Bob Roehm's 20th Anniversary History of Rivercon

A Brief History of RiverCon
by Bob Roehm
written ca. 1996

Legend has it that the idea of RiverCon was born on top of a Dempsey Dumpster at the 1974 Kentucky Derby. In any case, Cliff Amos, who had founded a Louisville science fiction club some five years earlier (FOSFA, q.v.), broached the idea to the rest of the club and, to extend the racing metaphor, they were off and running.

The seventies were the dawn of the SF convention age, which eventually led to today's con-on-every-weekend calendar, but in the early years of the decade conventions, especially in the South, were few and far between. Kubla Khan had its first outing in only 1973, and though the DeepSouthCon had been around for a dozen years, its structure of moving from city to city left the rest of the region virtually con-less the rest of the year. RiverCon was conceived in this light as being a cross between the more relaxed style of a DSC or a Midwestcon and the heavily programmed worldcon or big regionals such as Westercon and Disclave. The RiverCon committee wanted panels, art shows, huckster rooms, and masquerades, but they also wanted parties, con suites, and general fannish socializing. Partly to encourage the latter and perhaps partly to ease neophyte jitters, the RiverCon committee decided to also bid RiverCon 75 (as it was called at first) as the site of DeepSouthCon XIII, which they won. The dayglo orange flyer with Cliff's stick-figure riverboat was fandom's introduction to RiverCon.

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The name RiverCon (the idea came from Steve Francis during a committee brainstorming meeting) was intended to reflect the city's riverport heritage. The choice of Philip Jose Farmer, well-known at the time for his Riverworld novels, as guest of honor naturally followed. Kentucky's favorite author, andrew j. offutt, was asked to be the first toastmaster, and long-time Indiana fans Buck and Juanita Coulson were chosen as fan guests. That first RiverCon guest list also included Kelly Freas, comics artists Dave Cockrum and Mike Kaluta, and one of only two convention appearances by the late fantasy novelist Thomas Burnett Swann. (The inclusion of Cockrum and Kaluta was another nod to increase potential attendance. The comics angle did not work out and committee member Don Rosa left after the first year.) A surprise appearance by Poul and Karen Anderson also enlivened the con. Attendance was 545, allaying fears and guaranteeing that there would be a RiverCon II. Cliff Amos remained as RiverCon's chair for the first seven years, plus the 1979 NorthAmeriCon (q.v.), and then Steve and Sue Francis took over the pilot wheel to the present day.

RiverCon guests of honor over the years are a virtual who's who of SF, including (in order) Farmer, Anderson, Larry Niven, Robert Bloch, Roger Zelazny, Jack Williamson, Gordon Dickson, L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp, Andrew J. Offutt, George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh, Bob Shaw, Kelly Freas, Jack Chalker, Mike Resnick, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, Joe Haldeman, and Forrest J. Ackerman.

Fan guests who followed the Coulsons were: Jodie Offutt, Sandra Miesel, Ned Brooks, Lou Tabakow, Mike and Carol Resnick, Dave Kyle, Rusty Hevelin, Don and Jill Eastlake, John Millard, Dick and Nicki Lynch, Ken Moore, Samanda Jeude, Dick Spelman, George "Lan" Laskowski, Leslie Turek, Laurie Mann, Jane and Scott Dennis, and Verna Smith Trestrail.

Following Andrew Offutt at the toastmaster's podium were Kelly Freas, Joe L. Hensley, Bob Tucker, Vincent Di Fate, Frank Robinson, jan howard finder, Bob Tucker (again), Charles L. Grant, Mike Glicksohn, Sharon Webb, Michael Banks, Somtow Sucharitkul, Arlan Andrews, George Alec Effinger, Emma Bull, Bruce Pelz, Bob Tucker (yet again!), and Julius Schwartz.

In 1995, RiverCon celebrated its twentieth anniversary by inviting back its original guest list and holding a special reception in honor of the members who had attended every RiverCon.

Highlights over the years have included an original musical production (RiverCon III's Stringworld, written by Shelby Bush and B.J. Willinger) and a world-premiere movie (Vampire Hookers, starring the late John Carradine, at RiverCon IV). The Ming Award was conceived for the first RiverCon for masquerade winners, and the figurine is now crafted in hand-blown glass by Steve Scherer. Scherer also creates the glass Pegasus each year for RiverCon guests. Full-color program book covers by top-name artists were introduced in the mid-eighties, always with a riverboat prominently featured, an unvarying RiverCon trademark since the beginning.

RiverCon, in its twenty years, has been held in only a few hotels, the first three in Stouffers Louisville Inn, and then moving to the Executive West for 1974. It returned to downtown Louisville following the 1979 NASFiC to stay at the Galt House for the next eight years. In 1988 the con tried returning to its first hotel, now the Holiday Inn Downtown, but after two years it proved to be too small for the size RiverCon had become. Three years at the Hyatt Regency and one at the Hurstbourne Hotel led back to the Executive West, where RiverCon now has a long-term commitment for the future. The regular excursions on the Belle of Louisville, an authentic, old-time steam riverboat, have regrettably been discontinued with the move away from the downtown riverfront. Attendance since RiverCon I has ranged from a drop to 374 the second year to numbers averaging 800-1000 in recent years. The committee has no plans to make the convention significantly larger, feeling that a higher attendance would affect RiverCon's friendly and fannish atmosphere.