Seattle in 1981: The Worldcon That Got Away
[This article was published, in slightly different form, in the Cascadia Con Progress Report No. 3, April 2005]
The first, and so far only, World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle was Seacon (1961), the tale of which is told in a previous Cascadia Con Progress Report. Once the con was over, the detritus cleared away and the bills paid off, Seattle fandom proceeded to a not uncommon sequel: hiding from the world. The process took a few years. The Cry of the Nameless, clubzine of the Nameless Ones, continued publication through 1969, but by the early Seventies local fanac, though not defunct, had become invisible.
The appearance of a new generation of Seattle fandom was due to either accident or providence, depending on one’s point of view. In 1976 two recent arrivals to the Seattle area, Greg and Becky Bennett, both science fiction readers but neither a fan, drove to Illinois to visit their parents. Happening to learn that a “World Science Fiction Convention” was being held in Kansas City, they decided to make a slight detour on the way home and see what the event was all about.
Instead of breezing by for a day, they stayed for the whole con and returned home bubbling with enthusiasm for fandom. Not being a shy, retiring sort, Greg promptly founded the Northwest Science Fiction Society, which exists to this day.
At the first NWSFS meeting, attended by a handful of proto-fen discovered through various connections, someone asked what goals the new group ought to set for itself. Greg responded, after a moment’s thought, “Let’s bid for a Worldcon.” The group chose a year that was still a long way off: 1981, voting for which was nearly three years in the future.
To people who knew what they were doing, the project would have seemed mad. No one in NWSFS had a minute’s experience working on World Science Fiction Conventions. Few had ever attended an SF con of any size or variety. Moreover, though they were as yet unaware of the fact, a formidable group in Denver was already planning to compete for the 1981 event. Their city had hosted the third Worldcon, in 1941, and local fen thought that a second Denvention was long overdue.
Short of experience though the Seattle group might be, it didn’t lack energy and talent. Several members besides the Bennetts, such as Richard Wright, Elizabeth Warren, Jane Hawkins, David Bray, Bob Doyle and Steve Bard, were destined to become much better known in fandom, while William Warren, just embarking on his career as a pro artist, supplied superb visuals for bid advertisements. Particularly memorable was his “Great Moments in Science Fiction” series, which cleverly worked the Space Needle and an occasional bigfoot into scenes from classic SF movies.
To demonstrate its seriousness and improve its credibility, the group founded a new convention. Norwescon was launched in March 1978, with Theodore Sturgeon and John Berry as Guests of Honor and Alan E. Nourse as Toastmaster. Attendance was officially recorded as 415, pretty impressive for a fledgling con in a seeming fannish desert, and grew to over 700 the following year. NWSFS also expanded rapidly, going from seven members to 160 in little more than a year. Along the way the new fen encountered the Nameless Ones, who were a little startled by news of a possible return of the Worldcon but were more than willing to join the fun, so long as younger hands would do the work.
Greg went to Suncon, the 1977 Worldcon in Miami, getting a crash course in con operations (but very little sleep) and impressing an eminent fan politico, Ross Pavlac of Columbus (later Chicago), who became the first BNF to throw his support to Seattle. Others followed, softening the bid’s neofan image.
A chartered busload of Seattle fans traveled to the next year’s Worldcon, Iguanacon in Phoenix, to boost the bid with parties every night and to burnish their own credentials by working in all the roles that they could. By the time the convention ended, Denver knew that it was in a serious race and stepped up its own efforts accordingly. (There was also a Los Angeles bid, which had surprisingly little impact.)
The downside of being taken seriously was increased scrutiny. The fannish environment can be harsh for newcomers, and some Seattlites adapted poorly, giving weak answers to the curveball questions that more seasoned fen threw their way.
Problems, minor but annoying at the time, arose from the policy of “open to the public” bidcomm meetings. A teenage fan with vast ambitions and limited discretion attended regularly, decided that the bid was inadequate, and transmitted information about its goings on to friends on the Denver committee, who then made sure that all signs of amateurishness and inadequacy received wide publicity.
The bid also had some substantive weaknesses. The biggest was the proposed site, the Red Lion Hotel near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The facility had many virtues – under the Doubletree brand name it now serves as the regular location of Norwescon – but was simply too small for a Worldcon. It didn’t help that a hotel brochure implied that it regarded 1,200 attendees as a “large conference”.
The bidcomm made the tactical blunder of agreeing that the Red Lion couldn’t handle a convention the size of recent Worldcons (over 3,000 in 1976 and 1977, an estimated 4,700 in 1978), then arguing that those numbers were anomalies. Attendance was bound to fall back to the 2,000-some level typical of the early years of the decade. That wasn’t a view that fandom wanted to hear (and it also turned out not to be correct).
The kerfuffle over the Red Lion’s capacity completely overshadowed Denver’s facilities problem: The main hotel was nine long, not very pleasant blocks from the convention center. With imaginative space allocation and the use of overflow hotels, Seattle could perhaps have worked around its deficiencies; Denver had no way to shorten the distance that its members had to walk.
A more politically adept committee could have turned the comparison into a plus. Seattle’s grew defensive, culminating in an ad that pleaded, “Seattle has a great Worldcon waiting for you. If we didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t be bidding.” Just the sort of thing that people say when their faith is crumbling.
On a lighter note, there was the Great Nuts and Berries Hoax. Presupporting memberships in the bid cost $1.00 “or 6,000 pounds of assorted nuts and berries to keep the bigfoots happy and nonviolent until ’81”. Norwegian fan Bjørn Vermo and the Aniara Science Fiction Club wrote saying that they had pooled their resources and were shipping 60,000 pounds of Norwegian hazelnuts and Russian dried blueberries in payment for ten presupports, FOB Oslo. Accompanying the letter were an authentic looking bill of lading and other documents confirming that the goods had been loaded onto a freighter bound for the Port of Seattle. Research discovered that the ship and its purported schedule were real and that its cargo manifest was consistent with the Norwegian club’s documents.
Bjørn also showed up at Iguanacon, where, in Greg Bennett’s words, he “was relentless, telling the story in painful detail of how difficult it was to organize the bodies they needed to move those blueberries and hazelnuts from their cache”.
Panic, or the pretense thereof, ensued, as NWSFS members had visions of trying to cope with 30 tons of foodstuffs, not to mention being dunned for insurance and freight. Greg’s account continues,
While we were sweating away in the fair city of Phoenix (both from the heat and from Bjørn’s ceaseless deadpan), the California Star was steaming her way through the Panama Canal. We started making plans – blueberry wine, blueberry soup, hazelnut bread. Our resident gourmet cook, Cliff Wind, took great delight in coming up with exotic recipes.
So, on September 11, 1978, about a dozen members of the Northwest Science Fiction Society met the California Star at its dock. We were prepared with all the excuses: unsolicited merchandise, it wasn’t our fault, we can’t afford to pay the shipping charges. . . . But, when the crates were all unloaded, the nuts and berries were nowhere to be found.
The subsequent explanation was that a horde of bigfoots had boarded the ship during its passage through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and pirated the delicacies. The bid added the Aniara Club members to its presupporting rolls.
After a further year of campaigning, including a foray as far east as Boskone, the time for the decision neared. Voting would take place at the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, England: named, like the long ago Seattle convention, “Seacon”. That was not, alas, an omen.
Very few bidcomm members could afford the trip across the Atlantic. To one of the affluent few a number of local fans entrusted their site selection ballots, reckoning that it was safer to have them carried by hand than to rely on the mails. That was a miscalculation. The messenger forgot all about his charge until after the polls closed, depriving Seattle of 20 or 30 votes.
The ballots were counted on Saturday night, and the result was a shock to the “experts” who had confidently declared that Denver was a shoo-in. The totals were –
Thanks to the mishap with the carried Seattle ballots and the fact that “No Preference” is ignored, Denver gained a three-vote majority, narrowly escaping the redistribution of the L.A. votes and a second round of counting.
Though it didn’t gain a Worldcon for the Pacific Northwest, the bid had significant positive consequences. The energy devoted to it carried over into NWSFS and the rest of local fandom. Within a few years Norwescon was one of the two or three largest regionals, with 3,000 members and an impressive array of authors and artists. Seattle in ’81 is also noteworthy as a pioneer in modern Worldcon bidding, with extravagant bid parties, topnotch ad artwork and clever themes. A group that no one in fandom had initially heard of accomplished a lot in just three years, almost as much as if it had won a Worldcon.
One of the Seattle in 1981 Advertisements From the Brush of William Warren
Appendix: Members of the Seattle in 1981 Bid Committee
Greg Bennett (chairman), Steve Bard, Becky Bennett, David Bray, Pepper Bray, Bob Doyle, Karrie Dunning, Shelley Dutton, Gordon Erickson, Herby Fairbanks, Jeff Frane, Jane Hawkins, Loren MacGregor, Lauraine Miranda, Paul Novitski, Ross Pavlac, Dennis Pernaa, Bill Seil, Larry Smith, Tom Veal, William Warren, Elizabeth Warren, Cliff Wind, Richard Wright
The author thanks Bill Seil for preserving the bid memorabilia that made this article possible and Becky Thomson for editorial assistance.
Addendum: Bruce Miller, one of the leaders of the Denver in 1981 bid, sent me comments on, and corrections to, the preceding article. Fanhistorians of the future will doubtless find much fodder in the differences between his recollections and those of my informants. I myself maintain strict neutrality.
“No one in NWSFS had a minute’s experience working on World Science Fiction Conventions…. a formidable group in Denver was already planning to compete for the 1981 event.”
Bruce: Before 1978, nobody in Denver’s bid had, either. We were only formidable in retrospect.
“There was also a Los Angeles bid, which had surprisingly little impact.”
Bruce: LASFS was bidding for 1984. The 1981 bid consisted pretty much of one person who was mad at them and trying to spoil their chances for 1984.
“The fannish environment can be harsh for newcomers, and some Seattlites adapted poorly, giving weak answers to the curveball questions that more seasoned fen threw their way.”
Bruce: If you’re referring to “It couldn’t happen” and “I’d punch the banquet manager”, those were just weak answers - not curveball questions. I got asked the same questions. [Okay, they were slow curve balls. – TV]
“Problems, minor but annoying at the time, arose from the policy of ‘open to the public’ bidcomm meetings. A teenage fan with vast ambitions and limited discretion attended regularly, decided that the bid was inadequate, and transmitted information about its goings on to friends on the Denver committee, who then made sure that all signs of amateurishness and inadequacy received wide publicity.”
Bruce: I don’t believe this is true. At least, I never heard about it, and I was active on the bid committee and was a Denver bid rep at more cons than anyone else. Rumors did spread, but not through Denver – and the most common rumor I knew of was the aforementioned answers, which were off-the-wall enough to make a funny story. [The fan in question told people on the Seattle committee that he had acted as a spy. Knowing him, I can well believe that he was, let’s say, exaggerating. – TV]
“The bid also had some substantive weaknesses. The biggest was the proposed site, the Red Lion Hotel near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The facility had many virtues – under the Doubletree brand name it now serves as the regular location of Norwescon – but was simply too small for a Worldcon. It didn’t help that a hotel brochure implied that it regarded 1,200 attendees as a ‘large conference’.”
Bruce: That brochure was my favorite campaign literature for Denver in ’81. “Capable of hosting meetings of up to 1,200 people”. I showed that to a lot of people. It may be the main reason Seattle lost. (It wasn’t sent to me from a renegade Seattle person, either – I found it at a Seattle party.)
“The bidcomm made the tactical blunder of agreeing that the Red Lion couldn’t handle a convention the size of recent Worldcons (over 3,000 in 1976 and 1977, an estimated 4,700 in 1978), then arguing that those numbers were anomalies. Attendance was bound to fall back to the 2,000-some level typical of the early years of the decade. That wasn’t a view that fandom wanted to hear (and it also turned out not to be correct).”
Bruce: The tactical blunder was in planning for 2,000 people and choosing that hotel; not in admitting the obvious. If the site could have handled a larger worldcon, then not showing how was another tactical blunder.
“The kerfuffle over the Red Lion’s capacity completely overshadowed Denver’s facilities problem: The main hotel was nine long, not very pleasant blocks from the convention center.”
Bruce: Actually, six from the headquarters hotel. Still not good, but Denver’s bid had not planned to use the convention center at all. They were forced to when their headquarters hotel (the Denver Hilton) remodeled in late 1979 – early 1980. The Denver Fire Department required them to put in escalators, citing inadequate fire exits. The Hilton decided to put them in the middle of what had been three levels of large function rooms, turning almost all of the space into escalator lobby; while they were at it, they turned another large function room into a restaurant. In all they lost three function rooms of ~10,000 sq. ft – enough to force us to use the convention center. We hadn’t originally planned to and didn’t want to.