Fantasticon 1997
Photographs contributed by Susan Dewell
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Field report from Fantasticon by Susan Dewell

LOS ANGELES -- Saturday, August 9, 1997. What prompts a middle-aged woman living the quiet life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to get on a plane by herself and fly across the country to Los Angeles to rendezvous with strangers she knows only through the Internet? (Sounds like fodder for a letter to Ann Landers.) How about the opportunity to meet 98% of the cast/crew from SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND, the best science fiction/military drama ever aired on television? Sounds reasonable to me.

Despite the doubts expressed by my friends and family, I felt no apprehension once I was cleared to attend Fantasticon last August. I had to work hard to keep my anticipation and expectations down to a manageable level. Not only was I going to meet several Internet friends face-to-face for the first time, I was also going to meet the objects of our admiration -- the people who made SPACE a reality.

On Saturday, early afternoon, the auditorium slowly filled up with people. Because it was so important to all of us for this panel discussion to be a success, we wanted the room packed with fans. Any secret fears I had of no one showing up were quickly banished.

Sitting together with the rest of the 59th (Space Ready Reserve) close to the front, I was filled with anticipation. To the right of the stage hung a curtain (the backstage area). I watched it move in the breeze and managed to catch a glimpse of shoes. They were there, and they were close. Instantly, I felt a certain magic in the air.

The Announcer appeared onstage and welcomed everyone. The moment had arrived, and he introduced our heroes, one by one, to enthusiastic applause. I listened, with rapt attention, to each name: Glen Morgan, James Wong, Morgan Weisser, James Morrison, Joel de la Fuente, Lanei Chapman, Tucker Smallwood, Tim McHugh (Area 51 wizard), Glenn Campbell (Area 51 wizard), and our favorite "AI" couple Doug Hutchison and Kimberly Patton. In the audience, there were also couple of "Chigs," Kris Sorensen and John Wilkie; one of the writers, Richard Whitley; and another special effects wizard, Justin Hammond. Missing in action were Rodney Rowland (we knew he was unavailable due to his PENSACOLA shooting schedule) and Kristen Cloke. We were quickly reassured that Kristen was running late and would arrive shortly. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Under the spotlight, seated in a long row and passing two microphones among them, our heroes greeted the fans and each other. They each shared the status of their current projects. Morgan and Wong talked about MILLENNIUM, which they had just inherited. Morgan Weisser mentioned he was, sadly, unemployed but auditioning. Joel said he’d just won a small recurring role on ER. Lanai talked about completing her graduate thesis for film school. Wearing a smart denim shirt bearing the film logo for CONTACT, Tucker added that more "Mischief was afoot." Tim and Glenn from Area 51 said that they would be working on MILLENNIUM this year.

It didn't take long for any nervousness to disappear, and soon Joel and Doug were sharing humorous anecdotes and impressions. And true to the announcement, Kristen Cloke soon appeared on stage and sat down between Glen Morgan (her fiancÚ) and James Wong.

fant1.jpg (32697 bytes)The audience was encouraged to ask questions from two podiums placed in the back of the auditorium. It soon became apparent that, although the fans had questions, it was more important to reach out and let the cast/crew know how much the show had meant to us.

During the panel, James Morrison answered several questions. He joked with the audience and with Joel de la Fuente who was seated next to him.

When he was asked what have you done since Space ended, James answered, "I made a film with my partner, a short film that is looking pretty good -- its got lots of nudity in it." After a little whooping from the audience, James added, "And it’s funny. So... two of the most important elements of life right there."

Later, Joel was asked to imitate McQueen. James suffered through bravely and with a smile, even giving Joel a playful, fatherly pat on the cheek when he was through.

The whimsy continued when James was asked if he had done any special preparation for the role of McQueen? "I had Joel come over and read all my lines."

After a burst of laughter from the audience, James got more serious. "No, I had no special preparation. These guys (Morgan and Wong), in my opinion, are the only poets working in television today. I know there are some great writers in TV, in science fiction in particular, but they were so collaborative and generous with their vision including, and I can only speak for myself, but including my sensibility and my opinion in the things that they wrote. That’s all the preparation I needed was to be able to just commune with what they had written. And I’m very grateful for having experienced that."

fant2.jpg (24643 bytes)Later, a fan noted how unusual it is to see actors who are able to contribute not only actual attributes to the characters they play, but also the words their characters speak. James responded, "They (Morgan and Wong) spent their time observing us as human beings and as cast members and watching our interaction and the way we deal with each other and our personal quirks and foibles... and they steal that stuff and put it in episodes." Then, teasingly, he added, "And then they take full credit for it.... Ultimately, they just said go ahead and say whatever you want." Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "And we did, and that’s why it ended up being so good."

Then Joel, laughing, interjected, "That’s half true! They wrote stuff, but we would just say whatever we wanted."

The surprise, for me, was the emergence of Glen Morgan. I had expected the cast, used to the spotlight, to carry the momentum. It was Glen who spoke up, shy and unassuming, who eloquently and not without a twinge of bitter regret, discussed the cancellation of the series and the realities of network politics. He answered questions and shared stories. He thanked all of the fans, acknowledging how important we were to him and James Wong.

Before our time was up, Area 51 provided a surprise. They had a short film, a visual business card if you will, of their talents in the special effects field. It was a montage of SAAB moments, set to rousing music (Traci Lord’s "Control" from the MORTAL KOMBAT motion picture soundtrack). You could feel the excitement whip through the audience like a surge of electricity. Even the cast on stage was caught by the energy and several of them jumped off stage for a better view of the screen. For a moment, brief and bittersweet, we were caught up in the magic, and SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND lived again.

Then it was over. The Announcer came on stage, explaining we were running over on time and the next panel discussion needed to set up. To loving applause, the cast and crew departed. Amid the euphoria of the moment, each of us was reminded of what was and what could have been.

fant3.jpg (36239 bytes)After the open panel discussion, everyone retired to the hospitality suite -- which turned out to be a regular (note: small) hotel room. I was one of the last ones to arrive to find the room packed with people most of them the cast and crew. Glen M., James W., James M., Morgan, Kristen, Lanai, Joel and Doug kicked back and chatted with the members of the fanclubs and other stragglers who, because of their interest, had been invited to the party. Kate Duncan, 59th SRR C.O., took this opportunity to pass out T-shirts and certificates to all the guests. These ornate pieces of paper celebrated their participation and gave them something to remember us by.

Then from across the room someone called my name, so I slipped through the maze of people to find The Man himself, James Morrison, leaning against the telephone table. He pointed his finger at me and said, "Susan Dewell." That brought me to an immediate stop, and I completely forgot about the person who had called me over. I pointed my finger at him and said, "James Morrison." (I know such a clever comeback.) We shook hands and began a conversation.

I wish I could relate everything, which was said, but I don't remember much of it. I do remember he thanked me for my support and my contributions to the various (JMDG) projects he had received. I told him I hoped he was able to have a JMDG gathering at some point (this was just about the time we realized the book signing party scheduled for September 1997 wasn't going to be realized). From there, everything is hazy. He was called away, and I slowly returned to my senses.

fant4.jpg (35727 bytes)The picture taking and chatting lasted about an hour, and this was a wonderful opportunity for us to get to see our favorites as real people. Kristen and Joel sat on one half of the bed. Lanai took the adjacent lamp table, while Morgan corned their square by leaning against the wall. Glen and James W. worked the room. Doug took a seat by the far window, and James with his friend, Ken, stayed near the open door (as if to escape quickly). Fans were able to move amongst them and bring up any topic they dared.

But slowly discussion turned back to the con. The autograph tables were being prepared, and my duties as a fanclub representative were thrust back into my mind. We were reminded that this was a charity event. The autograph tables would involve the sale of signed photos, with the money collected to be donated to each star’s favorite charity. This would involve many chores above and beyond each actor/director’s ability to perform alone. Thus each actor/director would need an assistant.

When word went out that James Morrison would require an "assistant," my attention was suddenly riveted. I knew it would be tough duty, requiring strength and dedication. The applicant needed a willingness to run errands, handle money, speak coherently, refrain from drooling and be willing to become a human shield for Mr. Morrison, if necessary. Could I do that? In a heartbeat.

With people lining up to volunteer, how could I insure my selection? Never mind the public and private entreaties to our Commander, what about bribery? Threats? Hand-to-hand combat where the best person wins? As it turned out, none of that was required. Timing was the answer, being in the right place at the right time got me the title of James Morrison's assistant. I was standing next to Kate at the proper moment, as she tried to get everyone seated and set up. With a nonchalant, "who is going to help James?" whispered in her ear, I heard her ask, "James, is it okay if Susan helps you?" Did my heart really stop when I heard, "sure, that will be fine." You bet it did.

Getting everyone set up took a few minutes. I discovered I would be sitting between James Morrison and Tucker Smallwood (what had I done to deserve such good luck?), but we were missing a chair. My first job was to make a small sign listing the cost of James' photo and naming the charity (the Southern Poverty Law Center) -- then I could worry about a chair. I knelt down, between "Ross" and "McQueen," feverishly working on the sign. Suddenly both men were strenuously objecting to my knelt-down position (to me: "You can't do that! To everyone else: "We need another chair over here!"). In the middle of finishing the sign and explaining that I would grab another chair momentarily, one suddenly appeared. Wow, when Ross and McQueen speak, people listen.

The line of fans began the trek down our table of stars. Most people not only purchased photographs, which were personalized with autographs, but they brought their own SAAB items to be signed as well. Officially, as an assistant, we were supposed to limit these extra items to no more than two, in an effort to keep the line moving. Watching the rapport between James and his fans, I couldn't say a word. Early in the signing, the pens James was using were either leaking or dried up. In a flash, I was off looking for fresh pens.

fant5.jpg (34415 bytes)What was it like, sitting next to someone you admire a lot? Actually, it was fascinating because James became a real person. He wasn't just James Morrison, TV Star, the physical embodiment of Col. McQueen (and yes, I admit having a crush on McQueen). He was a "real" person. He had silver ink smeared on his fingers. He was a little nervous. He was truly amazed and heartened by the obvious affection of the fans (strangers) that passed by the table. He answered questions, no matter how often the same ones were asked. And he smiled and thanked those people -- some of whom obviously wanted to fling their arms around his neck (though I was always on guard, ready to "fling" myself, if necessary).

When there was a lull (which wasn't often or not for very long), I got to ask James a few questions. On the Internet, I had found a picture of James taken in 1987. I liked the photo, although he doesn't look the same now, but it reminded me of a James Dean "bad boy" image. I had a copy of it and showed it to James. He very graciously autographed it for me (after a good laugh). Now, I saw him as a regular guy, amazed at the popularity of McQueen.

Due to a prior commitment, James had to leave early. It was obvious he was reluctant to disappoint any of the fans as he kept saying "just one more." I hated to see him leave, but as his assistant I dutifully got one of the Klingon security guards to hold up the line for a moment so we could pull James away from the table. I held his jacket. Amid the "good-byes" and "thank yous" I was the recipient of a gentle hug. What better reward is there? Then he was gone.

But my job wasn't over. James had left behind a stack of autographed photos, and I, a little bit blue, continued to collect the money for his charity. Then, suddenly, I noticed I was sitting between Tucker and Doug Hutchison. I defy anyone to sit close to Doug and stay melancholy for very long.

Eventually, the autograph table shut down. All of James' photos were sold. It was time to turn in my assistant "badge," but that was okay. I had learned James Morrison was a very nice man, as amazed by his fans as we were impressed by him. The trip to California and to Fantasticon was a success and exceeded all of my expectations.

I wish I could give you a transcript of our conversations, but it is all a pleasant blur. There is something about being around him... it heightens the senses but scrambles the memory. You realize he is a real person, but not ordinary. Never ordinary.

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