August 2, 2023

some prose about cons

I recently attended my first con since the pandemic put all gatherings of any kind on hold. Altogether, I was 5050 on the experience. The dealers hawking their overpriced wares on the convention floor have never been a draw to me, while the panels were hampered by the Hollywood strikes barring actors and writers from talking about their acting and writing. On the other hand my brother attended in costume and absolutely loved meeting up with fellow cosplayers from the same media franchise, and seeing him happy made it worth it for me. Which is what it’s really about, right?

These massive crowds filling a large city’s convention center would be completely unrecognizable compared to the first fan con, which per Fancyclopedia took place either in Philadelphia in October 1936 or in Leeds in January 1937. These two gatherings were remarkably similar - each only attracted about 12-14 people in total, each featured minimal planned programming and lots of informal discussion among the attendees, and each centered on a business meeting whose primary aim was organizing future fandom activities. The difference was that the Leeds convention was announced in September 1936 and publicized through the network of crude homemade zines and local clubs that made up the nascent science fiction fandom of the time. A few weeks later, when a handful of New York fans paid a visit to their Philadelphia counterparts, they declared themselves a convention on the spot, and later wrote the Brits to brag about beating them to the punch.

Real mature bunch, those early fans.

Actually, reading up on early fandom, I see a lot of antecedents to modern internet culture. The comradery among people who’ve never met, the weird lingo full of puns and inside jokes, the cliques, the (mostly unjustified) elitism, and the drama… oh god, the drama. A recurring catchphrase is “all fandom was plunged into war” and one participant titled his history of early fandom The Immortal Storm. My own little corner of the internet has its own specific similarities: some SF fans started to form group homes (“slan shacks”) in the 1940s, and we’ve run into a few Claude Degler types trying to rope reality into their own deranged Cosmic Circles.

What were they fans of? Mostly science fiction literature, specifically the cheap pulp magazines that favored quantity over quality, as well as the classic novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The adjacent genres of fantasy and “weird fiction” were also included, as were films and radio shows in the genre, though rarely did this mass entertainment meet the fandom’s approval. In the 1930s there wasn’t a whole lot else to be a fan of. Obviously anime and video games didn’t exist yet, for that matter the first comic books only debuted in 1934 and superhero comics in 1938. The state of the art in tabletop gaming was Monopoly (1935). Somehow the pulps and their expansive letter-to-the-editor columns1 managed to be enough to start a community.

While the earliest cons were fan-only affairs, they did not take long to attract the attention, and then the attendance, of professional writers and editors. The 1938 “First National” Convention2 centered on the usual fan feuding and drama, but also featured editors of major pulps discussing the business and their upcoming plans. By the first Worldcon the following year, there was a full slate of speeches and panel discussions, as well as efforts to market the con to fans outside the self-absorbed zine clique. From there, you can trace the origins of just about every element of the modern con, just in different proportions.

Take cosplay. The term was coined in Japan, where it’s a regular feature of their cons (the earliest of which was modeled on Worldcon) but as a con feature it goes back to 1939, where Myrtle “MoRoJo” Douglas and Forrest J Ackerman stood out from the crowd in their costumes inspired by the then-recent H.G. Wells movie Things to Come. The following year, a masquerade ball and costume contest was added to the con program. It’s been a fixture ever since. But for a long time it was fairly rare to appear in costume outside of the masquerade, and some considered it a faux pas. On one hand, I get the dismay at press coverage focusing on the costumes instead of the content, which gives outsiders a distorted view of what these cons are like and leads more and more attendees to dress up for the whole con instead of just the masquerade. On the other hand… who am I to ruin their fun?

Or how about the dealer room? Although “filthy hucksters” have been peddling their wares since there have been large enough crowds to buy them, the older Worldcon programs I’ve read have them limited to a side room while the main hall was reserved for the panels and business meeting and such. (As late as the ‘70s, there was only one main track of convention programming. Lots of unofficial activity on the side though.) This change was influenced by architecture more than anything else. Move from a hotel with a bunch of small banquet rooms to a convention center with a wide open floor, and now it’s the dealers taking the most physically prominent location while the panels are off on the upper levels. I don’t know about the rest of you, but personally I don’t go to cons to buy stuff. I can buy stuff anywhere. Panels, Q&As, interactivity, that I can’t just do anywhere.

A more subtle change is in the economics of the con. To maximize the potential audience, the first few Worldcons were announced as free to the public. Paying for a membership was an optional way to support the con organization, but most of the funding came from selling ads in the convention program book and the proceeds of a memorabilia auction held during the con. After a couple of years it became the norm that attendees were expected to be paying members, but they couldn’t check for badges everywhere and some “ghosts” were begrudgingly tolerated. Even now Fancyclopedia shows some disdain towards “gate shows” like SDCC and DragonCon where you buy an admission ticket to be a passive consumer, as opposed to fan-run cons like Worldcon where you buy a membership to be a participant. To me the distinction isn’t so clear. Maybe technically DragonCon is for-profit but when I went it felt a lot closer to a grassroots fan experience than some nonprofit cons I’ve been to. Also, concerns about overcrowding and safety mean that even nonprofit fan cons have to check for badges now. There are still a few democratically run cons where membership entitles you to vote at the business meeting, but who’s going to bother with that when there’s more fun stuff going on in the next room over? I guess this means everything is a gate show.

I will say, though, that I think we’ve lost something when corporate-owned shows like New York Comic-Con (a division of Reed Elsevier) have grown to the point where they overshadow the fan-run cons. But it’s probably inevitable - nonprofits can’t grow like for-profit companies can, and the fractious politics tend to drive outsiders away. Even among nonprofits, those run by close-knit groups like SDCC and Anime Expo are more able to stay focused than those that are more openly run and hang out their dirty laundry where the world can see. Also, many cons run by fan groups have stayed focused on SF literature instead of letting more popular content like movies and TV make inroads into their programs. (This paradoxically enhances the “true fans’” feelings of superiority over the “mundanes” even as they decry gatekeeping as a problematic feature of the bigoted past.) And specifically Worldcon with its rotating sites won’t ever be able to attract the momentum of a single-site convention, and is unlikely to ever regain its status as the biggest con of the year.

On that note, the World Science Fiction Society, parent organization of Worldcon and the Hugo Awards, has one of the strangest governing structures for a nonprofit I’ve ever seen. Each year’s Worldcon is separately organized and its members are the members of WSFS for that year; each convention committee has nearly absolute authority over its convention within the bounds of the WSFS rules, and the permanent organization of WSFS is kept to the bare minimum to hold onto its trademarks. This is mostly the result of getting burned by a failed attempt to set up a permanent “WSFS Inc.” in the 1950s that quickly imploded into the usual ridiculous fan drama, leaving Worldcon business meeting attendees wary of anything that looks like centralization. This makes the question of site selection crucial, since it’s not just a site but the whole management team that’s getting chosen. Currently there’s a lot of controversy (but what else is new?) over the upcoming Worldcon in Chengdu, which appears to be at best badly mismanaged and at worst hijacked by outside business concerns, and that’s setting aside the valid objections to holding a convention in China at all. Almost nobody thinks it should go forward, and yet there’s nobody with the power to stop it, so go forward it will. And I can just begin to imagine the drama over trying to change the rules to prevent this from happening again.

Anyway, the things that stand out to me most, reading about these old conventions from decades ago, are the mundane (in both senses) details of what life was like back then. The tales of long road trips and crashing at the homes of local fans before and after the “official” dates of the convention, of spending a few nickels at the automat instead of splurging at a real restaurant, of late-night parties in attendees’ hotel rooms. One report from Denver ‘41 grouses about Los Angeles beating out Philadelphia to be the site of the ‘42 Worldcon - not only was L.A. too hard to get to, but Philly had cheaper beer and a lower drinking age. Little did they know that the US would enter the war, and everyone would be old enough to drink by the time the L.A. con happened in 1946.

And some of the venues tell of the social milieu of the past. From 1938 until the 1960s, the Slovak Sokol Hall in Newark was local fan Sam Moskowitz’s preferred convention hall due to low price and convenience. A gymnasium and community center established by and for Slovakian immigrants, the Hall stood in Newark until it was damaged by fire in the ‘67 riots, and the association still exists without a permanent physical home.3 A few early editions of Philcon were hosted in a “saloon” (in modern parlance, a dive bar) owned by the organizer’s parents and run out of their home, something our current zoning laws have all but stamped out. In 1948 Worldcon came to Toronto, then a staid buttoned-down city with few large hotels and none willing to host a gathering of American sci-fi nerds. With some help from the tourism bureau, the organizers rented out the radio studios of Rai Purdy Productions4, an unusual but apparently successful choice.

But my favorite of these buildings was right here in Midtown, a few blocks from where I’m typing this to you now. The first Worldcon in 1939 was at Caravan Hall, 110 East 59th Street near the corner of Park Avenue. The building is long gone, replaced by a nondescript office tower in the 1960s, and a Fancyclopedia contributor has produced a detailed investigation into finding the site. The neighborhood is nearly unrecognizable but the Argosy Bookstore is still on that same block. Fascinating stuff, but it didn’t answer my bigger question: what was Caravan Hall, and what was it used for besides one notable science fiction convention?

A 1957 New York Times piece (paywalled) offers some insight. The hall belonged to the Caravan of East and West, an offshoot of the Bahai Faith established by Persian scholar Ahmad Sohrab and mainly funded by Lewis and Julie Chanler, upper-crust socialites who had converted to Bahai. Circa 1939 the mainline Bahai Faith excommunicated Sohrab, but he continued the Caravan for the rest of his life as an independent institution. According to the 1957 article, the hall had once been a dance studio used by the great Isadora Duncan and the Caravan held a long-term lease on it from CBS. By then the number of congregants had dwindled to the point where the hall was a financial burden, so it was mainly leased out to dance groups as a source of funding. Caravan Hall appears to have closed shortly after the death of Sohrab, but the organization continued to operate out of the Chanler townhouse on 65th Street until 2011, by which time it was named the Caravan Institute and its main activity was an Italian language adult education program. (I’d love to know how that transition happened!) At that time the institute, its finances rocked by the global financial crisis, merged into nearby Hunter College. Hunter still offers Italian lessons there if that’s your thing.

Quite the journey. I don’t know if anything we do at modern, corporatized, homogenized cons will be anywhere near as interesting to anybody in 70-80 years as the old cons are to me. But then, it probably wasn’t all that interesting to the attendees back then either. In any case, it’s still a fun way to waste a weekend.

  1. One sleazy pulp publisher by the name of Hugo Gernsback realized that letters to the editor were an easy way to get lots of pages of content from writers he didn’t have to pay. Or rather, writers who wouldn’t complain when he didn’t pay them - he was infamous for stiffing his contributors, and for running lots of reprints of stuff he’d already paid for. This is the guy the awards are named after! Anyway, it was standard in those days to print a full mailing address with each letter to the editor, fans started writing each other directly, and that’s how fandom as a going concern started. [return]
  2. Since there was never a second national convention, maybe 0th Worldcon would be a better name. [return]
  3. The similar Bohemian Hall in Queens hosted a 1937 con and is still in business, mainly as a beer garden. [return]
  4. Usually misspelled as RAI Purdy Studios, as if it had something to do with Italy’s national broadcaster. Nope, his name was Horatio “Rai” Purdy and he worked at numerous Canadian, American, and British radio and TV stations over his long career, but not in Italy as far as I can tell. [return]

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