Road Trip Origins Year 2, Part 1 of 3: Internet Fandom Rendezvous 2000
January 26, 2017 Leave a comment
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. My son rode along from 2003 until 2013 when he ventured off to college. From 2004 to 2011 we recounted our experiences online at length for a close circle of friends. From 2012 to the present we’ve presented our annual travelogues here on this modest website for You, the Viewers at Home, which I’m grateful includes some of those same friends. Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, we told the story of our very first road trip together, an amateur expedition to Wizard World Chicago 1999.
Fast-forward one year later to July 14-16, 2000. While we remained best-of-the-best friends in separate apartments, we had begun pooling resources on select line items and seen our situations improve when she left McDonald’s after a ten-year stint and switched to an adjacent, much better-paying career track — call-center work for a major mail-order club. It was still customer service, but with 100% less grease and 0% chance of having to stand for hours at open drive-thru windows in zero-degree weather. Overall we were in slightly better standings one year after WWC when an idea for a second road trip walked right up, pinched my cheeks, and wouldn’t let go.
As with our inaugural outing, this would be another geek convention in a state beyond our own, with a guest list of well-known media personalities and hotel accommodations required. However, the proposal was far more ambitious in one groundbreaking respect: it would be our first time meeting people we knew only from the internet.
Anne and I officially boarded the internet in spring 1999 and set forth searching for like-minded individuals or communities where we might share thoughts and interests and witticisms and whatnot. One place in particular that sucked me in right away was a Usenet group for free-wheeling fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I first saw the show when the initial wave of Rhino Home Video releases came out the exact same week my first wife moved out back in 1996. When cable TV finally became affordable again in 1998 after a five-year abstention, I reveled in watching episodes as they aired and reran until the Sci-Fi channel pulled the plus in August 1999. The show spoke to me on a number of levels and at just the right time in my life when I need laughs in an off-the-wall, overthought, sometimes extraordinarily obscure vein. When my searches brought me toward a whole gaggle of MSTies (the preferred fan appellation, like “Whovians” or “Trekkers”), it was a heady dopamine rush because I wasn’t used to mingling in crowds of people who got something I got. That’s been a rare sensation for me all life long.
The first few months of internet acclimatization were the hardest. Dumb things were said and done. Ignorance was revealed and often remedied. I may have gotten into one or more heated arguments, one of which involved the appropriateness of bringing kids in strollers to conventions. I learned the hard way what it meant to “killfile” another user. In today’s social media or yesterday’s message boards we call it “Mute” or “Ignore”, but on Usenet — discussion groups off the beaten path that predate the invention of the Website — if someone didn’t want to read anything else you wrote for the rest of your life, they killfiled you, which sounds much more aggressive and Hollywood-ish and deserves its own retro comeback someday.
Thankfully a few charitable individuals saw merit in not killfiling me, made me feel welcome, and turned out to be awesome people. I got more comfy and less stupid, much fun was had, some sleep was lost, and the internet became not just a priority-one hobby, but a doorway to friendship, entertainment, diversity, and interpersonal connectivity. (No, I do not mean “cybering”. Never truly been my thing.)
Mid-2000, a dream came true before I even knew I had it: four cast members from MST3K were announced as guests at a St. Louis show called Gateway Sci-Fi Con 2000. It was the show’s second year, held at the vintage King Henry VIII Hotel. And that’s all I know about the 1999 edition. Two or three dozen members of the newsgroup made plans to attend. Having picked up some elementary survival skills at WWC 1999, we figured why not go for it.
So once again Anne and I hit the road for big geeky fun. It was an uncomplicated, four-hour straight shot down I-70 West from Indianapolis to the Gateway City.
Two caveats before we proceed:
1. We weren’t in the habit of writing full travelogues at the time. All of the following is based on the best memories and reminders available to either of us as of January 2017. If any old friends happen to stumble across this, your corrections, admonitions, additions, and confirmation of vital signs are highly encouraged. I’d offer you snacks in exchange if I could — pie, bacon, free fish links, whatever works.
2. Except for a few present-day pics of artifacts, all photos in this trilogy of entries come from our cheap old 35mm cameras, with film and non-adjustable settings and other not-so-endearing limitations of 20th-century sharing technology as utilized by a pair of happy-go-lucky amateurs.
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The King Henry VIII Hotel was a clutch of unrelated hallways someone tossed into a pile over the course of years and was lucky that any of them just so happened to connect in various non-Euclidean arrangements, possibly including one or more wormholes that inverted and led only to themselves or into the nearest abyss. The shortest path from our room to the lobby was to go outside through a nearby exit and walk around to the front door. It was faster and provoked less gnashing of teeth.
Architecture fans can check out the exterior in a helpful YouTube walkabout taken by some other guest circa spring 2000. The interior glimpses in the video’s final seconds mask the hotel’s shocking disdain for mortal spatial geometry.
We arrived safely but after most of the official con activity was over. We were in time for two events. First up: dinner with newsgroup members in the hotel. Over the course of the next three days, at this dinner at at other moments, I had the sincere pleasure of meeting Kathy, Jean, Alan, Noah and Connie, Jess and Alicia, Sheryl and Gary, Tammy, Ryan, Rob, Paul, Mike, Michael, Laurelyn, Julia, Judith, Joe, Jeanetta, Jay, Erica, David, Bryan, and I’m cursing myself for innumerable others I’ve forgotten over the years but who deserve acknowledgment anyway if those images are ever restored in my head. That list also doesn’t include one major newsgroup subset that I missed altogether. (I found a few of their Gateway photos still online as of this writing, but that’s not the same thing.) Suffice it to say MST3K had/has a lot of fans, many of whom with Midwest access who weren’t afraid to venture forth for public meetings with our li’l cowtown puppet show as their locus.
Many of you Viewers at Home may know of online meetups only through the cautionary tales. We’ve heard a few ourselves from friends and friends-of-friends, but thankfully have no revolting horror stories of our own in all our years of get-togethers. (See also Star Wars Celebrations in 2002 and in staggeringly epic 2005, among other one-offs.) Someone can remind me to whip up a quick “How to Meet Internet Friends Without Getting Murdered by Them” entry later. Suffice it to say the dinner went smoothly if nervously, and not a single flame war erupted at our tables. I learned much from our dinner companions, many of whom had been meeting each other at various cons for years before we rookies butted in and tried to fit in. For now let’s merely note that civility, manners, and remembering you are Of Humankind and Not in Junior High Anymore are critical tools in your stranger-meeting toolbox.
None of which explains why I felt the need to wear a Star Wars tie to the Friday night dinner. I guess that was my way of saying “I gotta be me” since at the time I didn’t have the ever-growing geek T-shirt collection that I own today. But I interpreted “dinner” to mean something near formality, so I ran with it. After the dinner, I ditched the tie, and we all agreed to forgive the one participant who skipped out on their check.
Later after dinner, hundreds of attendees flocked to the nearest movie theater for opening weekend of a little film called X-Men. Despite that one wretched line-reading about toads struck by lightning, at the time it was a quantum leap forward for Marvel Comics cinema, whose theatrical apex up to that point was arguably Blade. Anyone familiar with the MST3K theme song — i.e., the entire slice of fandom packing these St. Louis screens — got a bonus kick out of it after the opening credits when director Bryan Singer thought it would be a smart idea to caption an early scene, “The not-too-distant future…” Ours was the loudest laughter I’ve ever heard in a theater.
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Gateway 2000 guests we did not meet that weekend:
* Celebrated authors Terry Pratchett and Laurell K. Hamilton
* Buck Rogers costar Erin Gray (despite my nagging Anne she ought to do something in her own field of interest — luckily we met her years later at an Indy Trek con)
* UNIT officer John Levene from classic Doctor Who
* Babylon 5 personalities Jason Carter, Peter Woodward, and the Claudia Christian. We had a hard time wrapping our heads around the sight of fans asking her to sign copies of her Playboy pictorial. As of tonight I’m only one-third into B5 season 2 and haven’t seen those other two guys show up yet.
But the important thing is the quartet of MST3K all-stars who graced us with their presence and snark that fateful weekend, all of whom signed my dog-eared copy of the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide.
Anne also has a faint memory of either Mike or Kevin commenting on her Obi-Wan Kenobi t-shirt. A year after The Phantom Menace, the backlash was in full swing, leading years later to Star Wars fandom changing its aggregate opinion and deciding it was a D-minus movie after all. She bears no mental scar for the off-the-cuff joke. We expected no less.
MSTies would agree the crew of the Satellite of Love was naturally the best reason to show up. Though Anne and I are 98% certain neither of us bought a single object in the dealers’ room, we nonetheless found quite a bit to keep us busy Saturday and Sunday:
* A Q&A with Sampo and Erhardt from Satellite News, the Official MST3K Fan Site.
* A special live fan-MSTing of a classic Doctor Who episode from the Colin Baker era — a segment from season 21’s final arc “The Twin Dilemma”, which I’ve just learned in hindsight costarred future buccaneer Kevin McNally from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Anne and I weren’t fans of the show yet and lacked context, but we agreed on one thing: this experience was mortifyingly unfunny. I remember writing my own riffs in my head to drown out the subpar material reaching my ears. I also remember counting five — FIVE! — uses of a bellowed “WAAAAZUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!” as a quote-unquote “punchline”. FIVE TIMES. The lamentable lesson that haunted me for years: trepidation and skepticism are necessary defenses when faced with any creation or construct bearing the prefix “fan-“.
FIVE TIMES, YOU GUYS. COME ON.
* Sunday breakfast at the hotel restaurant, Noah and Connie’s treat for one and all. As newcomers to this world, I can’t emphasize enough how much this meant to us and how unworthy we felt we were. In our own future encounters with message-board cohorts, as we got older and in a more secure position to pay the kindness forward, we strove to find opportunities to follow the example they set.
* A Terry Pratchett Q&A. Between the two of us we’d read exactly zero of his books. I think we were tagging along with friends. We appreciated Pratchett dismissing the sentiment among some high-minded literary fans that Harry Potter was a derivative rip-off, because in his opinion technically one could argue that every story about a boy meeting a girl was a rip-off of Romeo and Juliet. (I later read the first three Discworld novels and thought they were fine. Then thanks to an odd Sci-Fi Book Club selection on my part, I skipped too far ahead to The Fifth Elephant and found myself thoroughly lost. Maybe someday I’ll backtrack to #4.)
* A MST cast Q&A on Sunday. We remember wincing when one fan handed Kevin Murphy cash money in a well-meaning, badly timed effort to convince America to start crowdfunding the show’s return. At the time, that’s not how TV revivals worked. At all. That kind of awkward public grandstanding has always been, and hopefully shall always be, not our thing. (I suppose one could argue she was, shall we say, a visionary ahead of her time.) We understand the money was handed over to a charity instead of being put toward old-flick rights renegotiations.
…and those were just memories within or near the King Henry VIII itself. On two other occasions that weekend, we latched on to a core circle of Best Usenet Users Ever and made forays into the city of St. Louis…with mixed results.