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Revisiting the US Expo Pavilions at Knoxville ’82 & New Orleans ’84

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Space Shuttle Enterprise drew visitors' attention in front of the US Pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Photo: James Ogul
Space Shuttle Enterprise drew visitors’ attention in front of the US Pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Photo: James Ogul

This article, originally published in April 2014, is part of “Tales from the Expo,” an InPark Magazine online book written by James Ogul and edited by Judith Rubin.

As Program Coordinator for the U.S. Pavilion at Knoxville, James Ogul was new to a job that would be the start of his 30+ year career in world expos. When his contract as Program Coordinator reached an end date at the conclusion of Knoxville ’82, the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce offered him the job of Exhibits Director for the US pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Expo in New Orleans. These two world’s fairs had some positives and some negatives concerning their legacies, as touched on at the end of the article. The US pavilion exhibits at Knoxville and New Orleans were notable partly for the various kinds of display technology they helped introduce to the public – things such as touchscreens, that are now commonplace in visitor attractions and in people’s daily lives.

Featured photo (at top): James Ogul with President Jimmy Carter at the US Pavilion in New Orleans, 1984. Photo: James Ogul

Knoxville Expo 82: Inside the US Pavilion. Photo: Bill Cotter
Knoxville Expo 82: Inside the US Pavilion. Photo: Bill Cotter

Knoxville 82: Giant screens & touchscreens

Altogether I have worked on ten US pavilion projects, but Knoxville stands out in my mind, partly as the first such project of my career, and partly because of the pavilion’s scope. As the US was both host country and exhibitor, the US Pavilion was huge: more than 66,000 square feet. Congress appropriated $20.8 million (equating to more than $50 million in today’s dollars) for the project, of which $12.4 million was earmarked for construction of the building.

The pavilion was six stories tall with an atrium interior. Solar collectors on the roof contributed to 10% of the building’s cooling. The top floor had all of the offices and the VIP lounge, and the atrium design meant that staff could readily hear and see everything going on below. The sudden cessation of sound the day after the Expo closed was dramatic: the continuous roar of thousands of visitors completely disappeared and it was like someone had shut off Niagara Falls.

Visitors entered the pavilion by riding to the 6th floor via a 70-foot escalator (there was also an elevator for people with physical disabilities.) They toured down through the building, viewing exhibits on the subject of Energy, the theme of the expo. At one point they traversed the entire length of the pavilion on a high ramp for a sweeping view of all the exhibits. Once on the ground floor visitors could exit, or enter the queuing area for the 1,000 seat IMAX Theater showing the film “Energy! Energy!” directed by the legendary Francis Thompson. At the time, IMAX theaters were still quite novel in the world and this one had a screen about 90 feet wide by 70 feet high.

The 1,000-seat IMAX Theater at the US Pavilion, Knoxville '82. Photo: Bill Cotter
The 1,000-seat IMAX Theater at the US Pavilion, Knoxville ’82. Photo: Bill Cotter

Also on the ground floor was a live Energy Show on a stage at one end of the building. This was operated by nearby Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Outdoors, the cantilevered end of the building provided cover for an outdoor stage for performing groups, which were booked throughout the expo. Among other performing groups we hosted the U.S. Gymnastics team for several weeks. The gift shop was operated by the US Space and Rocket Center of Huntsville, Alabama.

The building won architectural awards, and the interactive computer video system that was way ahead of its time won the National Audio Visual Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award for 1982. The interactive touchscreen system – at the time, a technology new to the public – was programmed by group from MIT. A glassed-in computer room on the ground floor boasted 23 computers, 50 laser discs, 7 color graphic generators, 17 monitors and a data storage system holding 2,000,000 bits of information. (2 million bits of information was a lot in 1982.)

Exhibits at the US Pavilion, Knoxville Expo 82. Photo: Bill Cotter
Exhibits at the US Pavilion, Knoxville Expo 82. Photo: Bill Cotter

Pavilion traffic ran as high as 40,000 visitors on some days. One notable event at the outset of the Expo was having President Reagan and the first lady open the pavilion from the ground-floor stage. Following that, the President went up to the lounge area to deliver his weekly radio address. I remember standing there watching the President’s opening speech in somewhat of a daze after pulling late-night duty in preparation for opening. The President’s speech ended; he was hustled out the exit doors to a waiting limousine, and suddenly I noticed all these hundreds of people around me and wondered, in my all-nighter’s fog, “What are they doing here?” and then it dawned on me that we were open!

Guides stationed throughout the pavilion assisted visitors and one of the first things we found out was that they had to instruct people to touch the video screens. People had grown up being told not to touch the TV screen. By the end of the expo six million people had experienced this new high-tech phenomenon.

Knoxville Expo 82 photos courtesy Bill Cotter of

1984 Louisiana World Expo photos: James Ogul

New Orleans 84:

Aquariums & enterprise

US Pavilion, New Orleans '84. Photo: James Ogul
US Pavilion, New Orleans ’84. Photo: James Ogul

The next world’s fair after Knoxville ’82 was New Orleans ’84; the Louisiana World Exposition. (As it turned out, the New Orleans expo would also be the last one hosted by the US to date – more on that issue below.) Coming just two years after Knoxville, work on the U.S. Pavilion for New Orleans Expo had already begun before Knoxville’s run had ended. In my role as Exhibits Director for the US pavilion, I was responsible for coordinating the design, fabrication and installation of the exhibits and production of a 3-D film.

By negotiation with the expo organizing committee, the Expo would provide the 100,000 square foot building that housed the US pavilion, valued at approximately $10 million, and the U.S. Department of Commerce would provide the exhibits and operations with a matching budget. The building was designed, built and paid for by the fair corporation and owner, Louisiana World Exposition, Inc.

The U.S. Pavilion was located at the South End of the riverfront site. It housed two 750-seat, 3-D theaters both showing a 20-minute film by Academy Award-winning producer Charles Guggenheim entitled “Water, the Source of Life.” (The theme of the expo was “The World of Rivers – Fresh Water as a Source of Life.) The exhibits were fabricated in Alexandria, Virginia and transported to New Orleans. Coordinating building construction with exhibit design and fabrication was a constant challenge.

These interactive virtual aquariums in the US Pavilion at New Orleans '84 used early touchscreen technology
These interactive virtual aquariums in the US Pavilion at New Orleans ’84 used early touchscreen technology

The pavilion garnered a 5-star rating by local reviewers. One of its attractions was the Space Shuttle Enterprise, (NASA’s prototype orbiter, which now has a permanent home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City) which was displayed in front of the pavilion. It had made a New Orleans flyover attached to a Boeing 747 and was then transported by barge up the Mississippi and off-loaded to the expo site. During the expo it was used for Bob Hope’s Super Birthday Special with Bob Hope and Twiggy boarding the Shuttle as they sang, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Notable guests to the pavilion included Vice President Bush, former President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Commerce Baldridge.

The pavilion had then-unique virtual aquariums that were actually video touchscreens where visitors could touch the moving fish on the screen to discover interesting facts about them. At the conclusion of the expo these touch aquariums were moved to the National Aquarium, which at the time was located in the basement of the US Dept. of Commerce in Washington DC (it’s now in Baltimore.) The pavilion exhibits also included a catfish farm and a hydroponic garden, and custom computer video games in the opening gallery that challenged visitors and VIPs alike. Corporate sponsors contributed $2.2 million to supplement the $10 million U.S. Pavilion budget and provided everything from donations of the 3-D glasses used in the theaters to moving services to transport the exhibits from Alexandria to New Orleans. By the end of the expo, 2.6 million people had visited the U.S. Pavilion, which was 35% of the entire attendance to the expo.

Issues & legacies

President Jimmy Carter visits the US Pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Photo: James Ogul
President Jimmy Carter visits the US Pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition and is greeted by a young James Ogul. Photo: James Ogul

There are many ways in which the success of a world’s fair can be measured, in the short-term and the long-term, that include the generation of development and infrastructure; building tourism and global awareness; attendance numbers; fostering international goodwill; stimulation of business relationships; design and cultural legacies – and other yardsticks.

Both the Knoxville and New Orleans Expos had their issues. In the case of Knoxville which had reasonably good attendance figures and broke even financially, its prime mover Jake Butcher pled guilty to Federal charges of bank fraud in 1985 and was given a 20-year prison term. He was paroled in 1992. He now lives near Atlanta.

The Knoxville site lacked a solid after-use plan. The U.S. Pavilion was demolished in 1991. Today the Sunsphere (the centerpiece of the Expo) and the Tennessee Amphitheater are the only structures that remain from the Expo.

The New Orleans fair went bankrupt during its run, resulting in numerous lawsuits. On the positive side, the building where the International Participants were housed has been expanded to become the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the sixth largest convention facility in the nation. Good after-use planning is a key aspect of a successful world’s fair and much more heavily emphasized nowadays than it was in the ’80s. In Milan Expo 2015 and Dubai Expo 2020 such planning will be integral to their master plans.

It has been 30+ years now since the U.S. has hosted a World’s Fair and this may be due in part to the issues associated with Knoxville and New Orleans. However, Vancouver Expo 86 was the last one hosted in North America to date and it is generally considered a resounding success on multiple fronts. Politics can also get in the way.

The US Pavilion at Knoxville '82. Photo: Bill Cotter
The US Pavilion at Knoxville ’82. Photo: Bill Cotter

The U.S. withdrew from the Bureau of International Expositions (the Paris-based organization that sanctions world’s fairs) in 2002 and BIE member countries have higher priority in bidding to host expos. At this writing, groups from Minneapolis, Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area were hoping to host a world’s fair. San Francisco has been the site of two historic past expos.

A US city hoping to host an Expo would do well to persuade the US State Department to rejoin the BIE. The office that would handle US participation at the State Department is the Bureau of International Organizations Affairs. Since the BIE is an International Treaty Organization, rejoining would require Congressional approval. Completing the process would take time. When the US first joined in 1968 the process took well over a year.

Further, it would be wise to cultivate support at the Commerce Department as it is responsible for domestic world’s fairs. There is no longer a World’s Fair Office there but when there was, it was under the auspices of the International Trade Administration. Given the difficulties at New Orleans a sound business play will be essential. Unlike other countries the U.S. does not subsidize its expos so the business plan will have to be strong. Finally – among other things, there is a need to build stronger awareness among the American people about world’s fairs – which, although not hosted in North America since 1986, do continue to be held at regular intervals on this planet, and do continue to be significant.

James Ogul

At such times as the United States has stepped up to participate in a world expo, from the early ‘80s to the present more often than not James Ogul has been tapped to help coordinate the effort on the government side. Since retiring from the US State Department in 2011, he has remained connected to the expo scene in an advisory and consulting role.

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She reports on design and technical design, production and project management, industry trends and company culture. From 2005-2020 she ran communications and publications for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA and publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association, and has contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a BFA from Pratt Institute. She has lived in Detroit, New York, Oakland, and now Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts community.

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