Fanzine reviewed: OPUS #20
Opus (V.2 #7 Whole Number #20) January 1953
Faned: W. Max Keasler
It’s probably fair to say most modern SF&F Fen have little interest in the fannish legacy. Many may be unaware it predates the advent of Star Trek fandom. It is my hope these columns open a few eyes to our glorious, legendary past.
How glorious was it? Hard to tell for a young whippersnapper like myself. I mean, I was only one year old when the 1952 Chicon II (10th Worldcon) took place. Not many who attended are still alive today. The primary source for all of 1950’s fandom is the book A WEALTH OF FABLE consisting of over 450 pages of research by a professional journalist, Harry Warner Jr. He was able to put it together because he was the greatest Loc writer of all time and possessed a collection of darn near every fanzine published since the late 1930s.
Harry certainly makes the convention sound interesting. For example, his description of the first (and last?) ballet performed at a convention:
“ASTEROID, the ballet, was an early example of the use of fluorescent costumes under ultra-violet light plus slides to accompany dancing and recorded music. It dealt with love and jealousy on a small planet among space travelers. Ray Nelson was a live drummer, producing sounds which reminded Art Rapp of toads copulating on a tin roof, and a former burlesque celebrity enacted the role of the heroine.”
Short, succinct, and evocative. But Harry wasn’t actually there. What was it like for the people in the audience? For that we need an eyewitness report.
Fortunately W. Max Keasler – “the personification of Sixth Fandom in America: young, witty, enthusiastic. He openly avowed that he never read science friction. He blazed across the fan skies, speaking in interlineations, publishing monthly, filling the world with Ray Nelson drawings. Then he disappeared.” – devoted the entirety of the 20th issue of his fanzine OPUS to a 32 page con report by Richard Elsberry, a rather hefty Minneapolis fan most noted for his invitation only “InVention” hoax which promised, among other things, a panel with the title “Can fandom get along without homosexuals?”
Here is Elsberry’s take on the ballet.
First, Thursday night, Elsberry asked Bob Johnson what it was all about.
“Well,’ he said, ‘it will be performed by the Chicago Knights of the Ballet. They’re a group at the University of Chicago. We’ve been practicing for some time.”
“What about the choreography and the music?’ I asked.”
“Guy Bassett did the choreography. He’s really good. As to the music, Judy May and myself did most of it. Ray here,’ he pointed to Nelson, ‘helped us some. Ray did the scenery too. And, I think, the music is very good. Esoteric records will record it, we think. And DANCE magazine is sending a representative to see the ballet.”
“Tell him about Karel,’ said Ray Nelson.”
“Ah. You’ll like Karel Borja, I think. She dances the part of the Orange Girl and she adds a few touches to the part.”
“Johnson and nelson both laughed.”
“Don’t spread it around,’ said Johnson, ‘but Karel has had it kind of rough. She had to work in a burlesque show to earn money. But you’ll see that when she dances. She’s out of that, though, and I think she’ll be a great ballet dancer. Nobody needs to know what she’s done before.”
Later Elsberry describes the ballet itself, this time spelling Karel’s name differently, which is the sort of thing which drives a fan historian nuts.
“ASTEROID, the one-act science fictional ballet, was the main event of the evening. Danced in ultra-violet light, with choreography by Guy Bassett, music by Julian May and Bob Johnson, and costumes by Perdita Nelson, the ballet lasted about 16 minutes. Early in the ballet, the music and the antics of the orange girl, Carol Bonja, provoked some nervous, irritating laughter from the less-intelligent segment of the audience. However, by the time it was over everyone agreed that we had seen much more than we bargained for.”
This may be a reference to Burlesque revelations by Carol. Might have been too overt and explicit for some of the virgin fen present.
“A synopsis of the plot was printed in the program booklet, and I think it describes the action better than I could. ‘A Spaceman lands on a small planet, and during his exploration discovers a Blue Girl hiding among the rocks. Her mind speaks to him of the depth and purity of space, and they fall in love. Suddenly an Orange Girl appears, sensuous and exciting. Her mind tells the Spaceman of the florid pleasures awaiting him if he chooses her, but after a moment’s indecision, he elects to remain with the Blue Girl. Orange Girl vanishes, only to return with the instruments of her revenge, the BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters). They are creatures of her mind, and reflect her jealous fury as they leap on the Spaceman and kill him. Orange Girl has the BEMs retreat with the body, leaving Blue Girl with only the spaceship, which she caresses as all that is left of her lover.”
“Without that synopsis to point out much of the symbolism of the ballet, most of the audience would have been entirely lost. As it was, most attendees weren’t too sure of what they saw, knowing only that they liked it immensely. The music was recorded and reproduced passably, but I didn’t see the necessity of the gruesome and oft-times incomprehensible slides which were flashed against a white flat at the back of the stage. One had enough to do just listening to the music, or watching the dancers.”
Yee Ghods! I’ve always hated multi-media presentations. Each aspect designed to distract from the others. What sort of “gruesome” slides one wonders. Still, I rather imagine the attention of the audience, predominantly male, was focused on the two girls dancing, especially the Orange Girl. I also wonder what the two girls were wearing. Were they dressed in their respective colours? Their faces painted? A few more details would clarify. Still, Keasler’s description “fleshes out” Harry’s bald summation and gives a sense of what it was like to be there. Helps it come alive.
Something which Harry Warner Jr. didn’t mention is the 1952 attitude toward the forbidden.
“Lee [Hoffman] went down to her room for a moment, and that was when we first noticed what was happening out in the court. Turning out the lights, we peered cross-court into the lighted windows. It’s strange how people, especially women, like to undress in front of a window. We watched Lee’s room but the shade was down.”
“The telephone rang, and [Bob] Tucker stumbled back through the darkness to answer it. It was Tony Boucher. ‘The place is just swarming with women,’ Tucker told him. ‘We’re up here staring out of our windows now.’ Boucher promised that he would be up as soon as he could.”
“How do you like that,’ said Tucker, peering into a room slightly above us. ‘She didn’t even take her glasses off.”
Speaking of lover boy types, here is Harry’s account of THE lover boy at the convention:
“Nothing had prepared fandom for Loverboy. He was a bellhop identified for the ages only by that nickname and by his number, 31. One memorable event came when he arrived at a room accompanied by two call girls. The fans, who had not budgeted for mundane amusements in their con finances, got out of there so fast they never knew that Loverboy was so enraptured by fandom that the girls were providing free service. The pros at the party stood their ground and were glad of it.”
Elsberry had at least one encounter with Loverboy.
“A bellhop known as ‘Lover Boy’ popped into the room and accepted a drink. Hal [Shapiro] asked him if he had seen [Walt] Willis.”
“Yes,’ he said. ‘I just took some ice up there. He’s up on thirty-four, and George O. Smith was there, too.”
“What about the house dicks?’ Hal asked.”
“They’ve gotta be kind of careful,’ he said. ‘This is a big hotel. If you want to bring a woman up to your room that’s all right with the hotel. If the detective comes around, just give him two dollars or so and it’ll be all right. After 12:30 there’s only one on duty, and with a hotel this size he can’t see everything.”
The house dicks were quite a problem. After one interrogation when a hotel detective wanted to know what a group of fen were doing waiting for an elevator (waiting for the elevator, maybe?), Elsberry commented “It was the first of many encounters with the Morrison Hotel’s large and easily excitable secret police.”
Walt Willis, by the way, was a highly popular Belfast fan renowned for his wit. The “WAW with the crew in 52” Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund was created to bring him to Chicon II. He wrote a trip report, WALT WILLIS DISCOVERS AMERICA, before he made the trip, and it’s a hoot to read, amusing as all get out, like virtually all of his stuff. Enormous numbers of fans wanted to meet him.
After Lover Boy left his room, Elsberry and friends “procured a large couch in the lobby and sat down to await developments. Bob Hossling came up and said, ‘Hey, I know where Willis is.’ He gave us a room number on the thirty-fourth floor. ‘I think I’ll go up there,’ he added.”
“The hell with them,’ I said. ‘If they want to keep Walt secreted away up there, let them. We shouldn’t go barging up there where we’re not wanted.”
“Everybody agreed, but Rossling said, ‘I’m going up there anyway.”
“It wasn’t long before he was back.”
“They’re in there all right,’ said Rossling. ‘I listened at the door for a while and could hear George O. Smith and, I think, Hoffman.”
“They wouldn’t open the door. I knocked a couple of times, and then it became quiet inside. I heard Tucker say, ‘Ignore him, maybe he’ll go away.’ They laughed, and so I left.”
“After all, Rossling,’ I said, ‘you’re not a Big Name Fan.”
“That was rather the clincher, and after that no one was overly anxious to see Willis.”
However things turned out rather pleasantly for Elsberry.
“Friday noon the convention committee opened up a suite … Walt arrived, and he wanted to talk with me as much as I did with him. Telling Lee [Hoffman] that he’d be right back, Walt and I walked slowly around the thirteenth floor hallway. It seemed like an all-to-short walk, and when we returned to the suite Walt was once again swallowed up in the crowd that was milling in the hall outside.”
Willis was a bit of a traffic jam attraction.
“A major part of the afternoon was spent sitting on the floor in the hall outside the convention suite. Willis was sitting there, and naturally attracting fans like flies … Su Rosen elbowed her way through the crowd, shaking off admiring suitors with every swing of her hips. Rosen is a Minneapolis miss of 14, who looks 17, and tries to act 20. A fawning, simpering hoard of the younger fan set followed her constantly throughout the convention. Harlan Ellison appeared to beat out Dave Ish for her affections.”
It is useful to remember that “femme fans” (as they were then called) were few and far between, and bound to attract a great deal of attention. (The swarm of women Tucker mentioned were probably not convention attendees.) Add the fact that most male fen were relatively young and still in the grip of raging hormones, and the “fawning, simpering hoard” was probably inevitable.
Another aspect of convention going was the amount of wildly inaccurate gossip which Harry Warner Jr. usually declined to repeat. For instance, Forest J Ackerman, number one fan in the 1940s and not yet Editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND which came out later in the 1950s, was attending Chicon II as he did most Worldcons, and was the subject of the following exchange.
“You know,’ said Tucker, ‘Ackerman is writing science fiction pornography.”
“Oh?’ I inquired, leading him on.”
“Yes, he’s been writing the stories and then translating them into French for some science fiction magazine over there.”
“Supplementing his income, eh? I suppose he doesn’t make too much with his author’s agency. Must be kind of hard, being on the other side of the country from the magazines.”
Hmmm. One of Ackerman’s clients was Ed Wood Jr., the genius behind PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. I read one of Ed’s stories not too long ago (in a modern issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS) and I would regard it as semi-pornographic and possibly ideal for the French SF magazine in question. However, Ackerman never placed any of Ed’s stories, so I’m inclined to believe Tucker’s tale was a minor hoax.
Elsberry got the straight goods from a respectable source.
“I spotted a white crewcut passing my way, and stopped [E. Everett] Evans to ask him about Ackerman’s literary efforts. ‘No, it’s nothing like that,’ said Evans. ‘They’re just French picture magazines.’ Evan’s voice gives you the impression that he wants to clear his throat. I mentioned a few American titles like WINK, PEEK, etc. ‘Yes, very similar to those,’ said Evans.”
Not sure what this implies. Not clear to me what, if anything, Ackerman was selling to these magazines. No matter. Elsberry had this observation to make of Ackerman.
“Ackerman was much in evidence at the convention. This big Californian with the neat moustache could be found sitting in almost any room you entered. Rarely, if ever, did he say anything. He just sat and listened, occasionally smiling, and sometimes answering when spoken to.”
This doesn’t sound like the exuberant Ackerman who had attended the first Worldcon in 1939. Had he grown more serious on becoming a professional agent? Was he beginning to feel out of place as a new generation of fans came along and fandom began to evolve from what it had been in his heyday? Never having met him, I have no idea.
So there you have it, a glimpse of what it was like to attend the 1952 Worldcon, the product of a bygone era. There’s plenty material left in Richard Elsberry’s report which I haven’t touched on, so I’ll write up a second column on Chicon II for next week. I love “experiencing” the past. Don’t you?
#1 (Cover) – Ray Nelson (who introduced the propeller beanie to fandom), de’, and WVK.
#2 & #3 – Jack Gaughan
BY THE WAY:
You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines
You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project
You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive
And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine
And while checking out OBIR, click on the sub-heading “Polar Borealis Magazine” to see the first issue of my semi-pro SF&F fiction zine.