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Nostalgic treasures from 1984 World's Fair represent financial failures, long-term successes

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NEW ORLEANS, LA - One can find nostalgic treasures from the 1984 World's fair in lots of places, but for the past 30 years, two of the fair's most famous icons have been in a secluded spot.

The original sculpture of the giant mermaids that welcomed fair-goers says it's time to restore them.

"We have a hand, the upper arm, the lower arm," said Barry Barth while surveying one of the mermaids.

Hidden in the back of a warehouse where whimsical characters and floats spring to life each Carnival season, the two giant ladies rest.

"We kicked around nicknames but no, they never did get a name," said Barth.

One of the two is now giant mermaid carnage. Body pieces are strewn about the old Tiger Theater on Franklin Avenue.

"The paper is getting fragile, but as long as we have the outside shell the inside's not going to matter cause you're not going to see it," said Barth.

The mermaid's body was torn to pieces with Hurricane Katrina to blame. However, Barth sees her intact limbs and face as proof the mermaid weathered the storm.

"They did have a little damage with Katrina, but it wasn't destroyed by any means," said Barth.

Barth says there's enough of the sculptures to return them to their original form, which, three decades ago, Barry Barth worked alongside his father and his brother to create.

Two 34-foot-tall mermaids sat on a platform 25 feet in the air to create part of the grand entrance of the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans.

"We used a process that my dad developed, which is a unique paper mache method. Then, we waterproofed it," said Barth.

He calls it a "pressure-point sculpture form." It's built from the inside out without a mold and glued with rubberized adhesive.

It's the same process Barth believes he needs to use again to get one of the mermaids looking more like her sister. The second mermaid is almost entirely compete, and it even stands a little too tall.

"We had to remove the ceiling. We were looking at removing the entire ceiling and getting her back together," said Barth. "Now 30 years later, it's still standing, and although it needs some repair and restoration, it held up."

Meanwhile, owners of other nostalgic treasures from the exposition display them for everyone to admire.

"My buddy Gus brought this thing over here a while back," said Michael Potter, owner of St. Tammany Marine in Mandeville.

A gondola from the World's Fair balances in a Mandeville marine store parking lot.

"People my age, I guess, that can remember the World's Fair and had some good times there. They see this thing and it reminds them," said Potter.

According New Orleans Historical, a University of New Orleans research group, 53 gondolas traversed through the air across the Mississippi River during the 1984 World's Fair, and the ride ranked with Disney's Space Mountain as the two best thrill rides in the country during the six month exposition.

"It's just been fun having it," said Gus Shultz, who owns the gondola.

"There was a minister in Picayune that bought a bunch of them. It was probably 30 or 40 of them for sale. They picked out this number and we bought it," said Shultz.

"It's a neat little gadget. One day we'll restore it. It doesn't need a whole lot of work, the worst thing is one of the plexiglass windows is broken," said Potter.

Through the elements, the conversation piece has amounted decades of history by living not just through the historical exposition, but also through ownership legal battles and battering storms.

"So this is kind of the remnants of what it looked like after four or five hurricanes," said Shultz.

Though the benches sit ready for six passengers to climb in again, the doors can't open. The lever rusted in place.

"There was a bar or something that would push this round thing, push it over, that would unlock it, that would open up, and people could get on and off of it," said Potter.

What once swung 320 feet in the air now hovers on a small trailer. The idea of flying through the air was scary enough to ground the two men.

"I remember walking up to this thing and saying uh, uh I aint getting up there. No way," said Potter. "I don't do heights real well."

"I was afraid," said Shultz.

So it now sits in a position much more accessible for the gondola's current owner. What once was a premiere attraction at the World's Fair is now one for St. Tammany's Marine in Mandeville.

Though, historians say, the main feature of the fair is still utilized everyday on the grounds of the original exposition.

"We're now seated in front of one of the most important remnants of the fair, the exhibit hall that becomes the convention center," said Michael Mizell-Nelson, a University of New Orleans associate professor of history.

Mizell-Nelson says only now are the successes of the 1984 World's Fair being realized over its blatant financial failures.

"Boom or Boondoggle? That was the question, and it's obviously both," said Mizell-Nelson.

He sees the real estate boom of the Warehouse District as a lifestyle revival 30 years in the making. A benefit along with the newly renovated Convention Center, which touts itself as the sixth largest facility of its kind in the nation.

"If this hadn't taken place here? What would this area have looked like? It would have looked very much like a vast empty area," said Mizell-Nelson.

Though the long term benefits were likely difficult to understand for the vendors who never got their final paychecks as the world's fair went bankrupt.

"Most people didn't get paid," said Barry Barth.

It was a financial distress Barth says he was just spared of.

"We could tell there was some tension when we got the check, but we had no idea the financial status was so bad that they actually closed the account, or froze the account, two days after we got our final payment," said Barth.

Though, questions about the Fair's fiscal capabilities started long before the mermaids ever basked in the gateway.

Attendance was a concern from the start since the New Orleans fair was the same year as the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and just two years after the Knoxville Tennessee World's Fair and the grand opening of Disney's Epcot center.

However, Barry Barth caught those critics' attention in a way he never would have imagined,.

"We got calls from all of the radio stations. People saying they weren't going to bring their children to the fair. We got calls from as far away as Australia," said Barth.

Months before the Fair, as the mermaids started to take form, their indecency stood out, and the complaints about the mermaids naked bodies came flowing in.

"There was an article done 30 years ago in Dixie Magazine, and it showed where the breasts sort of stood out more than the rest of the figure and the phone just rang off the wall Monday morning," said Barth.

It was controversy Barth laughed off and said he never heard a word of once the gates of the exposition swung open. His mermaids welcomed millions of fairgoers.

"At that time I had no idea I'd be standing here in front of it 30 years later," said Barth.

His only hope now is that the sculptures will be restored to their full glory once again.

Barth believes he has three-fourths of the mermaids intact. He's just waiting for a donor or buyer who would fund the restoration, but he's not sure how much it will cost.

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