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Expo: Magic of the White City


By Michael S. Gant

The 1893 Chicago's World's Fair, a.k.a. the World's Columbian Exposition, was the greatest of all world's fairs. Marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage (delays put it off by a year), the fair reclaimed some 600 acres of swamp land along Lake Michigan. Working from a design by Fredrick Law Olmstead, laborers drove pilings, dredged a lagoon and erected gleaming exhibit halls. The plaster cladding used resembled marble, and the whole complex was dubbed the White City; at night, the buildings were bathed in the new miracle of electric lights. The two-hour documentary Expo: Magic of the White City from Inecom dates from 2005 but is now also available from and well worth seeking out. Although Edison introduced his Kinetograph at the fair, there is no film footage of the fair, so Expo slowly pans across period photographs and marvelous hand-colored postcards while narrator Gene Wilder imparts historical nuggets about the growth of Chicago, the prudish Board of Lady Managers (who wanted to outlaw the sale of alcohol), labor unrest and the complaints of the visiting Laplanders, who couldn't stand the summer heart. The superlatives that describe the main grounds (the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts hall was the largest building in the world at the time; the Ferris Wheel outdid the Eiffel Tower) are matched by quaintly risqué attractions of the Midway Plaisance. My only complaint is the overuse of some modern footage of a belly dancer to illustrate the racy side of the fair—when it doubt, stick to old photographs. (Michael S. Gant)

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