Spooky Empire 2010
After a less than spectacular experience at the 2009 Spooky Empire show, not the least of which involved my friend Byron swearing off the event, I approached this year’s con with some understandable caution. The guest list only included two people I was really excited about meeting, John Saxon and John Carpenter, and there is the ever present threat of cancellation up to and even past the last minute. The one day admission price for Saturday was increased by $10 this year to $35 with no appreciable additions to the show so I was apprehensive as the date approached. Fortunately, I had fellow Fanboy Chris Woods in my corner this year. He was going to all three days of the event and as a regular attendee, not as a guest filmmaker. Thanks to Mr. Woods’ advanced Intel, I was not only able to verify that the two guests I wanted to see really would be there but also navigate the entire event with relative ease on Saturday which made it a much more enjoyable experience.
Since I had decided to day trip the excursion to Orlando this year and also meet up with friends there, my wife Cindy decided to join me. We headed out of Jacksonville early Saturday morning and made it to the south end of Orlando with very little traffic difficulties. Once again, Spooky Empire was held at the Wyndham hotel on International Drive which seems to be an ideal location for an event of this size. The one exception to this is the parking which is both inadequate and maze like so you have to allow an extra thirty minutes after arriving to get parked and to the door of the hotel. To the Wyndham’s credit though, unlike many events in Orlando, the parking is free.
We arrived about ten minutes before the 11AM start time and hung around in the hotel lobby until the tickets went on sale. As soon as we had our wrist bands and turned to head towards the dealer and guest rooms, the first member of our Fanboy patrol, Lonnie Dohlen, showed up to great us. Ever vigilant about getting in as soon as the show started, Lonnie had been in line since 8:30 that morning so he was ready to get his con on! I had called Chris, who was staying at the hotel, when we arrived and he joined us shortly thereafter to serve as our native guide through the halls of horror.
Anticipating a gathering crowd around the celebrities, our first stop was the guest rooms. Chris pointed out both John Saxon and John Carpenter’s tables to me before excusing himself to the dealer’s room. Since Saxon was the closest and presently unoccupied, I got his signature first. I had brought along two one sheet movie posters from some of the films in his long career. The first was for a great little cannibal/Viet Nam vet film called Invasion of the Flesh Hunters (a.k.a. Cannibals in the Streets) but this was an uncommon style featuring great artwork of a half zombified Saxon. The second was one of the oldest posters in my collection that once adorned a wall in my dorm room in college, Blood Beach. Apparently Saxon is still friends with Beach’s director Jeffrey Bloom and had his assistant take a photo of him holding my poster to send him!
Next up was cult film director John Carpenter who was already getting a small line at his table. I had already met Mr. Carpenter earlier that morning. When were searching for a parking space, we saw him walking into the hotel and I took the opportunity to wish him a good morning. I reintroduced myself and had him sign my one sheet for one of his very first feature films, Assault on Precinct Thirteen. Word came down later that evening that Carpenter had suffered a minor seizure a few hours later but was taken to the hospital and released with a clean bill of health. He was back at the show the next day but considering the free publicity Spooky Empire got from the incident I hope he was keeping an eye on his coffee!
As I was leaving Carpenter’s table, I spied the area for the Return of the Living Dead reunion (of sorts) being sponsored this year. I say “of sorts” because the two actors associated with the film that I would most like to meet, James Karen and Clu Gulager, were just about the only two people from the film who weren’t there. I did pay a visit to Jewel Shepard who played punk girl Casey in the film before going on a few year’s later to appear in Ted Mikel’s Mission: Killfast. I was always curious if they shot any scenes for that film where she had her top on and, as suspected, she confirmed that they did not when she signed my DVD of the film. Miss Shepard is, if anything, more attractive now than she was in 1985 when she appeared in Return. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Linnea Quigley who looked like a bag lady from the 1980’s. Apparently being a Scream Queen can really take its toll.
It should be mentioned at this point that Spooky Empire followed suite this year with many other conventions and instigated “professional photo opportunities”. These “opportunities” allow fans to pay for professional photographs taken of them with their favorite guests from the show. As a method of encouragement, most of the major guests had large signs at their tables which read “no posed photography”. Thankfully most of the guests could have cared less about this and were more than willing to pose with fans, most of whom were already paying for their signatures anyway.
We decided to postpone the second guest room temporarily and join Chris in the dealer’s area. The merchandise selection was 90% modern and split evenly between toys, bootleg DVDs, posters, and costumes. Their was one dealer with a sizable selection of vintage items including Aurora models, Mego figures, View-Master reels and even old 8mm movies but the few things that I could find with prices on them were fairly steep. I did spot a pair of Creepy Creatures puzzles that Andy Lalino had previously mentioned a fondness for and he was able to replace a childhood treasure. One of the cooler new items Chris pointed out to me were bobble head figures based on the original Twilight Zone. The stand out piece was a scale replica of the devil headed fortune machine from the episode Nick of Time. It was cleverly done but, like the remainder of the room, failed to talk me out of any money. Cindy did get a well made set of demon horns though that she wore for the rest of the show to try and blend in!
The real surprise for me in the dealer’s room was a table set up by VCI Entertainment to promote the recent release of their DVD for the cult television film Dark Night of the Scarecrow. While still getting over the surprise that they had actually read my (thankfully positive) review of their DVD, I was introduced to the film’s writer, J. D. Feigelson. He had also read my review and proceeded to share all types of trivia about the film with me. According to him, Charles Durning enjoyed the rare opportunity to play a villain, the U.S. Postal Service provided all of Durning’s uniforms and equipment even though he did not portray their employees in the best light, and CBS purchased the screenplay based on Feigelson’s intentional lack of gore in the story. They graciously presented me with a signed promo poster for the DVD and Fiegelson posed for a photo with me before I continued on. Later in our dealer’s room travels, Lonnie and I spotted a bootleg DVD vendor sporting not one but two copies of Scarecrow on her table. When I pointed out the film was not only available legitimately but that its distributor was set up on the other side of the hall, she merely moved the copy I handed her to the back of the stack and left it on the table. So much for honor among thieves!
Making our way to the last row of the room where the independent film companies were set up, we found Andrew Allen and Andy Lalino pitching their newly released DVD of Brainjacked right next to Richard and Gary Lester from Blue Heron International Pictures. The Lester’s had brought along some star power with Johnny Martino from The Godfather at their table signing photos and copies of his recent book on making the famous film. While Chris and I were talking to the Andys, we spotted actor Gary Busey staggering down the isle towards us. Our initial reaction was to greet him but when we saw the dubious look on his face we felt it best to stay out of his way. As he passed the Blue Heron table, Johnny Martino, who claims to have known him for years, called out to Busey. He paused briefly, looked over his shoulder at Martino, and then continued staggering off down the isle. Chris and I both agreed this was the scariest thing we saw the whole day!
As we were wrapping up the dealer’s room, Lisa Scherer arrived from Tampa and joined our expedition just in time for lunch. Since Chris nixed both Chinese cuisine and fish, we ended up across the street at a convenient and surprisingly good Perkins restaurant. I had called my Orlando friend John Thrailkill just before we left the hotel and he and his son Joe met up with us for lunch. In a horror themed mood, we discussed the differences between modern and classic horror films and the current appetite for remakes. Chris and I also pontificated on the classic horror stars that we would like to meet at a show like Spooky Empire but have never had the opportunity. Our lists started out small but I realized by the end they still have a lot to draw on in terms of guests if they want to.
After lunch we returned to the show and took a group photo just inside the hotel in one of the few uncrowded areas. John and Joe had come back with us and John dutifully stood in for Andy Lalino (who had backpedaled out of lunch faster than Lance Armstrong in the Bizarro Universe). As we headed back down to the convention rooms I began to notice that many of the suitably attired people in the halls were not wearing wrist bands or any type of noticeable ID indicating they were patrons of the show. After making this initial discovery, I continued to notice this trend throughout the remainder of the day. Apparently many horror fans just show up to socialize without ever taking part in any of the paid activities.
We decided to finish up the guest rooms first since their really wasn’t much of a line for anyone. In fact, the only sizable lines I noted at all that day were for Danny Trejo, star of the currently in release film Machete, and Robert “Freddy Kruger” England who can surprisingly still pack fans in even after multiple appearances in the Central Florida area over the past few years. The same could not be said for many of the repeat offender guests who I’ve lamented about in the past and won’t even bother to mention this year. Saddest of all was Ricou Browning, who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the underwater sequences of the Universal Pictures trilogy. Browning is a living legend but I never saw a single person at his table the entire time I was there.
John decided not to pay for admission to the show but still managed to wander into several of the rooms without any problems. He hung around while Lonnie and I visited with a few people in the second guest room including horror hostess Elvira who was kind enough to pose with Lonnie for free. As I was taking some general shots of the room, I heard a deep voice say “hey buddy, you don’t have to sneak photos”. It was Tom Towels from House of 1000 Corpses and Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer who I couldn’t resist talking to after that admonishment. After Lonnie and I explained that many guests and the show promoters were trying to generate additional revenue by charging for photo ops this year, the genial Towels insisted on posing with us for free. Now that is my kind of guest. I noticed Gary Busey had made it safely to his table and decided to be brave enough to approach him for an autograph until I saw the sign on his table stating he was charging $30! While I have been a fan of his work since way back when he starred in The Buddy Holly Story, I still couldn’t justify paying a premium for his signature.
I have always enjoyed the music of KISS since their heyday in the 70’s but I never considered myself a big enough fan to seek out autographs. My friend Memphis Phil, however, is a huge KISS fanatic and even though he has many of their signatures, he couldn’t pass up a chance for another one. For some reason, even though the group has nothing to do with horror, guitarists Ace Frehley was a guest at this year’s show and even though Chris had warned me that getting his autograph was a surreal experience, I still wasn’t fully prepared. Mr. Frehley was the sole signer in a room usually designated for 8-10 guests. It was partitioned into two areas with the sales being handled in the first and the signing in the second. While a variety of signable items were available for sale at “nominal” prices, Phil had already entrusted me with a copy of a vintage LP he wanted autographed. After paying the sales person $30 to have an item I brought signed, I was given a ticket and put in line behind the two or three other people in the room – it was not crowded. As I approached the divider leading in to the dimly lit other half of the room, one of Ace’s handlers asked me what I was having signed and then took my ticket. I was also instructed not to take any personal photographs. He then directed me to approach the table Ace was sitting behind and as I did another handler took the album from me, inspected it, and handed it to the musician. At this point Ace finally looked up at me from behind dark glasses and asked how I wanted it signed. I said “To Phil” and after verifying the spelling, Ace quickly scrawled a signature and passed it to yet another handler on the other side who gave the LP back to me. I wandered out of the room wondering if I had just purchased an autograph from a celebrity or requested a favor from a mafia Don on this, the day of his daughter’s wedding!
Having completed my autograph acquisitions, I rejoined our group and killed a few more minutes with another pass through the dealer’s room. Normally I would have called it a day at this point but Richard and Gary Lester had invited me to a panel for the film Astro-Zombies M3: Cloned at 5PM. Cindy, Lonnie and I found the room the panel was in and were reunited shortly thereafter with Chris and Lisa who had been watching a film they apparently were not too fond of. The majority of this presentation was supposed to be filled with a blooper reel from the film but the staff of Spooky Empire could not locate the remote for the DVD player they had provided and their was no other way to select items on the disc the Lester’s had brought. Professionals that they are though, Richard and Gary still talked about the making of the film and relayed some personal experiences on the set and working with Ted Mikels. They even asked me to tell the story of my near miss with heat stroke in Las Vegas while playing an Astro-Zombie. To pad out the remaining time they had for the panel, they asked Johnny Martino to talk about his time on the set of The Godfather which included a hilarious story about a real .22 rifle that was fired just inches from his head to make the bullet holes in the car for his death scene!
After the panel, Chris and Lisa were headed back for more films while Cindy, Lonnie, and I decided to head off for our respective homes. Realizing that it was close to dinner by the time we got on I-4 headed across Orlando, I called John, who head left the show about an hour before we did, and made arrangements to have dinner with him and his wife Amy at our favorite pizza place, Alphonzo’s. It was a great meal and I got a chance to catch up with John and fill him in on the show but it made a long day even longer and we were ready to head home in earnest afterwards. I envied John the five minute ride he had to get home.
The 2010 Spooky Empire show was par for the course as far as these types of events go with the exception of the increased admission price. The best part of the day for me was getting to hang out with friends I just don’t get an opportunity to see as often as I would like to. The information Chris provided from his early arrival saved me from trying to decipher spotty details from the ill informed staff and made the whole event go much smoother for me – thanks Chris! A second event has already been scheduled for next year in May called May-hem (get it?) and Bruce Campbell has been announced as a guest. Considering the fact that he spends much of his time in South Florida filming the televisions series Burn Notice, it’s a wonder it has taken this long to get him. He would have been on my short list of guests I would still like to meet and never have so this show is already shaping as a distinct possibility.
From the F-aXe-ed Department: As most collectors are undoubtedly aware, the longest running collectibles show in Central Florida history, The Florida Extravaganza Collectibles Show (FX for short), was canceled three weeks out from the scheduled date this year. After a troubled start where the traditionally early in the year show was pushed back to May, went incommunicado for several months, and then returned with a new date in October the weekend following Spooky Empire, it was put down for good. I ran into an associate of the show’s promoter Mike Herz – the man who founded the show in 1989, left for other ventures, and then returned to pull it out of the jaws of death several years ago. According to him, all systems were go for this year’s event until one of the backers pulled out unexpectedly and left the organization too cash strapped to continue. This will likely mean the end of the Florida Extravaganza as we have known it but covert plans are underway to begin a reboot of the event in a slightly modified format in the spring of 2011.