New Orleans — The opening days of the Louisiana World Exposition here are perhaps best symbolized by a large-boned, Nordic-featured man disguised in a Chinese shawl, makeup, and straw hat. Trying to attract visitors to the midway with his fancy juggling, he tosses three tumblers high in the air, whirls 360 degrees as his hat and wig fly off. He catches two tumblers as the third bounds down the midway into a group of people waiting in line for a Popeye's Fried Chicken concession that hasn't opened yet.
It's been that kind of week for fair organizers. With great promise, dazzle, and fanfare, they are trying to convince press and public that this $350 million , 10-years-in-the-making exposition crammed into 82 acres next to the wide Mississippi is indeed a world's fair - and something worth coming to.
With mixed reviews - mostly due to unpreparedness for the first day's 83,111 visitors (compared with 87,659 for Knoxville's two years ago) - organizers' success rate, like the disguised juggler, is running about 2 of every 3 fairgoers.
''It's got some rough edges,'' says one woman from Alabama, ''but when they get it all pulled together, I'm sure they'll have something to be really proud of.''
Several international pavilions - Belize, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, Peru - are not open. Nor is the 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel. And there are still fountains with no water, small piles of trash, sawdust, and pipes, and locked restaurants. But compared with the day before opening - when organizers let 1, 300 members of the media dodge bulldozers, tractors, and power lines to take a gander at the pavilions and exhibits - the fair site was a miracle of cleanliness.
Undaunted by the chaos of last-minute readying, Mayor Dutch Morial, Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, and a crush of dignitaries repeatedly invoked the Cajun expression, ''Laissez le bon temps rouler,'' (Let the good times roll) at the opening day ceremony from the 5,000-seat riverside amphitheater. United States Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige officially opened the fair on behalf of President Reagan at noon.
Fifteen thousand poured through the gates during the first half-hour, and four sets of military jets in formation zoomed over the $12 million, 370-foot gondola that spans the Mississippi River. Fireworks boomed; river boats whistled; fireboats shot red, white, and blue water high into the air. But true to the last-minute-rush state of affairs, the thousands of balloons released next to the riverside amphitheater never made it to the sky but, instead, got caught in its ceiling.
Throughout the day, pavilions were opened and dedicated. A medley of Sousa marches was played by the US Marine Corp band as 52 flags were raised, one upside down by mistake.
With crowded malls, the actual condition of the site took on less importance. Judging from the lines, the most popular hits are the gondola, the 1.5-mile monorail, and the Watergarden.
Many visitors were puzzled by the Wonderwall, a 2,400-foot-long, 10 -foot-thick, three-story-high meandering structure of bizarre towers, domes, chimneys, gazebos, busts, cupids, and animal sculptures. ''I think you're supposed to 'wonder' what it is,'' says one man.
If there is any quality to the fair that makes it distinctly New Orleans's, it's the live music. There is a Jazz Gospel tent with first-rate jazzers and Cajun bands. Clarinetist Pete Fountain and trumpeter Al Hirt each have their own theme restaurants. And there are numerous bandstands, sprinkled throughout the pavilions, where local talent plays.
Of the nations' pavilions, the American and Canadian are getting the most acolades, each with stunning films on the exposition theme ''The World of Rivers: Fresh Water As a Source of Life.'' The US film is in 3-D, and Canada's is shown on a screen about four times the size of most large theater screens. Both have state-of-the-art sound.