It was late-afternoon in the spring of ’67, as we made our way up the zigzagged platform, and eagerly awaited the “Yellow Line” monorail to whisk us off into the world of Expo. There was a cool breeze in the air that day, yet we did not know where these winds would take us. As the little v-roofed yellow train whirred to a stop at the platform, we excitedly climbed aboard with our freshly printed red-cover passports held tightly in our hands. We were like explorers eagerly waiting to discover the world’s treasures, right here in our own backyard. Expo’67 was about to put Montreal on the map as a truly world-class city, and to define us all as the global hosts of our very own “summer of love”.
The two types of monorails (the blue and the yellow lines) would take us on an almost complete tour of the exposition’s grounds, giving us a unique view of many of the pavillions, and actually travelling through some of them. Staring down that the people below us, we waved to the crowds, and they waved back. That in itself was our first taste of the true spirit of Expo, a spirit of oneness, a spirit of inclusion with all of the other visiting citizens of the world. A world which was quickly changing around us, as we were nearing the end of the 1960’s.
The timing could not have been more perfect. It was Canada ’s centennial birthday, a time to show the world how great our country was, with all roads heading to Montreal. Beyond its innovatively designed pavillions and its cutting edge technologies, Expo held an even more profound message for us to create a brave new world. A world of new freedoms, the freedom of choice, the freedom of thought and freedom of language, to make a better future for us all. It would be another two years before man would walk on the moon, before we would hear the sounds at Woodstock, and before our own city would be coming of age still under the inspiration of Expo. Yet for a short time in 1967, we would entertain the world with a pride and a passion we rarely see or hear today in our once great city.
The Expo’s “passport” concept itself was brought to life by providing every guest a “passport” that was “stamped” at each place they visited. It was amazing to race around to the many pavillions collecting each one’s unique stamp, trying to get them all. Many of us proudly compared our own passports with those of others, usually complete strangers. With all of us holding the same small red books in hand, we suddenly had something in common, something to share, which really drove home Expo’s true message.
Not many Montrealers know that we had almost missed this opportunity. As in 1960, Moscow was first awarded the right to hold the next World’s Fair, to celebrate the Russian revolution’s 50th anniversary. Although in April 1962, the Russians withdrew their plans, officially for lack of financing, and unofficially, as many saw it, as they were unprepared to open their doors to the new freedom of ideas and cultures of the western world. Knowing that this was exactly the theme Montreal ’s Exposition should take, our new mayor, Jean Drapeau, then lobbied the Canadian government to re-apply. On November 13th, 1962, the World exhibition was granted to Canada , and on August 13, 1963, Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson pulled a lever signalling the drop of the first load of earth to enlarge Ste. Helen’s Island .
Expo officially opened to the public on April 28th, 1967. Admission was $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children. Sixty-two nations participated, with many other provinces, states, and corporations providing their own exhibitions and venues. In addition to the two monorails, visitors were offered many ways to get around the site, including student-driven “bicycle-taxis”, a “sky-ride” cable-car ride that gave you a bird’s eye view, a hovercraft speed ride, a vaporetto (water bus) and even rides in Venetian gondolas throughout the islands’ canals.
Expo ’67 was not only a place that brought the world’s peoples together, it also allowed the old world and new world cultures of the late 60’s to take part in a common experience. We could see it in the mix of fashions, as men wearing fedoras in business suits mingled with those dressed in the free-styled, open-neck, shirts and semi-flared denims of the day, and women in wide-brimmed sunhats, white-ribbed gloves and one-piece traditionals mixed with those sporting the latest wide-headbands, silk neck-scarves, and “higher–than-high” hem-lined mini-skirts. In fact on opening day, the high-hemmed “mini-dress” style of the UK pavillion’s hostesses did not only raise a few eyebrows, but soon raised the hems on the uniforms of almost every other pavillion’s hostesses, as many of these women found the “miniskirt” style liberating. Change was in the air, blending the shy politeness of the fifties, with the new ideas of the future.
Some of the live entertainment was also broadcast to the world, with Ed Sullivan hosting two live shows from Expo itself. First on May 7th, with Diana Ross and the Supremes performing their hit “The Happening”, Xavier Cugat doing a latin medley with Charro, and our own Mayor Jean Drapeau taking an audience bow. Then again on May 21st, with The Seekers performing their hit song “(Hey There) Georgy Girl”, Petula Clark performing a medley of hits including “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, Alan King doing a stand-up routine, and ending once again with Mayor Drapeau, this time with Expo commissioner Pierre Dupuy, both taking an audience bow. It was a magical time, with television playing an important role in getting Expo’s message out.
Many of the world’s celebrities were our “special guests” at Expo, including Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, Marlene Dietrich, a young Luciano Pavarotti, Maurice Chevalier, Robert Kennedy and his family, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Jackie Kennedy, Jack Lemmon, Harry Belafonte, Carol Channing, Bing Crosby, Robert Wagner, Lyndon. B. Johnson, our PM Lester B. Pearson, and Canada ’s comedians, Wayne and Shuster. Queen Elizabeth II would also visit the site, as part of our centennial celebrations.
Expo ’67 ended on October 29th, 1967, yet its spirit lived on as an exhibition called “Man and His World”, open during the summer months from 1968 to 1981, at which time many of its pavillions, now well past their expiry dates, were dismantled. At its final end, Montrealers knew that we had all lost something great, a common thread that we all took pride in, as we had accomplished it together. Expo brought us together as one city like no other event in our history, and is still remembered as our finest hour.
Today, Montreal is like a city derailed, divided by language and the struggles of trying to regain its identity as a world class city. While holding those little red passports ever-more tightly with a subtle smile, we are reminded of what could have been, as we watch the rear lights of the last monorail slowly fade into the distance of our Southwest Corners.