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"Back to Space-Con" goes where no one has gone before

"Back to Space-Con" goes where no one has gone before

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Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" is often admired for its appeal to the fans. Who can blame them?

Looking back to the times when the show first aired, there was a great deal of uncertainty in our lives. The USA was fighting an increasingly unpopular conflict in Southeast Asia. Racial tensions were unsettled at the least. The future did not look all that rosy.

The Star Trek cast. Image courtesy of Garfield Lane Productions

Yet, here was a television show that gave hope for future. A future where the people of Earth lived together in peace and harmony, without want. And that hope appealed to people of all generations. In those days before the Internet, sharing this common interest was not as easy as it is in today's world of social media. Perhaps you had some friends who enjoyed the show? From time to time, you would share that by watching an episode in reruns on a local television station. Maybe a local fan club would offer a place to share your interest, possibly at school. But that was about as far as it went.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, that changed in 1975. One fan group organized themselves and held what their first Star Trek event. They called it "The Red Hour Festival", taking the name from an event in an episode of the show. What they started that day is now recognized as the basis for Star Trek fan events that have followed over the years.

This was an event produced by fans for fans. As Chuck Weiss, one of the folks behind the event described it; "This was a time when you could rent a high school for a day without having to worry about liability insurance." San Francisco's Lincoln High School was the perfect place for such an event. A large theater and good-sized cafeteria nearby just right for tables full of Star Trek items to be sold by vendors. And only two blocks away from public transit.

In the early 1970's, television in the Bay Area was still an expanding medium. UHF stations took advantage of all of the programming they could find to attract viewers. Everything from old-time movies to big-time wrestling and roller derby could be found on the airwaves. One station, KBHK Channel 44, was showing the original Star Trek episodes in reruns, Monday through Friday in late afternoons, beating some local news broadcasts in ratings.

Another unaffiliated television station was KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland. They found success in another timeslot, Saturday nights. By showing odd science fiction and horror films with an odd host with a fondness for cigars, "Creature Features" found a following with some of the same audiences that Star Trek had in afternoon reruns. Today, these might be termed cult classics.

That cigar-smoking host was Bob Wilkins. If you wanted to know what was going on in sci-fi or horror, you watched "Creature Features" to find out. And in the case of The Red Hour Festival, Bob was the first to get the word out on television. He went a step further and was the emcee for the event. Smart guy that he was, he also took along a camera man shooting 16 millimeter color sound film. Clips from that film later appeared on the show, giving folks who missed out a chance to see what a Star Trek fan event was all about.

(L to R) Actors Bruce Hyde (Lt. Kevin Riley), George Takei (Lt. Sulu) and James Doohan
(Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott) onstage answering fans questions at Space-Con
2 in Oakland, CA in August of 1976.
Image courtesy of Garfield Lane Productions

A series of Star Trek conventions called "Space-Con" followed "The Red Hour Festival" thanks to Terry Terman and his company, Space... The Final Frontier. Bob Wilkins continued his role as emcee at events in Oakland and San Francisco along with his trusty cameraman.

Fans checking out items for sale in the Dealers Room at Space-Con 2 in Oakland, CA.
Image courtesy of Garfield Lane Productions

Fast forward. In retirement, Bob lived in Reno. After he passed away in 2009, that footage and more from other local Star Trek events came to filmmaker Tom Wyrsch. All together, there was about 40 minutes of footage with the cast of Star Trek, fans of the show and more from five events in the Bay Area. Contacting some of the folks who were the force behind these events provided interviews to tell the story of how these events began and grew, eventually attracting over 10,000 people for a weekend.

"Back To Space-Con" is the documentary project that resulted from that film footage and interviews. It tells the story of a time when fans of science fiction and horror films could gather together and share their interests with other like-minded people. One has to remember that for the most part, here in the Bay Area, there were no comic book or specialty stores where you could go. Maybe a local cut-rate movie theater might show a science fiction or horror classic now and then. Until these conventions came along, you just did not have a place to share your interest.

Before Star Wars was a hit, Star Trek was just another television show, out of production. Even Paramount didn't have much interest in it, other than rentals from syndication markets. It made a small amount but nothing to get excited about. So when events like Space-con were held, they didn't get excited about them. But fans? They had always hoped for a Star Trek movie. They knew that the Final Frontier, as Roddenberry called it, had infinite potential waiting to be explored. Once box office returns for the summer of 1977 came in, studios looked for their own sci-fi bonanzas.

Of course, it didn't hurt that events like Space-Con were drawing big crowds. Over 10,000 fans attended the Space-Cons 2, 3, 4 and 6 - in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. And Paramount? Thanks to budget woes at Desilu (who first produced Star Trek), the series was not copyrighted in its first two seasons. It wasn't until the third season when Paramount stepped in that it took place. The result? Fans could have all of the Star Trek events they wanted, without worrying about licensing.

Star Wars? Well, it was copyrighted from the word go. 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm had licensing underway from the start. At Space-Con 4 in LA, they came prepared and told dealers that they could not sell unlicensed Star Wars merchandise.

That didn't stop fans of the film from making their own. They just couldn't sell it to each other. You name it, they had it. Homemade Wookie costumes and more. A Bay Area high school shop class even got into the act as students made their own Stormtrooper armor out of plastic just as the film crews had done.

A homemade Tusken Raider costume worn by a Star Wars Fan at Space-Con 6
in Oakland, CA in 1978.
Image courtesy of Garfield Lane Productions

Events like Space-Con were fun for both guests and fans alike. As Scott Bakula later described his Quantum Leap fans, "It's nice to meet the people who paid for your house." I can attest that it was not at all out of the ordinary to find the cast mingling with crowds. Fans were polite and respectful, getting their photos and autographs. And the cast was happy to see them. Many went on to long friendships with fans, always glad to catch up on the latest news.

Did these conventions help get Paramount to make the first Star Trek film ? Certainly a debatable question. Let us say that it did not hurt. Big attendance only went to prove that the market for a revived Star Trek was out there. And after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, folks such as Michael Eisner at Paramount wanted to get their own piece of the science-fiction market. Even Disney's Black Hole was a direct response to that success, although not as successfully imitated at the box office.

Star Trek would go from a television project (Star Trek: Phase II) to a major motion picture. That spawned a series of film sequels and a television network with four long running series. Fandom? Oh, the Trekkers are still out there. With JJ Abrams re-imagining of the Trek universe and a sequel in production to hit the screens in 2012, "the adventure continues."

"Back to Space-Con" is a wonderful look back at those early days when Star Trek conventions were produced by fans and for fans. And those events certainly inspired other similar conventions for other genre fandoms around the world. If you were among people who took in a Star Trek convention, you will find the documentary a welcome look back.

Image courtesy of Garfield Lane Productions

The film is available on DVD for only $15 from November Fire plus shipping and sales tax, if you're in California.

And if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, Thursday, April 14th, you can enjoy a special screening of the film at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, not far from where it all began at Lincoln High School with "The Red Hour Festival". The program starts at 7 pm and includes the Star Trek blooper reel, Ernie Fosselius classic "Hardware Wars" and a Q&A session with director Tom Wyrsch - all for only $10.

You can check out this trailer for a glimpse of the film:

Be sure to check out Roger Colton's blog, "The Blue Parrot" for more tales of his own "Space-Con" adventures.

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