Time to tie down some loose ends. In the letters column of Mimosa 11,
we promised an article about the infamous 'Midwestcon Door' incident from 1954. In
fact, it seems like we haven't really mentioned much at all lately about the
Midwestcon, which remains our favorite convention. In an attempt to rectify this,
here's a look back at some of the earliest Midwestcons.
My first convention of any kind was the Chicago Worldcon of 1952, but I was too much of a neofan to meet anyone there; I didn't even know about parties. It wasn't until 1953 that I discovered the Indianapolis Science Fiction Association; I attended a meeting in February 1953, and I met my first real fans (including a Juanita Wellons, who became important later). In March of that year, I met Gene DeWeese; he lived 20 miles from me and didn't have a car, so he needed a way to the meetings. Gene had corresponded with several other fans, had written fan fiction, and knew his way around fandom better than I did (not that I was willing to admit it). He'd been corresponding with a girl, Bev Clark, in northern Indiana, and wanted me to go with him to meet her, which suited me fine; I was finally finding girls I could talk to. Gene arranged things and we went up. It was the first time I'd met a black (or African-American, if you prefer) person socially. We got along fine, and later on we'd arranged that the three of us would drive to Midwestcon, again in my car; that car got a lot of use that summer. Juanita and her friend Lee Tremper would meet us there, and we'd have fun.
We arrived at Beatley's Hotel (or Beastley's-on-the-Bayou, which was one of the fannish descriptions at the time) but Bev was refused admittance. No blacks allowed. None of us had even considered the possibility. On the way out, we talked to a few fans sitting on the hotel porch and some anger was expressed, especially by Harlan Ellison, who said that all fandom would hear about this outrage. We drove home, and as far as I know, nobody ever mentioned the episode again. Except me, of course. The con site was changed the next year, but I've been told that this was because Randy Garrett was surprised by the house detective in a compromising situation, there were blows exchanged, and the convention was invited to go somewhere else.
Later on that year, Bev did go to the Philadelphia Worldcon with Gene, me, Juanita, Bob Briney (a Michigan fan who later became a partner in Advent:Publishers), and Eleanor Turner (a friend of Bev's), and there were no room problems. In fact, one evening when we hadn't seen Bev and Eleanor for a while, and had worried, they came in late to a party and said they'd been at a reception for Sugar Ray Robinson, and gee, we could have got you in, if we'd known where you were... Last time I saw Bev was at Chicon V in 1991; she didn't attend the con, but she and her son came to the hotel one evening and sat around and talked to Gene and Juanita and me.
Next year, 1954, we had a lot less trouble at Midwestcon in Bellefontaine (Bev didn't go), and enjoyed ourselves. The convention was spread over two hotels; we went to the Ingalls because it was cheaper; it was something like $1.50 per night. There was a reason for this, of course; even in those days, that was a cheap room. The bed was okay, but there was no attached bathroom. There was, in fact, one bathroom per floor, with tub and toilet. If someone actually took a bath, everyone else on that floor held themselves in or hunted another floor. Our room did have a laundry tub, however. Juanita commented that this was all right for the males, but uncomfortable for females. One year the hotel manager caught a bat in the lobby, and Noreen Falasca convinced him to take it outside and let it go. You don't have entertainments like that these days.
Those were the days when the trains still ran, and big-name pros occasionally came to the con. Bob Tucker, of course, was a regular. Bob Bloch showed up a few times, and Evelyn Gold at least once. Isaac Asimov came one year, and was induced to give a talk. Sputnik had just flown, and Asimov berated scientists for taking the bread out of the mouths of hard-working science fiction writers, ending with the ringing declaration, "If God had meant for basketballs to fly, he would have given them wings!" Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett were also regulars at Midwestcon, as they lived in Ohio. At one later con, a fan asked Leigh how she could live in Ohio and write for the movies. Straightfaced, she said, "I commute." The first time I met her, I was too awed to say anything. (I know this is hard to believe, but it's true.)
Eventually, Midwestcon had to leave Bellefontaine as well. This came the year after a group of fans went down to the center of town for some reason, and Harlan Ellison was inspired to auction off Lynn Hickman's pregnant wife on a street corner, with spirited bidding from the rest of us. Doc Barrett, who had been making most of the arrangements for the convention and who was a resident of Bellefontaine, reportedly announced, "I've got to live in this town!" The convention moved to the North Park Plaza hotel in Reading, a northern suburb of Cincinnati.
Before the convention moved, however, the Broken Door Incident occurred. The Ingalls Hotel was old-style, opening directly onto sidewalk and street, and the front rooms overlooked the sidewalk. My knowledge of the event is mostly hearsay; Mary Southworth, who was on the spot (and who still comes to conventions here and there as a huckster), had a somewhat less dramatic and perhaps more factual account, but I don't recall it well enough to retell it exactly. The report I heard was that Harlan Ellison was amusing himself by dropping water bags out the window, restricting himself to fannish targets. Jim Harmon, who was both a big-name fan of the day and a rather large, rotund one as well, got splashed and resented the fact. He stormed up to Harlan's room, where Harlan had prudently locked the door. When Harlan refused to come out, Jim began to batter his way in, knocking out one panel of the door. There was a lovely story that Harlan was frantically calling the police while Jim was trying to drag him out the hole in the door, but this seems to have been fiction -- for one thing, the Ingalls didn't have telephones in the rooms. Someone did call the police, however, and Harmon disappeared leaving Harlan to explain things, while most of the rest of the convention milled about in the hallway enjoying the show. The police left and that evening Harlan came around to various room parties, apologizing for the affair and taking up a collection to pay for the broken door. A bit later, Harmon came around, 'disguised' in Lynn Hickman's coat (which was about half the size he usually wore), apologizing for the incident... and taking up a collection to pay for the broken door. Our group tossed quarters to each one.
The next year, we were back at the same hotel, to find that the broken door had been repaired with a piece of unstained and unpainted plywood, and that the hotel now had a redecorated meeting room. I've always wondered just how much money was collected for the door...
Affairs at the North Park Plaza were relatively sedate, though I did get my one and only experience with 'Detroit blog' there. There were usually several Detroit fans at the con; "Big-Hearted" Howard DeVore was the one I knew best, since I bought quite a bit of stuff from him (mostly science fiction magazines in those days). Howard and Martin Alger, from some place in Michigan, were the major hucksters in the midwest at the time. Alger would come down from his home with a hearse full of books. There was no huckster room at those early cons; you sold out of the back of your car (or hearse). In Bellefontaine, the dealers parked along the street and sold; at the North Park Plaza, the huckster room was the parking lot. I remember Howard telling me once that I qualified as an 'old-timer' because I'd done some selling from my car.
I can't recall what year it was that a group of Detroit fans made blog for their party. It consisted of sweet wine, dry wine, vodka, a quart of 200-proof medical alcohol, frozen lemonade, fresh lime juice, and some cherries to give it "body," and possibly a few other ingredients as well. The cherries sank to the bottom, and the lime halves floated on top rather like little green corpses. It was mixed in a galvanized bucket (this was before plastics); the color was a revolting shade of brown. Harlan took one look at it, and stabbed it several times with a butcher knife to make sure it was dead before he drank any.
Filk singing got a boost at the North Park Plaza. The con suite -- the only public room in the hotel that I recall -- was in the basement, and a door from it led to the furnace room, which was also used as a corridor between the two buildings that made up the hotel. This room was well soundproofed, with concrete walls that gave great resonance to voices. The singers, who were none-too-popular at parties, could go in there and not disturb fans in the con suite next door. The usual group was Juanita, Les Gerber, Sandy Cuttrell, George Heap, and occasionally others. Nick Falasca was there once, and gave a stirring rendition of the KKK marching song that he'd learned from a 78 rpm record that he'd picked up secondhand.
Eventually, the convention moved on to other hotels and motels in the Cincinnati area. Don Ford took over the organizational duties from Doc Barrett when the con moved to the North Park Plaza, and other people took over when Don died in 1965. In the 1970s, Rivercon began in Louisville; Juanita and I went to both conventions for a few years and finally decided we couldn't afford both. Rivercon won, and we haven't attended a Midwestcon for years. These days we need income from huckstering to offset expenses, and Midwestcon was never a good convention for hucksters -- the fans who attend already have what science fiction books they want. But Midwestcon was always a lot of fun. There was the time in the 1960s that Tucker brought along neofan Roger Ebert (yes, the same Roger Ebert who reviews movies on television). Roger ended up wearing a wastebasket on his head in lieu of a lampshade, and Tucker went around apologizing for him. And... but enough is enough (for now)...
Title illustration by Charlie Williams