Discon 1 Guide: The First Day

[This is Chapter 1 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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I. THE PROGRAM: THE FIRST DAY

In retrospect, we know we overprogrammed. Chicon III scheduled about 17+ hours of program and auction (exclusive of banquet, and ball). We originally aimed at 10 hours, but Fascinating Things kept turning up, and we wound up with a trifle over 13 hours (again, exclusive of banquet, and ball). 13+ hours would fit nicely into a four-day convention (it might fit into a three-day con with an evening banquet) but, as it was, things were pretty tight. That we were on time so much was because of the outstanding co-operation on the part of the speakers, a grim determination on the part of the chairman to stay on schedule, and the fact that his watch was running three minutes fast. (Why stay on time? For the simple reason that people who don't want to watch all of the program would like to know when to be back to see the bits they are interested in.)

The program started on time, but not before I nearly had kittens. The start was scheduled at 12:30, and at 12:00 another group started filing into the Congressional Room; the 315th Infantry, or some such. Luckily, the hotel functionary who was in charge of conventions was on hand, and was able to assure us that the strangers would be out on time. They were, though just barely. I spent the intervening half-hour making arrangements for the opening item. I had brought two swords, Joe Mayhew had brought another, John Boardman had his magician's costume handy, and Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp were willing, so all was set.

At exactly 12:30, Saturday, the 31st of August 1963, I tapped the gavel to open the 21st World Science Fiction Convention. Hardly anyone paid attention; you know how slow the initial chatter is to quiet down. I hammered with the gavel, then pounded. No one particularly noticed. So - the pre-arranged signal - I pointed the gavel to my right.

Instantly, Sprague and Fritz started yelling at each other in Persian and Old English. They jumped to their feet, still spouting abuse and archaic curses, grabbed a sword apiece, and started fencing. That did get the crowd's attention. After a few moments of sword-clashing, I pointed my gavel to my left, in another pre-arranged signal. John Boardman, attired in black robe, tall conical wizard's cap, and a long black beard, stepped out from behind a pillar of the room, pointed a sword, and began to read an authentic incantation from a Grimoire. The swordsmen stopped to watch, and then - as soon as the crowd's attention shifted to the magician - sat down. Finally, the incantation ended, Boardman stepped behind the pillar again, I tapped the gavel, and this time I had complete silence. I announced that the convention was in session, reminded people that they'd need their owl-and-saturn name badges to get into the costume ball that evening, and introduced Jim Blish.

The spectacular beginning was very worth while. It got the crowd's attention, so that the first speaker could speak without interference; and, more than that, it sort of gave notice that things had started off with a ba clang - and with the chairman definitely in control. This, I suspect, helped as things went on.

We tried another bit but didn't carry through on it: at the Detention, the con committee wore striped blazers, giving the con members an easy means of identifying the officials. We tried a similar stunt: white lab coats. Most of us abandoned them after half an hour. It is well for the con committee to be readily identifiable - not only so that you can readily be found by con members in need, but also so you can find each other quickly in a crowd. Then, too, it makes it plainer, when one of the committee makes an announcement, that it is one of the committee speaking.

Anyway, Jim Blish began to speak, right on schedule. Unfortunately he wasn't feeling well and had to take a break before he'd finished. Luckily, Dick Eney was on the speaker's platform at that moment, too, so one member of the committee could tend to this problem while the other - me - dashed off to set up the next program item.

This was one that had been invented by Bob Silverberg, although he hadn't realized it at the time. He had remarked (I think at one of the Disclaves) that he'd long wanted to do an article about the hazards of doing stories to fit illustrations instead of the other way around. Several letters and a couple of phone calls had finally persuaded him to be on a two-man panel on the subject, provided that Ed Emsh was on it too. Ed was willing, so "Ring Around an Illustration" was on the program, scheduled for 1:30. Unfortunately, here it was 1:00 - and, though Silverberg was available, Emsh wasn't in sight. Luckily for me, Fritz Leiber was sitting in the front row - had, indeed, planned to add a few remarks from the floor about his own experience. I asked him to substitute for Emsh, he said OK, and the panel was on.

Bob spoke first about his experiences in writing stories to fit illustrations - usually cover paintings - which had been done before the story had been thought up. By the time he was ready to turn and ask for Fritz' comments, I had located Emsh and had gotten him up on the platform, ready to speak. Bob was not a little surprised at this.

The talk turned out to be a very successful one; it was largely extemporaneous, and all three participants visibly had fun with it. Let me say something about the panel idea at this point, and something else about the situation we had at the time.

First, the two-man panel (or three-man panel, as this one turned out to be) is a highly effective method of presenting a subject. It avoids both the dullness of listening to but one speaker and also the somewhat disjointed effect of a very large panel. A two man panel often breaks out into more spontaneous conversation than any of the other type of program items. I recommend it highly to future cons.

Second, it is very important that the con committee be so organized that the principal programmer (who is not necessarily the chairman, though in our case he was) is virtually always in the main program hall, free of other duties, so that he can cope with whatever comes up. In our case, the presence of two committee members in the hall when an emergency came up was what enabled us to keep the program going without any real lapse. The presence of willing assistants, who eventually found Emsh and shooed him on-stage, was also very important. But the reason we had people available mustn't be overlooked: we had other committee members available to take care of registration, of questions, of continued arrangements with the hotel management, and of all the other things which have to be taken care of while the program is going on.

The Silverberg/Emsh/Leiber panel finished at about 1:40, leaving us (as Wally Weber has put it) ahead of schedule for the first time in convention history. Luckily, I had arranged with Katherine MacLean beforehand for such an eventuality; she had volunteered to speak as a fill-in for any desired length of time. While the S/E/L panel was winding up, I asked Katherine if she'd get us back on schedule, she asked Lester del Rey if he'd help too, and then both accepted. Katherine spoke on the High Art & Mysterie of people-guiding, Lester agreed with her on some points and disagreed on others, and then, thanks to the pair's willingness to take the platform and speak entertainingly on practically no notice at all, we were back on schedule again.

The next item on the program was Cogswell's "Hippocrene and Hyperspace" - an idea of Ted's, from one of the parties at Chicon III. (Ted professes not to remember thinking of it, suggesting he might have been drunk at the time. In vino…) Anyway, I'd checked the idea out with a few pros, and they said, yes, they did have some bits of poetry they'd composed and put in the back of their file cabinets for lack of an audience or a market. And some said, yes, they'd be glad to read them at the Discon. I remembered the idea rather late in the summer and phoned Ted; he immediately contacted a number of the pros, and Gordon R Dickson, L Sprague de Camp, Jim Blish and Fritz Leiber accepted. In making up the program book, the committee deliberately hid the nature of the program item under a confusing title; the subtitle was "Cogswell struggles with the Muse, best two falls out of three". Reason? We were afraid that a bald announcement that we were going to have a poetry-reading session would scare off the audience. As it was, the poems were enjoyed, and everyone, I think, got a little extra pleasure from the sheer uncommonness of the feature.

Following the poetry session, Jim Blish came back in fine style. His basic thesis - with barbed instances - was that literary criticism on this side of the Atlantic is simply awful, while the British reviewers are still highly skilled craftsmen.

Next came one of the shortest introductions of noteables on record. I stood at the podium and introduced the handful of pros and fans whom I could recognize from where I stood. Then a short, short auction period, a few more minutes to introduce the Guest of Honor, Will F Jenkins, and some of his family - and the program was back on schedule again.

There was a special reason for preoccupation with the schedule this afternoon: Larry Ivie and Dick Lupoff had had their time trimmed from the 90 minutes they had material for, to 75 minutes; Willy Ley had 60 minutes of material to cover in 60 minutes; and at the scheduled end of his talk, we had to clear the hall for another group.

The first of these talks, "SF Illustration and Art in the Comic Books", was actually two talks: one by Larry Ivie, stressing artistic styles in the illustrative fields, and one by Dick Lupoff, covering the plots and characters of the comic books of a few decades ago. Both talks were illustrated by slides which had been prepared by Phil Harrell. (An extra blessing for the con committee: the two speakers took turns running the slide projector, so we didn't have to worry about that bit.)

The projector used was rented from a reliable local firm. For about $70 we got a movie projector, a 35mm slide projector, a screen, and a helpful chap who showed us how to use the stuff. (There were also extra projector bulbs provided; though we didn't need them, we were glad to have them handy.) Though 75 minutes is a bit long for a slide lecture, even with two lecturers, the content of the program and the interest of the audience kept things going. At the end of the talk Dick Lupoff, who spoke second, got a very sticky question from the audience: Will Sykora asked Dick if Dr. Wertham wasn't right in denouncing comic books as the source of all evil. Dick neatly fielded this by explaining that the chairman of the con (loveable me) had threatened dire disaster if he spoke overtime, so…

The comics lecture was one of the best ideas I had in setting up the program. It was invented for two reasons. First, interest in old comic book heroes had reached sort of a peak in the year or so previous to the con, and thus the time was appropriate for a con program item on the subject; second, the costume ball very likely would have comic book heroes among the costumes, and the lecture would serve as sort of an introduction. Dick Lupoff pointed out that something over 400 comic book heroes of some importance had been invented and illustrated, so the chance of his showing a hero who would also appear at the ball was low. No matter; the talk was fun.

Willy Ley is one of those people who is interesting, no matter how many times one hears him. We gave him a free hand to pick his subject, and then tried to title his talk with something that would fit whatever he said. Willy is truly a professional lecturer; he is interesting, informative, versatile, and can fit his talk exactly into an allotted time. No convention should be without him.

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