Hollywood is our bastardized version of Mount Olympus; like it or not, entertainers have become the demigods of our time. Once a film has gone to video or a TV series ends its run, the immortalization is left to fans who are willing to keep it alive through moments of shared adulation, for whom money is no object in exchange for a chance to meet their favorite stars. And then there are others, those who make it all possible -- people such as Fernando Martinez of Hialeah and Joe Motes of Pembroke Pines.
Motes and Martinez, two middle-age, long-time Star Trek fans, run Vulkon, a company based out of Motes's home that hosts a dozen or so weekend conventions each year in hotels in a half-dozen cities east of the Mississippi, including Cleveland, Nashville, Orlando, and Tampa. These conventions, or "cons," cater to fans of sci-fi television shows and movies. According to the company Website, www.vulkon.com, Vulkon cons include costume contests, dance parties, autograph sessions, and panel discussions with the celebrities, plus children's events. On average, says Motes, a typical convention will draw 800 to 1000 attendants.
Demand for fan conventions began in the early Seventies, he explains, when Star Trek devotees began to organize their own events. It didn't take long for the trend to spread, and hotels filled with enthusiasts who gathered religiously for weekends of kinship, alcohol, and, often enough, surging libidos. Into the scene stepped people like Motes who began handing out invitations of their own. He established Vulkon in 1977 and produced the company's first convention, also on a Star Trek theme, in Miami.
"Conventions originally grew as an underground, fan-run movement until there were a thousand of them a year," says co-promoter Martinez, who joined forces with Motes a decade later. "When I first started in fandom fifteen years ago, Star Trek was in its heyday. Star Trek: Next Generation had just aired, and four movies came out. All this created a new audience and pulled in the existing audience of classic Star Trek."
But by the early 1990s, and after a seven-year run, Star Trek: The Next Generation had taken its final voyage. When two new shows from the Trek franchise emerged, loyalty among viewers was splintered. "Now we had Voyager and Deep Space Nine," Martinez says. "And for whatever reason, those shows didn't garner the popularity of the original Trek and Next Generation. " Star Trek fandom, he says, is now a house divided into four factions: the original Star Trek, Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine.
"Conventions had to change and adapt in order to please people and still attract crowds -- so we'd have one guest from every show," says Martinez. But even that wasn't enough to please the crowds. "The Star Trek conventions started dying and never recovered," he adds. "Eighty percent of them went out of business."
Vulkon was also in trouble -- $25,000 in the red, in fact, by the late Nineties -- which was particularly difficult for both men, who are also the primary investors in the business.
"If we make it, we share it," says Motes. "If we lose it, we share that, too." Neither man considers Vulkon his primary source of income -- Motes has worked full time as a computer programmer with Norwegian Cruise Line for the past fourteen years, and Martinez makes his money as a vendor at conventions. Motes estimates that he and Martinez each spend about 40 hours more a week working on Vulkon.
Aside from Motes and Martinez, Vulkon boasts four other official staff members, all of whom work for free. At conventions the two promoters add about a dozen more volunteers to work the admission tables, check tickets at the ballroom doors, introduce stars during the Q&A sessions, and run the games and activities.
Today Vulkon is one of only a handful of companies that produces ongoing events, even as the market continues to mutate. In the past few years, there've been whispers, maybe rumblings, within the Star Trek community that the show's appeal is not what it once was. Because newer Star Trek franchise shows, like Voyager and Deep Space Nine, aren't bringing in the younger fans -- attendance consists mostly of old devotees and con regulars who've come to think of one another as a kind of family -- the Vulkon promoters have had to rethink their strategy.
"When Star Trek was dying out," says Motes, "my partner said, 'Let's shoot for Buffy.'" Thus Vulkon began inviting Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters to its conventions in 1999 and hosted its first all-Buffy convention last April in Cleveland. Though Buffy ended its own seven-year run last spring, the show is considered by many to be the next great cult TV franchise after Star Trek. While it lacks a visionary outlook, typified by Mr. Spock's "I.D.I.C." ("Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations"), it practices the same progressive ideals in its writing. Begun when the characters were in high school and following them to college, the show has included storylines to which many marginalized kids can relate. It also employs a strong female lead, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, as the show's number-one ass-kicker.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon has said he created the slayer as an emblem of female empowerment, although Martinez suggests that the show's draw is its "soap-opera effect." "It's like 90210 with vampires," he says.
At any rate, at Vulkon's most recent Tampa-based Buffy convention, young women appear to constitute a staggering 95 percent of the attendees. Indeed, the Westshore Hilton, where the convention is being held, looks like one of those all-women's residential hotels of yore. Outside, women of high school and college age nod and chat through bubbles of cigarette smoke. In the main lobby, girls in sneakers and "Spike" T-shirts (for the sexy British vampire who spent three years in love with Buffy, his supposed nemesis) sit with their mothers, who have also donned Spike T-shirts for the occasion. At the front desk, two fortyish women in conservative floral dresses peruse Vulkon's convention schedule.
A bear of a man with a circle beard, the plump cheeks of an adolescent, and the torso of a defensive lineman, Martinez is one of the few males in sight. The 42-year-old, divorced father of a teenage boy notes that many of these women are no doubt hoping to see headliner James Marsters, who plays Spike, the often bare-chested and brooding vampire who became the only one to cross over to Buffy's spinoff, Angel, as a primary character.
Rumor has it that on Friday night, a group of impetuous females concluded that the actor was in one of the hotel's ballrooms and removed the door from its hinges.
Because of such adoration, Marsters has been put up at a different hotel. On Saturday afternoon he arrives at the Hilton -- his hair dyed blond, as it is in the show, his cheekbones dramatic -- for his 3:30 p.m. autograph session. Fans fill the ballroom to capacity while waiting to join a queue that moves row by row, hour by hour, into an adjoining room where a police officer and security guard are patient and protective. Marsters likes to take his time with his fans. Martinez and Motes are in charge of threading this tangle of people into an orderly line that ends, for many, in something of a dream -- tears well in their eyes, their hands tremble -- as they meet the mortal behind the fangs.
Soon Marsters will tear himself away, after having stayed more than an hour after his scheduled appearance was to end. When the sky is dark, he heads back to his own hotel to change for the convention banquet, which sold out almost immediately online. In the main ballroom, where the buffet-style dinner will take place, the heads that already fringe the white tablecloths are almost all female.
By around 11:00 p.m., a group of women in their twenties and thirties drink vodka and tonics and smoke by the pool. Not interested in meeting the star, these women nonetheless are Vulkon regulars who first began attending conventions because of their interest in Star Trek. Now, they explain, they attend any Vulkon event just to catch up with one another, drink, talk dirty, and eat.
One of the women in the group is Miami native and former 2002 "Miss Vulkon," Teri Leigh. She has been greeting everyone she meets this weekend with a printout of a woman's nude and perfect C-cup bust. This picture was posted on her Website, alongside requests for visitors to donate (through PayPal) to her "Boobie Fund," which is now closed. The money has come in, and she is scheduled to get her breast implants in only a few weeks.
The poolside conversation shifts from sex to food, from men to women, and then to a recap of the day's events. "Karaoke was full tonight," says one of the women, to the amazement of the others. She's referring to the karaoke event Vulkon included in its Saturday itinerary. "Karaoke is never full," she explains. Buffy fans are more schedule-adherent than those who come for Star Trek, she adds; the latter attend conventions mostly to be with other fans. That familial atmosphere is far less apparent here, she says, and today's Buffy fans have been crowding the actors a bit more than they do at a Star Trek con. A good example is the scene happening that very moment inside at the bar. Guest star Robin Atkin Downes, who played Machida on Buffy, is holding court at the piano for 60 women, who gather around him and sing along as he tickles out "Tiny Dancer."
"With Star Trek, people are loyal to the shows, not the characters," explains Motes a short while later. "With Buffy, it's the other way around."
A divorced, 55-year-old father of one, Motes favors polo shirts and dark slacks. He is a former Marine and Vietnam veteran with an impenetrable face and droopy dog eyes, who spends most of his convention time walking the site, looking preoccupied, and waylaying problems. His twelve-year-old daughter even has her own small table at this convention. A pretty girl with bangs that fall across her glasses, she's selling a set of collector mugs, as well as copies of Gene Roddenberry's original contract with Paramount. When she's not selling, she walks quickly and with a purpose through the hallway, just as her father does, recognizing and greeting the other children who come regularly to conventions.
In addition to the Spike followers and the Vulkon regulars, a third contingent of fans is in attendance here. When one of Buffy's primary characters, Willow, came out as a lesbian during season four, the show earned itself a healthy following of gay and gay-friendly fans. And some people are here to see Iyari Limon, the actress who plays Kennedy, Willow's girlfriend in the show's final season. Throughout the weekend, Limon enjoys a steady stream of fans at her signing table. But she says she is now careful about what she autographs because the business of collecting has its scoundrels. Early this summer, a fan in Chicago asked her to sign a pair of thong underwear, which she did, only to discover that the lingerie was selling on eBay for $200 with a description that read: "It was her idea to pose for us with this great collectible and for all the die-hard Buffy fans this is as close and personal as it gets!" (Limon voiced her displeasure with the sale, and the fan removed the underwear from the site.)
Limon's autograph trouble underscores one of the most significant developments in convention culture. It used to be, in the early days of Star Trek conventions, that fans bought their merchandise from other fans; the souvenirs -- whether patches, sweaters, T-shirts, or full costumes -- were all handcrafted. But licensing constraints put a quick end to that. As owner of the rights to all Star Trek goods, Paramount has grown increasingly resistant to the sale of Star Trek memorabilia by fans and vendors who do not pay fees to Viacom Consumer Products, Paramount's licensing company. At a Vulkon convention in Cleveland in April 2002, Paramount sent an attorney, along with local police officers, to the site to seize any and all materials being sold by vendors who had not paid the requisite fees.
These days the most "authentic" convention souvenir has become a glossy photo signed by one of the stars. Collectors bring three-ring binders full of signed photos. Along with these, they often store a program from the convention or some other dated artifact meant to ensure the authenticity of the item because dishonest dealers sell glossy photos bearing fraudulent signatures.
In fandom autographs have become a currency all their own. Martinez, in fact, supports himself by working as a vendor at his conventions, selling signed photos from a multitude of cult-favorite films and television shows, including Star Trek, Buffy, Xena: Warrior Princess, X-Files, and Stargate SG-1. With the exception of the headlining guests, the actors at these conventions also make money from the photos they sign, and a stack of these typically goes to Vulkon as part of the business agreement.
In general, the Vulkon promoters acknowledge, Buffy fans spend more money to meet and obtain signatures from their favorite stars. Because of this, Vulkon began offering $40 personal photo opportunities with the headliners at Buffy conventions. Star Trek fans wouldn't pay the money for similar photo opportunities, says Martinez. "The problem we often find with Buffy cons is the availability of different stars," he adds. "How many Buffy cons there'll be and how long the interest lasts will depend on how much the stars are available." Gellar doesn't attend the conventions, and David Boreanaz, the actor who plays Angel, wants more than Vulkon will pay.
For now, Angel is assurance enough that a market will remain for all things Buffy. This is good news for Motes and Martinez, who are planning a seven-day Buffy cruise for June 11, 2005, with Holland America Cruise Line's Zuiderdam. So far, they say, 150 people have registered to sail with the stars around the eastern Caribbean.
Buffy conventions are the showroom for the new fandom -- a celebrity-driven event where autographs are won with patience. Times have changed since the era of Star Trek primacy, and so have Motes and Martinez. Both men identify themselves as fans who happened to get into the business of convention promoting. On the job, they are all business: a wall between celebrities and their adoring public. On the last day of this convention, Marsters returns to a secured convention room for another day of signing. When one young woman reaches him, the two hug. She refuses to let go, clinging to the actor as if he were the last rooted tree in a tornado, even as others try to pry her away. It's an embarrassing moment for everyone, especially since the young woman is a member of the Vulkon volunteer staff.
The Prime Directive
Upon entering the same Westshore Hilton on the first night of Vulkon's Star Trek convention, it is immediately apparent that this weekend will be much different from the Buffy convention. Attendees have already hijacked the lobby. A half-dozen love seats and armchairs encircle coffee tables where people lounge, their stockinged feet on tables and shoes dropped to the floor alongside cups and cozies and Styrofoam take-out containers. Others eat homemade brownies out of Tupperware, play cards, and massage each other's shoulders. A few are napping. A stocky redhead in her mid-twenties saunters by with a cat-o'-nine-tails, followed by a man in shorts and sandals. He drinks from a golden goblet.
When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek with a vision of the future that included all of humanity and alien worlds, it is likely he knew his rendering of outer space would become a metaphor. On the USS Enterprise, a community of outsiders became insiders. As such the ship's outpost community provides an invisible blueprint or stage blocking that the promoters, vendors, guests, and fans roll out along the floor of this hotel. A whole social dynamic is erected as soon as fans enter; they've been perfecting their roles for the past three decades, after all, and they waste no time getting started.
Inge Heyer is attending this Vulkon's Star Trek convention as both a fan and presenter. A senior data analyst at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Heyer analyzes data retrieved by the Hubble telescope. She is also one of the organizers of Shore Leave, a fan-run convention held in that city every year. On a projection screen in the dimmed main ballroom, clusters of stars and space flash on and off as she narrates a slide show with German-accented breviloquence: "Now the Orion nebula has appeared in both Star Trek and Star Trek V...."
After her presentation, Heyer sets up her own shop at a card table in the hallway, arranging stacks of photos taken by Hubble: The Cone Nebula. The Whirlpool Galaxy. She grew up in occupied Berlin, she says during a quiet moment. Her parents divorced when she was in grade school, and she went to live with her father, a chemist, who remarried. "Our household was rather restrictive. School, come home, do homework -- that was it. I didn't see the center of my own city until I was well into my teenage years."
Heyer's father bought the family's first television when Inge was about nine. With the television came Star Trek, and with Star Trek came realizations. "One was the idea of future -- that there is not just tomorrow and next month and next Christmas, but there are years down the road. And two, whatever that future is for you depends on you. On this starship, you saw all these people, and they were all very well trained. Clearly, they had all gone to school for a very long time. So going to school and learning a lot is very valuable because if you do and amass knowledge, you can do cool things with it.
"The other thing that it taught me," she continues, "the whole thing of multiple cultures, multiple races." To the young German, Star Trek was something of a window to the rest of humanity: "Obviously, in my head, I knew, 'Okay, there are not just white people, but there are black people and there are Asian people.' I knew that because we learned that in school. But I had never seen a black person or an Asian person in my life. Nichelle Nichols as [Lieutenant] Uhura was the first black person as a person I ever saw. The same for George Takei as the first Asian person I ever saw." If it weren't for Star Trek, she says, "I'd probably still be in Germany working some boring job."
Saturday's itinerary highlights the actors' presentations. Fans will fill the ballroom while stars take the stage to field questions and flash bulbs. Lee Stringer, Corin Nemec, Teryl Rothery, and the much aggrandized Michael Dorn (the Klingon Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation) are the guests this weekend. Afterward, in discussion rooms, they will autograph publicity stills. As was the case at the Buffy con, their signatures come at varying costs.
Vulkon provides fan-participation activities in the smaller rooms of the convention wing: "Panel Discussion: Ethics of Prime Directive." "Starfleet Academy Bowl Quiz Show with Roger." "SeaTrek Presentation." "Kids' Space Crafts with 'Aunt Heather.'"
"11:00 a.m. Klingon Room Opens."
T'pau to the people
"tIn'HIch' nuj" (pronounced tin hik nu j) stands six feet tall, a vinyl-and-latex warrior in the hotel hallway between the main lobby and convention center. Between his eyes, a prosthetic ridge protrudes with all the authority of a mountain on a relief map. For allegiance to the Klingon Empire, he wears a pin on his collar. For battle with his enemies, he dons a body armor of black and gray vinyl. For his allies, he extends his hand in a gesture that ends with an embrace of the elbow.
"Qapla'! I am tIn'HIch' nuj!"
"Qapla'" (pronounced kap la) means "success," and on this morning, the Klingons have had it. They've constructed something of a den in a small discussion room near the gift shop -- blacked out the lights and lined the walls with homemade Klingon insignia banners. Atop a folding card table are reams of fake fur, signifying a Klingon's primal hunting and battle prowess; atop the fur, a skull and "torches" illuminated with paper flames.
In this "altar" room, the Klingons begin a simulation of the Rites of Ascension -- the Klingon equivalent of a bar mitzvah. None of the members is actually undergoing the rites; it is supposed to be educational to the growing crowd of "flatheads" (Klingon slang for "humans"). Then the Klingons move into the hallway for an actual "promotion" ceremony. Across the country, Klingons segregate themselves into "ships," and most participate in some form of volunteer work and often raise money for charities, including Doctors without Borders, the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, and the Shriners Hospitals for Children. A few ships have undergone group CPR and emergency relief training. To be promoted here is a reflection of the Klingon' s participation in this context, as well as a measure of the Klingon's contribution during role-play battles with other ships. Today, tIn 'HIch' nuj is being promoted to captain of his ship near the pay phones and an ATM, and to a chorus of Klingon "ooohs" and "ahhhs."
Merchandising vendors are allotted two rooms near the hotel's entrance, far from the convention center. In these rooms, every free inch of space is covered with dishes, playing cards, T-shirts, photos, comic books, mugs, action figures, pins, videos, and stickers. In yet another room, models of spaceships, as well as some official props from different Star Trek shows, are on display.
The bar is the convention's social hub. Flat-headed humans and ridged-out Klingons occupy almost all the seating room and much of the standing room. A half-empty bottle of Blue Curacao -- one of the main ingredients of "Romulan Ale" -- remains off the shelf. The bar looks out onto the hotel's lobby, where con attendees and noncon hotel guests alike dote on three blond and sinewy young women dressed in gold sarongs and halter tops. With the exception of their scalps, every inch of their generously exposed skin is covered in kelly-green paint. They are Orion slave girls; scheming, seductive characters on the original Star Trek, these girls often boasted that no human male could resist them.
By around 6:00 p.m., the Klingons congregate outside the hotel for a shuttle to the nearby mall and the Hawaiian-themed Kahunaville restaurant. There, word of the Klingons' presence spreads quickly. Staffers take unnecessary detours to edge nearer their tables. Parents bring children for pictures, and waiting parties drift in with babies in car seats as the Klingons offer loud toasts and cheers for the waitstaff's service.
Many in this dinner party have known each other for years; they've swapped news of marriages and baby pictures over meals like these. "Conventions are kind of a family reunion," says a female Klingon named "LaQrue" (a.k.a. Susan Tery of the Daytona-based ship, the IKV Punisher), "except with family you like."
Seated across from LaQrue is one of the Orion slave girls, the aforementioned Miami native, Teri Leigh.
At the end of the table, Klingon couple Kim and Dianna Krummel are discussing the script for the evening's role-play, which involves a fight for her husband with a woman from a different Klingon "house" clan. The foe is Denise Lewis, who sits beside them. The script's climax: Lewis will beat Dianna senseless, then gouge out her eye. Dianna will acquiesce and welcome the mistress, now worthy by Klingon standards, into the couple's home. As a little preview, the trio lapse into character and begin quarreling at the table. To bemused diners nearby, the fight appears almost real. Apparently this happens regularly. Another Klingon at the table was almost arrested during role-play at a hotel in Daytona because a plainclothes officer mistook Klingon aggression for real violence.
The group stresses that the free-spirited, lusty, and proud Klingons are a misunderstood lot. "[Members of the media] try to focus on what the general populace will find humorous -- to give them something to laugh at," says Klingon tlq'batlh sutal (a.k.a. Michael Witty, Tampa's IKV Honor's Blade), a tall young man with full eyebrows, coarse stubble, and silver teeth. His fellow Klingons shudder in accord when he disdainfully mentions the documentary Trekkies; they nod when he says, "Nobody ever talks about the charity stuff we do."
Hours later, a Klingon room party is under way on the sixth floor. It's crowded. Apparently it was even more crowded earlier in the evening, but hotel security intervened. The hosts have strung Christmas lights, pushed the mattresses and box springs flat against the walls, and erected a bar in the corner. A young man named Saber mixes drinks with bare, muscular arms. Romulan Ale and Blood Wine are the two most popular Klingon drinks. There is no set requisite for mixing either, save that Blood Wine should turn out red and Romulan Ale be blue, and either should get you drunk.
Back in the main lobby, a couple named Denise and Norm Lidell from Orlando are lounging with their hometown friend Mark Sullivan. Unlike the third-generation fans of shows like Deep Space Nine and Voyager, they are older, first-generation Trek fans and neighborly types in socks, sandals, shorts, T-shirts. On the table, a bag of chips and a cooler. Margaritas. More alcohol for anyone who passes by. "Attending conventions becomes expensive," says Denise. Her husband says the couple has been to too many conventions to count. "If everyone shares a little, it goes a long way."
At 2:00 a.m. the woman who appeared the first night with the whip takes another march through the lobby, clad this time in silk pajamas. She's holding a leash connected to the handcuffs on a young man, her fiancé, who is dressed as a pigtailed schoolgirl and follows in her wake. With raised eyebrows, the Lidells make it known that they are far removed from such spectacles.
At the bar on Sunday noon, retired astronaut Richard Gordon of the Gemini XI and Apollo 12 missions fraternizes with con-goers before heading back to the signing room. It is standard for Vulkon to include scientists and astronauts at its Star Trek conventions. Gordon, a fan of the original Star Trek and Next Generation, was excited to meet Michael Dorn, Next Generation's Worf.
"I think what these types of [science-fiction] shows tend to do is expose people to that kind of thrilling idea that these things can be done and achieved," says Gordon. "How and when -- those answers avoid us -- but they can be achieved."
Denise Lewis (the "other woman" from Kim and Dianna's role-play) enters the lounge and greets us with a broad smile. Vulkon, she says, was one of the first companies to give preferred convention seating to physically handicapped fans, adding that the sci-fi community, now well established online, is especially great for people with physical limitations. "For some of these people, who are immobile and unable to leave the house on their own, if it wasn't for fandom, they wouldn't have a life. In the Star Trek world, they're unlimited in their abilities. What's in their head is fleshed out." Denise offers her father-in-law as an example. "The man had a brain tumor and developed gigantism. But he's still brilliant." Lewis says that when her father-in-law participates in Star Trek-related role-play games online, "it lets him be the person he needs to be."
"Fandom enables people to be more of who they are," Lewis continues, "and more of how they'd like to see themselves."
The desire to see oneself as one would like to be is, in many cases, exactly what Motes and Martinez market; the ability to be with one's television heroes and with fellow fans creates a sense of validation for the fans, but it also works for the actors of these cult shows, who do not often lead the field in Emmy nominations. There is a symbiosis of the adored and the adoring at sci-fi conventions that rarely occurs elsewhere -- the walls between fame and obscurity are, for a weekend, blurred, leaving both the fans and actors with a new sense of who they are to one another. It is a service Paramount cannot license.
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So what is this service worth? Motes won't reveal how much Vulkon nets annually. "It varies," he says. "This year we have William Shatner and quite a few other stars. Without giving any numbers, we did pretty well."
Still it would have taken more than greed to keep Vulkon's promoters going when the company was $25,000 in debt. In the past decade, Vulkon's promoters have had to evolve and follow the trends of fandom. So long as there are guests who agree to attend, there is a market, they maintain.
In fact, Motes believes he can create a con for any show, canceled or not, so long as its stars agree to appear. "Everybody has a favorite show of some type," he says. "There's always going to be somebody out there who wants to meet a star."
And so long as he has to pry his own staff from an actor's arms, Motes knows he's right.