Discon 1 Guide: The Costume Ball

[This is Chapter 2 from George Scithers' Con-Committee Chairman's Guide, the story of Discon I, the 1963 Worldcon. Retyped in 2001 by Tim Illingworth, from a copy of the original 1965 publication.]

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II. THE COSTUME BALL

The costume ball has become, over twenty-five years, an almost indispensable part of the World Science Fiction Convention. It is also one of the most expensive items on the con committee's budget, if they choose live music, which is horribly expensive. Unfortunately, the judging has at times in the past generated some very nasty feuds afterwards.

In view of some of the sillier charges made about the judging at Seacon, the Discon committee made choice of judges and determination of categories one of the earliest items of business. Choice of categories was checked out with members of previous con committees and with the general readership of Shangri L'Affaires, the LASFS fanzine.1 Based on the remarks we got in reply, particularly the suggestions made by Robert Bloch, the Discon chose a mixture of specified and open categories: Most Beautiful Costume, Most Authentic Fantasy Costume, Most Authentic Science Fiction Costume, Most BEMish Costume, and three Judges' Choice categories - a, alpha and aleph. The Most Beautiful Costume was intended for actual costuming, of course, not (as sometimes before) for Best Undressed. The Most Authentic categories were for portrayal of specific characters from The Literature, and the Most BEMish was intended for - well, you know what I mean by BEMish, I hope. The open categories were for whatever three costumes the judges chose, and for whatever reasons they specified.

The reason for complexity and vagueness was this: the four specified categories gave potential contestants something to plan for ahead of time; the open categories allowed the judges to award for excellence and originality in whatever way they wanted, and avoided the dilemma of having two superlative costumes which might both be described as "Best Fantasy" or whatever. Finally, we tried to avoid the bitterness over the eligibility of groups (the basis of the nastiness after Seacon) by announcing, in advance, that (1) groups, as groups, were eligible for any of the awards given, and (2) the individuals in each group were also eligible for individual awards if they wished to be.

As for the judges: we thought that a very good candidate for such a position would be someone who had worn a particularly spectacular costume the previous year, giving him the chance to relax for this year. Unfortunately, some of our first choices on this basis turned out not to be available; Bjo Trimble, Al Lewis, and the Shaws. Of the people we had carefully asked in advance, only the Lupoffs (who were pretty spectacular in some of their previous appearances) managed to get to the con. During the first day, therefore, I asked Jim Warren, Fritz Leiber, 4e Ackerman, J. Ben Stark, and Ed Emsh to be judges. All accepted; the Lupoffs, though, were to act as a single judge.

By the way, in picking judges, try for diversity. Properly, a set of judges should represent whatever interests are current in fandom, as well as the general stream of fantasy and science fiction. For the Discon, we had a comics fan, a publisher of a monster magazine, a writer of fantasy and science fiction, and two other fans who, I hoped, would have the sort of practicality that would get the overall group into a reasonably quick decision. Certainly, any ideal panel should have a woman on it, as well as an artist. But just who? … well, picking a panel is one of the things that make running a convention fun.

The next big problem was arranging the ball room. We were lucky to have an entirely cooperative hotel management to deal with. We asked for, and got, a runway about eight feet wide, running almost the length of the big Presidential ballroom (itself 110x94 feet), with a ramp leading up to the runway at one end, and a sort of extension sticking out of the middle of the ramp toward the center of the room. The runway and its extension (looking from above like a very wide letter T) were about four feet off the ballroom floor. The only thing we didn't get was a down ramp off the far end of the platform; we had to use a short stair instead. For announcements we obtained a hand-held microphone pus one floor microphone. The room itself had about twenty or so tables scattered about the floor for those who wanted to sit.

We had originally planned to have a couple of bars dispensing hard liquors as well as beer and wine; in fact, we'd scheduled the ball for Saturday to allow this - the drinking laws in DC are barbarically rigid, allowing practically nothing on Sunday. However, the hotel management panicked at the last minute, when it finally sank in how many under-eighteen-year-olds would be at the ball, and limited the bars to soft drinks. Oddly enough, the lack of lubrication didn't seem to hurt the ball any, as far as we could see.

Since we had a runway for displaying the costumes, and since we had microphone facilities, we arranged a procedure for announcing the costumes. This procedure we announced early and often. For the contestants, it consisted of taking a printed slip of paper (available from registration and at the ball); printing on the slip the name of the costume, the source (story, book, series, or whatever) of the character depicted, and the name of the costume wearer; and wearing the slips on or near the left shoulder when they entered the ballroom. (Individuals had white paper slips; groups had additional red slips for the leader to carry.) In addition to announcing this beforehand, we had a number of assistants on the ballroom floor with extra slips and straight pins for fastening them on. 'Tis a good thing we did, too; we recommend you do likewise if you adopt a similar system.

Then there was the question: shall we have live music? Like many big cities, Washington is solidly tied up by the musicians' union, which not only dictates what rates you will pay each musician, but also how many musicians you must hire. This depends on volume; for the big Presidential room, this came to nine musicians, which meant something over $350. This led to what I think was our biggest error in putting on the costume ball: we got the band at the last minute. Here is how it happened:

Until about two months before the convention itself, we weren't sure that we could afford to spend the $300-odd for music. When we finally did decide, there wasn't enough time for lengthy searching. None of the committee had enough spare time during those last two months to really deal with the musicians the way we should have. What we did do was to engage a regular (though versatile) dance band, Ira Sabin and His Orchestra, and tell the band leader to try and think up appropriate snatches of music for the usual costume types: futuristic, gruesome, sexy, heroic, and so on. The difficulty was that popular and show music has a certain sameness to it: a group of musicians familiar with the classical repertoire would have been better able to match a bit of music to each costume as it went by.

You see, the principal object in having a band for our costume ball was to provide fanfares and, most important, to provide snatches of appropriate music for each contestant as he/she/whatever paraded by on the elevated runway. Providing music for dancing was strictly secondary. In retrospect, the best possible group of musicians for such a purpose would be a string quartet plus a few wind instruments (say, a flute, oboe, and trumpet) and a good percussion man. The reason for such an odd selection is that for backgrounding a costume without drowning out the announcer, a variety of single instruments is better than an orchestra playing all together. Further (and this is more important than you might think) it's considerably quicker for (say) a violinist to be told, "you play something for this next costume" and to begin than for the orchestra leader to be told, to decide what to play, and to go, no matter how quickly, through the "A-one, a-two, a-three…" routine. We used single instruments as background and fanfare for a couple of the costumes at the Discon; this worked well, and I wish we'd done more of it.

As for the matter of controlling entry to the ball, the hotel management strongly advised us to get a detective agency to send us a uniformed guard. Reason? To keep non-SF-convention folk from crashing the affair. We found the local agency charged only $2 per hour (minimum: five hours). We planned to get two guards, but due to a mixup only got one. Believe us, it was worth it. There were three doors to the ballroom; we closed one, put the guard at the door closest to the incoming crowds, and manned the remaining door with some of our people, Chick Derry and Phil Bridges. Dick Eney lurked nearby with a handful of membership cards, name badges, and banquet tickets. We had announced several times that only people with either name badges (which were given out at registration, one per delegate) or costumes too elaborate to carry a badge with convenience would be allowed in.

Even on a purely financial basis, the guard was very worth while. He cost us $10, while Dick took in a bit over $40 in memberships and tickets which he sold at the door. Also, while the Chicon III committee estimates that about 100 more folk attended the ball than paid for membership, we estimate that not more than a dozen did at the Discon. The problem of outsiders crowding into the ball to the exclusion of the convention members simply didn't happen. With the exception of a press photographer, the band, and hotel employees, nobody got in (and stayed in) except members of the con, and two ingenious porch-climbers.

We scheduled the ball for 7:30 PM. At 8:00 PM, I was still trying to round up the judges. Ackerman had disappeared completely, so I grabbed Bob Leman, the heralds managed to get the rest together in one spot, and we were ready to begin.

A word of explanation here. The band was sitting on the runway - about in the middle, against the wall. We had chairs on the runway extension, which stuck out into the audience area, for the judges. The announcer's mike was at the foot of the ramp that led up to the runway proper. At the far end of the runway was a set of stairs leading down to floor level. Beyond that, the end of the room was screened with a curtain. Now, by a prearrangement known only to me, Bill Evans, and Larry Breed, we had hired a bagpiper (complete with kilts and other accessories) who was at that moment waiting behind the curtain. I told the judges what was about to happen, and signaled to Larry.

In a few seconds, the bagpiper came from behind the curtain and ascended the stairs. hardly anyone noticed he was there - until he began to play. After that, hardy anyone noticed anything else. The piper, still marching, marched the length of the runway to the judges, who were waiting in a little group. Turning, he piped the judges to their seats on the runway extension, faced them and piped a final tune ("Garry Owen"), and then left amid applause.

Then the costume parade began. This was the procedure. A herald would bring an individual or a group to the announcer. The announcer would take the contestant's identity slip, signal to the band leader to play. The band leader would decide on a theme and begin, while the announcer started the contestant up the ramp and announced the name of the costume and the source of the character, when there was one. The contestant walked (or slithered, or whatever) on past the judges. Once past, the announcer read the contestant's name, which was the prearranged signal for the contestant to skedaddle, and reached for the next contestant's identity slip.

Since groups paraded both as groups and then as individuals, the heralds got all the groups through the parade early. And, to provide a good balance, heralds and announcer worked together to pick contrasting costumes for successive entries. A BEM followed by a beauty, a group followed by an individual. As for the slips, as the announcer finished with each, he handed it to little Betty Berg, who scurried over to the judges. They used the slips to mark their comments on as an aid to the judging.

There were a few folk, including members of the committee, who didn't want to be judged, but who did want to show off costumes. These were announced in the usual way, but the slips were simply not forwarded to the judges.

As far as the announcing system went, there could have been improvements. In particular, the announcer would have been better placed in the center of the runway, among the orchestra, so that the contestants passed between him and the judges. The advantage would have been that he could have worked more closely with the orchestra and the judges. With this change in position, the slips would have been delivered to the announcer, one by one, and he would have delivered them to the judges simply by taking a step forward and handing each slip across. The important value of the arrangement we had, I think, is that the judges and the audience were on the same side of the contestants, so the contestants turned their back to neither. Further, the slips did help the judging considerably, as well as making things a lot better for the announcer as well. And having heralds get contestants avoided the costume waiting line, always an awkward thing to manage. It also made it possible to put a final end to the bickering about groups by allowing people to compete both in groups and as individuals.

It took just short of an hour for our contestants to be shooed past the judges. Afterward, the judges retired behind the curtain, and the band played odds and ends. Then the judges reappeared with a handful of identity slips: the semi-finals. The announcer read off the names, to get them in a group at the beginning of the ramp, and then announced them one by one, letting them walk past the judges again, while the orchestra played appropriate bits of music. Again the judges retired, returning at last with just seven slips. The announcer called up the winners, and the judges presented the awards…8x10 framed transparencies of drawings by Bjo Trimble.

One final thing which we overlooked: when the winners have been finally picked, and have gotten their prizes, it's very important that the winners be asked to pose for several minutes on the runway, for the benefit of the photographers.

And then the most extraordinary thing happened: when the band started to play dance music, s' help me, the audience began to dance. There was a fair crowd on the dance floor from the end of the judging until the band folded up at 11:00 PM. In fact, there were probably more fans dancing than have seen since…well, for as long as I've been going to cons. The reason? Whatever the shortcomings of pop music as far as fanfares go, Ira Sabin is an expert when it comes to picking the music that his audience will dance to. We hadn't expected any real interest in dancing, extrapolating from the lack of dancing at previous cons; the band was primarily to provide background and continuity for the parade, plus fanfares for the judges when they came out to announce the winners. Instead…

There was only one almost-incident to mar things. Gary Deindorfer brought two friends - not members of the con - into the ballroom by simply shoving past Derry and Bridges, with the explanation that they "were just going to see someone and would be right back out". When they didn't come out, Bridges went in to tell them to go. Deindorfer and Calvin Demmon told him to Go Away and Quit Bothering Them. Bridges asked Eney what to do; Eney matter-of-factly said, "get the guard to eject them".2Bridges got the guard, who quickly and quietly went to the group and murmured "you'll have to leave". They went, right then, without Word One of argument. The point has since been advanced by some Focal Points of Fandom that this ejection was wicked and sinful or something. Our opinion is that neither Deindorfer nor Demmon (nor, for that matter, anybody else) is Big Named enough, or Big Mouthed enough, to bull hiser way into the costume ball free.

We briefly considered having a uniformed guard at more sessions of the convention than just the costume ball, but abandoned the idea because it would be too much trouble. (Of course, the case of the Pacificon II, where a clique had given advance notice that it meant to try scuttling things, is a special one.) We advise strongly that future cons cover at least one important session (probably the costume ball) with a guard system, to allow in only those who have paid. Judging from our experience, the expense of a private detective agency uniformed guard is very, very worthwhile. If the entrances to the room cannot be covered easily by one man, two are even better.

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