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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Smith Family Headed for "The Louisiana Purchase Exposition"

A St. Louis Cloud Parts

The Real St. Louis World's Fair of 1904
Among quirky lines in Meet Me In St. Louis, especially ones spoke by Tootie (Margaret O' Brien), there is this brought back from her first tour of the 1904 World's Fairground: "We saw the Galveston Flood.  Big waves came up and flooded the whole city.  When the water went back, it was muddy and horrible and full of dead bodies!" I sort of let that pass over forty years of otherwise living in this great musical, attributing Tootie's outburst to either her or a MMISL writer's peculiar worldview. Just last night, however, I learned finally what the Smith family's excitement was all about from reference made in Q. David Bowers and Kathryn Fuller-Seeley's epic book, One Thousand Nights At The Movies, raved over earlier at Greenbriar, which mentions the real-life Galveston disaster of 1900, and how it was exploited by early filmmakers. The hurricane and resulting flood brought death to an estimated 8,000 people, the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.


Picture-men were right away in Galveston to capture the carnage, and within days it was being featured in show tents at carnivals. People then as now had a fascination with doom and destruction brought on wings of fire or flood. A lot of traveling showmen gathered profits from what was left after waters subsided. The 1904 "Louisiana Purchase Exposition," to which the Smith family repairs at the end of Meet Me In St. Louis, had an entire building (above) devoted to Galveston's horrific disaster, and folks flocked to it. Promoters constructed a "diorama," which is defined as A model representing a scene with three-dimensional figures, either in miniature or as a large-scale museum exhibit. Visitors were thus able to stand in the very midst of calamity as it happened, a fully-on recreation of the flood to encircle onlookers. One fairgoer wrote of the experience in a 1904 letter to friends: The Galveston flood is one of those electrical illusions which are so natural that they make you wonder whether or not they are an illusion or real. The destruction of Galveston by a mighty sea wave and the restoration of the city are beautiful to behold. This then, is what Tootie and companions saw at the St. Louis World's Fair, and I'd suspect a lot of patrons to the 1944 MGM release had also been there and remembered the Galveston exhibit well. Certainly it would have beat our IMAX and 3-D to flood-sodden ground.

More about Meet Me In St. Louis HERE and HERE.

2 Comments:

Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

A little side-note: an obituary for Larry Semon's father, ventriloquist/magician Zera Semon, stated that he was caught at sea during the Galveston disaster. He died of Bright's disease (chronic nephritis) in April 1901, which according to the obit was aggravated by the shock of his experience during the storm.

5:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

A really interesting footnote, Michael. As I recall, Sydney Greenstreet would also die of Bright's disease (in 1954).

5:07 PM  

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