They're used to it now-the crowds, the bands, the laser beams raking the sky at night, the brilliant bloom of fireworks - but back in May, Knoxville's people were openly and unabashedly excited as the guns went off, the balloons went up and a presidential cavalcade swept up to the Court of Flags to open the 1982 World's Fair.
To an extent, this sense of excitement still permeates the city. Despite early fears of failure, and fierce opposition, most of Knoxville has come to agree with what Joe Rodgers, commissioner of the U.S. pavilion, said about the fair: "The focus is on the fun."
To the promoters and backers of the fair, of course, the pressure and problems of the fair were hardly fun. They, after all, were responsible for what the Economist later described as Knoxville's "cheeky" gamble: the $800-million effort to hold a genuine world's fair in a small, relatively unknown southern city. And during the first weekend, when opening day crowds seemed to sag a little, cab drivers and the owners of motels and inns were heard to inquire - with just a faint note of concern -"What did /all think of our fair?"
Most of Knoxville, however, just took it as it came, doing what they could and shrugging if they couldn't. The night before the opening, for example, as construction crews raced to complete unfinished exhibits and pavilions, clusters of visitors and what seemed to be most of Knoxville's population gathered on the green slopes of the University of Tennessee above the fairgrounds or strolled casually along Broadway-where a great billboard had, for 1,000 days, ticked off the days remaining until the fair opened. Others dined leisurely in such places as the balcony of the old L&N (for Louisville and Nashville) railroad station, a huge, 19th-century monument of red bricks and granite slabs converted, by imaginative architects, into a warren of shops and restaurants for the fair.
From such perches, and from the bridges that cross the ravine where the fairgrounds lie, these early crowds patiently watched and waited. They were amiable. They were casual. They were relaxed.
Since then, this easy-going attitude has become an outstanding feature of the fair. On opening day, for example, when tight security for President Reagan kept thousands waiting outside the fairgrounds in the sun, most simply shrugged and waited while the bands played, the majorettes marched, the choirs sang and - a spectacular finale - thousands of multi-coloredballoons went soaring into the sky -a symbol that the fair, after seven years work to get it off the ground, was aloft at last
It had, nevertheless, been a race against time. From the moment the Bureau of International Expositions okayed Knox-ville, fair officials were never really sure they could do it. Even while Dinah Shore sang and President Reagan spoke, a woman in heels was still vacuuming the rug at North Carolina's exhibit, while a carpenter noisily piled strips of aluminum paneling into a cart.
Some exhibits had worse trouble than that. Panama, for some reason, simply didn't open its pavilion at all. A rare Rembrandt scheduled to headline an art exhibit was delayed five weeks because of insurance troubles. And, across the fairgrounds, the Peruvian pavilion faced a crisis: a leak in the ceiling that occurred when waiters in the 140-seat Peking style restaurant above the exhibit spilled a 20-gallon vat of won ton soup.
The next day there were still more problems. Ticket sellers at the gates ran out of change and thousands of visitors piled up at the gates in the sun getting angrier by the moment - until quick-thinking fair officials decided to let them in free.
In the small, but well-appointed press center in a brand new hotel adjacent to the fairgrounds, some of the more than 1,500 reporters who poured into Knoxville for the opening were also given a run-down on the kind of troubles the fair could expect during the long, hot summer ahead: police spotted and rousted six pickpockets; emergency squads treated a man with a heart condition and firemen extinguished three small fires
Later, as the nation's schools let out and the tourist tide began to break over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the problems worsened. But though the traffic did get a bit heavy and the prices just a mite too high, the people of Knoxville continued to delight in the fact that their small, green city had actually gotten itself a real world's fair.
It is true that fair officials and world press coverage have stressed the playful aspects of the fair - and they should. Each day has offered a marvelous variety of sparkling entertainment: marching bands, strolling magicians, mimes and jugglers. Big hits include Appalachian folk dancing, the arts of basket-making, woodcarving, quilting and blacksmithing. Above the south end, America's largest ferns wheel swoops visitors 148 feet above the ground and each day the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale horses, known for their elegant carriage and fleecy white "stockings," lead parades through the fairgrounds. Finally, every evening, the festivities culminate with spectacular fireworks, and a laser show billed as "the largest laser sky show in history" — swirling colors and sheets of lights visible for miles.
But the pavilions - sponsored by 23 countries and 91 corporations - do not neglect the fair's serious theme either. And though the topic - "Energy Turns the World" - may seem dry, scientists, graphic designers and technicians from around the globe have, with imagination and taste, humanized the most sophisticated technology.
The U.S. pavilion, for example, offers a debate on energy that includes Jane Fonda; China provides river rides in a 20-foot solar-powered dragonboat; the Tennessee Valley Authority allows visitors to try to match energy demands with available supply in a simulated load-control center; and France shows the core of its nuclear breeder reactor. There is also a look at oil shale, a glimpse of the bottom of the North Sea-via a British oil drilling rig - and an uncomfortably realistic coal mine from West Virginia.
The fair also provides a forum for every exhibitor to show off its state-of-the-art technology. Talking robots discuss energy topics in Japan's pavilion, France presents an electrified model of the Bullet Train - the world's fastest - and Australian windmills up to 75 feet tall pump water to irrigate eucalyptus trees and ferns inside the pavilion.
One of the more memorable attractions is the IMAX theater - with a screen 67 feet high and 90 feet wide - in which the U. S. A.
offers an enormous, three-dimensional film on the story of America's energy - past, present and future. Elsewhere in the six-level cantilevered pavilion, visitors can push buttons on 33 "talk-back" computers to get answers to their energy-related questions, and stroll among 12-foot murals and artifacts from six previous fairs and museums in the United States.
Some exhibits mix energy with culture. Korea, for example, demonstrates an ancient floor-heating system called "Ondol" - along with folk dance performances, Tae Kwon Do karate exhibitions and a restaurant serving traditional Korean cuisine
Germany showcases an 18th-century waterwheel; the Italians pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction; and the Canadians operate a 22-foot working model of the world's largest wind turbine.
Although the Hungarian Pavilion addresses world energy problems too, it will be remembered primarily for its Rubik's cube, a giant version of the puzzle invented by Hungarian architect Dr. Erno Rubik. The huge cube, which solves itself mechanically every few seconds, is the focal point of Hungary's presentation, but a restaurant serving Hungarian goulash, cabbage rolls, and strudel may be equally memorable.
History, art and culture are also stressed at the fair, particularly at one large pavilion housing China, Egypt, and Peru. The Chinese, who see the fair as an opportunity to establish a cultural dialogue with the world, offer a portion of the Great Wall of China, along with scores of soapstone and jade carvings, modern and antique porcelain, rattan and silk goods, furniture, and tapestries woven with pearls. The pavilion does not neglect energy entirely, however; in addition to the solar boat, it offers a display on the collection of marsh gas for conversion into propane gas. The fair's biggest hit, China's pavilion has crowds waiting up to three hours.
Egypt's exhibit also focuses on history -with a collection of treasures from the Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic periods. Similarly, Peru celebrates its past with gold and silver relics and a 3,000-year-old mummy.
Some of the exhibits are quite candidly sales promotions - but enjoyable anyway. Many U.S. states make pitches for their tourist attractions with "visual vacations" to Tennessee's Grand Ole Opry, North Carolina's Kitty Hawk, South Carolina's Myrtle Beach, the Kentucky Horse Park, and the Mississippi and North Florida Gulf Coast.
Several states, though, go a step past strict promotion. West Virginia is one, with an exhibit on coal mining that has received international recognition for its accuracy and fairness, and Tennessee, taking its role as host to the world seriously, built a $4 million open-air amphitheater in the center of the fair, where an extravagant music and dance production called "Sing Tennessee" is performed; the amphitheater is a futuristic fiberglass tent, one of the few permanent structures on the site
Outside the fair, Knoxville is offering still more entertainment. At the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and the Civic Coliseum, for example, seats are already booked for October with such drawing cards as Rudolf Nureyev, dancing with the Boston Ballet the Royal Tahitian Dance Co., Carlos Montoya, the Scottish National Orchestra, the Prague Symphony, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, the Dance Theater of Harlem, and The Grand Kabuki of Japan.
In a spirited effort to offer something for everyone, the fair also scheduled 19 sporting events, including a round-robin baseball tournament with teams from the U.S., Korea, Japan, and Australia, and a round-robin basketball tourney with teams from the U.S., China, Canada, and Yugoslavia. Among other events are a National Football League exhibition game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, a National Basketball Association exhibition game, and PGA Cup matches pitting nine U.S. golf pros against nine pros from Britain and Ireland.
The list goes on, with rowing, canoeing, kayaking, boxing, cycling, gymnastics, hockey, racquetball, rugby, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, volleyball, weight-lifting, wrestling, and road racing. And if that weren't enough, four University of Tennessee home football games will be played during the fair in U.T.s 91,249-seat Neyland Stadium.
Then there's food. For people who have dreamed of eating and drinking their way around the world, the fair is the answer to a prayer. Fair officials call the site "the largest restaurant in the world," with 81 eating locations. Fourteen restaurants, other than the four operated by Mexico, China, Hungary, and Korea, offer homemade pasta, fresh fish (flown in daily), and such Bavarian fare as sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel. Visitors on the move can choose from an enticing assortment of snacks, including stuffed potato skins, fried catfish, baklava, Filipino egg rolls, bagels and lox, New Orleans jambalaya, French pastries, Belgian waffles, country ham and biscuits, and muffins of every description. Fair management predicts that more conventional appetites will tackle some 500 tons of hamburgers, 250 tons of hot dogs, and a million ice cream bars.
From the start, the mood in Knox-ville was festive. Color is everywhere. Flags, streamers and banners span the spectrum. Aerial gondola chairs are painted in vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, and the facade of the pavilion housing the European Economic Community is alive with a sunburst mosaic. Even a Knoxville Utility Board substation, located on the site long before anyone dreamed of a World's Fair, has dressed up with bright colors for the occasion.
Knoxville, of course, won't know the results of its "cheeky" gamble until the gates close in October. But higher than expected attendance has given the city -and its creditors - hope that they may not only recoup their investments but recoup them early. If so everyone will have gotten their money's worth - in cold cash, national attention and fun.
Sybil Thurman, formerly a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, is now an editor in the information office of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and author of A History of the Tennessee Valley Authority.