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29 September, 2007

A Unimonster in Paradise: 36 hours at Wonderfest 2007

Regular readers of CreatureScape need no introduction to Wonderfest, one of the biggest, and best, figure modeling conventions to be found. Held every year at the Executive West hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, it brings together the best and brightest kit dealers and sculptors, genre movie and television personalities, and the fans who drive both industries.

This was my first trip to Wonderfest, and to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a veteran of multiple Star Trek conventions, and have attended one or two Horror conventions, but Wonderfest didn’t really fit either category. I was frankly concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough to do to fill a weekend… at least, not for someone who isn’t a dedicated figure modeler. Those concerns faded as soon as I walked into the Dealer’s Room the first time.

The trip began, for me, at 2:00am Saturday May 26th, when my traveling companions, John Aranza of Horrorbles in Chicago, and fellow CreatureScape contributor Elizabeth Haney arrived to pick me up. The trip on to Louisville was uneventful, save for a stop for breakfast at the Shelbyville Waffle House that’s best left to the reader’s imagination.

We arrived at the Executive West around 5:00am, none the worse for that experience, checked in, unloaded the vehicle, and settled in for a quick nap prior to hitting the convention floor.

My first priority was meeting CreatureScape’s editor, Sean, face-to-face for the first time. Though I’ve written for him for more than two years now, this was my first opportunity to say hello and shake his hand, and I had no intention of letting it pass by. I found him hard at work at the Geometric Models table, setting up their terrific line of busts. Particularly impressive among the displayed busts was a beautifully sculpted Frankenstein’s Monster, clearly based on the Chaney GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN version. Meeting Sean in person was a highlight of the trip, as was viewing the wonderful pieces on display at the Geometrics table.

But those certainly weren’t the only highlights of this trip. Just walking into the Dealer’s Room was an experience; never had I seen the sheer number and variety of high-quality figure kits and build-ups. As I’ve mentioned before in the Crypt, my figure-modeling experience is essentially limited to the Aurora Monsters and Super-Heroes of my youth; my modeling preferences lie with Military subjects, especially early jet aircraft.

But that doesn’t mean I’m unable to appreciate a beautifully sculpted and finished Harryhausen Cyclops in the Burroughs Model Works display, or lust after the displays of Horror, Sci-Fi, and Super-Heroes models and memorabilia stacked up everywhere.

Nor were models all to be found in the Dealer’s Room. One of the first items to catch my eye was an old friend, a large poster of KING KONG. I have no idea if it was original; the seller certainly had it priced as such.

Also in the Dealer’s Room were the celebrity guests, luminaries of the Genre such as Lori Nelson, star of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED; Robert Picardo and Denise Crosby, of Star Trek fame; and the Father of Horror-Hosting, Zacherley the Cool Ghoul. But undoubtedly the biggest star to grace Wonderfest was the one and only Bob Burns.

Second only to the Ackermonster himself in my pantheon of horror heroes, Bob Burns is the collector most of us wish we could be. Not only has he had a life-long love of the Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy genres, but he has been fortunate enough to spend most of that life in close association with the movie-making industry, affording him the opportunity to amass a truly unique collection. One of the main attractions of the weekend was a discussion hosted by Burns, on the topic of him and his wife’s friendship with the great AIP creature-creator Paul Blaisedell and his wife. This friendship sprang up out of a chance encounter, and for the next several years, the two couples were virtually inseparable. Burns’ narrative came complete with dozens of photos the couples’ took on their weekend get-togethers.

Saturday was also the day to explore the exhibits that had been set up in virtually every corner of the hotel’s ground floor. Without question the best exhibit, truly museum-quality was that set up by the Universal Monster Army Yahoo group (member in good standing Pvt. Unimonster, reporting…). Walking through the UMA room was like revisiting my own childhood, as I saw toys I had owned, toys I wished I had owned, and toys I would’ve sold my baby brother to own. The display included many of the Castle 8mm Monster film boxes, and was beautifully showcased.

Next door to the UMA room was a fascinating exhibit featuring treasures from Bob Burns’ collection, as well as others. This display featured both original props and reproductions from films as varied as Disney’s THE ROCKETEER (1991), to the American-International classics such as NOT OF THIS EARTH and THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED. Seeing the original masks used in IT: THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, or the alien mind-controlling “bats” from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD up close and in person adds a dimension to these films that is akin to visiting a historic site or viewing a famous work of art. It gives the viewer a sense of depth and realism that simply cannot be gained otherwise.

By this point, it was late on Saturday afternoon, and I had been awake since early Friday morning. Toss in some beers and a terrific cheese-steak sandwich in the hotel bar, and I was one tired Unimonster. There were several events that night that I had hoped to attend; alas, such was not to be. I wound up crashing before I could check out the Shock Theater, where they were showing 1950’s B-Movie classics, or attend the Midnight Mystery Show special event. Missing this was especially distressing, as it was a discussion, featuring Zacherley, on the early days of Horror-hosting and Universal’s “Shock Theater” movie package, which gave birth to the hundreds of “Creature-Feature” type shows nationwide.

Sunday morning came bright and early, and with it a full agenda to accomplish before we bid farewell to Louisville. Saturday had been a reconnaissance; Sunday was to be the all-out assault on Wonderfest, a take-no-prisoners storming of the Dealer’s Room to gather as much booty as possible before withdrawing homeward. John and Elizabeth set off to gather autographs and merchandise (now available for purchase at Horrorbles), and I set off to spend what I had set aside for the purpose of loot-gathering. Given my limited Resin and figure kit experience, I knew that I wasn’t going to get an expensive, detailed figure for my first resin model; I wanted something simple, but something that would look nice when finished. It didn’t take long to find exactly what I wanted—a replica prop Heavy Assault Phaser from STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. My inner Trekker could hardly be contained as I counted out the $30 the kit cost, and it was easily my favorite acquisition of the weekend… but far from the only one.

After I had spent what cash I had on hand, I attended the one event that I had had on my list from the start of the convention: A lecture on my favorite of the Creature from the Black Lagoon films, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, hosted by Lori Nelson, Bob Burns, and Tom Weaver. These are the same three who did the commentary for the Creature Legacy DVD, and the chance to hear them discuss the movie in person, in a question-and-answer format, was too good to pass up.

One other goal I had for Sunday was to get those few autographs that I wanted. Now, I’m not big on autographed items, and I’m completely indifferent to most celebrities. But there are a few of which I consider myself a fan, and there were three at Wonderfest I particularly wished to add to my collection: Lori Nelson; Zacherley; and, of course, Bob Burns.

In the end, I managed to get two out of three, lacking only that of Burns. But there’ll be other conventions, and other opportunities to get that autograph. And as we loaded up to leave, I was already making plans to return next year.

My trip to Wonderfest lasted approximately 36 hours, just enough to get the flavor and feel of the event, connect with friends and fellow Monster-fans, and recharge my batteries. There’s something about communing with those whose interests and passions mirror your own that reawakens those feelings in you, refreshing your love of subject.

That’s the effect it had on me. Months of stress, work, and life in general had me beaten down. While I hadn’t lost interest in the genre, my writing was beginning to suffer, and it was getting harder and harder to complete my CreatureScape pieces. I returned from Wonderfest recharged and reenergized, ready to get back to work and eager to return to writing. While going to a horror convention didn’t cure all my problems and the underlying causes for the stress are still there, there’s no denying that it helped.

And sometimes that’s good enough.

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