Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Like You Were There: JB at Wonderfest 2013

This year’s Wonderfest was fun but strangely subdued. Was it the weather? Was it that most attendees seemed to be suffering from Spring allergies? (Some of the meeting rooms during guest presentations sounded like tuberculosis wards.) Was it that attendance was down? Did some Wonderfesters skip the convention this year because it was held on opening weekend for Star Trek Into Darkness?

Their loss.

About a year ago, I first wrote about Wonderfest, a fun annual modeling, horror, and sci-fi convention in Louisville, Kentucky. (Home of Bourbon.) I do not chew my cabbage twice; if you do not already know about Wonderfest, you can read my previous column.

Wonderfest attendees get to Louisville using all manner of strange transportation. You should see the backup these knuckleheads caused on the interstate:
On Friday night, Wonderfest premiered a new documentary by Cortlandt Hull about the original 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. I recommend the documentary, which is titled Phantom of the Opera: Unmasking the Masterpiece. Director Hull takes an unusual approach. He recognizes that interest in this subject is already pretty specialized (surprisingly, “Pre-1925 Silent Film” is not for everyone) and this frees him up to explore the topic to a depth that would be unthinkable in a more mainstream release. The length and specificity of this documentary would bore some people to tears. The film was not made for those people. (Hull followed a similar pattern with his earlier documentary, Aurora Monsters, about the model kit building craze of the early sixties.)
Interviews ramble, and one could well imagine some of this content being relegated to the “bonus material” menu on a studio-issued DVD. Michael Blake (probably the world’s expert on all things Chaney), makeup whiz Tom Savini, Carla Laemmle (Phantom of the Opera’s only surviving cast member—she played a ballerina at 16; she is now 104), and actor Daniel Roebuck all share their unique insights into what is arguably the single best film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s famous book. Highly recommended.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have nothing personal to gain if you order this DVD; but I enjoyed the hell out of it and wanted to share with you that it can be purchased here. I saw it Friday night and then bought myself a copy. So there.

Saturday “early bird” admission to the dealer’s room again proved to be a good idea; crowds were much more manageable. (Although I admit that, given my hatred of large crowds, perhaps A CONVENTION may not be the smartest place for me to hang out.) I found it funny that three of the dealers – a guy I call “Toy John” (who puts on the bi-monthly triple and quadruple features at The Portage), Corey Glabberson (who owns the Reel Art store in Berwyn), and Jon Kitley (who writes the “Kitley’s Crypt” column in Horrorhound magazine) – are actually from the Chicago area. Why would I would travel three hundred miles to see stuff I could see around my own house for free?

Maybe it’s the clean Kentucky air that draws me here. Maybe I am on a secret quest for “My Old Kentucky Home.” Some questions are unanswerable.

Every year I make sure to take a slow walk around the model contest entry room and marvel at the skills of the sculptors and modelmakers that are Wonderfest’s biggest draw. Take a look:
On Saturday evening, Wonderfest hosted The Classic Horror Film Board’s annual Rondo Awards ceremony, and as usual it did not disappoint. Though I wish more of the recipients were there in person to accept their awards, some of the video acceptance speeches were a stitch. David Kalat, who won for the Best DVD Commentary Track for his work on the Criterion Collection Godzilla, sent in a hilarious short video in which a young boy (his son, perhaps?) accepted the award on his behalf. The video aptly parodied several features of bad award speeches, such as the overuse of Webster Dictionary Definitions. It was a hoot.

Scary Monsters won best fan magazine for the first time. Editor Dennis Druktenis is another local boy from Highwood, IL, and I enjoy his magazine. My favorite column is the regular Johnny Scareshock round-up of monster news. Every month, it is a must-read for all “monster kids.”

J.D. Lees, editor of G Fan magazine, which hosts the annual G Fest convention in Rosemont, IL, won “Monster Kid of the Year,” and I was surprised to learn that he too is a teacher. The entire weekend I had to fight off an impulse to walk up to him, shout “Gojira! Gojira!” in a panic and then run away – the Godzilla version of “Ding Dong Ditch.” G Fest looks intriguing, and is only a stone’s throw from my house.

Patrick? Doug? Mike? Adam? Who’s up for G Fest in July?

I also learned at the Rondo awards that horror movie host Svengoolie is doing better.  Last November, Rich Koz, who plays Svengoolie, suffered a major heart attack. He sent along a humble and funny acceptance video, and by all accounts he is on the mend. The old coffin that Koz inherited in the late sixties from the original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop, was in horrible disrepair after 30 years of on-air use, so Koz finally commissioned a new one. The prototype of the new coffin was on display at Wonderfest:
The Rondo Awards were capped off by a video tribute to the late Ray Harryhausen by Wonderfest organizer David Conover. Apparently, Harryhausen learned of his Rondo win just days before he died, and it meant a great deal to him. Conover’s tribute served as a fitting eulogy to the man who brought wonder into the lives of so many young film fans, a feat CGI can never hope to duplicate. I am happy to report that Conover’s moving and funny video is available on You Tube:

Sunday afternoon I attended a Q & A session with Sara Karloff. She showed some funny and touching home movies of her and her famous dad and then answered audience questions. She obviously loved her Dad and the stories she told about him were priceless. For example, she related that when her father shaved his head to play the executioner in Tower of London, he thought it would be a good idea to shave two year-old Sara’s head as well. Her mother was not amused.

During Karloff’s presentation, I began to feel a little melancholy. She is one of our last living links to the history of the films we hold so dear. I mentioned last year that many Wonderfest attendees look exactly like me, overweight middle-aged men who never grew up. This year I noticed that more and more of us have started using canes.

Like Carla Laemmle in the Phantom documentary on Friday night; Donnie Dunagan, who appeared in Son of Frankenstein as a child; or Bela Lugosi, Jr., the literal Son of Dracula, Sarah Karloff should be celebrated and appreciated for how generous she is with fans. This special list gets smaller every year. I am sometimes afraid that one of my hobbies is going to die some day. Younger F This Movie! fans, like contributor Heath Holland, who keep rediscovering these films year after year, give me some measure of hope. The rerelease of the classic Universal Monster series on Blu-ray last year breathed new life into the films and hopefully garnered them some new  “21st Century fans.” Unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, we do NOT belong dead.

On a lighter note – Why is it that whenever I am at Wonderfest, this little guy always follows me around everywhere? Believe it or not, he fit into my carryon. Honey, can we keep him?


  1. Thanks for the post, JB! Especially the pictures - I always knew Elmer would snap one day, but DAMN.

    I share your concerns about ours being an aging interest group. I'm a modeler myself (mostly WWII), and James May did a wonderful show about Airfix models as part of his limited series "James May's Toy Stories." He said much the same thing about models as you've said about old movies - every time he goes to the hobby store he only sees men his own age. But take heart - James introduced a new generation to the joys of modeling by having middle schoolers help him build a special 1:1 model of a Spitfire. You're doing the same with your students when it comes to older movies. Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. Thanks for the report JB. I really like that Jaws pic and glad to hear Svenghoulie is on the mend. That dude is a Chicago institution like David 'The Rock' Nelson :-)

  3. Well, I'm sad to say that I've missed another Wonderfest. My wife and I talked about it last year and had every intention to attend, but we decided to put all our money toward our summer trip (which kicks off in Chicago...the weekend before G-Fest...frown). This truly sounds like the coolest convention ever. Really down to earth, people who love the same thing gathered under one roof to celebrate it, not to whore it out. Fingers crossed for next year. Oh, and those two Cortland Hull documentaries sound fantastic. I will definitely plan on picking them up. Thanks for spreading the word.

    You're the coolest.

  4. "...many Wonderfest attendees look exactly like me, overweight middle-aged men who never grew up. This year I noticed that more and more of us have started using canes."

    That's it. Between this mental image and knowing what JB looks like (from pics posted on the blogspot) I know I'm going to have a dream, (more likely a nightmare) in which an army of JB's in canes are chasing me across Central Park to beat me senseless. So, it'll be like any other day in NYC for me (except in this dream I know I'll be naked... again!). :-(

    Glad you had fun doing what you like to do JB.