” It was also in color.

Mr. Sokol often creates programs based on his collection and shows them at his synagogue, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.

He has divided the Medicus film into four segments. On Sunday, April 3, he will show the last, hour-long section, backed by period British dance band music — “totally silent films can be very boring,” he said, and the music is British because “with British copyright laws, anything recorded before 1950 is in the public domain, and I didn’t violate any copyright laws.” (Nothing is simple.)

See the box for more information on this week’s program.

The film shows “everything at the fair — and I do mean everything,” Mr. Sokol said. “This guy or gal or whatever went to the entire fair and filmed it. There were all sorts of things that surprised me.”

Among those surprises, “there was a fair amount of nudity,” he said. “And this guy captured it. The French pavilion had an outdoor garden, and there were topless female models, just walking around talking to people, having what looked like normal conversations.”

Along those lines, “one of the most surprising things I found is that in 1939, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali had designed a topless bathing suit, and he had the women swimming in tanks.”

They were in a pavilion called “Dreams of Venus,” which looks jaw-droppingly avant-garde in the film.

Elektro the Moto-Man and his Little Dog Sparko, who toured the country before and after the fair, were made by Westinghouse and on display in its pavilion. (Wikipedia)
Elektro the Moto-Man and his Little Dog Sparko, who toured the country before and after the fair, were made by Westinghouse and on display in its pavilion. (Wikipedia)

Next Sunday, Mr. Sokol will pair that last segment of the Medicus documentary with an “incredible film, a docudrama, put together by the Westinghouse Corporation,” he said. The film, called “The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair,” also in color, and with sound, is more or less about the triumph of the American Way.

Mr. Sokol’s oldest Jewish recordings were not made by Jewish performers, he said. Jewish vaudevillians, like many of their non-Jewish peers, were leery about recordings at first, fearing that they would cut into profits. Why would audiences venture out to theaters when they could listen to records at home? “At that time, royalties were pitiful,” he said. “They were afraid of losing their income.” So the records were made by non-Jews who heard the Jewish routines, saw how popular they are, recorded what they heard (particularly if it was in English; they tended to omit the Yiddish bits). Jews were the target audience.

As they got into the early 20th century, Jewish performers “noticed that people still were coming to their shows,” Mr. Sokol said. In fact, the recordings were raising awareness among their potential audiences. “In about 1902, you started to see Jewish performers making recordings,” he added.

Most of the early recordings were made in Edison, and sold in record stores. “The very first ones were on wax cylinders, and then they started to be both cylinders and disks,” he said. “Around 1912 or 1913, they started using plastic,” which wore far better.

Mr. Sokol relishes some of the titles of the Jewish recordings. There’s “Under the Matzah Tree,” he said, and the immortal “Who Ate Napoleons With Josephine When Bonaparte Was Away?” Later, after “At the Yiddish Wedding Jubilee” and “Marry a Yiddisher Boy,” there came the eternal question “Whose Izzy Is He?”

Another highlight of his collection, Mr. Sokol said, is a program he put together using both some material in his collection and some from Steven Spielberg’s archives. “In my collection, I have two of the first films ever made in Jerusalem,” he said. They are small bits of film made in 1896 by the Lumiere brothers, who were important early filmmakers. “It shows Jerusalem when the whole area was still under Turkish control,” Mr. Sokol said.

He already has presented that film at Temple Emanuel but is thinking about showing it again. “It probably got the best response of anything I’ve done,” he said.

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