I once knew a man who was from a different dimension. Or, at least, that was how he put it: “We are so dimensionally separated,” he told me. “It is like we are from a whole different dimension.” My friend didn’t mean that in the science-fictional sense, though we’d spent the afternoon discussing everything from space-age architecture to hydraulic elevators. What Ephraim Horowitz meant was that he was 95 years old, almost 70 years my senior. He would try to make himself understood to me, but it was probably a lost cause — our experiences were irreconcilably separated by time.
I ’d met Ephraim through a half-realized oral history project that I undertook in my senior year of college in New York City. I was researching the New York World’s Fairs, massive international events that took place in 1939 and 1964 in Queens. I’d gotten hooked on the lore of the Fairs the summer before, when I’d visited Flushing Meadows to see the funky mid-century monuments originally built for the expositions. I’ve always loved anything that recalls the “future of the past” and Flushing Meadows is rife with this kind of visionary junk: geodesic domes built by Buckminster Fuller, weird heliopad towers, and a building called “The New York Hall of Science” made of concrete bent into wavy cylinders, like a giant, unraveling paper-towel roll.
More specifically, my goal was to interview amateur archivists and collectors of World’s Fair memorabilia. By the time I met Eph, I’d spent months rooting through the basements of (mostly) older bachelors in the outer boroughs of the city, asking questions like, “How do you think the year 1964 changed America?” or “Where did you get this ashtray?”
These folks, like me, thought the dilapidated mid-century artifacts were neat and should be preserved. Over the months, this small community of World’s Fair enthusiasts introduced me to the strange and colorful history of the most optimistic moments of the American twentieth century, the Fairs. They asked for nothing in return, save my interest. They also introduced me to Ephraim.
Ephraim was an amateur archivist of the best sort — a do-it-yourself filmmaker who’d hauled heavy cameras to both the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. His full-color home movies, shot in Kodachrome, were some of the first of their kind. He also made short narrative features: wry takedowns of daily life in New York, full of lovingly descriptive shots of his Queens neighborhood.
You can watch one of Horowitz’s narrative films online. The Deceptive Nines is available on the website of The American Motion Picture Society. It opens with a shot of Eph in his basement, reading obituaries in The New York Times , and explaining, in voiceover, that most of his generation is already dead.
When I interviewed him on a sunny October afternoon in 2012, Eph was in a genial-yet-ornery mood. We sat in his basement and he talked over the old reels of World’s Fair footage: “Dead, dead, dead,” he said, pointing to people on the screen, laughing and scowling at once. “My movies are like a parade of the dead.”
We put on footage from the 1964 Fair and watched as bee-hived women and carefully dressed men, their faces fuzzy, walked in and out of each frame, stopping to pose in front of the Fair’s futuristic monuments. In one scene, two young women pause at a bench, take their shoes off, and rub their feet. Horowitz told me, “That’s my wife and her sister. I had them sit on a bench and take off their shoes and moan about how much their feet hurt because there was so much walking at the Fair. Bill Moyers heard about this stuff and he paid me 200 bucks to use some of this footage in a movie called A Walk Through the 20th Century .”
The 1939 Fair was what first sparked Eph’s interest in film: “I spent the entire final day of the Fair shooting. I saved the 100 feet of high-speed film, because they were having a fireworks display on the last night.” There were thousands upon thousands of people in attendance. “You had to get yourself a good place to observe this thing.”
Ephraim passed away a few months after I met him. I finished my paper for class and kept up halting contact with the World’s Fair community until the next year, when I moved back to Tennessee and lost touch.
I happened upon the printed-out transcripts of my World’s Fair interviews last month while I was packing to move into a new house. I thought about throwing them away. After all, what will I ever do with a 15-page description of the 1939 World’s Fair, as told by a man I barely knew? I’m not sure what my responsibility was. Ephraim and I were dimensionally separated; our lives barely touched. But I have part of his story, roughly 10,000 words of it.
I didn’t throw the pages away. I went online and watched The Deceptive Nines . Then I thought: Maybe I could write about it, and a few people would read it, and they might go look up Ephraim’s movies. I could share this story across dimensions, just as he had shared his once-futuristic tale with me.
Eileen Townsend is the arts editor of the Memphis Flyer and a contributing editor for Memphis magazine.