The Great Lakes Exposition. Boxing Cats, Aquadudes and a 90-Pound Sturgeon

Plain Dealer article written by Debbie Snook and run on June 2, 1991



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, June 2, 1991

Author: Debbi Snook Plain Dealer Writer: THE PLAIN DEALER

Cleveland: Party town. Tourist mecca. Convention center. The Best Location in the Nation.


No kidding, that’s the way it was in 1936 and 1937, when the city played host to the Great Lakes Exposition, a festival to beat all Cleveland festivals. We’re talking World’s Fair caliber here, but with a uniquely Midwestern blend of industrial might, ethnic pride and carnival hootchy-kootchy.


For two glorious summers, more than 7 million people passed through turnstiles to the city’s 135-acre lakeside playland. Four million of them came from out of town, many magnetized by Kiwanis-styled conventions and factory-wide excursions. Those from the eight lakes states, producers of 60% of the world’s machine tools, were drawn by ambassadorial fervor.


They came by car, bus, trolley, plane, boat – even blimp. They filled hotels to bulging, spilling out into the 25,000 city-inspected rooms in private homes. They spent $70 million and created more than 11,000 jobs. And they went home, city officials hoped, absolutely burping with satisfaction over Cleveland’s biggest party.


The success of Chicago’s Century of Progress only a few years earlier had not gone unnoticed. Cleveland, like other cities, was aching from the effects of the Great Depression, perhaps doubly humiliated remembering the manufacturing muscle it once had.


So many jobs had been lost here, and the tax base so shriveled, that the city budget had been trimmed to the bone. After one year on the job, Public Safety Director Eliot Ness was still knee-deep in racketeers and police corruption. Some centennial.


Clevelanders needed to look up again. An expo plan was hatched, and the city’s business leaders came up with more than $1 million to make it happen. Municipal Stadium was already in place, built only four years earlier, and the federally funded Works Progress Administration would provide the $178,000 and 100 men necessary to create a 3-acre lakeside garden and reflecting pool.


After 80 days of additional construction, the exposition sprawled from St. Clair at Cleveland Public Hall, down a half-mile to the Stadium, then east along Lake Erie all the way to East 22nd Street.


Out of the rubble of a former dump rose a small city of 201 glowing, curving Art Deco-styled buildings. One writer called it “a city of ivory, a new Baghdad risen in the desert,” when Baghdad still was considered desirably exotic.


Visually, the expo was at once soothing and stimulating, a blossoming of curvilinear architecture, Bauhaus towers and geometric lettering. The Sherwin-Williams band shell was a bubble of white, concentric circles; the roof line of the Horticultural Building was stacked like the top three tiers of an ocean liner, and the Court of the Presidents sported a dozen erect silver eagles, each 16 feet high.


General Electric sent its Nela Park team, pioneers in fluorescence, to light the expo. They beamed moonlight blue from 70-foot pylons, bathed the band shell in a rainbow, and backlit the Marine Theater with a fan-shaped “aurora borealis” of eight peach-colored searchlights. A 50,000-watt light bulb made its debut after three other cities failed to come up with enough juice to turn it on. Daily, the expo used as much power as the city of Lakewood.


An Epcot Center of its time, the expo dazzled with technology, giving Clevelanders their first glimpse of television, a chance to hear their own tape-recorded voices, views of a 125-ton ladle for molten steel and a solar-powered light bulb. Waiting lines snaked out the door.


Manufacturers were not shy. Their exhibits ranged in size from Firestone, which sponsored an entire building, to a small booth showing off the latest in electric, pants-pressing gadgetry.


The state of Florida erected a small plantation, complete with white mansion and a transplanted grove of fruit-bearing orange trees. Inside were tropical birds, fish and bimonthly shipments of grapefruit and kumquats. Just in case a visitor had a hard time getting in the mood, atomizers regularly spritzed the interior with essence of orange blossom.


The popular entertainment of the mid-1930s was big-band jazz and exotic musicals. Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire were box-office royalty, and Americans spent 4 hours a day listening to the radio. Manufacturers introduced nylon stockings, falsies and Spam.


Expo entertainment was a microcosm of the times, highbrow and lowbrow.


Eighty members of the Cleveland Orchestra moonlighted to form the Great Lakes Orchestra. The Cleveland Museum of Art set aside its second floor for massive exhibits of European and American masterpieces. And rose growers galore amassed 10,000 blooms for a two-week display at the expo gardens.


The biggest draw was Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a 160-foot stage that floated out from the lakeshore and featured 200 singers, dancers and swimmers, dubbed Aquagals and Aquadudes. Many were local high school students hired to create an elaborately dressed chorus for daily performances by Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller, former Olympian Eleanor Holm and an occasional gunboat.


The Aquacade’s 5,000 seats were often filled, half with stageside diners. More than 30 out-of-town theater critics showed up to review the watery musical, and Paramount Pictures adopted a similar staging for its 1938 Jack Benny film, “Artists and Models Abroad.” Rose sued, charging plagiarism.


Cleveland’s 25% foreign-born population flourished in the “Streets of the World” exhibit, setting up cafes and gift shops in 40 replicas of ethnic homes. The Cleveland News ran a “big family” contest for each nationality, and invited winners to chow down at the cafe of their choice.


Public Hall became, temporarily, the largest radio studio in the world, with 13,000 seats for several live national broadcasts.


The rest ranged somewhere between the everyday and the fantastical, between Victorian innocence and dance hall sleaze. Expo-goers saw snake shows, a submarine, preserved human embryos, car-driving monkeys and boxing cats – complete with satin jackets, mini boxing gloves and a third-round knockdown.


There were 42-minute Shakespearean plays, a midget circus, singing cotton pickers, a working blast furnace, a 4,000-pound aerial bomb and a working farm. Also, Chinese walking fish, a Matterhorn replica, sneezing comic Hildegarde Halliday, a working oil refinery, Lincoln’s deathbed, eight 260-pound ballerinas and Sammy, the 90-pound sturgeon.


Lives were changed by the expo. Rose married Holm after his divorce from Fanny Brice. Eight-foot, four-inch Alfred Tomaine, “The Tallest Man in the World,” married Jeanie Weeks, “The Legless Girl.” Florida exhibit worker “Whistling” Willie Williams went on “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” and wished for a tub and a set of spats. He got laughs, four tubs and “more spats than he could ever use.”


Not all expo times were good. Glenn and Karlena Stewart of East 79th Street charged the owners of the dinner ship SS Moses Cleaveland with racial discrimination, claiming they were refused service. A group of upstate New York Indians sought help from the U.S. attorney when they were refused their final week’s pay.


Twenty-one-inch tall Inez Del Rio, 17, tripped and fell off the stage during a dance number and cracked her head on the pavement. Fire swallower Dan Nagyfy was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, suffering from chemical poisoning.


Last but not least, redheaded fan dancer Toto Leverne threw herself off the East 9th Street Pier, despondent over accusations that she was amoral. The event happened on the same day the French Casino’s press agent failed to persuade Cleveland police to raid the joint. News cameramen just happened to be there when Leverne, dripping wet and half-clad, was fished out of Lake Erie and shipped off for a brief stay at the hospital.


Some expo visitors arrived famous. Singer Rudy Vallee noshed on chicken livers and flirted with Belgian dancers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited twice, his wife, Eleanor, making a beeline for the gardens. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White returned home to capture the expo on film.


Others on the celebrity list included industrialists Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford (arriving on his own train), painter Maxfield Parrish and entertainers Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Kate Smith, Wallace Beery and Irene Rich.


No wonder the expo’s final night, September 26, 1937, drew thousands to hold hands, sing “Auld Lang Syne” and shed a few tears. Although private investors didn’t get all their money back, the expo was roundly declared a success.


Some wanted it to continue, but most of the buildings were not built to last, and the city, still hard pressed to feed the poor and keep its hospital in operation, had most of them demolished.


The last structure, the Horticultural Building, burned in 1941. Only the gardens remain, renamed for landscape architect Donald Gray. Some memorabilia exists at the Western Reserve Historical Society and in the hands of a few collectors.


The Great Lakes Exposition occurred nearly 55 years ago, and the percentage of Clevelanders who remember it grows smaller. But its impact back then was potent.


“Cleveland finally gave ’em something to talk about besides municipal woe,” wrote newspaperman Roelif Loveland.


The city hasn’t partied as hard since.


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