This piece is a strange story to find in printer’s ink, it’s about one geek’s journey from being a convention carpet kid to becoming a dealer to being a guest on stage with the greatest.
In the great scope of human events it is a rather small tale. It’s not a blinding battle over a beautiful broad in Troy, it’s not an epic. It’s just a baby step in life, but one that I find particularly enthralling because, you see, it happens to me.
In just a few days I would be attending a comic book, fantasy, film, science fiction and gaming convention in Atlanta, Georgia.
Not really a big deal, I’ve been to hundreds of conventions as a dealer, selling musty blankets of cinematic advertising, and tomes of illustrated heroism. I was born and raised into this gypsy guild of pop culture anthropologists. A vagabond group that traveled the world in search of shards of the past that left whispers of “cool” in their wake.
I lived in film rooms in every state of the union, I was babysat by Johnny Weissmuller, drew chalk abstractions of pachyderms with Harlan Ellison, saw Sinbad cinemas with Ray Bradbury, and flipped through stacks of 27” by 41” illuminated advertisements with Ray Harryhausen. I’ve led an odd life.
In that life I never dreamed of being a ‘Guest’, someone that was on the otherside, that had ‘Fans’, that knew what lay on the flip side of the Green Room Door.
I was scared to death.
The day before leaping the distance between here and there, I found out that Forrest Ackerman was not on the panel... In his absence Harlan Ellison was joining the fray.
It coursed through me, occupying my every thought, my every inkling of bravery soiled the clothes I wore. Harlan is known to dislike the internet, young successful types and seems to destroy people with wills. Witness his recent visits with Tom Snyder and Politically Incorrect. He left those shows with mental scars and wilted prides. He would... destroy me.
I am not the most literate of beings, and now I had two of the most tactful tellers of tales and a god named Harryhausen. What was I... a dealer... a rugrat... a larva... going to do on stage besides be crushed. I braced myself.
I announced the trip on my website and instantly began hearing nightmare after nightmare. Stories of physical battles wherein Ellison broke collarbones and egos. The man has no room for hooligans like me. He slaps them to the side. I was terrified.
Everyday I found myself with more and more information about Harlan, some good some bad, it seemed it would be a test of the mettle of which I’m made. What would happen?
I meet Harlan in an elevator on the way down to the awards banquet Friday Night. I introduce myself as being on two panels with Mr Ellison and he looks at me and says, “YOU’RE on two panels with ME?!?,” while looking me over in disgust/curiousity.
I follow far behind Ellison, descending the mechanical stairwells into the belly of this stunning hotel. Till I saw him, I believed that perhaps he’d blow it off, perchance he’d not bother, but then that is not the way of Ellison.
There in the crowd was Forrest Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen, two high school friends that changed the lives of men.
Ackerman created, nurtured and held court over fandom from it’s beginning. In fact my father would not be the man he is without the help of Famous Monsters Of Filmland #2. A flare, that led to other fans. That spoke of others with a love of that which is yet to come and of that which lies in the darkened alleys, down cobblestone streets with a dash of fog hiding their gruesome figures.
Harryhausen is a god to folks like me. He’s the man that singlehandedly frame by crafted frame brought to life that magic of mythology. He expanded that which we dreamed and delivered it as a wakened visions of fancy.
The two were giddy, in the way children are, the way mischevious boys at a Halloween ball with rubber rats and pint of rum.
When we were all seated I was one row of tables behind them. I watched the two long time friends, then there was a cry in the room of, “Look it’s Bradbury!” Ackerman and Harryhausen’s heads spun around as a smile split their heads in two. Tears welled up, and sure enough Bradbury was in their gaze. Soon there was much embracing, as a trio of best friends all gathered together.
If you have seen FRANK AND OLLIE, the documentary about the fantastic duo of animators from Disney that have spent their lives in the greatest of friendships, you’d know exactly how this scene was. Three Legends, each an equal of accomplishment in their chosen field. Each alive, boiling over with enthusiasm. It was beyond touching.
Bradbury was sitting with Harlan Ellison and Julius Schwartz. Harlan seemed to be everywhere, hugging people, talking to people, running there and over there. Anthony Daniels was walking from table to table like a head waiter asking if anybody needed anything. Tom Savini was seated with a buncha fans and Peter David was preparing to talk.
It was a very cool gathering.
The night was very much dominated by Harlan Ellison, the strongest personality of the evening. The one that left the impression. I was quite honestly left a bit flustered by his energy and his passion. I had doubts about how I would do.
As Father Geek and I traveled to my room, I discovered a sputtering stutter I had developed, rousing tides of doubt. This would not be a... how to put it.. a piece of cake. This would require thought, something I am often accused of doing without.
So I do some reading that night, some research to prepare my introductions. I begin fretting over which credits to mention in their introductions. What would be the smartest, with giants with their credentials, what could I do differently? I’m sure they had each been introduced at innumerable functions, and literally every mix of credits and accolades has been piled on. What ta do?
Then it hits me, where I had met each of them before. That’s the unexpected. The place each of them first came into my life, and how they had similarly touched thousands and millions in such a way without knowing it.
I’m still nervous as hell, stomach twisting and turning. It’s not everyday you meet those that helped to make who you are. Much less share a stage for an hour. This would be fun... I hoped.
I put earplugs in and begin to go to sleep. I knew Father Geek, Quint and Tom Joad would all be returning from the GWAR concert talking and yapping away. I needed sleep, I needed to be fresh. My wits needed to be intact.
I had been asleep for a scant 40 minutes or so when the three arrived. Loud and laughing were they. Filled with cheer and merriment. Stories of naked women, blood and guts... yes, fun was had by the three. I thought of sitting up, of listening, but if they knew I were awake, the stories would continue, the jovial jousting would never let up till the asscrack of dawn in this 21st floor room. So I feigned sleep, and soon the voices and the lights died... and rest had come.
The next morning I was awakened by a shaking of my father. He had heard the post-dawn call of the front desk, the bugle-like belch of Ma Bell tolling for the sleep to awaken. This was the morning I had to be perfect.
I showered, brushed the teeth and dressed accordingly. The whole time going through the motions, actually not paying attention to my physical actions, rather I was concerned with my opening remarks. I had advice from hundreds of emails, hours of reading. And I was going with my gut. I hoped this would go... well. That’s not true, that’s a lie. In no way did I hope this would go... well. I wanted this to go perfectly. I wanted to provide a great panel for the audience. And most of all I didn’t want to look the part of the fool.
I had already decided to be a moderator, my title for the panel, which meant I should moderate the conversation between these three men. The people that came to the MASTERS OF FANTASY panel did not want to hear Harry Knowles, maggot, they wanted to hear Ray Bradbury-Harlan Ellison-Ray Harryhausen, Gods. So I would stay out of the fray as much as possible.
I had a panel a few hours later where I would become a panelist, that’s where I would come out of a cocoon. That’s where I would unfurl my wings. Here... here I’d be the gnat staring at three suns hoping not to be struck blind.
I walked down to the room, it was gigantic. A huge hall. I was so doomed. A quiver formed from my bottom lip. My mouth went dry. Come on Harry pull it together. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, till I was behind a black curtain, in the preparation area. Behind the scenes, hidden from the eyes of man.
It wasn’t long now. I held my ‘intros’ a back up you see, a few bits of words assembled in a strained sense of order. Mind you, they were not poignant, poetic or great. They were just the words of a bug trying to describe real men.
That’s when Bradbury and Harryhausen arrived backstage. This is all too real. There they are. Sure I’ve met them before, but never before have I talked to these two before an audience, that raises the stakes.
The technical people came out and began prepping the stage and the microphones. This was actually going to happen.
Where was Ellison?
Bradbury begins to talk about heading on up on stage and taking our seats, I head up the stairs. As I turn around to see if either of them needed or wanted help, I beheld a small moment.
A small moment in that it was a twenty second exercise of simplicity. What I saw was a ritual act of friendship. And my god did it warm me. This was a moment for me.
The two were engaged in one of those YOU FIRST bits.
“Age before Beauty”
“Grace before Girth”
“Old friend you never could beat me up a flight of stairs”
Like I said it was a small moment, like the way a pair of friends play silly games like “Slug Bug” or “I Spy”, but here were these two engaged in similar. My nerves died, these were normal men of extraordinary gifts, but they were still people like you and me, with the same bits of character.
As we approached the table, Ellison suddenly appeared. He walks right past me to greet Harryhausen and Bradbury. Yes, this was the way I imagined it.
From left to right we were seated as thus: Harry Knowles, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Ray Harryhausen. As soon as the crowd saw those three... deafening applause. As soon as the volume dialed down, I spoke the words. “Welcome to the Masters of Fantasy Panel, I’m Harry Knowles,” cricket chirping sound, “and on my right is Ray Bradbury,” a roar followed by standing thunderous applause, “on his right Harlan Ellison,” the applause continues, “and on the end is Ray Harryhausen.” Wow I’m doing a great job, I’ve spoken 29 words and received a gigantic standing ovation that was threatening to bring the house down. Just kidding.
The thought of skipping my introductions and just getting to the topics occurred to me, but I thought quickly that if I didn’t do those intros... well I wouldn’t be speaking much at all. I wasn’t setting this up to be a conversation with me and these three. It was to be a conversation between the three with an occassional bone thrown in by me.
So I began the intros. I started with the Bradbury/1974 San Diego advance screening of Golden Voyage of Sinbad. He was surprised, as that kid was three, quite a bit shorter and about 260 lbs lighter. Then I moved on to Ellison and the 1975 AggieCon where we drew Elephants and he bought golden age funny animal comics from my father. Harlan was quite taken with this. Looking at me, then smiling and nodding away. Then I did the Harryhausen bit from 1992 when he walked into my booth in Dallas, Texas and talked with me about George Pal’s abandoned Time Machine 2 project. He remembered it instantly.
Each man was surprised by this intro process. I was on easy street now, I felt. They liked this. So I began by asking them about what was wrong with fantasy films of the last 15 years or so.
The question was knocked around for about 15 minutes, as answers about small minded executives, arrogant directors with no respect for the script, an over-focusing on technology instead of mythology. The lack of heart... Ellison brought up Conrad Veidt in THIEF OF BAGDAD, a fantastic Alexander Korda production that is quite simply a work of brilliance. He discussed the scene in which Conrad Veidt has the woman of his dreams in his power, he’s just moments away from making his triumph perfect. It is in his power to make her love him, he can do it. But right as he’s about to seize victory he can’t do it. He can’t MAKE her love him, for that would not be true victory. That brief moment of nobility in the villian is all it takes to create a classic character, and today moments such as that are gone. Not because they cost too much, not because they are impossible to think of, but because many producers and execs don’t think such moments are worthy of their screen time. There are things to explode.
Bradbury feels that big blockbuster films are co-sponsored by Petroleum companies due to the sheer volume of gasoline explosions that occur.
Harryhausen brings up the structure of Kong, and how it took the time to develop the characters, both human and inhuman. How it reached in and grabbed it’s audience. He talked of great scores, and how important they are.
I wish I had a full recording of it all, alas I do not.
Next I asked about the audience, and rather a loss of innocence made genres such as fantasy to be made ineffective due to the suspension of disbelief needed to make the films work.
Once again long answers were given. Bradbury launched into a tale about when he and Harryhausen were right out of High School, films... classic genre films were few and far between. After one played it would be perhaps 5 years till you saw it again. How when they were poor they would save their nickels for films, and eat at a restaurant that would feed them for free, all for their love of film. How he, Harryhausen and Ackerman would cross town together to see a doublebill of SHE and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. And how special moments like that were. Today, sure you can rent the films on ‘video’ but it’s not the same, it holds far less importance, there is no hushed anticipation. My sentences do his words no justice.
Harlan came next, but was flustered in memory. He was struggling to remember what the double bill Bradbury saw was.. Then it suddenly became clear, it was SHE and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEI. Bradbury was shocked that Harlan knew because it was before he was born, and Ellison explained the fact he saw them reissued together in the fifties. This was actually something I knew as well, no I had never seen them double-featured, but I did have the poster at home that had them double-billed. But I stayed out of it. Let these guys shine.
When I mentioned Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings project Harlan said, “Weeeellllllll, that’s something the world is reeeeaaaallllllyyyyy crying for...” He then went on to say that the world didn’t need a movie about those “furry footed fuckers in search of that goddamned ring.” I almost lost it in laughing. I had heard he... disliked THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but almost died laughing with his comments.
Around this time I was half way through the panel, that’s when I opened it to the audience for questioning. Most of the questions dealt with the problem of people reading in today’s society. Something that Bradbury feels strongly about.
He feels that we (society) is raising a generation of overly dependent (on computers) morons that don’t read, that don’t imagine, that are automatons. He talked about firing of teachers, and testing them. About challenging children, especially boys (who often stray from the path) to think. He talked about giving them science fiction, fantasy, anything to keep them reading. To get them on the path.
Ellison answered with a problem with too many people reading harlequin romances, Xena books, Star Trek books, X-Files and Star Wars books. Shit and garbage he called them. It would be better to stare at commercial television day in and day out. He said perhaps it would be a good thing if they (the non-readers) started with spoken-word novels, but overall he felt that if one were not brought up reading, that you would never read at all.
Then a lady complained that the books he mentioned were cheap reading and how all the ‘great’ books were hardcover at twenty-five bucks a pop.
Harlan began shaking. He grabbed the mike and began saying, “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!”
He explained the way of finding books at used stores, she then complained that she didn’t know what to find there, he then yelled at her about having to educate her in front of all these people. He then said, “Start with Ulysses and work your way down, then come back and we’ll talk.” She sat stunned. The wrath of Harlan was unleashed.
There were other questions, but over the course of the panel all were entertained and informed. It was a fantastic panel. Hopefully if someone recorded it I could get a tape or a written version to put up for everyone. IT was great.
Afterwards all three panelists were quite happy with the panel, saying, “That was a great panel.” That’s all I wanted to hear them say. I was sated.
Sometime later this week, I’ll be posting more, including what happened in the John Carpenter panel, the critic panel with me and Harlan and Brinke Stevens, et al. Those two were absolutely fantastic. But now I must sleep. I have to go to Los Angeles tomorrow, and see the premiere of RUSH HOUR. I’ve been watching Jackie Chan films and TRADING PLACES to prepare myself. I’ll be in L.A. for three days, during which I will try to hook up with some spies to get more info on what’s going on inside our favorite flicks. After this trip, things should calm down for a month or two... hopefully. It’ll be nice to just relax and work here at home. It’s so much more peaceful.