A Brief History of MidAmeriCon

I was not at MidAmeriCon, Big MAC, the thirty–fourth World Science Fiction Convention, in 1976. I feel it is important to state this up front because sometimes it seems like everyone I speak to at conventions attended that convention, often as the first science fiction convention they attended. MidAmeriCon is sort of like Woodstock. I think many more people remember attending than the 3,014 who were actually in Kansas City.

In fact, it wasn’t even the largest Worldcon up to that time. Two years earlier, Discon II in Washington, D.C., set the record with 3,587 members, a record which would only stand until 1978. No North American World Science Fiction Convention held since 1974 has had fewer members than Big MAC, but it is widely considered to have been a sea change in the event, ushering in the new era of Worldcons. With MidAmeriCon II scheduled for August 2016, now is a good time to explore why the earlier MidAmeriCon is remembered so fondly.

The convention chair, Ken Keller, had announced that he was planning on doing things at MidAmeriCon that had never been done before. One of those first innovations was to invite former Kansas Citian Robert A. Heinlein to be the author Guest of Honor. Since Heinlein had been the Guest of Honor in 1941 at Denvention, and again in 1961 at Seacon, inviting him didn’t seem so innovative, except that Heinlein remains, to this day, the only author who has been named Guest of Honor to a Worldcon three times. Normally when bidding for a Worldcon, the identity of the Guests of Honor are kept secret to ensure people are bidding for the organizers and the city rather than because of who they will honor. Caught in a four–way race with New Orleans, Columbus, and Scandinavia, the KC in ’76 committee allowed their selection to be known during the bidding process and were roundly criticized for the leak and for the selection.

Early projections seemed to indicate that Big MAC would have as many as 7,000 members and the committee knew they couldn’t handle a con that size. To ensure it didn’t happen, they introduced the sliding rate scale, making the con more expensive the later a fan bought a membership, they announced that they would not run an all–night movie room, and they also announced there would be no programming related to comic books, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, or the Society for Creative Anachronism. All of these decisions were met with howls of protest. MidAmeriCon was clearly attempting to destroy fandom and the Worldcon.

Keller was also concerned that people would crash MidAmeriCon, so prior to the convention, he announced that the convention would have a foolproof way of ensuring that only paid members were in attendance. There was much speculation prior to the Worldcon that this meant holograms on the badges. Keller had something else in mind and each attendee was given a plastic bracelet that could not be put on again once it was taken off. Of course, foolproof doesn’t mean fanproof, and some fans set themselves the goal of subverting the security measure. They found a woman who was being released from the hospital and convinced her to continue to wear her hospital ID, so they could try to bring her to the various official functions of the convention. They succeeded.

The other innovation that became apparent at registration was that Mid-AmeriCon was the first Worldcon to issue a hardcover souvenir book. The book had a color wrap–around dust jacket by fan Guest of Honor George Barr (who, coincidentally, is one of the few other people to be a Worldcon GoH multiple times, repeating as artist GoH in 1994).

Keller and company knew that they would have issues with crowd size, especially since the largest room only held a little more than half the expected convention membership. They therefore arranged to use closed circuit television so people could watch the masquerade, the guest of honor speeches, and other major programming items from their own rooms in the hotel. Although the original intention was for live simulcasts, technical difficulties meant the con had to fall back on video tapes.

One of the popular items at the convention occurred in room 364 of the Muehlenbach Hotel where three men gave a series of presentations on a new film that would be released the next year. Producer Gary Kurtz, Head of Publicity Charles Lippincott, and actor Mark Hamill had brought props, photos, drawings, and promotional items for the film The Star Wars (sic), as well as the costumes used for Darth Vader, C3PO, and R2–D2. While some fans thought the film looked silly, many more were enraptured by the idea of a space opera that cared enough about the community to reach out to Worldcon and a slideshow about the film was attended by a standing room only crowd of more than 1,700 people.

The film program, in that long ago era before Netflix, DVDs, or even home videotape, was an important aspect of the convention, giving fans a chance to not only watch the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet (with commentary by Bebe and Louis Barron, who had just released a record of its musical score), but also gave fans the chance to watch a film that had been released, and flopped, a year earlier, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Masquerade was smaller than it had been in recent years, although that still meant 60 entries. The quality of the costumes, however, was much better than had been seen at previous Worldcons. Locus noted that costumes which would have been winners in previous years didn’t even make honorable mention at MidAmeriCon, and Mike Resnick noted that he and his wife, Carol, had won the previous four masquerades in which they participated, but did not win in Kansas City for their depiction of Haunte and Sullenbode from David Lindsey’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

The entertainment scheduled for the Masquerade while the judges deliberated is, perhaps, the most telling sign that 1976 was a very different time. A fan named Patia von Sternberg who was a professional ecdysiast, danced during the intermission. Patia’s performance was meant to last about five minutes, at which time she had stripped down to a g–string, when she was told that the judges weren’t finished and they needed her to continue to dance, for another twenty minutes. There were some complaints lodged with the convention committee over the non–family friendly entertainment.

Ever since 1960, the Art Show at Worldcons had been run by Bjo and John Trimble, who are probably best known to modern fans for their campaign to save Star Trek. The Trimbles had announced that 1976 would be their last art show. The show was large and prices were high with Michael Whelan, who had only been displaying his work since Discon in 1974, coming out of the con with the most sales.

The concom for MidAmeriCon also decided to innovate with one of the core Worldcon traditions. Since the Hugos were first presented in Philadelphia in 1953, the event was held in conjunction with a banquet. In addition to the traditional over–priced rubber chicken, the convention’s toastmaster would traditionally say a few words and the Hugos would be presented. MidAmeriCon decided to create a new way of awarding Hugos and thus was the modern–day Hugo Awards Ceremony invented. The evening began with a music and light show created by Michigan fen Illuminatus, followed by a routine between Bob Tucker and Pat Cadigan. Eventually the awards were given out and then Robert Heinlein addressed the room for half an hour, no more, no less, finishing in the middle of a thought when his alarm clock rang. Behind the scenes, Larry Niven, who had won a Hugo for his novelette “The Borderland of Sol,” tripped and broke his award.

Afterward, one of the most hallowed traditions of Worldcon got its start. There are many stories of how the Hugo Losers Party began, and some of them may even be true. What is definitely known is that it began in the hotel room of George R. R. Martin. Martin had two works nominated for Hugos in 1976, one in the novelette category, which did not go home with George, and one in the novella category, which George also failed to snag. Prior to the convention, George had been talking about the possibility of throwing a party in his room to drown his sorrows with Gardner Dozois if he lost either of the Hugos. Come the night, George and Gardner retreated to George’s room with several bottles of alcohol. If someone knocked on the door, they were admitted if they could explain why they, too, were losers, with Joe Haldeman, who had won a Hugo for the novel The Forever War, turned away, although he did eventually find himself thrown into the hotel pool, fully clothed, by revelers.

The traditional Hugo banquet was, in fact, held, although since there were no Hugos presented and it took place prior to the Hugo Ceremony by several hours, it wasn’t exactly traditional, unless one looks to the pre–1952 banquets for tradition. The food was terrible. Toastmaster Bob Tucker said a few words before turning the floor over to Fan Guest George Barr, who spoke on art before a series of testimonials were given in praise of Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein had a very rare blood type and arranged to have the convention hold a blood drive, which has since become a staple of many science fiction conventions. At MidAmeriCon, Heinlein set a policy that he would only sign his own books, and that he would only autograph those if the person requesting the autograph could demonstrate that they had donated blood or been deferred for legitimate reasons.

While most people talk about the positive aspects of MidAmeriCon, the 1976 convention had its negatives as well.

Neither hotel nor convention registration ran particularly smoothly, with long lines and a lack of hotel rooms. The same day MidAmeriCon was scheduled to begin, the triennial Grand Encampment of the Knights Templar was ending, so many people found that they weren’t yet able to check into their hotel rooms. In addition, Asenath Hammond, who at the time was married to artist Rick Sternbach (Artist Guest of Honor at Denvention 3),was kicked by a couple of Knights Templar and found herself in a cast and wheelchair for the duration of the convention.

The meet–the–authors event on Thursday night was poorly organized, taking place in a room around a pool with lighting dimmed, making it difficult to see. The room was crowded, but apparently nobody fell into the pool. Some big names, such as Heinlein and Alfred Bester, sat down and held court, but once their crowds formed, the two men became inaccessible to anyone beyond the wall of courtiers.

Fred Pohl reported that the hotels were demanding cash in advance for hotel rooms and weren’t allowing room charges. Many of the restaurants within walking distance of the Muehlenbach Hotel (the convention site) were closed and the ones that remained open were staffed by surly, exhausted waitstaff. Pohl and others attribute this not to the fear the locals had of science fiction fandom, but the recently completed Republican National Convention which had used up the city’s allotment of hospitality, although it is just as likely that the Knights Templar were responsible. By Sunday night, according to fan Joel Zakem, most of the restaurants had just closed for Labor Day, making eating even less enjoyable.

As fans from around the Midwest prepared to attend MidAmeriCon, they discovered that they weren’t alone. Others from their communities were also preparing to travel to Kansas City and the realization that “It is a Proud and Lonely Thing to Be a Fan” need only be half–true. Other fans came back from MidAmeriCon having met fans from throughout the Midwest. The result was the birth of new conventions across the region, many of which are now preparing to celebrate their fortieth anniversaries, not least of which is WisCon.

MidAmeriCon was a trendsetter con in many ways. Located in the middle of the U.S. for the first time since 1969’s St. Louiscon, it gave many Midwestern fans the opportunity to attend a Worldcon which they had been missing. Keller’s instincts to be innovative paid off handsomely, with many of the ideas MidAmeriCon attempted continuing to future Worldcons. Not everything worked as planned or hoped, but that is true of every Worldcon, with the perfect Worldcon being as elusive as the mythical Tucker Hotel. The truly successful Worldcon is one that leaves positive memories for its attendees, honorees, and concom, and one that adds to the community of fandom, which MidAmeriCon did.

Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008, and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in the anthology The Tangled Web. He has maintained a bibliography of Jewish Science Fiction since the 1990s and wrote the article on Jewish Science Fiction for the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History.

Photo Credit: Richard Man

One Response to “A Brief History of MidAmeriCon”

  1. Murray

    Excellent piece, Steven. But in graf 3, I’m fairly certain this “One of those first innovations was to invite Kansas citizen Robert A. Heinlein” should be “One of those first innovations was to invite Kansas *Citian* Robert A. Heinlein.”

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