Sam Moskowitz's Solacon Reminiscence

1958Solacon, South Gate
Stranger Than Fiction by Sam Moskowitz
From the Noreascon Three PB

SOUTH GATE (Los Angeles Area), California, August 29th to September 1st (including Westercon program), 1958. Guest of Honor, Richard Matheson. Chairwoman: Anna Moffatt.

I was still playing the part of Auctioneer, and at this convention there was an auction unique to science fiction. Prominent authors and editors were auctioned off and the highest bidder could spend one hour with them. I got as much humor as I could out of the situation, even getting Anthony Boucher to show his teeth as one would auction off a horse, and he went for $13.50. I had Fritz Leiber quote Shakespeare and that got us $13.23. Robert Bloch raised $17.00 by unbuttoning his shirt and showing his hairy chest. Charles Beaumont pretending he could sing soprano went to Mari Wolf for $10. Edward E. Smith, found that his Skylark and Lensman reputation priced him at $21 and Richard Matheson was obtained by a group of attendees who had pooled their resources to rack up $16. There were a few others auctioned off for small sums, and I finished off by auctioning off myself.

My buyer proved to be a middle-aged woman attractive in appearance and with a very cultured manner. As we sat together speaking with some refreshment, she revealed that her interest in me was prompted by the fact that her husband had been a rabbi in Newark, New Jersey, from 1920 to 1926 and she understood that I came from Newark. I asked her the name of her husband and she said Lewis Browne. "Wasn't he the author of Stranger Than Fiction, a History of the Jews? If so, I've had a copy in my library for years. It's one of the simplest, most uncluttered histories of the Jews I've ever read." She was pleased that I had the book.

It was initially published in 1925 by Macmillan and became a bestseller, catapulting Browne to fame. He had been born in England in 1897 and had been hired by the liberal Free Synagogue of Newark, N.J., in 1920. He proved far too liberal for the congregation, and when he developed an obsession for teaching Christianity from the pulpit, he was asked to leave in 1926. This proclivity he displayed in print in his book The Graphic Bible (Macmillan, 1928) with his long chapter on "The Christian Scriptures," utilizing sympathetically and without questioning only "The New Testament" as his source. Browne was extremely gifted, illustrating all of his books profusely, being particularly versed in map making. He was also an outstanding lecturer and noted for his biographies of Heinrich Heine and Spinoza. He became increasingly mentally erratic and finally committed suicide in 1949, his wife revealed. What had brought her to the convention was not quite clear. Perhaps she came with a relative. I never had reason to contact her again.

A noteworthy program event, which has almost been obliterated by the currents of history, was the formal appearance of Arch Oboler, renowned during World War II for his creative fantasy program Lights Out. He had started out as a pulp writer with detective stories in Ten Detective Aces, Racketeer Stories, Nickel Detective, Dime Mystery, and Dr. Yin Sin, all in the early thirties. He found his metier in radio, where his scripts were regarded as the works of a youthful genius, but was eclipsed by the onset of television, which he never adapted to, thought he did the scripts for several successful movies, including Escape and Bwana Junction. He produced an interplanetary play for Broadway, Night of the Auk, which opened at The Playhouse in New York on December 3, 1956. I was a great theatregoer in that period and made a point of going to see the last of eight performances the evening of Friday, December 7, 1956.

Besides its science fiction motif, an incentive for seeing the play was that it starred Claude Rains, Christopher Plummer, and Wendell Corey. The set, showing the interior of a space ship with its electronic controls, from the balcony where I sat, was spectacular. The immensely talented actors gave it everything they had, but what did the play in was not the story line — the first space ship to the moon finds the earth has destroyed itself through atomic war while they were in flight and there is no refueling from a space station or computers to guide them back. The situation is thrilling enough, the actors among the finest, but the problem was that Arch Oboler, for reasons best known to him, wrote the entire play in blank verse. The result was that every reviewer, without exception, said they didn't know what he was talking about. When the show was over, I descended and clambered over the set, which closeup showed to be a great deal of lighted plywood. I began leaving through a side exit, when I saw a downcast Claude Rains, all alone in his dressing room, throwing a black actor's cape over his shoulder and reaching for a bag. I asked him for his autograph on my program, which he scribbled without looking up. One of the other actors, Dick York, was still on the premises so I got his. Night of the Auk appeared in hardcovers by 1958 with a very better introduction by Arch Oboler, which was understandable but unwarranted. The aura of success when he published the first collection of radio scripts in history in 1940 (Fourteen Radio Plays) had completely dissipated. Nevertheless, having Oboler speak at the Solacon was a great coup.