The friendly and charismatic personality of Robert Bloch made him very popular as a
toastmaster at convention banquets, for both worldcons and smaller conventions.
Unfortunately, the banquet is no longer as common a convention event as it once
was, possibly because of the size conventions have grown to and the ever-growing
cost of hotel food. However, banquets were once the social events of conventions
and the highlights of convention weekends, a point brought out in the following
"Don't miss the banquet! Buy your tickets early!" Those of us from First Fandom remember that old warning cry for worldcons. In many cases, when plans were ambitious, it was as much a plaintive cry -- a plea designed to keep a convention out of the red and even out of the courts. Con organizers knew trouble often hovered overhead -- and sometimes struck.
Unquestionably the banquet was the heart and soul of worldcons, before the costume parade or masquerade ball became dominant. It wasn't the meal that was the magnet, it was the recognition that the event was the program and social high point of the weekend.
If you chose not to be a diner at a worldcon banquet, you could still be an observer of the formal festivities. All con attendees were invited to the banquet halls as the plates were being cleared away, to sit at the empty seats, or pull up chairs, or even just to stand around against the walls. Like the surging crowds at a Hollywood premiere, there was that last-minute scuffling when the doors were opened or the velvet cord let down.
A few interesting chronological facts about worldcons and their banquets should be mentioned at this point -- in the first decade of their existence, patterns were still being formed. Convention dates alternated for convenience between the July 4th and Labor Day holidays. The banquets were unelaborate, erratically scheduled, and sometimes sparsely attended. Con attendees were for the most part very young men and spending money was very scarce, so banquet food tended to be meager and simple.
So why did the banquet come about right from the very first worldcon? Obviously, it was the best way of getting everyone together in a relaxed situation. It also was a way of honoring the main guest in an informal setting. In those days, everyone pretty much knew everyone else by reputation and correspondence, if not personally. The pros and the fans were very compatible and happy to mingle.
Banquets quickly became the single most important event of the weekend. It was there that the Guest of Honor made his speech, and all the lesser lights of the moment were acknowledged. This gastronomic highlight became the time-honored, accepted routine through a decade of worldcons.
Then, fifteen years later, in Philadelphia at the 1953 Worldcon, the second major ingredient was created, which raised the status of the worldcon banquet to even greater heights. This was the inception of the science fiction 'Achievement Awards' that in subsequent years became known as the Hugos. That Eleventh World Science Fiction Convention banquet table was the launch pad for the very first rocket trophies. They were based on a Willy Ley design and machined out of steel by Jack McKnight, who missed most of the convention until he showed up at the zero hour with the gleaming rockets.
History was made! Another tradition was in the process of being established. However, the following year had a different variety of awards. The Achievement Awards were not continued then, because 'The Little Men' of the 1954 SF Con had their own awards, which were already a west coast fannish item, scheduled for their program.
The Achievement Awards next appeared at the banquet of the 1955 Worldcon, in Cleveland. The Clevention's Progress Report #1 called them 'The Second Annual Achievement Awards', and Progress Report #4 mentioned the name "Hugo -- as some people have already dubbed the trophy." The rocket design soon became traditional, along with the affectionate and appropriate nickname in honor of Hugo Gernsback.
So banquets became the big event, and in their heyday, they generated real pleasure and excitement. The fun was much more personal because we were a big family then, and everyone knew everyone else. Where were the diners sitting? What favorable position did you have, or did we have? Were our places at the table for eight (or perhaps ten that year), up front close to the head table with all the committee members and chosen notables? Or were we at the back of the huge room by choice of assumed modesty, or perhaps by ineffectual jockeying, or by the huddling of a clique? All of us were having, in varying degrees, our brief moments of reflected glory.
When the Awards were started in 1953, I was one of the top five on that worldcon's Executive Committee. As editor of the Program Booklet, I attempted a publication that was 'something different' from the past. I wrote that... "Never before has an attempt been made to set down in some official way the records or customs from the past. Once everyone knew them. But as we say, times change, and today many of us attending conventions know nothing of the heritage we have nor realize that we are actually shaping events for the future." I explained that the idea of Achievement Awards had been talked about for many years and that convention members had cast their ballots. "It is our hope, of course," I wrote, "that this year's event will be successful enough to merit it becoming an annual affair." It was obvious that the appropriate time for the awards ceremony was after dinner with the principal speakers. [There's a coincidence here, which is very meaningful to me. The 1953 innovation of the Awards was very much a product of Hal Lynch, who was Chairman of the Achievement Awards Committee. In the late fifties, Hal, with the departed fellow Philadelphia fan Will Jenkins, visited Ruth and me in Potsdam, New York. Over three decades later, Richard Lynch (with Nicki) visited us in Potsdam. They are not, so far as I know, related, and Hal, is still around going to PSFS meetings!]
The Hugo Awards eventually grew so popular that the results and their celebration became the prime interest for the convention at the banquet. So why, then, did the banquets go out of existence? As Harry Harrison might well have warned, we had to 'Make Room, Make Room!'. Tradition fell before the onslaught of just too many people. So, the dinner disappeared and the awards ceremony became a stage show, elaborate and dramatic. It eventually took over an evening for itself alone. Only the night of the Masquerade or Costume Parade came to rival it. And except for rare occasions such as cabarets, special luncheons, and publishers' parties, the food and drink disappeared from the scene.
Those banquet moments are immortalized by the panoramic photographs which sweep across the banquet halls of the past, freezing everyone into static poses. Today, in the exhibits of fannish history at worldcons, we can still see them. Like something from the final scene in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, they exude the mysterious aura of the ghostly past. I can see the faces captured by the cameras of so many friends who have departed our fannish world either by faded interest or the permanence of death.
The first worldcon, in 1939 in New York City, was held over the July 4th holidays (2, 3, and 4) of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The banquet was held Monday afternoon in a private dining room of the Wyndham Hotel. In 1989, fifty years later, the Noreascon Three Souvenir Book printed a series of fiftieth anniversary articles which were "...a look at the Worldcons from their inception by those who attended." In his contribution, Sam Moskowitz, who chaired the 1939 Nycon, mentioned a few details concerning food: "There was no admission charge [to the con], since the idea was to popularize science fiction. Sandwiches were free and later so were pies. Soda was five cents a bottle. The banquet was $1.00 per person and out of 200 attendees, only 32 (including the Guest of Honor, Frank R. Paul) felt they could afford it." The banquet tradition had begun, along with the precedent that the Guest of Honor should make his primary speech at it.
The second worldcon, in 1940 in Chicago, was over the Labor Day weekend with the banquet Sunday evening. Once again, the inexpensive meal couldn't be afforded by many -- and that included me and most of the New York contingent who had motored there with deficit financing.
The third worldcon, in Denver the following year, was back again to Independence Day, three days over July 4, 5, and 6, with the banquet on Saturday (as I recall). The fourth worldcon, in Los Angeles in 1946, also took place on a July 4th weekend (July 4th-7th). Then the permanent shift to Labor Day weekend began in Philadelphia with the Philcon of 1947. Although I attended with Fred Pohl, we left early and I don't remember a banquet. After four years of wartime service and my re-entry into fannish activities, I spent only one day at that first Philcon. Since then, I have never missed another worldcon banquet whether or not I thought I could afford it.
When I was very young, I never dreamed that reading science fiction and becoming an active fan would lead to my organizing a worldcon banquet -- and ultimately to my best and worst experiences around such an event. It came in 1956, when I was chairman of the 14th Worldcon, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. That Newyorcon banquet featured Guest of Honor Arthur C. Clarke, speakers Isaac Asimov and Al Capp, and Robert Bloch as toastmaster. It is the highlight of all my banqueting days. (The nadir was facing the reality that my optimistic estimate of the number of diners had put the convention finances into the red.)
The most embarrassing moment of my banqueting days was the time in England when Judy Merril, Guest of Honour at Galactic Fair 1969, spoke at the con banquet. Disenchanted with the political scene in America, she made a bitter denunciation of America while expressing her delight with things English. As I was a well-known confirmed American Anglophile, my British friends expressed their bewilderment, concern, and regrets to me. I explained the best I could about liberals and their politics. (Judy subsequently, true to her convictions, moved to Canada and has been there for decades.) But the food? It was very good because a banquet in England is not just a fancy-named meal -- it is indeed a banquet.
The banquet used to be the only time I ever had a regular meal at worldcons. Perhaps someone will remember the special paper matchbooks I distributed at many banquets (Nycon `67, Baycon `68, Thirdmancon `68, and Noreascon `71). It was a cute and colorful advertisement for a holiday on Mars ("A Truly Out-of-this-World Vacation Spot"), and I had it personalized with a stamped "Have a good con!" greeting on the inside cover. I wonder if anyone still has one. (If you do, I'd like to know!) Attempts have been made in the eighties and nineties to recapture the banqueting event. Constellation, the Baltimore worldcon of 1983 (where I was Fan Guest of Honor), held what was described as 'The first Hugo banquet in years'. It was called 'The Hugo Crab Feast', the Maryland crab being one of the symbols of the con. There was a feeding from five to six o'clock (with everyone supplied with bib and souvenir crab mallet). Then, after an hour of relaxation, talk, and walking-around time, there was a renewed hour of 'pig out', after which the hall was expanded for general seating to view the Hugo presentations.
A joyful revival of the banquet came at Noreascon Three, in 1989, with a luncheon honoring Guest of Honor Andre Norton. She sat in her wheelchair between my wife Ruth and me, and received a standing applause of appreciation as she rolled out of the room in the glare of the spotlight. It was an excellent reminder of the tradition that had once been. With Isaac Asimov as toastmaster, the dozen brief speeches on the theme of what science fiction and fandom meant to each speaker was a powerful moment for a memorable convention.
Never again, I must regretfully believe, will those grand days of the worldcon banquet be revived to thrill those of us who remember. Somehow, in one way or another, we will be fed at worldcons. But it's not the banquet food I'll miss -- it will be the elegance of the occasion, the wit of the toastmaster, the serious words of the Guest of Honor, the excitement of the Hugo presentations... And I'll also miss the scattered tables of my friends, in a glittering room filled with mighty pros and lowly fans, all part of that strange fraternity of science fiction fandom gathered for the highlight of the convention, the worldcon banquet.
All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen