Fairly Bizarre Time in San Antonio
The circus acts started long before HemisFair ’68 put San Antonio on the world stage
A recent visit to San Antonio made me realize how much the city has changed for the better since I moved there in 1966 to work for a somewhat loony organization called the San Antonio World’s Fair Inc., better known as HemisFair ’68.
World’s fairs are held every three or four years, and they bring a floating population of specialists together with a group of managers who usually have had absolutely no experience in producing a world’s fair. The specialists are creative types who often move from fair to fair; the managers are hardheaded businesspeople who are determined to make their particular fair the first one in history to show a profit on closing day. Add in a group of promoters who produce the fair’s entertainment, and you have a highly unstable mixture of deeply interesting people. Someone said that watching HemisFair take shape was like watching a bunch of cowboys trying to build an airplane.
My job title at the fair was theme development writer. Every world’s fair has a theme, assigned by the International Expositions Bureau in Paris. HemisFair’s theme was “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” and my job was to write proposals for commercial exhibits that would fit that theme.
Here is how it worked: The sales department would decide to approach, say, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company to buy exhibit space at the fair. The sales people would come to me and say, “We want a proposal for an exhibit for Goodyear tires.” I would sit down and write an eight-page concept statement about the history of rubber in the Americas; how the Mayas discovered it; how the Aztecs used it in their ceremonial ball game, etc. The sales department would take it to Goodyear, and Goodyear would say, “Fellows, we’re not selling Aztecs, we’re selling tires. We want an exhibit with tires in it.” I would then have to rework the concept statement to get tires into it. It was a highly frustrating job.
The best part of the fair was the people who I met there. Bill Brammer, author of the 1961 prize-winning political novel The Gay Place, had an office just down the hall from mine. Brammer was a witty fellow, a small man with a beautiful smile and a gentle manner. At one point, someone in the fair’s public relations office circulated a list of adjectives to be used in press releases describing the fair. Brammer drew up a counterlist, which I wish I had kept because it would be a priceless piece of Texas literary ephemera. The only word I can remember that was on it was “dithyrambic.”
Our office got a lot of visitors, some of them clearly unbalanced, with schemes for promoting the fair, and Brammer and Hugh Lowe, another staff member, and I worked out a routine for dealing with them. Brammer would listen to them for half an hour and then take them to Lowe’s office. Lowe would listen to them for 15 minutes and then escort them to my office. I would listen to them for 10 minutes and say, “Let’s talk about this more over lunch,” and take them down the street to the Nueva Street Cafe, buy them lunch, and then suddenly remember that I had an appointment and leave them over their enchiladas.
One gentleman had a trained dog act and wanted the fair to hire him to take his dogs to Broadway openings, where they would walk in circles in front of the theater on their hind legs, holding little signs in their paws that said, “Visit HemisFair ’68.” When I left the restaurant, he was happily telling the people at the next table about his dogs.
There were a lot of Californians who came to work for the fair. I have fond memories of a graphic designer named Richard Wilson, a flower child from San Francisco who infused outlandish colors into the fair’s advertising. Wilson was the quintessential Californian, happy to greet anyone with a smile. He liked to explore the back roads of the Hill Country in his Toyota FJ40.
On one occasion when I was with him, we were crossing a ranch on a one-lane dirt road, carefully closing unlocked gates behind us, when we saw a pickup truck coming toward us with the driver signaling us to stop. Wilson braked the Toyota, glanced at the door of the pickup, which had lettering on it that read “FJ Hereford Ranch, Boerne, Texas,” and jumped out of the Toyota with his hand extended and a big smile on his face, saying, “How ya’ doin’, Mr. Hereford?” The driver gave us a long look and said, “You boys aren’t from around here, are you?”
The summer of 1968, with its assassinations and political turmoil, was not a propitious time for a world’s fair. The anticipated crowds did not show up, and the fair ended up in the red. But the hotels that were built for it, the improvements and extensions to the River Walk, and the energy that it generated changed San Antonio forever and helped make it a major Texas convention city and tourist destination. Before the fair, the joke was that when Santa Anna left San Antonio after the Alamo, he said, “Don’t do anything until I get back,” and no one did. No one can ever say that about San Antonio again.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis.
A version of this article appeared in Lonn Taylor’s Rambling Boy column in the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, March 19. Taylor’s book of columns, Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy, was recently published by Texas Christian University Press.