This past September, the future look of Washington, D.C.-area science fiction conventions was unveiled with Capclave 2001, the first science fiction convention here since Memorial Day weekend of 1997. The convention took place less than three weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, which led to a proliferation of buttons that read 'No Stupid Terrorist is Going to Ruin My Convention'. There wasn't too much programming at the convention, but one of the things that did happen was a recreation, in part, of a fannish production that first took place more than 30 years earlier. Here are some details:
'Some Notes on 2001: A Space Opera' by Alexis Gilliland; 
  title illo by Marc Schirmeister
Begin at the beginning: in 1968, Dolly and I went to Baycon, where we saw Karen Anderson's H.M.S. Trekastar, which was a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof of the then fresh and brand-spanking-new Star Trek, which had not yet spun off its own subfandom. I thought Trekastar was a mildly amusing trifle, and Dolly thought: "WSFA can do this!" Dolly then got the script and permission from Mrs. Anderson, and the WSFA players put it on at the 1969 Disclave (registration of about 100) where it was well received before an audience of dozens or scores.

Later in 1969, WSFA had its first theater party, when we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second night of its run. The movie generated a lot of discussion, a lot of buzz, and Dolly suggested that I write a musical comedy about it for the WSFA Players. So I did. We did, actually. Writing the script was a collaboration, in which I did all the writing, and Dolly, as musical director and producer, threw out everything she didn't like, until I got something she did. It was more painful and took rather longer than planned, and we were still working on the script during the 1970 Disclave -- where we'd intended to put it on -- finishing up that fall, when we went into rehearsal, at which time there was more rewriting.

The original opening number was borrowed from West Side Story, changing "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way" to "When you're an Ape." A nice, lively opening number which was one of my favorites. But after the first rehearsal, Dolly said it had to go.

"Why?" I asked plaintively, "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing's wrong with it," replied Dolly. "Only the WSFA players can't cut it. Write something they can sing."

We practiced after WSFA meetings at the old apartment at 2126 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, and when I say old, I mean old; it was a third floor walk-up which had been built with gas jets in the walls for lighting, and electricity added as a retrofit. The WSFA Players were not the most disciplined or smoothly professional group you could imagine, and Jay Haldeman, Disclave con chair and president of WSFA, saw all the awful stuff that happened in rehearsal. So, with a view to mitigating the impending catastrophe, Jay scheduled our performance for 4:00 PM of the last day of the con, with the idea that everybody would have gone home.

Wrong. Everybody stuck around to see the play, which, despite an absolutely awful dress reheasal, went off just splendidly before the real, live audience. The WSFA Players had scored a triumph, and after WSFA meetings at Chez Gilliland, Dolly would sit down at the piano, and hand out the scripts, and they would waltz through it one more time because it was fun.

Time passed, and Discon II appeared on the club's event horizon for 1974. The decision to perform 2001: A Space Opera at the worldcon might have been influenced by the fact that among our lead singers were Joe Haldeman, brother of Chairman Jay; Ron Bounds, Discon II's Vice Chair; and Jack Chalker, who wore a number of hats. In any event, rehearsals were put into high gear, and changes were made in the staging. One particular change involved the Hostesses and the little dance number they did after a number based on "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Dolly got the guys involved, so that you had a sort of horse chorus line as a comic interlude. We practiced it in the living room, and after the second or third time, there came a knock on the door. So I opened the door, and this shocked looking guy who lived on the floor below says: "Hey man, tha ceilin' fa down."

The WSFA Players were up and running at this point, and they swarmed downstairs with brooms, dustpans, vacuum cleaner, and the big trash can. In half an hour we took three or four trash cans of plaster out to the dumpster in the alley, and generally swept and vacuumed the place until it was habitable. Whereupon we went back upstairs and finished the rehearsal, though without any more dancing. The people downstairs told the landlord the ceiling fell down, he put in a new one, and we never heard word one about the matter.

The plan was to perform our play in the Sheraton Park's big auditorium, which was set up for Harlan Ellison's world premiere of A Boy And His Dog, and with seating for 2,000 the place was standing room only. Harlan hated the idea of having a fannish theatrical as a warm up act for his professional (albeit unpolished) production, and opposed it with Ellisonesque vehemence, a fact I learned at a Millenium Philcon panel on Discon II.

In the event, the people who made the decision were starring in 2001: A Space Opera and they went for the big audience. I was in the control booth with the hotel's engineer so I could cue him in on the lighting, and I have two regrets. The first was that he offered to tape the performance, and I declined, because we already had a couple of people taping. Big mistake; one recorder was badly placed and missed what was happening on one side of the stage, while the other flat-out died. The second was that I had a microphone to announce the scene changes and didn't improvise when the chance presented itself. At the end of the performance, the audience gave the WSFA Players a standing ovation, and Harlan and his crew at once rushed out to put up the screen for the main feature. The thought, which came about five minutes too late, was that I should have taken the microphone to say: "At ease, Harlan!" my voice booming through the speaker system. "The WSFA Players need to give an encore. Dolly, play the longest number we've got."

In the event, Harlan's movie had problems. It was a rough edit, and the sound track hadn't been integrated into a seamless whole so that periodically the sound would cut out until the technicians could restore it, as Harlan talked to the audience -- in his best tour-de-forcey manner to keep them in place till the end. The next day, he told me that he owed me an apology, that 2001: A Space Opera had saved his ass by putting the audience in a good mood -- that they were sitting there for him because they had already been entertained. Apology? I wasn't aware until this year that he had opposed it, but he told the concom, also, so why not the author.

# # # #

One of my high points at the Brighton worldcon in 1979 was stopping outside a bar to listen to a group singing "The Ape's Drinking Song." My song. In England. Goshwow! To give you a sense of the thing, here are the lyrics, which were printed containing a mix of pronouns, referring to the apes as 'we' but also 'they'. In rehearsal, this was changed to a uniform 'we' and 'our', as shown here. It was sung to the tune of "The Whiffenpoof Song":

By the enigmatic space slab
With the purpose no one tells
With a spigot on its middle for our beer
There the ape pack stands assembled
With our glasses raised on high
And the song that we are singing
Starts a tear.

We are poor little apes who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We are little black chimps who have gone astray
Baa, baa, baa
Here we are, masters of hill and glen
Doomed by the slab to turn into men
Couldn't our children be apes again?
Baa, baa, baa.

Yes the song that we are singing
Tells the future that we dread
Filled with hate and rapine
Murder, violence, lust
We will cling unto our apehood
Till evolutions end
Then we'll pass, and turn
As human as we must.

Repeat Chorus.

# # # #

We continued to read through the score at WSFA meetings, and picked up new voices even as we lost old ones. We were asked to put it on at Constellation, and went back into rehearsal. This time I was in the chorus, and despite this, Dolly coaxed some really nice harmony out of her chorus. She told me that one of the numbers ended up with six-part harmony. Again, we performed in a large auditorium with about 2,000 seats, which was mostly full. Again, we were the lead off for the main event, this time a triple feature of Lucas's Star Wars trilogy. Interestingly, after we finished, about half the audience left, so they were there to hear us!

As time went by, Dolly's arthritis made playing less fun and we gradually stopped going through the post-WSFA meeting sing-alongs. Our very last performance was at Phrolicon 7, in 1991, where Dolly and I brought in the scripts, the hotel moved an upright piano into the function room, and we had an unrehearsed one-time run through starring Sam Moskowitz as Hal-9000. The space opera itself was time and place specific; it required an audience which was not only familiar with the movie it parodies, but one which thought it important, a great addition to their stfnal zeitgeist. It also required the several skills of Dolly, who was the choral director, accompanist, and stage manager. This article is an expansion of the notes I made to help me with a reading 2001: A Space Opera which I gave at Capclave in 2001. The audience has changed and Dolly is gone, and no future performance is contemplated.

Illustration by Marc Schirmeister

back to previous article forward to next article go to contents page