In my four previous Chicago-based Snap Malek historical murder mysteries, I freely mixed historical characters of the 1930s and ’40s with my fictional ones. Cases in point: Al Capone, legendary actress Helen Hayes, baseball star Dizzy Dean, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, atomic physicist Enrico Fermi, maverick auto maker Preston Tucker, and even President Harry Truman, on the campaign trail in the Windy City.
I set my fifth Malek book at the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948-49, an exhibition of near-world’s fair proportions that attempted to win back riders to rail travel against the growing competition of the airplane and the automobile. But my problem: what big-name person could I bring into the story? In each of the previous case, the historical figures were part of the Chicago scene at the time of the book’s setting.
Although I had attended the fair as a youngster, I knew little of its history before researching the book. Then I made delightful discovery on-line. Walt Disney had visited the fair. I call that a big-name person! In fact, Disney’s time at the fair helped change American cultural history. More about that in a moment.
Snap Malek, posted at the fair as a Chicago Tribune reporter during its entire summer run, interviews the filmmaker, who also was a lover of trains, and Malek even involves him in helping to solve the series of murders that plague the lakefront exposition.
As I further researched Disney’s time at the fair, I learned from Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography, “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” that the filmmaker was inspired by the exhibition’s various “villages”—e.g. New Orleans French Quarter, Wild West Town, Southwest Indian Pueblo complete with real live Navahos–to begin thinking about creating a totally new type of entertainment park, which also would contain various villages and themed areas.
Disney mentioned his grandiose plan to Snap Malek, who privately dismissed this as “a half-baked idea.” Malek does well, damned well, as a dogged, hard-charging police reporter in a rough-and-tumble city, but nobody ever said he had a talent for predicting the future.