by Sue Burke
(This article was originally published in the Chicon 8 Souvenir Book.)
Chicago has hosted eight Worldcons, more than any other city. These are the brief histories of the first seven previous Chicons. Each one explored innovations, sought out new traditions and affirmed old ones, and aimed to be distinctive.
In October 1939, two teenage boys from Chicago were on a mission. They wanted to make the World Science Fiction Convention an annual event.
The first World Science Fiction Convention had been held in July 1939 in New York City, playfully stealing its name from the New York World’s Fair, which was being held at the same time. The first convention concluded without plans for another “world” event, so Mark Reinsberg and Erle Korshak came to the 1939 Philadelphia Conference to propose a second World Science Fiction Convention. During a business meeting, by a vote of raised hands, their proposal was approved. As far as the records show, everyone in fandom thought it was a great idea, and they were glad to let Reinsberg and Korshak do the hard work.
Back home, they formed a sponsoring organization, the Illini Fantasy Fictioneers, with a triumvirate to run the convention: Reinsberg as chairman, Korshak as secretary, and Bob Wilson Tucker as director. At age 25, Tucker was old enough to sign contracts and famous enough as an active fan to serve as “window dressing,” as he put it later.
On Sunday and Monday, September 1 to 2, about 128 fans met at the Hotel Chicagoan. Rates at the hotel started at $2.50 per night, but most fans stayed at a YMCA a mile a way for only 75 cents – with access to showers and typewriters. Worldcon attendance was free, and sales of convention publications paid for the costs. The two days of programming included speeches, along with several sessions of resolutions and debate to create a “Chicago Platform for Fandom” (which seems to have been lost to time).
“Of course,” Tucker said later in a Tau Ceti convention report, “that program failed to follow the time schedule, failed to be presented in the given order, but you know how conventions are.” The program booklet printed the names of boosters who paid a dime each to help defray the costs, including Alaska the Gnome, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. “Whether or not each of these characters paid a dime is open to question,” Tucker wrote.
According to Forrest J. Ackerman, when the convention opened and Reinsberg came to the podium to welcome everyone, he had an attack of stage fright and “the blood drained from his face, he went white, and co-chairman Erle Korshak had to step in and take over.”
Events included the premier of the short movie Monsters on the Moon and the first-ever Masquerade. Dave Kyle won dressed as Ming the Merciless, a character from the Flash Gordon comic strip. Buck Speer, Korshak, and Reinsberg came dressed as Buck Rogers, and the contest ended with a spontaneous comic skit.
A fund-raising art auction on Sunday evening had so much material that finally an armload was thrown at the crowd to take what they wanted for free. Another freebie: Phillip Morris sent a hundred small packages of cigarettes as gifts for attendees.
Despite squabbling and personal feuds, the purpose of the event – to make Worldcons annual – was not forgotten, and on Monday, after heated debate, the 1941 Worldcon was awarded to Denver.
What did a Worldcon mean? The Guest of Honor E. E. “Doc” Smith, the author who invented the space opera, delivered a speech on Sunday afternoon answering that precise question:
“While we will probably never become a very large group – it seems obvious that the necessity of possession of what I may call the science-fantasy mind does now and probably always will limit our number to a very small fraction of the total population – we will continue to grow as more and more of those who are already with us in spirit will join us in person. We will meet somewhere every year, and every one of us who can possibly do so will attend. For in these personal meetings, in this intimate contact of minds so uniquely qualified, there is a depth of satisfaction, a height of fellowship which no one who has never experienced it can even partially understand.”
And so it began…
Officially, the 1952 Chicon called itself the “Tenth Annual World Science Fiction Convention,” (TASFiC) a name that fandom promptly ignored. It was the biggest Worldcon to date and for several years to come, although the exact number is uncertain: 870 members who paid $1 each, about 175 “ghosts” attended who did not pay, and 300 non-attending supporting members; by comparison, the previous Worldcon in New Orleans, Nolacon I, had an attendance of about 190.
These fans filled the Hotel Morrison from August 30 to September 1. Julian C. May, the first female to chair a Worldcon, took four months off of her job as an author to oversee the operation – with a budget estimated by Sam Moskowitz in his convention report at $3,000 to $4,000. Overall, males outnumbered females ten to one.
The convention had some other firsts. The “WAW With the Crew in ‘52 Campaign” paid to bring Walter A. Willis from Belfast, Ireland, to the United States for a fannish tour, including Chicon II. This fundraising effort became a tradition, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund (TAFF).
Willis addressed the convention during its final day: “I’m sure you’ll all agree that fandom is a force. A force is a thing that moves objects from one place to another, and by ghod it moved me.” (Ghod is a fannish spelling of “god.”)
The idea of Science Fiction Achievement Awards were proposed during Chicon II, which were taken up at the next Worldcon and eventually named the Hugo Awards.
Membership cards were issued at registration, and the back contained a deed to a crater on the Moon: “The Chicago Science Fiction Society assigns you exclusive colonization right to the property on the Moon encompassed by the crater __, which is located in the __ Quadrant of said body. Valid in perpetuity.” E. E. “Doc” Smith was the Moon Commissioner.
Guest of Honor Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the world’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories in 1926, spoke at the Sunday evening banquet on “The Impact of Science Fiction on World Progress.” Gernsback had copies of his speech printed in advance to distribute. He proposed that science fiction writers be given a 30-year provisional patent on ideas in their stories, and closed by saying, “Let us treat science fiction with seriousness and with the dignity this great endeavor is everlastingly entitled to.” He received a plaque as the “Father of Science Fiction.”
The convention had only one programming track, which included a debate “Flying Saucers – What Are They?” Flying saucers were the theme of the Masquerade, hosted in the party suite at midnight, which reportedly featured more booze than costumes.
A pseudo-science panel explained, reportedly hilariously, “How to Be an Expert Without Actually Knowing Anything.”
Entertainment included Ted Sturgeon singing “Songs of the Spaceways.” A ballet with professional dancers entitled “Asteroid” told the story of a spaceman landing on a small planet and falling in love with the Blue Girl, earning the jealous wrath of the Orange Girl. Their costumes were florescent, and they danced under ultraviolet stage light.
Contemporary fanzine accounts stress the party atmosphere, especially in the hotel penthouse reception and parties that lasted until dawn. Some fans claimed they crashed a wedding reception at the hotel for free champaign and food.
If the 1952 convention was a euphoric success, the coming years were tougher for the field overall. Juanita Coulson, a long-time fan known especially for her filking, reported in a fanzine that by the next year, professional SF magazines were disappearing, and books had always been hard to come by. Communication was largely by snailmail fanzines, and fan culture was “marvelously incestuous” and often torn by “down and dirty politicking.”
Because of the slow pace of those mimeographed fanzines, fights could last for years. Still, Worldcons continued, and after two failed bids in 1959 and 1960, the Worldcon came back to the Windy City in 1962.
Once again, Chicago hosted a fair-sized convention for the time, with 730 attending and 830 members overall, each paying $3. The 20th Worldcon met from August 31 to September 3, 1962, at the Pic-Congress Hotel, which had been newly renovated and needed business, offering rooms as low as $7 per night and parking for 35 cents per day, which may have helped attendance. The attempt to name the event “Trichicon” didn’t catch on.
Chairman Earl Kemp called it a “homecoming,” and the Tenth Anniversary Willis Fund brought Walt and Madeleine Willis back to the convention.
Guest of Honor Theodore Sturgeon said there were actually three conventions, one for professionals, one for fans, and one for readers. They all had to make do with one track of programming, and yet there were complaints: so much was going on that there was no time for mingling.
One of the presentations was “Science Fiction, Mental Illness, and the Law,” which Dave Kyle later said was appropriate considering the level of feuding, cliques, and fratricide in fandom.
A panel titled “Is There Too Much Sex in Science Fiction?” included A. J. Budrys as Chairman of Chicon III’s Committee on Morals, and Martha Beck as moderator; she was described in the program as “doll, den-mother to the CHIAC Ingroup.” Much of book sex, author Avram Davidson said during the panel, “belongs rather to the realm of fantasy than to that of realism.”
As a working partner with the convention committee, N3F, the National Fantasy Fan Federation, ran a coffee and cookie hospitality room; for many years N3F served as the fraternal bond among fans. The fan art show included a new photo salon and a special exhibit of the art of Richard M. Powers.
For the first time, the Hugo rules were included with the ballots, and the convention created a committee to write a World Science Fiction Society constitution.
The Masquerade, called “The Hell-Fire Club Masquerade Ball,” left some people so disappointed they called for it to be discontinued: the room was small, and a professional orchestra played so loud it interfered with the competition. Among the awards, Dave Kyle won again for his Ming the Merciless costume.
Bob Wilson Tucker was the toastmaster, and at the Sunday evening awards banquet, he warned the members that “you’ve been underfed and overcharged, and now I’m going to bore the hell out of you.” Guest of Honor Theodore Sturgeon, however, seems to have charmed members by saying that science fiction readers were not only “kind, loyal and patient” but unlike mundane readers, they were “genuinely living” because they had the power to alter the future “through awareness and love.”
Attending the banquet was Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy magazine. At the time, “men’s magazines” often published science fiction, and they paid handsomely. After the dinner, Hefner hosted a private party for pro authors at the Playboy office.
For the novel In the Halls of the Crimson Kings by S. M. Stirling, published in 2008, the prologue takes place at the final pro party at the convention (not at the Playboy office). Stirling did not attend, being only 10 years old at the time. But the novel is set in an alternate universe, and party-goers watch a television broadcast of an American space probe landing on Mars – and it’s inhabited by beings that haul away the probe!
In 1982, Chicon began an unofficial tradition: holding the convention at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, a facility large enough to host a self-contained event. By Worldcon 40, held September 2 to 6, attendance had jumped to 4,275 people, and 247 of the registered members came from outside the US (mostly Canada). They each received one of eight different-colored badges, from black for mere attendees to white for Senior Committee.
Ross Pavlack and Larry Propp chaired the convention. They were also members of the “Columbus Cavalry,” a self-named group of experienced convention-runners known for their love of bureaucracy. Their preparations included a nine-point corporate policy, “Guidelines for Due Process,” for any attendee accused of “violating a pertinent regulation.” According to an eyewitness, the budget included “a specific line for graft,” scrupulously camouflaged, for funds to make relations with union hotel workers move smoother.
Chicon IV was the last Worldcon to place its list of panels and programs in the Program Book, which couldn’t keep up with last-minute changes in the four tracks of programming and up to 17 simultaneous events. One was a panel “The Four Horsemen: Disease and Disaster in Science Fiction,” with Bernie Jille and Jack Haldeman, who likely failed to anticipate anything like our current pandemic. The convention also featured an extensive film track and an academic track that could earn university graduate credits.
Chicon IV hosted the “First Annual Gernsback Awards Ceremony” with Forrest J. Ackerman as Master of Ceremonies. In addition, a panel from First Fandom nominated the best science fiction from the years 1926, 1936, and 1946, when no Hugo Awards had been presented; the 1926 winning novel was The Moon Maid by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Filking reached a higher level. A new recording label, Off Centaur Publications, brought a microphone to one of the filk rooms to create a “best of” cassette tape, which touched off a furor because at that point, almost no recordings were available.
“Everyone was in that room,” filker Bill Roper later recalled, all of them eager to be recorded, to the point of “no oxygen” in it, so he and Juanita Coulson teamed up to convince a few people to sing (and breathe) elsewhere.
In 1982, snailmail ruled, and in Progress Report 1, staff begged correspondents, who were writing on “the backs of receipts, computer cards, and pieces of scratch paper,” sometimes in crayon, to please include their full address. The convention offered a roommate and ride matching service. At the convention, attendees used special “Voodoo” bulletin boards to meet up with their friends.
Inter-fan communication still centered around mimeographed fanzines, and one of the program items was a workshop on “Advanced Mimeo Techniques” presented by a representative of Gestetner, a leader in stencil-based duplicating machines.
A controversial proposal for the Hugos sought to split fanzines into amateur and semi-professional categories. Nominees for fanzines that year were File 770 by Mike Glyer, Locus by Charles N. Brown, SF Chronicle by Andrew Porter, and SF Review by Richard E. Geis.
As tended to happen, Locus won the 1982 Hugo for Best Fanzine, but a Special Award was presented to Mike Glyer for “keeping the fan in fanzine publishing.” (Glyer also used his mimeograph skills to edit the convention newsletter, The Daley Planet.) Glyer’s mimeographed issue 36 of File 770 reviewed Chicon IV and noted the quality of the Art Show, the beauty of the Masquerade, and concluded that “Chicon accomplished its very ambitious aims as host of science fiction’s annual open house.”
Ever ambitious, Chicago brought the 49th Worldcon back to the Hyatt Regency on August 29 to September 2, 1991, with Kathleen Meyer as chair, who came with plenty of conrunning experience of holding what she called “our party.”
The party included 520 program items: 123 readings, 102 in the science track, 90 literary, 73 art, 29 fan, 18 academic, 14 filk, 13 costuming, 12 late night, 11 media, 8 cities, and 3 trivia. In addition, because at-home technology was mostly limited to videocassette recorders and media SF could be hard to get, there were 85 movies and a television retrospective that claimed to have every episode of every televised science fiction show. According to one report, it didn’t, but it was very close.
By then, filking had daytime concerts, too: six hours of concert time in addition to five evening filk rooms, and a panel for how to make your own filk music tape. Filk popularity still managed to surpass planning, and a late-night band unexpectedly filled a room to overflowing.
For the first time, Off-World Designs provided the artwork for the convention souvenirs and apparel. The program book warned con-goers that Illinois had strict non-smoking laws with only limited places in the hotel permitting smoking. The WSFS Business Meeting had smoking and non-smoking areas.
Special events included evening dances and performances by Moebius Theatre of the play R.U.R. (Rossem’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek. The Hugos Awards had expanded to 16 categories. Guests of Honor came in four categories: Author (Hal Clement), Editor (Martin Harry Greenberg), Artist (Richard Powers), and Fan, (Jon and Joni Stopa).
Dina Krause, head of Special Events, remembered the Masquerade in an interview for this article. It was held at the Fairmont Hotel, a block away from the Hyatt Regency, and happened to coincide with an Indian wedding with hundreds of guests wearing their traditional finery. They didn’t seem to mind the presence of Klingons, a fanged worm, and Russian fairy tale princesses, among other costumes, but the hotel did not allow the costumed fans to use the escalators to the ballroom, so they had to cram into the freight elevators. She recalls it as “challenging,” “fun,” “unique,” but most of all “very, very strange.”
Beyond that, fan recollections and records seem preternaturally quiet about Chicon V. This suggests massive mind-wipes, a spell of silence cast by a fairy tale princess, or a generally successful con that left members satisfied. Stranger things have happened.
Chicon 2000 (6)
If the name was officially Chicon 2000, fannish wiseacres asked, what happened to the previous 1,994 Chicons? Worldcon 58 was held August 31 to September 4, 2000, as usual at the Hyatt Regency Chicago Hotel.
It started with a splat. At the Opening Ceremony, seven original backers of the convention bid had the privilege of throwing a whipped cream pie at any of the convention’s 20 main staff members. Soon loyal convention volunteers wore tee-shirts asking, “Would you take a pie in the face for your leader?”
With 5,794 attending members plus 780 supporting members, it was big and busy with up to 15 tracks of programming at once. In an attempt to get more depth into items and provide enough time to get from one event to another, programs were 75 minutes each, followed by a 15 minute break. Some events started at 8 a.m. for fans of the morning variety. Steven H Silver, who directed the Program Division, said the goal was to make members feel that at any time “you’re going to be missing something,” possibly the chance to go to lunch.
If that were not enough, fans could also visit exhibits, headed up by Bill Roper. A special Classics of Science Fiction Art displayed 150 book and magazine covers and other illustrations from the 1950s and 1960s, lent by Phyllis and Alex Eisenstein and other collectors. To get a true taste of Chicago fandom, attendees could visit a lounge based on a typical 1980s living room for the long-running Thursday evening get-togethers, with “crummy” couches and bookcases built from boards and bricks. It included fanzine displays, mimeograph equipment, and soft-sculpture replicas of fans Phyllis Eisenstein and Neil Rest.
In an interview for this article, Roper also recalled the Chicon 2000 innovation of using gridwall boards for the art exhibit, as well as discussions with hotel staff over the high price for rental chairs and tables in the dealer’s room that ended when he threatened to buy better, cheaper chairs at Sam’s Club.
Uniquely, Chicon 2000 had promoted its bid with 40 “trading cards” depicting authors and artists, and anyone who collected 20 of the cards and voted in the site selection received a free membership conversion. The US Postal Service produced a special cancellation for Chicon 2000 using the rocket logo.
The Pocket Program, along with the Events, Exhibits & Everything Guide, came ring-bound through an upper-lefthand hole; members could take only some of its 267 total pages on a given day. Students in grade, middle, and high school competed in a contest with their art, fiction, and essays. Tense fans could get a massage from the Chicago School of Massage Therapy. On Friday afternoon, they could participate in a blood drive.
Technology had toddled forward. All members had voice mail in their hotel rooms, but the Voodoo message bulletin boards were still in use.
By now, fans needed an internet lounge. There they could use one of about 10 computers or take advantage of free access to the internet for their own computers via web, telnet, and ethernet. Janice Murphy of Cybling.com, a popular SF chat site, interviewed authors from the Green Room; fans went to the internet lounge to listen. In conjunction with the Conference Cassette Company, recordings of about 100 Chicon 2000 programs were available for purchase for $10 per item. This was the last time that sort of recording was offered.
In 2012, Worldcon 70 filled the Hyatt Regency Chicago from August 30 to September 3. This time the convention called itself Chicon 7, Roman numerals having been abandoned, and 4,743 fans came in person with an additional 1,454 at the sponsoring level.
For the first time, the Guests of Honor included a NASA astronaut, Story Musgrave, and Special Guest Sy Liebergot, a retired NASA Apollo Mission Flight Controller. According to Chair Dave McCarty, both made “excellent” guests because among other reasons “a big part of science fiction is actual science.”
Another first was an Agent Guest of Honor, Jane Frank, known for her work on behalf of artists and her promotion of science fiction art to mainstream audiences.
Behind the scenes, Chicon 7 was a first because Chicago fans from three different groups worked together: ISFiC (Illinois Science Fiction in Chicago), Phandemonium, and Duckcon. Chicon 7 also managed its bid fundraising in a way to use the funds for the First Night reception Thursday at the Adler Planetarium.
Like every Worldcon, it had unique touches. The Opening Ceremony featured a talk show format. Fan Guest of Honor Peggy Rae Sapienza liked the idea of Sunday morning newspaper color comics, so Chicon 7 created The Sunday Funnies publication featuring fan artists. As usual, all available space was used for activities from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. (filkers stay up late) with readings, panels, dances, awards, autographs, theater, art shows, kaffeeklatches, literary bheers, concerts, strolls, children’s activities, films, auctions, interviews, parties, and lots more – and conventioneers were also encouraged to visit Chicago’s fine restaurants and museums.
“We’ve done our best to make sure there’s far too much for you to accomplish,” McCarty said in his welcoming letter in the Program Book.
Explanations conflict as to how the convention chair and three vice-chairs came to be called the Flying Monkees. One account claims that vice-chair Bobbi Armbruster said that rather than be a vice-chair, she had always wanted to be a flying monkey, and the name stuck. However, in an interview for this article, McCarty said that because “the soul of fandom is theft,” he stole the idea of calling chair’s assistants “flying monkeys” from another convention. One account blames Chicon’s IT department for misspelling the title as “flying monkees” but McCarty said it was his fault: “I was typing faster than I could think.”
In any case, “monkees” it was. The Monkees had been a pop rock band created for a television situation comedy in 1966, and Chicon’s four leaders adopted the names of the musical Monkees: McCarty was Davy Jones, Armbruster was Micky Dolenz, Helen Montgomery was Mike Nesmith, and Steven H Silver was Peter Tork. The joke extended to other parts of the convention.
Another Chicon 7 joke generated some tension: the phantom program track. McCarty, in an interview, told how it came to be. The artist Phil Foglio routinely offered unusable ideas for programming for Capricon, a Chicago convention, but one year, because he was working in publications, he was able to slip the fictional room “Phineas Taylor B” into the program and include some of his fictional panels. (Phineas Taylor was the full name of circus showman P.T. Barnum.)
The joke continued at Capricon, with modifications, and the joke was stolen for Chicon 7. Two of the Hyatt’s meeting rooms are named after famous local sports fields, Wrigley and Comiskey, so a fictional Stagg Field room was created.
(The real Stagg Field at the University of Chicago is famous because in 1942, Enrico Fermi located Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, under its west stands. Although it had no radiation shielding or cooling system, an accidental runaway chain reaction did not occur and turn Chicago into a radioactive wasteland, making Chicons II through 8 possible.)
A sign at the site of the fictional room explained the joke, but it was promptly stolen, so some fans were unhappily befuddled. In any case, the closing event in imaginary Stagg Field was the “8th Chicago Worldcon Bid Planning Meeting,” so who’s laughing now?
McCarty says there’s a Phineas Taylor B joke in Chicon 8, but “it’s difficult to find.”
Considerations on Worldcons as a Whole
Worldcons have changed over the years. Some fandoms have calved off to hold their own more specialized conventions, and some of them, like comic conventions and Dragoncon, attract huge crowds. Technology has made films and television less central to programming, and gaming rooms and a children’s track have been added. Fans continue to squabble, now faster than ever, but few arguments go on red-hot for years.
In Progress Report 3 for Chicon 2000, Chair Tom Veal recorded his thoughts about what Worldcons were for:
“Like many institutions, it has grown and has altered vastly in growing, the tree bearing less than an obvious resemblance to the sapling. If anything is nearly certain, it is that none of those who attended (or tried to attend) the first Worldcon foresaw that the convention would become an annual event drawing thousands of fans from around the world and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to cater to their desires. A few of them are still around, and perhaps they remember what they did foresee. For the rest of us, attempting to look at the future of SF conventions through the eyes of over-literate, under-socialized teenagers of the late 1930’s is a fascinating intellectual challenge[…]
“So the Worldcon ‘just growed.’ Speeches by whichever pros happened to be in attendance developed into a twenty-track program. Displays of black-and-white prints, leavened with bargain-priced paintings by artists who needed to pay tomorrow’s rent, transmogrified into the world’s largest science fiction and fantasy art exhibition. A few guys selling back issue fanzines became 200-plus tables of SF book dealers and ancillary hucksters. The ‘masquerade ball’ – fans wearing funny costumes – inspired what is now an independent art form.[…]
“Nowadays only a minuscule proportion of the people who go to Worldcons share the SF zeal of a Sam Moskowitz or a Forrest J. Ackerman, but the great majority do find in science fiction a deeper delight than the mere thrill of turning with the next plot twist or gazing vicariously at cataclysmic special effects and exotic local color. That is why they care about such arcana as fidelity to real or extrapolated science and consistent logic in fantasy, issues that are of minimal importance to the surface reader or viewer. It is also why they want to learn how literary and artistic and media magicians pull off their magic tricks, to appreciate the skills by which an author first pulls a rabbit out of a hat, then reveals that the real point is what is in the hat worn by that rabbit. Finally, it is why they are interested in the materials that science fiction and fantasy quarry for building blocks: science, folklore, religion and the like.[…]
“The fact that the World Science Fiction Convention survives and flourishes demonstrates that the kind of deeply interested and serious (which patently does not mean solemn, pompous, petty or dull) devotee to which it appeals is nowhere near extinction.”