Why you, a non-cosplaying adult person, should totally go to a nerd con.
Guys, I found Waldo, and he was zipping up his fly while exiting the men’s room.
I was at Chiller Theatre in Parsippany, NJ, the biannual weekend-long “toy, model, and film expo” — a description which does not sound like something I would go to on purpose.
“Nerd convention” is a better name for this event that celebrates and sells ephemera relating to horror, sci-fi, classic TV, rock and pop music, and your various other culty entertainments, while offering up assorted actors and musicians for fans to meet as well as music performances and screenings. The talent lineup looked like IMDB became a sentient robot and then went crazy when faced with the vast amount of horrible knowledge it possessed and started shooting off a randomized list of dozens of show-biz players who are still alive. DID YOU KNOW THAT TELEVISION’S MARION ROSS (HAPPY DAYS) IS STILL ALIVE? HOW ABOUT PETER ROBBINS (VOICE OF CHARLIE BROWN)? And then Chiller Theatre booked that list as the 2014 guest lineup.
What brought me over to nerd con attendance last weekend was the opportunity to meet Joel Hodgson, the lovable creator and first (best) host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show I was obsessed with in college* that remains so comforting it often puts me to sleep like it did back then. It’s a ’90s program that chewed up Z-grade monster movies in the vein of Godzilla (four Godzilla stars were at Chiller Theater, BTW), added sarcasm, irony, whimsy, and arcane references galore, and turned it all into something different and often hilarious. Very Generation X.
And isn’t this whole thing very Gen X? My generation is like dogs when they’re out in nature, rolling around in the corpse smell of something that died. That’s kind of what we were collectively doing this weekend: rolling around in the corpse scents of the popular and unpopular culture leading up to and through our youths. ****
Essentially, this convention is a gathering of grown people (with a few of their young children) to celebrate what they liked when they were kids and teenagers. Current entertainment has a significant presence at the event as well, but it’s there like a natural extension of all this other stuff attendees have already liked for years. Kind of like Amazon’s recommendations: customers who purchased Night of the Living Dead also purchased The Walking Dead.
The Great Equalizer
At Chiller Theatre, no one is cool, and everything’s cool.
The fans in attendance may have put on boots, leather jackets, got their hair did/dyed, and had the tatts out, but we are not cool. Maybe we felt so when we first liked this stuff. Then we got older with the requisite hair loss and body sag and family-friendly motor vehicles. And /or maybe we had colonoscopies and got divorced. We are partway through enduring any number of failures and indignities and hurts and fears that is life as a human person. But those things we loved before a lot of that happened to us, the movies and music and TV shows that got us through our formative years, they are all represented here and gloriously commodified.
The merchandise rooms are a Spencer Gifts/ video store/ collectibles shop / Hot Topic of the damned where you could buy a steampunk riveted metal Mr. Potato Head (if you are into throwing away money), and browse tables loaded with esoteric 1970s horror DVDs that have badass, stylish poster art but are almost certainly terrible flicks that mainly deliver nudity from actresses who are now grandmothers.
I got pretty excited over the vintage-style plastic rounded-diamond-shaped motel key chains for fictional institutions like the Golden Girls’ Shady Pines (!) (sold out, with good reason) and Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel. I probably haven’t bought fan merchandise since college, but broke that streak to pick up a ceramic tile coaster by Decotrash with an antique-style ad for The Shining’s Overlook Hotel (“You’ll never want to leave!”).
Please Do Feed the Sci-Fi Stars
And not least of it, the people who made some of those things we loved then and still love now but in a more nostalgic way, some of them are here, living relics positioned behind folding tables of autograph-ready 8x10s. But by being here, they lose some that untouchable distant mystique. They are real, aging people in their 30s-90s (think about it: statistically, the majority have also had colonoscopies), and most of them probably have to be here to pay the bills, and so they are less cool. And that is OK. Cool is not very high on my list anymore of personal attributes. Uncool things like kindness and responsibility are more important.
And so, along with my co-starstruck friend, Patty, I met one of my favorite TV guys ever, and it was perfectly satisfying. He was exactly the genuine sweet and funny Midwestern person we knew from the show. The “stars” at this con set their own prices. I went with the low-budge option of a photo with Joel and his robot Tom Servo for $20. Patty got the deluxe package of autographed poster, photo with Joel, and secret handshake and oath (which Joel made up as he went along) for $50.
It should seem a little morally iffy to hand over a $20 bill or more to pose for a photo with someone, right? It seems to fall on the respectability spectrum near paying someone to pretend to be your friend. But it wasn’t weird, in the one case that I paid. I had no issue giving money directly to someone who had brought me so many laughs. The ones who I didn’t want to pay I just observed from afar. For an event of this size, fees are a time-saver that helps to feed the C-through-F- list celebs. If everything was free, you’d have every yahoo trying to collect photos and autographs of every person there and it would be human gridlock.
Walk and Gawk
Whenever you’re heading into a crowded, multi-faceted event, this two-part half-assed plan works well, and it can be adapted to many other situations in life.
1. Set your priority goal and do that first. For Patty and I, it was meeting Joel. For our other friend Karin, it was meeting Ryan Hurst, aka Opie from Sons of Anarchy.
2. After that, anyone you spot in the walk-and-gawk portion of the day is gravy, and you can leave whenever you feel like it.
Thus, when we spotted Ace Frehley rolling by in the wild, beyond the confines of his private room that you would have to wait on a long line for: Bonus! And look who else is still alive — there’s Louise Fletcher, aka NURSE RATCHED, one of my favorite film villains of the ’70s! Here we have Martin Stephens, the compact British man who played the evil blond alien child David in Village of the Damned (a solid creepy movie for its period, 1960). And there’s Kelly (“Weird Science” “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”) LeBrock, and her new face.
Also pretty exciting: Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island! Dawn Wells seemed both cool, arriving at her table like a wholesome Sophia Loren in her sunglasses and tan, still looking great in an off-the shoulder top, with a coconut cream pie prop off to the side. But she was also kind of square, peddling herself as a motivational speaker and author of her new advice book: What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life. One chapter within: “I Like Men.” Well — good for her. She should be hustling her book. Now I know about it, and so do you.
My nerd con experience was not the stew of awkward I imagined these things to be. Well — there was one poor soul who stagger-stumbled in front of some Mob Wives who were lined up for a group photo, blurting “SORRY!” a prototypical dork beamed straight out of an ’80s movie. But he was the exception, and those reality show people probably deserved getting their photo bombed. The vibe was generally festive and accepting and appreciative. In all, a fun way to spend a few hours of the Saturday before Halloween.
My own awkward moment involved Jimmie “J.J.” Walker when, in high spirits, I reflexively busted into the theme from Good Times upon seeing their table of former cast members. Although I sing it around the house on the reg, imagining that I am nailing the vocals, the look Jimmie shot in my direction suggested he did not find my rendition to be dyn-o-mite.
Chiller Theatre and its ilk across the country create a temporary safe place for the cross-pollination of makers and fans of many entertainment forms you’ve taken in through your eye or ear holes. It’s a place where Debbie Gibson can hug Lita Ford — when Lita probably would have had nothing but smack to talk about Debbie Gibson in their MTV heydays — and if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can watch that happen and one day tell the grandkids, or for 100 percent more appreciation, post it now on the Internet. (Check Debbie’s ‘gram. She also posed with Debby Boone, Tony Orlando, Henry Winkler, Marion Ross, Hulk Hogan, James Remar, Jeremy Jackson, and my man Jimmie “J.J.” Walker — who are all still alive.)
I’m a fan.