This week in history: Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair opens

The fair, known formally as “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” welcomed visitors for the first time on May 27, 1933. Here’s a look at that day.

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The Sears building at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago

This 1933 photo shows the Sears building at the 1933 World’s Fair.

From the Sun-Times archives

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Few cities in the world have the honor of hosting a world’s fair. Chicago has been fortunate to have that distinction — twice.

On May 27, 1933, visitors from all over the world flocked to the Windy City for the opening day of the 1933 World’s Fair. Officially known as “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” the fair welcomed thousands with parades, flags and plenty of entertainment.

The big day began with a parade down Michigan Avenue on the Near North Side starting at Ohio Street at 10 a.m. and ended at Soldier Field, Chicago Daily News reporter Gene Morgan wrote that day, adding that it was “the peppiest, fasted stepping procession that has gladdened the hearts” of Chicagoans since American soldiers arrived at Fort Dearborn.

Throngs of people lined the street and looked down from above as the procession of military and police units, marching bands, national groups and civil servants made their way towards Soldier Field, Morgan said. The city’s cavalry and infantry marched in perfectly straight lines “with the ‘Go Chicago’ look in their eyes for the benefit of world’s fair time lawbreakers.” The Chicago Board of Trade post of the American Legion band “blared a lively march” as they strutted by.

When Postmaster General James Farley road by with Gov. Henry Horner, Mayor Kelly and fair president Rufus C. Dawes, someone in the crowd near Monroe shouted, “Let’s give him a cheer to take back to President Roosevelt.” The crowd obeyed. Farley waved in appreciation.

Over at Soldier Field, where fairgoers could enter through the north gate, reporter Robert J. Casey watched as crowds flooded Grant Park, waiting in line for hours “before the first shell burst above the stadium to announce that the first turnstile had turned for the second world’s fair.” The gate opened that morning at 8:30 a.m. with little fanfare, he observed, but “at five minutes to 11 the motorcycle escort came down the ramp onto the field and the bombs were thrown up in a dense barrage to announce the arrival of Postmaster General James A. Farley. Here began the spectacle that had been lacking when the first 50-cent customer registered No. 1 on the turnstile to open the exposition.”

Blimps flew above the stadium as the Board of Trade band took its place on the field, the reporter wrote. After taking a lap around the field in his automobile, Farley took his place on the speakers stand “to be chivved [sic] by photographers who thought he ought to smile more widely on such a gala occasion.” Other parade marchers came down the ramp and filed past Farley.

“Thirty-six airplanes, hanging wing to wing, came thundering over — so low that they seemed scarcely likely to clear the tower of the Sky Ride — behind them another group of eighteen,” the reporter wrote.

Most of the parade marchers cleared the speaker stand without incident, but several caused a stir, Casey noted. Joe, a horse from the 124th F.A. picket line, “balked” in front of the speakers stand, holding up the parade for several minutes. Later, a group of cadets escorted the queen of the fair, Lillian Anderson of Racine, who “smiled prettily” as she passed. Attendees in the stands also witnessed an Italian group give the fascist salute as they passed the stands.

The parade ended at 12:25 p.m. when the last car carrying the queen of the 1893 World’s Fair passed, but many of those in the stands who could see the “teeming streets of the exposition” chose to skip the speakers' program and explore the fair. Still, Kelly, Dawes, Horner and Farley all gave prepared remarks to the remaining crowd.

“In vigor and variety,” Horner told the crowd, “this Century of Progress has never been equaled. Imagination has been lifted to the very skies. Today, forty years after the great fair of 1893, we stand at the beginning of a new era: The exposition is proof of Chicago’s ability to do things. It was conceived in the teeth of the prospective breaking down of the world’s economic system.” He added that he hoped the fair might provide “help and encouragement” as well as entertainment to a nation still in the depths of the Great Depression.

Finally, “Cyrena Van Gordon then sang the national anthem, Mr. Farley was formally introduced to Queen Lillian, bombs were exploded above Soldier Field, releasing the flags of all nations on little parachutes, a document was signed with an official pen, and the fair was finally open.”

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