I grew up watching TV westerns, thanks to my grandfather. When most people can’t remember anything beyond their past few years, I can clearly recall being held as a baby, learning to walk in a walker and TV westerns. The sounds of Cheyenne, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Maverick and many others formed my first years in life. In 1966, I started watching Lost In Space (and later on, Star Trek) which were basically “westerns in space”.
I loved Lost In Space because I was only 7 years old, even the now tacky looking aliens and sets now appear severely dated. Not long after, Star Trek got me hooked and then Dark Shadows. Plus we had great shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible and Saturdays filled with the best cartoons ever. What a great era to grow up in, as far as TV was concerned.
Not once, did I ever believe that I would get to meet most of my childhood heroes
Never did I imagine that one day, one my most beloved friends would turn out to be Jonathan Harris, the actor who was famous for the role as the nefarious Dr. Smith on Lost In Space.
Life sure does take some interesting turns and it’s amazing what happens when you’re not even looking for it. Sometimes, I feel like Forrest Gump just showing up in the right places at the right time. Life really is like a box of chocolates.
How I got involved in the world of Lost In Space, Star Trek, etc.
Back in the early 1990’s, I was trying to start a small business as a sideline to my job. It started with advertising some old toys and collectibles in magazines. I had saved all these old toys but was then an adult (or trying to be anyway) and decided to sell them all off. I found out that many of those old toys were worth money…a lot of money.
In the 1970’s, I worked at a local movie theater and snagged some press kit materials and a brochure from the very first Star Wars movie. Although those items sold for a few hundred dollars back in the 1990’s, I believe they would be worth thousands now. I also found that some current toys, (particularly Star Trek related) were bringing in big bucks. It was a new market similar to the baseball card fad that also peaked and eventually fizzled out.
I was doing so well selling via ads in magazines that I decided to try selling at toy shows and conventions
My first venture was a Star Trek convention at the Sheraton in South Burlington, VT., back in the early 1990’s. Although I had met James Doohan (Scotty) previously, in 1980, at a St Johnsbury Academy lecture, this was an opportunity to meet other Star Trek cast members, one of which became a regular customer. Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov) used to collect Big Little Books which I watched for on his behalf. Through the many conventions I attended as a vendor, Walter was usually attending as well, and would buy the books that he didn’t have in his collection. He also told me that he started out doing summer stock theater in Dorset, VT., many years ago.
Fans created the shows and conventions, but corporate media stepped in and milked them dry, as they still do even today
Needless to say, I met a lot of people at the conventions and toy shows. Some were a bit strange to put it mildly, while others were just regular fans and really nice folks. I made friends with some of the vendors who would usually frequent the shows and conventions. One of them has become a life long friend. Unfortunately, we don’t get together as much as we used to, once we all stopped attending the shows. His name is John Collado and he is one of the best graphic artists I’ve ever met. As a matter of fact, he was so good, that licensed artists by Paramount were jealous. They found a legal loophole to stop John from selling his works of art at conventions. Once Paramount smelled money, they started pushing out most small vendors in favor of big companies like KB Toys, etc. Welcome to corporate America.
Did we get to meet celebrities? Oh yeah, we sure did!
As show vendors, we had backstage access to most all of the celebrity guests, for autographs and general chatting. At first, it was a surreal, amazing experience but after awhile the “starry gloss” wore off. I got to the point where I didn’t even bother to go and meet some of the celebrities, unless it was someone I was really interested in meeting.
At a Portland, Maine show, I had a couple tables next to Mark Goddard (Major West of Lost in Space) who was selling some videos and signing autographs. He was really nice to talk to and took a couple photos with my ex-wife. This was prior to the new Lost in Space movie, so he wasn’t a “guest”, merely a vendor like the rest of us. During that time Star Trek the Next Generation was the big draw, so Lost in Space wasn’t on the radar. He mentioned to us that he was happily teaching at a school in Lowell, MA after a brief stint in soap operas.
I don’t remember very much about many of the guests. I wasn’t keen on ST the Next Generation so I didn’t usually attend their Q&A sessions. Though I did take my time to check out “Counselor Troi”, as the actress was kind of hot back then. One time, she almost got mobbed after her “talk” and stood on a table, to get away from the fans closing in. She was quite obviously scared to death shouting, “where is security?” She was right though. Someone messed up!
Most of the Star Trek original cast were very gracious, especially the late Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand) who was fantastic. She watched over my tables for me while I took a break to get coffee. I wish all were as cordial as Grace was. I didn’t care much for Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) as she entered the room like some sort of royalty, with all the pomp and circumstance. After listening to her for about 5 minutes, I had enough and went back to my vendor tables.
One person that really impressed me was Majel Barrett. She was Nurse Chapel on the original Star Trek, the computer voice on the Next Gen and a character on that show as well. She as also married to the man who created Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Majel had a couple tables at the show as well, selling Star Trek items from the company her husband created, Lincoln Enterprises. I got into a conversation with her about Maine, Vermont and just about anything other than Star Trek. She was having a great time and after quite some time, I had to excuse myself and go back to my own tables. I will never forget that though. She was just so happy to talk to someone about anything other than Star Trek.
Bottom line is that (in most cases) if you want celebrities to remember you, talk about something other than their acting roles. They are real people not the characters they portray and appreciate being treated as such. Most of them anyway.
Turning the lights off on “Captain Kirk”
William Shatner. He was appearing at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Although I love Star Trek, I wasn’t particularly anxious to meet him. Everyone else was though, so the exhibit hall was nearly empty during his Q&A session. I decided to leave my tables for a few minutes just to hear what he had to say.
First, he was much shorter than I envisioned and he had a pot belly. So much for the days of kicking Klingon butts. I was leaning against the wall about 50 feet from the stage. The lights started going down and the ballroom started getting dark. Mr. Shatner started to panic like a little girl, begging someone to find out what was going on. He was so upset that he cried out, “What’s wrong with this place? Did they forget to pay the electric bill???”
Nope, not the venues fault…mine. I managed to turn the lights off on William Shatner and he didn’t look happy.
Someone nudged me and said “I think you’re leaning on the light slider”, which I was. With Shatner (and 5000 others watching) I turned the lights back on. I looked at Mr. Shatner (who was standing there with his mouth open – what a diva) and apologized, “Sorry, I guess I’d better get back to my tables” and that was it.
Everything went on without a hitch. Later on, a friend of mine asked Shatner to autograph some photos for him. Oddly enough, the unflappable “Captain Kirk” seemed a little inebriated. Maybe he needed a couple drinks after the lights incident? So that’s my story. What Romulans, Klingons and cancellation by Paramount apparently couldn’t scare the man. But, I frightened Captain Kirk so much that he needed a drink!
Then again, when I was 8 years old, I made a minister swear. Oh well.
On another occasion, at a Star Trek convention in Marlboro, MA, I had a hotel room next to Jimmy Doohan (Scotty). I had ran into “Jimmy” several times, at various shows, ever since he pulled my hair in St Johnsbury (when I asked him about Shatner’s toupee). That became kind of an ongoing joke between him and I, when we’d meet at a show. Always the toupee thing!
At the Marlboro show, he was a little tipsy and having a hard time filling his ice bucket in the hall, so I tried to help. “Hey,” he said “aren’t you the guy who’s always asking about Shatner’s hair?” (Yeah, that was me). “You know he’s got hair plugs now,” he almost dropped the ice bucket and lowered his voice just a tad and said, “…and he’s still an asshole!”
Once he had control of the ice bucket, I asked if he was ok. I was concerned because he looked really tired and tipsy. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m fine. But you try answering all those damn stupid questions, they ask me all the time, and you’d drink too!” He winked and off he went to his room. Unfortunately, that was the last time I ever saw him. I didn’t attend and sell at many more conventions after that. James “Jimmy” Doohan passed away from Alzheimer’s a few years later. He was a great guy and loved to kid around.
The end of a long, exciting and fun era
The last show I attended as a vendor (or even a visitor), was in Boston, MA. It was billed as a big event with Brent Spiner (Data of STTNG) being the big draw. Traditionally, vendors could go backstage and get all the autographs they wanted, free of charge. However, in this case Mr. Spiner was charging for ALL autographs. This included the people who paid for tickets to attend the conventions, (even though they were typically allowed one free autograph, included in the price of admission). Mr. “Data” Spiner changed the rules that weekend. Many vendors weren’t happy about that change and neither were the fans, who considered it a “rip-off”. Unfortunately, it set a precedent that others were soon to follow, particularly William Shatner (I wasn’t surprised).
Vendors took a major financial hit during that show as well. One long term, well known vendor from Connecticut took such a big financial loss that the disastrous weekend almost ruined his company. Another young couple had invested $2,000 in toy purchases. They only made a $10 sale all weekend, and looked pretty upset. Fortunately, all of my inventory was bought and paid for. I think I made a whopping $150 for the entire weekend with a loss of over $1000 for tables, hotel and travel expenses. Quite a difference from the days when even a small vendor, like myself, could make between $2000 to $5000 in a weekend.
Between the big companies coming in and buying up the majority of tables, and celebrities getting greedy, it just wasn’t fun anymore. Then it became financially impossible to compete with the “big guys” and toy companies, so what started with the fans ended up hijacked by big money. These days, most smaller conventions are gone and have been replaced by big money making ComicCons.
Never say never?
I haven’t been to a convention since the 1990’s. As a matter of fact, there’s a ComicCon in Montreal this summer. William Shatner is one of the guests. I might just check it out for the opportunity to ask him if he remembers the “lights out in Boston” incident. I’d probably buy him a drink, if he’d let me, but he can keep his autograph (if he’s charging for it).
There are a lot more other stories and plenty that I have forgotten but as I look back, I’ve probably forgot many of them.
Saving the best for last…
I will wrap up the second and final part of this story with an article devoted entirely to the late and great Jonathan Harris. Although he created a lot of TV roles and voice overs, he was best known for his role as Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space. We became good friends and I’ve got some great things to share that you simply won’t believe!
Live long and prosper!
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