The Tower of Jewels, in an image from the Los Angeles Public Library.
One hundred years ago, San Francisco hosted the most elaborate and and fantastic World’s Exposition until that time in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal and the opening of the grand Pacific Coast to the world. The metropolis intended the event to help reinvigorate San Francisco by showing off its beauty, spirit, and cosmopolitan atmosphere, helping to speed up reconstruction by adding new streetcar lines and creating new residential districts. Over 18,000,000 people visited the fair during its long run that year, bringing much needed revenue to the city, still struggling to rebuild after the 1906 great earthquake. As the book, “Empress of San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition” relates from local news reports, “We are discovered now. With the close of the exposition has come the awakening to the fact that tourist travel means dollars raining down on every line of business.”
Motion pictures played a major part in the 1915 Exposition, employed as both educational tool and entertainment medium for fair guests, as well as providing much needed advertising to people around the world. The use of film at this fair demonstrated how important the medium had become to American society, inaugurating how media would come to dominate the telling and shaping of public events and stories.
San Francisco intended for this fair to outshine any that had come before to announce its place on the world’s stage and bring in much needed cash to continue the great rebuilding effort. There was much discussion throughout the city about where to locate the exposition, ranging from Golden Gate Park to near the wharf to what was marsh land out near the Presidio. Monied interests as well as cultural mandarins debated locations as well as financing, especially during a time when many were still hard up on cash. Remarkably, the entire fair was financed by local money, no funds were accepted from the federal government.
The Exposition was intended to dazzle, leading to the design and creation of an elaborate 43-story Tower of Jewels building, on which 125,000 nova gems, or hand-cut jewels, were hung to make it pulse at night when highlighted by spotlights and to flash and sparkle during the day when hit by sunlight. Not only was the building aflame in color, but so was the entire festival, the first one in which a color scheme was created to represent California’s Mediterrean look. Buildings were decorated with such colors as terra-cotta, Persian blue, pink and ultra marine, which positively glowed when illuminated by strong klieg lights. W. D. A. Ryan, the Chief Illuminating Engineer, declared they intended “to make an illumination as bright as day without the accompanying glare.” The organizers also outlined shapes with small lamps and a new invention called flood lights, which threw soft light on buildings. Autochrome photographs highlighted these glorious colors and the striking architecture of the exposition, another strong selling tool.
Fifty miles of exhibits in the oversize exhibition halls and various zones filled the 635 acre fairground, in what author Gary Brechin called a “temporary Byzantium…,” a fantastic vision of what San Francisco hoped to be. Glamorous palaces, buildings, pavilions, and grounds overwhelmed the humongous crowds, requiring multiple visits. The Ford Motor Company produced 18 new Model T cars a day on the assembly line constructed in the Transportation building. 11,000 paintings filled the buildings and 1,500 statues decorated buildings and the landscape. A fun Zone contained such attractions as miniature versions of the Panama Canal and Grand Canyon which could be visited, a cowboy and Indian show, a film studio with motion picture laboratory and theatre, Japanese tea garden, and Chinese entertainment. John Phillip Sousa and his band performed during the fair, and such celebrities as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone, Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Barney Oldfield, and William Jennings Bryan attended the festivities.
A postcard of the ferry building, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
The 1893 Chicago Exposition provided demonstrations of Thomas Edison’s novel Cinematograph to visitors, an early preview of things to come. In 1904, filmmakers shot some actuality footage of the St. Louis Exposition, helping inform the outside world of the pleasures it provided. Without bidding from the organizers, virtually every vendor at the 1915 Exposition employed motion pictures as visual representations promoting and selling their wares. Films were used to demonstrate products, to document the beauty of various locations, provide information, or to educate on a wide variety of topics. They provided a strong visceral attraction that no two-dimensional photograph or paper could ever hope to offer. Moving pictures were now considered typical entertainment, a normal part of life.
The Edison Company shot short films for the New York State Commission on such subjects as the New York City Fire Department, Police Department, and Montessori School methods. Kansas created films showing how to grow crops, while Pennsylvania’s films captured scenic and historic sites throughout the state, like Amish country, Philadelphia, and such. California created a unique short on each of its counties that ran in the elaborate California building. The YWCA’s film showed the many ways the organization served and helped those in need. British Columbia produced beautiful travelogues displaying their country. The United States Navy created films showing servicemen hard at work on land and sea serving their country, demonstrating preparedness for possible war.
The Palace of Fine Arts, in an image from the Los Angeles Public Library.
Newsreels eagerly shot both outside and inside the fairgrounds, shooting events that would intrigue filmgoers throughout the world. Hearst-Selig News Pictorial of June 21, 1915 revealed flying balloons and huge crowds of guests visiting the fair. The Universal Weekly focused on the film theatre on the grounds playing Universal films. The Mutual newsreel provided shots of the unique night lights and magnificent spectacle. These helped function as a novel and beautiful memento of something unique, providing a glamorous travelogue to hopefully lure more guests or just enthrall those financially unable to visit.
Motion picture companies sought ways to employ the Panama Pacific International Exposition into their productions as well, as a new and inventive subject with which to draw viewers and document history. These films would also freely publicize the fair as well. After D. W. Griffith vacationed in San Francisco in order to attend the Exposition, he considered making on a film that would feature Lillian Gish at the Exposition. He told the Los Angeles Times July 1, 1915, “So beautiful are the buildings and many of the exhibits, that it seems a crime not to preserve them in film form.” Nothing came of his idea however.
One film company did employ the Exposition as background for their films. The Times reported April 1 that Mabel Normand was in San Francisco to film scenes for a Keystone feature. Variety reported on May 28 that the Keystone troupe led by Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle had departed San Francisco after four weeks filming on the Exposition grounds. Their short, “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco,” directed by Arbuckle, was released April 22, displaying the couple in antics as they toured the grounds of the Exposition and featured Arbuckle attempting to impress opera singer Madame Schumann-Heink with his own singing.
The Palace of Horticulture in an image from the Los Angeles Public Library.
Variety reported in June that a company was being organized to shoot a feature displaying each major attraction and area of the fair, but it appears that said film was never completed. The picture, “The Exposition’s First Romance” was the first feature to be shot at the fair however.
The magnificent Panama Pacific International Exposition concluded December 4, 1915 with 459,000 people in attendance, visiting the glamorous buildings and lavish grounds once last time. On December 5, however, everything inside the buildings were removed before every building except for the Palace of Fine Arts was demolished and removed for the land to shaped into what is now known as the Marina District, an upscale housing district with views of the ocean. The motion pictures shot at the popular Exposition, along with striking photographs created at the time, remain the only visible reminder of this fabulous and entertaining fair.
Festival Hall, in an image from the Los Angeles Public Library.
For those who’d like to see more of this glorious fair, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has created a limited edition DVD compiling many of the films shot at the 1915 Exposition, including “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco,” along with newsreel and actuality footage compiled by Ray Hubbard into a 1962 documentary called, “The Innocent Fair,” narrated by Walter S. Johnson, the San Francisco business largely responsible for ensuring the preservation and restoration of Bernard Maybeck’s magnificent Palace of Fine Arts.
The DVD also contains Chaplin’s “A Jitney Elopement,” filmed at Golden Gate Park the same year as the Exposition, along with bonus films, “Twin Peaks Tunnel” (1918), showing the construction of the city’s railroad tunnel, “City of the Golden Gate” (1934), a Fox Film travelogue presenting the beautiful city, and “San Francisco’s World Fair,” a souvenir of the 1939-40 Exposition held at the man-made Treasure Island. There are also two slide shows displaying extraordinary images of the 1915 Exposition. Pianist extraordinary Frederick Hodges accompanies all films, which are part of the Niles Essanay Museum’s collection. The DVD costs $15.95 and is available at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.