Saturday, Indianapolis, Indiana. Day 2 of the newish convention Days of the Dead.
The venue is trying to kill us.
In the long atrium-slash-“pre-convene” room where the majority of the guests were stashed, the air was on fire. There was no thermometer in the room to tell us the exact temperature, but there were bets that it was either close to or over 100 degrees. Directly behind the majority of us were tall glass windows. Mere feet away in our scenic vista of the parking lot, the mid-day sun was lollygagging, trying to break into cars and sexually harassing passersby. It smiled luminously and picked its teeth with our bleached bones.
Hot, I tell you. Even with all the curtains drawn. The only one possibly accustomed to this kind of heat was Zoe Bell (“Bitch Slap”), born and raised “Down Under” (New Zealand is still considered ‘down under’, right?), but she was already gone. Just as her lunch had arrived, one of the promoters informed her, mid-bite, that her plane was leaving in an hour. The “what the f**k?” look on her face was priceless.
Beside me, Amy was dressed in one of her trademark flowing dresses, looking fresh and clean despite the crippling humidity. Next to her, Ashley C. Williams, the middle-segment of “The Human Centipede” was holding up also relatively well. We were down at the end of the room, partially hidden from the villainous sun by our heat-shield curtains and cooled marginally by a fan bought for us by our friends and new Favorite People in the Whole World, Carrie and Mike Natarelli.
The way the hotel was set up, the pre-convene room and the ballroom across the hallway were set up on the same air conditioning cycle. Whereas the ballroom was closed behind heavy doors, sealing Bill Moseley (“The Devil’s Rejects”), Ginger Lynn Allen (“Cleo and Leo”) and Linnea Quigley (“Nightmare Sisters”) away from the forced death march we in the open room were suffering. On the other hand, their hermetically-enclosed private room was receiving the majority of the forced arctic air and ice was crystallizing on their merchandise. We’d ask for the air to be turned up inside our room, they’d go into hyperthermia and ask for the air to be turned down. Was this Indianapolis or Hell?
We (speaking only for Amy and I) tried not to complain too loudly, even when Reggie Bannister (“Phantasm”) keeled over and had to be defibrillated back to life with electricity and Dewers. Because right across from us was “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (“They Live”), his line stretching out of the hotel, on his feet for the past six hours without a whimper, still going strong, even though he was the same age as the sport of wrestling itself. He didn’t even have the decency to display a moistened forehead and with each autograph he signed, he recommended that the recipient shop around at the rest of our tables. He’d give us the thumbs up, wink; pleasant fellow, the bastard.Occasionally, one of the yellow-shirted staff members would come around with a camelback of water bottles, to keep us alive while the vultures circled the chandeliers. By “us” I mean everyone else but me. I wasn’t a guest; I was Amy’s “Plus 1.” So I had to make do with my own water, retrieved from our room to avoid the $3 waterbottle surcharge. Fortunately, I was also able to pass the time with surreptitious and copious imbibing of alcohol. When that failed to soothe my melting nerves, I would visit with Carlos Gallardo (“El Mariachi”) and Marc Price (“Family Ties”), and help them collaborate on the buddy cop movie the universe so desperately needed them to do.
Meanwhile, out in the sub-zero tundra of the hallway, fans waited hours for their own personal kick in the balls from Ace Frehley (KISS), just $50 per t******e. Word got back to us that he was less of demanding dream-killer than he had been previously at Monster Mania and would actually make eye-contact with his fans as they passed their merchandise to his accompanying assistants from behind his tall screen, erected to avoid any freebie peeking from the non-paying bewildered.
Between Piper and Frehley, many of the guests were starting to feel like they were getting the afterthoughts. Heather Langencamp’s (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) line was nice if not all that impressive compared to that of the Grandfather of Rock. Amanda Wyss (ditto), right beside her, smiled and chit-chatted with folks as they wandered by. There weren’t nearly enough cute girls to keep Andrew Brynarski (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) or Tom Sizemore (“Saving Private Ryan”) occupied, so it was obvious the trouble was a-brewin’.
Back in the vendor room, the distributors of merchandise smiled and nodded to each other, to passersby and tumbleweeds, and reminisced about the good old days when a boxful of $5 DVDs could equal a good weekend.
That very thing was actually the topic of conversation on the drive up. Amy, fellow journalist Michael Varrati and I discussed the golden years of the horror conventions. It used to be a con was a single ballroom for the handful of guests and vendors who outnumbered them—much the way Cinema Wasteland is and forever will be—usually at some out-of-the-way hotel. Just before the bottom dropped out of the global economy, even the VHS bootlegger could expect to break even on table and travel at the shows. Then, between Chiller and the uber-number of Creation autograph shows, conventions stopped being about the fans. Yes, you wanted a***s through the doors—the logic used to be that a show-runner made his expenses on flying in the guests by selling vendor tables, and after that, every ticket sold from there on was profit. Guests were usually satisfied with a flight and a room, maybe a small appearance fee, and the autograph fees, if anything was charged, was profit for the guests and treat for the fans.
But the ‘80s greed slithered its way into the ‘90s. Sports stars started the precedent of charging for their autographs. Yes, everyone was used to paying for a bit of merchandise, but if you brought something, the rule was you got it signed for free. A Van Gogh signature is more valuable because the man is deceased. Celebrities now charge, seemingly, for the atomic weight of their ink. When I was a small child, Mohammed Ali didn’t charge me a cent to sign the copy of the “Krull” novelization I’d just bought at the Waldenbooks across the hall. Now, the guy who was Jason Voorhees’ stunt-double’s lighting stand-in gets $20 per scrawl.
The shows have not only gotten too numerous, but they’ve gotten immense. Maybe the guest roster at Days of the Dead was still less than the number of people who paid to get in, but there were still a goodly many a celebrity sweating and freezing in those rooms. The normal amount of shuffling occurred—this guest cancelled (or “cancelled”), replaced by this one, sent to this room Friday, that on Saturday. These things happen at every show. But when all was said and done, there were still more than 40 celebrity guests, each one charging $20+, with many charging separately for autograph, merchandise and photo opportunity. The die-hard horror fan would have to walk into the venue a millionaire first if he wanted to get everyone and still have enough to get him home.
But, strangely, the economy has done very little to dissuade new budding entrepreneurs from starting up their own shows. Some only last a couple of years but are quickly replaced by two more. There’s a lot of spite in the convention business, a lot of people who want to “take down” this show or that for whatever reasons, real or imagined. Spite shows feel like spite shows, too. The indifference towards the attendees is the tip-off that they’re not the honored ones they really should be. Sometimes, the attitude of staff towards the paying customers is some sort of hierarchical class warfare. ‘You, money-paying ticket holder, are here to serve us. You should feel lucky we even let you in, you member of the unwashed masses’, sometimes seems to be the implication. And while in many cases the “unwashed” appellation is a valid one, it still ain’t nice to look at the guy who forked over his dough to you like he should also be paying you on the vig.
I do not know if Days of the Dead was a spite show. I know that Amy was brought in as a guest by one of the staff. We met only one of the partners putting on the show and he was pleasant and fried and seemed if not thrilled to see us then at least not bothered by it. We were supposed to be set up next to Linnea; since she usually travels solo we offered to lend a hand. But something happened with her flight and she got moved around. Whatever. These things happen. Because I wasn’t one of the guests, the advertised guests, the show-runners didn’t have any allegiance to me, and that was perfectly fine and understandable. It gave me the opportunity to sit back and, between the hallucinations and fever dreams, watch and observe.
Most of the discomfort and confusion could not be laid at the feet of the partners, neither the one we met nor the others we didn’t. When Amy asked the hotel for a fan or twelve for the pre-convene room, she was summarily told that they were broken. And yet, all the bartenders in the halls seemed to be sitting comfortably beside one, while the rest of us treaded the water of our own sweat and tears. The partners and staff were running around, doing their jobs. But it turned out that the communication between those in charge was lacking. People were told, or so I was told, that checking for wristbands was the “number one priority”. And maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the staff member who gave me that line was just pleading helplessness.
Ultimately, it fell to the guests to keep each other alive. Having done a goodly number of shows with Reggie and Gigi Bannister, we knew what they needed and they took care of us in return. Camille Keaton (“What Have You Done to Solange?”) and Art Ettinger (“Ultra-Violent Magazine”) and many other Wastelanders looked out for their own and others. If one of us noticed another coughing dust, we’d seek out a staff member and beg for hydration. Gradually, the staff joined our ranks and we all watched each-others’ sweat-stained backs.The highlights of the show for us, at least, had little to do with the show. After the rooms closed, we had the opportunity to hang out with our old con friends and make new ones. Wonderful dinners and drinks were shared with the Bannisters, John Carl Buechler (“Ghoulies”), Carrie, Mike, Art, Camille and other Wastelanders. Our Razor Days producer, Bob Kuiper, joined us for the day on Saturday and got to share some time with Linnea and Ashley. It was cool and dark in the restaurant/bar. The service was sharp and not the least standoffish.
While the attendees delighted to a costume contest, movie screenings and other activities, the rest of us, from the genuinely-famous to the marginally-so, relaxed, re-evolved and shared stories as co-workers and friends. We talked about the great shows and the worst ones. But no matter how low we’d been treated in the past, the question of “why do we do this?” never came up. Because it’s fun. Because every now and then you get a fan who likes you, likes what you do, whether or not you’ve ever been on the big screen or in the slick magazines. Because we all suffer from a strange malady that helps us enjoy ourselves no matter what we’re doing—creating art, watching it, purchasing it or discussing it with strangers. The feeling that you’re completely daffy never goes away and that’s part of the charm of the industry.