In advance of my upcoming public walking tour of Flushing Meadows on May 8, here’s a World’s Fair attraction that faced Meadow Lake, a stadium torn down in April 1996. From my childhood, I remember it as a ruin.
In the above photo from Queens Chronicle columnist Ron Marzlock, the seats haven’t been finished yet as the park prepared for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.
Where it was
Prior to the fair, there was no Meadow Lake as the southern portion of the park was a brackish marsh where Horse Brook flowed into Flushing Creek. To boost revenue for the fair, an amusement zone was designated for this section of the park, constructed around Fountain Lake, which was carved out of the marshes.
Sponsored by the State of New York, the amphitheater has 10,000 seats, a stage constructed 60 feet off the shore, revolving stages, swimming pool, a 75-foot diving platform and art deco friezes. The star attraction at the New York State Marine Amphitheatre was Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a show that became the informal name for this structure.
A prolific theater impresario, Rose authored song lyrics, operated nightclubs, and should be regarded as a celebrity of his time. His first wife was “funny girl” Fanny Brice, and subsequently Olympic swimming gold medalist Eleanor Holm. Rose was the man who could pack a theater and produce a show that would go down in history books.
The stadium opened on March 22, 1939 with a ceremony starring Holm and Tarzan actor / Olympic swimming champ Johnny Weissmüller. The cast comprised of 500 performers that included Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle, a resident of Flushing. The venue had its shortcomings. “My hair turned green from the chlorine, and swimming on those cold October and November nights in New York was awful,” Holm told the authors of Tales of Gold.
There are plenty of photos and videos from the Aquacade that could be shared in this story, but the wedding of fellow cast members Jack Sullivan and Peggy Maeder resonates for me as their act may have resulted in a family. That’s assuming that they produced children and did not divorce, as celebrities often do. Rose was married four times.
After the Fair
When the World’s Fair ended, most of its exhibition structures were demolished, with the exception of those that became legacy projects for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, such as the Meadow Lake Boathouse, the future Queens Museum, and the Aquacade. Other artifacts such as the Parachute Jump, the King Jagiello Monument, which were removed from the park and reinstalled elsewhere. Billy Rose took his show on the road playing at other prominent fairs in the coming years. The stadium reopened as a public swimming pool.
For the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, the stadium was again used as a stage for the Wonder World show, but it failed to attract the sizable crowds that billy Rose had drawn. It hung on as a public pool until 1978 when the financially strapped city could not afford to maintain it. Ironically a year earlier, Borough President Donald Manes had it renamed after Gertrude Ederle. The discovery of asbestos contamination closed it permanently in 1982 and from that point, it became a magnet for arsonists and vandals.
Although there were many proposals for reviving the stadium, neighborhood concerns over noisy concerts and the cost of asbestos abatement torpedoed these plans. According to then-Borough President Caire Shulman, abatement would have cost $20 million, compared with $2 million for demolition. Even author E. L. Doctorow couldn’t save this stadium.
What’s there now
Where the Aquacade stood there is now a traffic circle and shoreline promenade with a snack bar that includes architectural elements that hearken to the demolished amphitheater. From the promenade, one has a clear view of Meadow Lake looking south towards the Head of the Vleigh. From here, one also has a good view of the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival that takes place at Meadow Lake every August.
On the shore, visitors may rent bikes to circle the lake. The stadium is gone but the site is known today as Ederle Terrace. Architecturally, the Jones Beach Marine Theater appears similar to the Aquacade with an island stage. The moat separating the stage has since been filled in and the stadium went through a few name changes.
One more thing
At the northern entrance to Flushing Meadows, there is a circle of mosaics that portray the history of the park, including one of the Aquacade.