Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Friendly Ghosts from the World’s Fair
I'm delighted to welcome MARK ARSENAULT to Killer Hobbies today. Mark is a Shamus-nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is: www.markarsenault.net
Many of the quirks, habits and hobbies I’ve amassed in my life have been passed on to my fictional characters, sometimes without much deliberation. I credit my subconscious with doling out little bits of myself, which make characters on the page a little more human.
In my Billy Povich mystery series, one of my favorite characters—Billy’s crusty father, known as the Old Man—has been cursed with my infatuation with the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The reasons I invented for the Old Man’s obsession provided me some unexpected insights into myself.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, was thought up in the mid-1930s as a privately-backed economic stimulus project in the midst of the Great Depression. Major U.S. companies, such as Ford, General Motors and Westinghouse, agreed to invest in the fair and build pavilions to showcase cutting-edge gadgetry and consumer products, in keeping with the theme: “The World of Tomorrow.” Many visitors saw television for the first time at the NYWF. The clunky Westinghouse robot, named Elektro, was a huge attraction. Countries from around the world, including the USSR, were invited to build their own pavilions.
No fair of this scale had ever been proposed. It was 1,200 acres, built on a reclaimed ash dump. The project’s centerpiece was the Trylon and Perisphere, the tower and sphere that became the emblem of the fair. The Trylon and Perisphere are pictured on most of the memorabilia the fair produced. The NYWF ran two seasons, closing in October 1940, under the cloud of a world war.
My obsession with the fair began five years ago while writing a history project for The Providence Journal. Reading old newspapers from the 1930s, I came across a story on the World’s Fair, where my mother’s parents had honeymooned. I decided to research the fair a little deeper, to see what my grandparents had experienced. I fell in love with the streamlined Art Deco styling of the buildings and the artifacts, and I liked the fair’s optimistic attitude. Despite the Great Depression and the threat of war, the fair imagined the World of Tomorrow as a place where life was a little bit better.
Pictures of the fair were great, but I wanted a piece of it.
Hundreds of original World’s Fair souvenirs were for sale on eBay. For $15, I bought a thermometer with a picture of the Trylon and Perisphere. And like most addicts, I couldn’t stop. My collection expanded to include World’s Fair dinner plates, pencil sharpeners, salt & pepper shakers, a glass coin bank, a necktie pin in the shape of Elektro the robot, postage stamps, ticket books, and an original invitation to President Roosevelt’s speech at the opening ceremonies. I have two NYWF ceramic coffee creamers in the likeness of George Washington, who was a familiar image at the fair because it opened on the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. He’s the Father of Our Country and I pour half-and-half from his head.
In my new novel, Loot the Moon, Billy’s father collects World’s Fair memorabilia to pass on to his grandson. He tells Billy there’s immortality in those knick-knacks, because whenever the boy sees one of them, he’ll think of his granddad.
I wrote that scene in a flurry. Only later did I realize I was writing about myself. My most treasured World’s Fair item is a glass picture frame in which I’ve placed a scan of the only surviving photo from my grandparent’s honeymoon. They’re both gone now, but I think of them every time I come into my office where I display my collectibles. I still scour eBay for deals on memorabilia because I see friendly ghosts in every piece.
If I could borrow a time machine for one trip, I’d spend a day at the 1939 NYWF.
I can’t be the only nut who fantasizes about this sort of thing. If you could visit one place for one day in history, what would it be?