Reminisce With Me/The Big New York Cons, Part II

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The following represents the 2008 fannish memories of Nancy Kippax, which she recorded on LJ in the last months of her life. Permission to archive these memories has been granted to Fanlore by April Valentine.

Apr. 28th, 2008
In the Beginning, there was Al Schuster, and the Committee. And the two would be split, and briefly each would offer up a different event, before Schuster would reign alone as the King of New York. His Heir Apparent was a man named John Townsley, who inherited the multitudes which Schuster and the Committee had grown.
Conventions in the Schuster era were notable only for the masses of pilgrims who came willingly to each one. Al Schuster was a promoter, an entrepreneur who staged "shows" much like today's Creation Cons. There was no "programming" to speak of, nothing past 5 p.m. except Costume Call, no panels, no use of fannish talent. There were only the actor guests, but for those of us who had never had an opportunity to get up close and personal with any of our beloved Trek idols, that was enough. And we knew no different kind of convention experience.
New York wasn't the only venue for Schuster. He staged smaller cons in Washington, DC, in Philadelphia (at the hotel later known for the "Legionnaire's Disease"), and in other cities farther removed from me. At these "smaller" cons, the guest list would be shorter and the con would last only two days. And the reign of Schuster was only for a few years, although it seemed longer at the time. But it was John Townsley who put on the Show of All Shows – Bi-Centennial Ten – which was in 1976, only three years after Schuster started with the Committee in 1973.
The Townsley cons went on up into the 1980s sometime, and it was he who held two in New York every year. We lived for the end of summer and the Labor Day weekend convention. And Christmas became an afterthought as we geared up for the President's Day Weekend con in mid-February, Although, as the years passed, we went to other conventions in other locales, nothing compared to the ones in New York, because it was there we saw the majority of our fellow east coast fen.
It was in New York City, at Bi-Cen-Ten that we first saw William Shatner, at his first convention. He did two appearances, the first in the main ballroom, up on a stage with a phalanx of security guards standing between him and the audience for his protection, which we all thought was amusing. Poor Bill was obviously terrified of his fans! But he went out on that stage in spite of his fear, and charmed and captivated even the most die-hard Spock fans in the audience! He was witty, he was bold, he had countless new stories to tell us.
And at his second appearance, on his second day, he showed us all what made him the fearless and peerless Starship Captain. In another, smaller ballroom at the hotel, we were seated on the floor; all the chairs had been removed to allow more people in. He came out on a small balcony that ringed the front of the room. And speaking very quietly to get his audience quiet, he said, "Now. If you are all very good and remain very, very still, I'm going to come down and walk around among you. . ." You could have heard a pin drop in that room, believe me! No one dared breathe, let alone move. We were arranged in square-ish blocks, with clearly defined aisle ways, and Bill did, indeed come down and step carefully among us, talking quietly all the while, conquering his fears, endearing himself even more to one and all.
Everything was going fine until Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand), also a guest at the con, decided to pull a prank. We saw her behind Bill's back. She held up a finger to her lips to ensure our silence as she quietly tiptoed behind him. In what was meant as a tease to her fellow actor, she suddenly grabbed him around the waist. You could see the utter shock on his face as he instinctively reacted by grabbing at her hand. What few of us realized was that he had taken her thumb in a karate move and was about to break it when he realized who was there. He laughed it off and made nice with her, but you could tell that he was genuinely furious with her! After she left, he resumed his talk, but it wasn't the same; she had ruined something intimate and real between Bill and his audience.
It was in New York City, in September 1977, at Townsley's Star Trek AmeriCon, that we saw and heard Leonard Nimoy proclaim, "I am here because my heart is broken. . ."
This is one of those pivotal stories, one of those moments in fandom history that you may always ask, "Where were you when Nimoy showed up at AmeriCon? What were you doing?"
Background: Paramount had been playing games with the revival of Star Trek for several years. They were going to make a feature film. No, they were going to make another TV series. Nope! Back to making a movie, and all of the cast will be in it. Well, maybe not all the cast. Everyone but Shatner and Nimoy. No – we'll do another TV series, but with an all new cast. And on and on and on it went. One popular joke at the time was Bill Shatner's apparent repeated avow that, "I have signed a contract!" There were rumors and scuttlebutt all over the place. But in the months preceding September 1977, one prevalent version took the lead. There was going to be a feature film, and every actor had signed a contract – except Leonard Nimoy. It was further reported that the guilt lay not with Paramount or with Gene Roddenberry, but with Nimoy himself, who, it was said, had refused to sign a contract and wanted no part of the project.
So all of this was swirling around when we went up to New York for AmeriCon. Add to the mix the fact that Leonard was currently appearing on Broadway in "Equus" and the rumors were riff that he would put in a surprise appearance at the con. A group of us had actually gone to see him in his show on Friday evening.
On Saturday afternoon, I think it was around 4 or 5 o'clock, my friends and I had closed up our table and retired to our hotel rooms to just relax and chill out before getting dressed to go out to dinner (I think it was one of our visits to Mama Leone's). We'd all taken off our shoes and propped up our feet and I remember that Bev was counting the money we had taken in that day; she had emptied out the cash box we used at the table. I think I was dozing off for a quick forty winks. There were several other people in our room visiting with us. The phone on the desk rang. It was Martha, from her room in the hotel. A fellow Nimoy fan friend of hers had just called. They had just made an announcement in the main ballroom that Leonard Nimoy would be taking the stage in five minutes.
You never saw such pandemonium in your life as we scrambled for footwear, scooped up the money and stowed it away, falling over each other to get out the door and down the hall to the notoriously slow moving elevators that would take us down to the ballroom. Yet even in our haste, we were being circumspect. What we did not need or want was this wild throng to descend as one on the ballroom. Remember, there were upwards of 15,000 fans at the convention! The ballroom could hold only. . .what? Five thousand at most! So as the elevator doors closed behind us, we surreptitiously glanced at the faces around us, wondering if they knew what we knew. And they, in turn were eyeballing us!
We strolled slowly toward the ballroom, then picked up our pace as we detected others rushing forward. We got into the ballroom, stood in the back as the room continued to fill. I recall seeing Lee J. wheeling Carolyn Venino in her wheelchair, going all the way down to the front where the handicapped were seated. I gave Carolyn a thumbs-up as she passed. The late Mark Lenard (who played Spock's father, Sarek, and who was a frequent convention guest) was on stage and the security force was once again guarding the stage area. In just a few moments after we got there, Nimoy came out from the wings, and amid a roar of applause and the glare of hundreds of flashbulbs, he briefly embraced Mark Lenard, then went to the podium and spoke into the mike.
"I am here because my heart is broken," he began, and a sudden hush fell over the huge assembly. He went on to say that he had been receiving hate mail, threats and accusations from the fans that he found inexplicable. One letter had referred to him as "you Benedict Vulcan." Having always enjoyed a pleasing and satisfactory relationship with his fans and with the fans of Star Trek, he was hurt by this turnaround. He understood that the cause was the rumor about his not wanting to participate in a new film. This, he said, was not the case. As far as he knew, there was no script yet, and no one had ever approached him about being in a film. "If Gene Roddenberry wants me to be in this film, let him come to me and ask." It was not, he declared, the custom for an actor to approach a studio or a producer. The studio or the producer approached the actor. And he had not been approached. Yet meanwhile, the fans were blaming him. He had come to the convention to set the record straight and to elicit the support of the fans.
Well, he had lit the fire and we would carry the torch! That night, while we were throwing the biggest Contact room party yet, with people spilling out into the hall, Carol F. buttonholed Gene Roddenberry's aide, Susan Sackett, who was also a guest at the convention. Susan had been allegedly avoiding Carol since Nimoy had spoken, but late that night the questions were finally put to her and the answers were obvious by her avoidance of the answers. What Nimoy had said was correct: It was Roddenberry and/or Paramount that was holding out.
Within days of our arrival at home, a flyer was ready to be mailed out with every zine order, with stacks sent to every zine ed and otherwise active fan that we knew. The headline on the flyer was the first line that Nimoy had spoken: "I am here because my heart is broken. . ." The flyer went on to urge the recipient to write to Gene Roddenberry and to Paramount Studios. Tell them that we would not accept a film version of Star Trek without Leonard Nimoy, without Spock. Jump on the band wagon. One. More. Time. We were getting good at this now!
The end result of it all was that there was no movie deal in the works, not to any imminent accomplishment, and it would be more than two years before the dream was realized. In the meantime, we continued going up the New Jersey turnpike twice a year, continued putting up with the inadequacies of the Statler Hilton, with a professional "show" of a convention that was all there was, but we joyously enjoyed every minute of it. We started taking in Broadway shows, and some not so close to Broadway.
There was the year that nearly thirty of us descended on a tiny little off-off-Broadway production of "Gay Dracula" down in Greenwich Village. We 30 women were almost the entire audience, except for several gay couples, and we laughed and hooted until we were hoarse. While waiting for the show to begin, we all sang Happy Birthday to my sister, who always celebrated her September 4 birthday the entire weekend of the Labor Day convention. Even the couples in the audience who didn't know us joined in the song! The show was hysterically camp and we loved it.
We went uptown to the real Broadway to see "The Fifth of July" by Lanford Wilson – twice, two conventions in a row. The first time we saw this amazing, funny, sensitive comedy/drama, the lead was played by Chris Reeve of Superman fame. When we returned in February, the part was being played by Richard Thomas, of John-boy fame. Both were stupendous, although each interpretation of the role was quite different. It has remained my absolute favorite play to this day.
It was in New York City, in February 1979, that we were all snowed in at the Statler Hilton as a blizzard crossed the northeastern section of the U.S. It began to snow a little on Monday around dinnertime. This was the last day of the con; we would drive home on Tuesday morning. But the snow kept falling and several in our party had phoned home to receive dire weather forecasts on what was happening in Baltimore. Our dilemma was whether or not to extend our hotel rooms for another night. Would we be able to get home tomorrow or not? I called my friend and neighbor who was taking care of my sons (I was by then a widow) and I remember her saying, "Don't even try to come home. Please, stay where you are." The boys were safe, she was fine with keeping them. We were all told that the interstates were nearly impassable as the storm wended its way up toward us, dumping inch after inch of snow, with gusting winds and a speed of accumulation that marked it an official blizzard.
We all got together and decided to double up on some of our rooms, filling each to maximum capacity and sharing the extended charges. Luggage was shifted around and arrangements made, then we headed down to the hotel bar, shrugging our shoulders and making the best of it! Jimmy Doohan was in the bar, I recall, playing a borrowed guitar and entertaining everyone. Jimmy, bless his heart, had always been friendly with the fans, always one of us.
An amusing story about Jimmy, which I think happened at that same convention, earlier in the weekend. Our friend, New Jersey fan Carolyn Venino, who was using a wheelchair at the hotel, had gone out to dinner. She returned in a taxi with several other friends. Upon arrival, they were struggling to get her out of the cab and into her chair. Jimmy was standing out front at that moment, saw their efforts, and chivalrously moved in to help. But he had sized up the situation wrongly, and was intent on stuffing her back inside the cab! Carolyn finally had to say, "Jimmy, I'm trying to get out of the cab!"
Be that as it may, we all enjoyed the serenade by him that snowy evening, and we kept the scotch flowing.
The next morning, Tuesday, we waited out the end of the storm. When all had been calculated, it was the Baltimore-Washington area that had received the brunt of the snow, around 20 inches, while Manhattan only received 13 inches. Many of the secondary roads were closed, the interstates were just gradually being cleared. When I called home, my sitter recounted how the snow was up to the middle of our storm doors in drifts, and that when the boys had insisted on bundling up and going out, my younger son, David, had momentarily dropped out of her sight, the snow being over his five-year-old head!
So many memories of those New York conventions! And I have still more stories to tell when we get up into the 80's! Come back often, and share your convention memories with me!