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Remembering Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

By Edgar Walters

Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit, dedicated to “building the world of tomorrow,” proved to be a step into Bob Hesdorfer’s future before he’d even arrived.

“I was probably 14,” says Hesdorfer, referring to the spring day in 1939 that he and a classmate spent at the New York World’s Fair. The exhibit, which took place at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, marked one of his first ventures into adulthood. Hesdorfer recalls, “For the very first time, I was allowed to take the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway on my own.” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, he still remembers it fondly.

Upon arriving, Hesdorfer recounts, “We hit many of the pavilions, but we couldn’t begin to cover the whole fair in one day. I think the General Motors [Futurama exhibit] was the one we headed for first.” They weren’t alone in their eager enthusiasm. “As I recall, there were long lines waiting to get in.” When asked whether he thought the other guests were as excited as he was, Hesdorfer responded, “Oh, you could just tell.”

Simply entering Futurama proved arresting: “We were overwhelmed. It was really something that I had never seen before… We were curious about what it was all about,” says Hesdorfer. More than just a collection of sleek predictions, the exhibit represented an entirely new way of viewing a world shaped by humans. It allowed viewers a departure from temporal technological constraints, offering a tangible example of a delightful but elusive concept: the potential of the future. For Hesdorfer, who grew up to be a graphic designer, the experience was particularly inspiring. “Everything was smooth and clean and rounded and pristine… I appreciated the concept and the design work that went into it… I thought I could have been an automobile designer… I would have liked to have been an industrial designer as Bel Geddes was.”

Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Hesdorfer describes the experience: “When we got to the Futurama model, they had these chairs on a conveyor belt, and we got in a couple chairs and rode around the whole thing. The model was in the middle below us and we could look down on it.”

“There was a voice describing what we were seeing, and it was just mindboggling… The traffic was below ground, or at least below the sidewalk level, and the sidewalks were above and around. There was no direct contact with the traffic, so it was safer and easier. You didn’t have to wait to cross the street or for the light to change.”

Some of Bel Geddes’s predictions, nearly inconceivable at the time, now seem believable. Hesdorfer recalls, “One of the things that they predicted was keeping automatic distance between vehicles on the highway, and now I guess it’s just about ready for use in the cars.”

The fair made a lasting impression on the boys. When asked whether Hesdorfer knew at that age who Norman Bel Geddes was, he responded, “Probably not before [Futurama].” He’s certainly known about him ever since.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, reads at Wednesday's "Politics and Presidents" Poetry on the Plaza event. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, reads at Wednesday's "Politics and Presidents" Poetry on the Plaza event. Photo by Pete Smith.
Barry Stone of the artist collective Lakes Were Rivers conducts a show-and-tell with Ransom Center staff to prepare for an upcoming exhibition this summer at the Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Barry Stone of the artist collective Lakes Were Rivers conducts a show-and-tell with Ransom Center staff to prepare for an upcoming exhibition this summer at the Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Photographer Nathan Lyons signs copies of his books at the Ransom Center before speaking at a public program on Thursday. Photo by Pete Smith.
Photographer Nathan Lyons signs copies of his books at the Ransom Center before speaking at a public program on Thursday. Photo by Pete Smith.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Chris Plonsky, Women's Athletics Director at The University of Texas at  Austin, interviews David Booth about the James Naismith’s “Original  Rules of Basket Ball.” In 2010 Suzanne Deal Booth and David  Booth purchased the document, which is currently on display at the  Blanton Museum of Art. Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Plonsky, Women's Athletics Director at The University of Texas at Austin, interviews David Booth about the James Naismith’s “Original Rules of Basket Ball.” In 2010 Suzanne Deal Booth and David Booth purchased the document, which is currently on display at the Blanton Museum of Art. Photo by Pete Smith.

Janine Barchas, Associate Professor of English at The University of   Texas at Austin, brought students from her class "The Paperback" to   visit the Ransom Center for a Halloween show-and-tell. Students in the   class dressed in costumes inspired by various paperback imprints. Photo   by Pete Smith.
Janine Barchas, Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, brought students from her class "The Paperback" to visit the Ransom Center for a Halloween show-and-tell. Students in the class dressed in costumes inspired by various paperback imprints. Photo by Pete Smith.
Members of the Ransom Center's staff dressed up in costume for Halloween. Photo by Richard Workman.
Members of the Ransom Center's staff dressed up in costume for Halloween. Photo by Richard Workman.
Author and futurist Bruce Sterling tours the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Design America” before his keynote talk at the 2012 Flair Symposium “Visions of the Future.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Author and futurist Bruce Sterling tours the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Design America” before his keynote talk at the 2012 Flair Symposium “Visions of the Future.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.

An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves  glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into  acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Sara Saastamoinen double checks materials in the Charles Wrey Gardiner collection against a newly created finding aid. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Undergraduate intern Sara Saastamoinen double checks materials in the Charles Wrey Gardiner collection against a newly created finding aid. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Attendees enjoying last week’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Attendees enjoying last week’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Attendees enjoying last week’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Attendees enjoying last week’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ransom Center staff interviewed novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staff interviewed novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Central Market Cooking School Chef Louis Ortiz leads cooking demonstrations of dishes inspired by the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Central Market Cooking School Chef Louis Ortiz leads cooking demonstrations of dishes inspired by the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Library Assistant Megan Dirickson works on a project to digitize and catalog the materials of artist Frank Reaugh, including rehousing works after they have been documented. Funding for the Frank Reaugh project is made possible with support from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and TSLAC (Texas State Library and Archives Commission). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Library Assistant Megan Dirickson works on a project to digitize and catalog the materials of artist Frank Reaugh, including rehousing works after they have been documented. Funding for the Frank Reaugh project is made possible with support from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and TSLAC (Texas State Library and Archives Commission). Photo by Edgar Walters.

Xeriscaped plaza helps conserve water

By Edgar Walters

This past summer, the Harry Ransom Center underwent a sustainable landscape makeover, replacing two plots of Asian jasmine, holly, and nandina bushes in front of the building with handsome rock gardens filled with plants especially suited for the Austin climate. The project is part of campus-wide efforts to promote xeriscaping, or landscaping that saves water by reducing the need for irrigation.

Two seniors working on their Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, Tim Eischen and Hank Star, spearheaded the project by submitting a proposal to the University’s Green Fee Committee, which agreed to fund the project. The new gardens feature drought-resistant plant species and are expected to conserve 72,000 gallons of water a year.

To maximize water conservation, the landscape features a new irrigation system specifically designed to meet sustainable watering requirements. In addition to facilitating dramatic reductions in irrigation, the landscape is also contoured to maintain its role as a local drainage basin. Central to the goal of xeriscaping is using native plant life, which drains far less water than the invasive Asian jasmine that previously filled the planters. The new drought-resistant plant species featured include rosemary, Mexican heather, soft leaf yucca, barrel cactus, cholla, red yucca, sedum, Easter cactus, Texas mountain laurel, prickly pear, Mexican bush sage, pride of Barbados, purple fountain grass, agave, and Texas sotol. Eischen’s father also donated an olive tree.

More than being aesthetically attractive, the new landscape will reduce another of the Asian jasmine’s undesirable qualities: bugs. Crickets and other insects laid eggs in the jasmine beds, posing a concern for Ransom Center collections. The rock gardens are also cleaner and more resilient, which diminishes the risk that the new plots will succumb to diseases that afflict Asian jasmine.

The final plot on the plaza has yet to be renovated, but plans for upgrades are in the works. The Ransom Center is exploring the possibility of a more interactive space, where events could take place and visitors could enjoy the beautiful landscape.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Author Nicholson Baker signed the authors’ door while on campus for the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies Symposia 2012-2013: The Fate of the Book. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Nicholson Baker signed the authors’ door while on campus for the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies Symposia 2012-2013: The Fate of the Book. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Nicholson Baker signed the authors’ door while on campus for the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies Symposia 2012-2013: The Fate of the Book. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Nicholson Baker signed the authors’ door while on campus for the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies Symposia 2012-2013: The Fate of the Book. Photo by Pete Smith.
An etched reproduction of artist Tom Lea’s 1953 portrait of J. Frank Dobie in the Ransom Center’s south atria. Photo by Pete Smith.
An etched reproduction of artist Tom Lea’s 1953 portrait of J. Frank Dobie in the Ransom Center’s south atria. Photo by Pete Smith.