When is a Convention Not a Convention? When It Is your First Convention!

R. Graeme Cameron suggests that the best way to attend a science fiction convention is to not treat it like a yard sale.

RG Cameron January 31 Illo #1 Passport

The classic newbie mistake is to go home early and miss all the room parties where the ‘real’ convention takes place.

I was even more of a newbie at my first convention, I treated it like a yard sale.

The year was 1968. I knew nothing about science fiction conventions. Not surprising. There weren’t any, at least in Canada.

Twenty years earlier Torcon (the first Worldcon held outside the United States) had come and gone, but I had never heard of it, never heard of any SF convention. I didn’t know such marvels existed.

The second SF Con ever to be held in Canada (as far as I am aware) took place in Kingston, Ontario, in 1967. Seems it was called either King Con or King Kon (sources vary). It was a small gathering of fen in a rented motel room, fen from QSFS (Queen’s Science Fiction Society) based at Queen’s University in Kingston and from OSFiC (Ontario Science Fiction Club) out of Toronto.

Naturally I missed King Kon. Again, not surprising, since I’d never heard of any SF club. Never heard of organized fandom either. To me, to be a fan was merely a matter of being me. I dug SF movies, read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, collected SF pocketbooks, liked SF comic books, and thoroughly enjoyed TV shows like Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. Of course I was a fan. The only kind of fan. A lone and lonely fan. None of my peers were interested in SF. I had no idea who else watched and collected the same stuff I did. No idea.

I remember that period of my life as a time of blissful ignorance. No frantic fanac deadlines whatsoever. Fandom purely a personal leisure activity. (Now that I’m retired, I seek to return to the nirvana of not knowing and merely being.)

Turns out those present at King Kon (including OSFiC’s Angus Taylor, and possibly Mike Glickson and Peter Gill) found it so much fun they decided they should put on a genuine convention. Thus was born the Toronto Triple Fan Fair held in Markham Village in Toronto from June 29th to July 1st, 1968.

Why Triple Fan Fair? As you can see from the promotional art (by Derek Carter, a prominent fan artist at the time, but of course I didn’t know that) the ‘three dragons’ of the convention were ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Movies’, and ‘Comics.’ It was a ‘big tent’ convention (general interest convention – now a dying breed), except that it really was more of a fair than a convention, with events and displays in venues scattered through Markham Village. More than three sponsors though, including OSFiC, Capt’n George Henderson’s Memory Lane Book Store, the Canadian Academy of Comic Book Collectors (no idea who these people were), the Pollock Art Gallery, the Adams & Yves Art Gallery, and the Markham Village Film Club.

RG Cameron January 31 Illo #2  Tower

Question is, how did I learn about it? Being a typical weekend hippie (shoulder length hair, orange paisley heavy linen shirt, purple velvet bellbottoms, etc.) all of 16 years old, I used to hang out at Yorkville village, the centre of the Toronto hippie scene. There I probably saw a copy of the poster which the program book cover shows Jack Pollock and George Henderson examining.

The fair ran from Saturday to Monday, but I visited just the one day, Saturday. Consequently I missed seeing guests of honour Stan Lee and Roger Zelazny (along with Phyllis Gotlieb) debate the significance of the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Been kicking myself ever since.

Frankly, I thought the fair rather weird, not what I expected (I can’t remember now what I expected). Very much a village fair atmosphere with (mostly) young people wandering about looking for action. There were Chaplin films in the Town Hall, films like Metropolis and Intolerance in a tent in someone’s driveway, and a selection of TV shows and short films in the Poor Alex Theatre. The Pollock Gallery featured original art by Stan Lee (who was often present to answer questions) and other galleries and storefronts displayed rare comics, SF art, Tarzan memorabilia and much else. Stunt demos, lectures and slide presentations took place in Poor Edward’s Garden. I found all these venues a trifle bewildering to track down. I found the whole thing bewildering.

Ahh, Poor Edward’s Garden. It must have been something like Dr. Who’s Tardis, bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside, because I remember it being used to show films (missed all but one), hold events like the opening ceremony (missed it), a masquerade (missed it), art auction (missed it), magic demonstration (missed it), and still have room for a collection of tents and booths selling probably a better selection of SF stuff than ever shows up in most regional cons nowadays.

In my mind’s eye I remember Poor Edward’s Garden as a large (evidently very large) patio-like affair of pink and white tiles hidden behind a row of houses and approached by an L-shaped lane about fifty feet long that was too narrow for more than one person at a time. Talk about crowd control. PEG may possibly have been a tea garden or a restaurant normally, but this detail escapes my memory.

RG Cameron January 31 Illo #3 Cover

How come I missed so many events? Oddly, the Saturday I attended had relatively little going on, Sunday being the ‘big day’ with the most numerous and most significant happenings. Consequently my Saturday con-going consisted mostly of wandering aimlessly with a bemused expression on my face wondering what all the fuss was about, occasionally pausing to examine some of the goods on display at assorted booths.

For example, the Star Trek booth where I bought two things: the second issue of an early (possibly the first) Star Trek Fanzine ‘Spockanalia’ (which I will review next week), and a selection of individual film frames cut from actual out-take footage of the Star Trek TV series. The Great Bird of the Galaxy (Gene Roddenberry) had taken the term “out-take” rather literally and his extra-curricular money-making scheme was something the studio knew nothing about. Individual film stills were being sold at cons all over North America that year. The guys in the booth charged 25 cents apiece. I purchased half a dozen, one of Captain Kirk, one of Spock, and the other four assorted aliens. I remember being rather excited, since I had only watched Star Trek on a B&W television, so it was a thrill to see (if you held them up to the light) my heroes in living colour. I still have these frames, sitting in an envelope, but have no idea where. I imagine I’ll see them again… if I ever find them.

Another booth I remember was manned by the OSFiC crowd. I recall a much pawed-about and rather thick layer of SF fanzines available at decent prices. Today I would ‘kill’ to get my hands on those zines. Who knows what treasures offered themselves to me that day? I don’t even want to think about it. Hurts too much. Zines I will never see. My one and only opportunity to buy contemporary 1960s zines… gone…

But… I didn’t know then that I would grow into fandom, become a zine publisher and collector, develop an interest in fannish lore and history. Just as I didn’t know when I skipped VCON 2 that its Guest of Honour Philip K. Dick would later become my favourite SF author, or that when I met Sam Moskowitz at VCON 15 and couldn’t think of anything to ask him that I would later become a Fantiquarian who would have had a thousand questions for him… funny how life treats your opportunities sometimes…

Besides, mom and I were planning to move to Vancouver later that summer and she would have been very upset with me for bringing more junk into our home at a time when we were trying to get rid of as much stuff as possible to cut down the cost of moving (across Canada not cheap).

Oddly enough, given what a complete twit I looked like (in hindsight), the OSFiC people nevertheless asked if I would like to join the club. I would have, were it not for the impending move. Consequently I didn’t enter organized fandom till I joined the B.C. SF Association in 1970.

In short, I brushed close to organized fandom, learned that it existed, and walked away. A mere three or four hours wandering Markham was enough to satiate my curiosity and threaten boredom, so I went home for supper.

I returned to Poor Edward’s Garden at 9:30 PM for a showing of the original ‘King Kong’, which I had never seen before. We sat under open sky on a glorious summer evening watching the film projected onto a rumpled bed sheet hanging off a picket fence. The projector broke down several times. The wrinkled sheet blurred the detail, making the film difficult to see. I recall much heckling, but I think it was directed at the projectionist rather than the film itself. Much fun was had by all.

I could have had a great deal more fun if I had exerted the effort to show up the following day. But I didn’t, and that is often the problem with newbies attending a convention for the first time. They come out of curiosity, but don’t ‘get’ the context of the fannish gestalt, don’t see enough to understand what the attraction is, waste far too much time taking notes at panels and lectures rather than getting to know any of the interesting (or weird) looking people all around them, and fail to sample all the convention has to offer.

RG Cameron January 31 Illo #4 City Hall

Of course, the Toronto Triple Fan Fair wasn’t a classic example of a convention, there were no ‘room parties’ unless hosted nearby in someone’s house (though there was a luncheon with Roger Zelazny at the L’Escargot Restaurant for $3.50 per person), so there was little opportunity to mingle with experienced fen in a relaxed and private social setting.

Fortunately, modern general interest fan-run conventions stress the individual rather than the herd. At VCON for instance, the tradition is, that if you want to speak to a guest of honour, you politely introduce yourself and start talking. Simple as that. Fact is, authors and artists are just as human as you are. Don’t be shy. Say hello. Ask questions. Participate in discussion. This is how you build wonderful memories.

But if you’re shy and reticent, as I was in my youth, you’ll live a life of missed opportunities, and wind up with a store of regrets (I mentioned a few of mine). That’s no fun.

After all, the whole point of going to a convention is to have fun. Merely drifting through a convention as a passive observer (as I did in 1968), like some sort of jaded ghost, is less than satisfying. Remember, no matter how shy, you have far more potential for good times than that.

My advice for attending your first con? Yes, by all means go to the events that intrigue you, but also frequent the hospitality room and as many room parties as you can, and don’t forget the ‘dead dog’ party at the end of the convention. Meet and mingle as much as possible over the course of the convention. That’s how you stop being a lone fan and join the community of fen.

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