Alfred Heller, dean of American Expo writers, died in December 2019 at the age of 90. Alf had attended almost every Expo since his first, the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition in his native San Francisco. He was a mentor to many of us who write on the subject. From 1981 to 1995, he published World Fair magazine, and he authored his personal memoir of Expo history and his observations, “World’s Fairs and the End of Progress: An Insider’s View,” published in 1999.
I admired him not only for his stamina and sustained interest, but because of his knowledge of how Expos come together, are organised, and understood the forces—geo-political, economic, social, cultural—that shape these events. He could be critical, but he also never lost his sense of wonder. “The mind races and the heart soars at a world’s fair,” he wrote.
I first encountered Alf when I wrote about the phenomenon of time capsules in the history of Expos. I had an opportunity to meet him in San Francisco in 2005 when then BIE Secretary General Vicente G. Loscertales joined a number of Expo writers and historians there to get the pulse of the status of the Expo movement in the U.S. We memorably toured the Expo 1915 sites including the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park, and Treasure Island.
In 2011 California was considering a pitch to host an Expo at the old Moffett Field in Silicon Valley. I went down to write about that effort and Alf gave me a personal tour of the location south of San Francisco. It still features a vast shed that once housed American’s largest dirigible, the U.S. Navy’s Macon. Alf had memorably toured the Macon as a boy, before it crashed in 1936. It also had an Expo history: it had flown over the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Unfortunately, the historic shed did not become a major Silicon Valley world’s fair attraction as the U.S. bid effort failed to get off the ground.
Alf was attuned to the ways Expos have evolved over time. The early years of touting uncomplicated “progress” that drove Expos gave way to political propaganda messages, later morphed in the 1970s and beyond to promoting environmental consciousness. Expo 1974 in Spokane pushed recycling, and Expo 1998 Lisbon had a strong sustainability message, as most Expos have had since. He noticed that the organisers of a slew of 1980s North American Expos, such as Expo 1982 Knoxville, Expo 1984 New Orleans, and Expo 1986 Vancouver, put a focus on renewing blighted or under-utilised urban parcels, another trend that has continued.
The environmental and sustainability themes were dear to Heller’s heart as he was an early advocate for conservation in California with the California Tomorrow movement of the 1960s and as a colleague of fellow green thinkers like Steward Brand and the Sierra Club’s David Brower.
Beyond messaging, the mediums have changed. In his book, Heller observed that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, objects, food products, and technological marvels were exhibited: engines, telephones, TVs, phonographs, even mundane things like brushes, nuts and butter sculptures. This still happens, but with the 1964-65 New York fair, he saw a clear emphasis switch from objects to images—films, multimedia experiences, and Walt Disney-designed attractions took centre stage.
The last time I saw Alf in person was when my wife Carol and I had lunch with him and his son-in-law, Lee Anderson, at World Expo 2015 Milan. Beyond things and images, Milan’s theme was about food and what better place than Italy to be immersed in it. We made an unfortunate choice for lunch, however, by trying food from the container-like faux food trucks across from the United States pavilion. Alf ordered a veggie burger which turned out to be unappetising. Expo food is much better if one goes for indulgence or a signature dish of national pride! You’d think an old Expo hand would know better, but optimism is another feature of Expos and Expo-goers. Still, we considered it a success that the USA even had a pavilion.
We discussed Expo’s evolutionary changes in Milan, and Heller said that one shouldn’t take anything at an Expo literally, that they are all “impressionistic” at best. And increasingly digital. None more so than Milan which seemed designed for the selfie with special selfie benches, sculptures, and backgrounds for the purpose. The Crystal Palace exhibits of old have given way to the iPhone as a source of wonder behind glass.
I showed Alf an app on my phone which, when pointed at a special coaster-sized disc, generated a 3-D image of the Space Needle as if it were sitting by our lunch plates. This ability to carry an Expo experience in one’s pocket has accelerated with the smart phone, now an essential tool for Expo-goers. In Milan, I saw schoolkids racing through exhibits snapping pictures of them to look at later. You can also keep track of your Expo mileage on your phone. The day we met Alf, we walked over 19,000 steps—more than 9 miles (14.5km).
Alf was a gentleman and a scholar—his commentary and coverage of Expos was based on deep experience and serious thought. He could be critical, but he was also in love with the Expo phenomenon, and he understood well the appeal of Expos. In his book, he wrote, “A great fair inspires people to work together, to build a city of peace and beauty. It’s a grand lyric dream come to life. It invites us to have a splendid time of it before closing day.” Alfred Heller accepted that invitation many times over, and helped explain the enduring appeal to many generations.
Cover image: Alfred Heller with his son-in-law, Lee Anderson, at World Expo 2015 Milan.
Knute Berger is a Seattle-based author, journalist, and commentator with a longstanding interest in Expos. He is the award-winning "Mossback" columnist for the Cascade Public Media news site Crosscut.com, Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle, where he serves as consulting historian, and Editor-at-Large for Seattle magazine. He has written several publications including “Space Needle, Spirit of Seattle”, and is a regular commentator on public radio.