California Pacific International Exposition

CHAPTER SIX: The Exposition Closes

In reviewing the 1936 Exposition season, an editor of the San Diego Sun declared the second season’s “one outstanding achievement” was the high level of playing shown by the San Diego Symphony. During the first season, the Symphony played in “a pathetically deserted” Ford Bowl, but, during the second, the Bowl was filled with people at “practically every performance.”

The night lighting during the second season literally outshone other aspects of the Exposition. Lighting in 1935 was stunning, but technicians went all out to make it better. Water gushing from all sides formed an arch in the center of a Rainbow Fountain, located on the site of the 1935 Firestone Singing Fountain. Red, yellow and blue lights reflecting off the water gave it the appearance of a rainbow. Dimmer lights at the base of buildings cast waves of moving color on cycads, ferns, palms, azaleas and hibiscus. Technicians chose different plants and colors for each building. The effect was most noticeable in the Palisades where the General Exhibits Building and the California State Building complemented one another across the broad Plaza de America.

In contrast to fluctuating pastel hues reflected from the surfaces of the General Exhibits and California State Buildings, the Palace of Transportation, at the south end of the Plaza, stood alone in luminescent grandeur. A half mile of light tubing behind blue fins on the facade cast a polar blue light on flutes as they rose to join a wide, unfluted rim. Two thousand bulbs behind the rim crowned the tower with an intense and eerie orange corona.

Otto K. Olesen used lighting devices employed in Hollywood films to conjure up scenes of ethereal magic. For Palm Canyon and the Alcazar Garden he set up over 10,000 firefly lights in shrubs and on the tops of trees to create an illusion of sprites darting in and out of the gloom. The setting evoked the enchanted world of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Final accounting for the 1936 season showed an attendance of 2,004,000 and a treasury of $44,000. Subscribers received a 5 percent return on their investment; as most expositions lose money, the 1935-36 Exposition should be considered a nominal success. Instead of putting grounds in order, the Exposition Corporation transferred $20,362 to the City and turned over portable property valued at more than $5,000. This payment was smaller than the $75,000 the Exposition had promised the City in December 1935. The City Council was not upset over the meager return as the Federal Works Projects Administration was expected to furnish $125,000 in labor and $5,000 in cash for park restoration.

Results of the 1935-36 Exposition were not as dramatic as those of 1915- 16. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps came to San Diego as an aftermath of the first exposition, but the movement of Consolidated Aircraft from Buffalo to San Diego in October 1935 had no connection with the second.

President Belcher was fond of saying the Exposition increased building permits, new buildings, bank debits, car loadings, population, automobile sales, retail store sales, and employment in San Diego. A reader of the San Diego Sun responded that these claims reminded him of a preacher who not being able to say anything good about a ne’er-do-well at his funeral described instead the wonderful events that had occurred during his life.

Differences of style between Bertram Goodhue’s storybook buildings, put up in the 1910’s, and Richard Requa’s stripped, sterile buildings, put up in the 1930’s, are marked. One would not go to Balboa Park in the moonlight to see the plucked-poultry facades of the Gymnasium (former Palace of Electricity) or Automotive Museum (former California State Building); but one would go to see the kaleidoscope of colors behind low-growing plants and the Art Deco paintings in front of these buildings, the vibrant Firestone Singing Fountains, the vigorous Standard Oil Tower, and the whimsical facade of the Palace of Water, now no more.

In its 377 days of operation, the Exposition attracted 7,220,000 visitors as compared to an estimated 13,200,000 who visited the Dallas Exposition in 1936- 37 and the 46,769,277 who visited the Chicago Exposition in 1933-34. The visitors brought $100,000 a day to San Diego, or a grand total of $37,700.000. Businesspeople estimated the value of park improvements at $6,000,000.

During its construction the Exposition employed as many as 2,700 people and during its operation as many as 5,800. It gave San Diego widespread publicity. It offered visitors culture, enjoyment, hope, and escapist fantasies. As bleak as the times were and as ominous as war clouds darkening Europe might be, visitors could bask in the thrills of the moment and in the giddy promises of a tomorrow that might never be. For those who were young at the time, the Exposition was “the time of their lives.”