BY CLIFF WEISS AND ELIZABETH FRIEDLY //
If you attempted to drive anywhere near the city over this past Labor Day weekend, you probably noticed one of the numerous events packed into this short three day span.From the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to the annual Black Pride celebration to the world of sci-fi crowding the streets, it was all here.
This year, over 57,000 people from all over the country attended Atlanta’s Dragon Con, the three and one-half day conference for all things fantasy, sci-fi and general fan culture. All of the major downtown hotels were packed with seminars, shows, meet & greets, celebrities and vendors.
The greatest aspect of Dragon Con is the people. I do not mean the costumes, but the actual people. They were all eager to pose for pictures, very courteous, loved to strike up conversations, and were by and large very well read and intelligent. Even after drinking began in the evenings, the crowds never turned obnoxious.
Although Dragon Con is not a “Jewish” event per se, the place was swarming with members of the tribe. Many Jewish celebrities, such as Ed Asner, William Shatner, Peter Beagle, etc. attended. Additionally, most comic book companies were founded by Jews, and the most famous comic book characters were created by Jews.
The next point that stands out is the quality of many of the break-out sessions. The presenters dressed up in costume and held the most intelligent debates about physics and genetics, all as they relate to the events that occur in Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, and the like. There was one particular government physicist who worked for the military in Pensecola, Fl., who explained why we do not use laser weapons in the military, and why we still can’t build a real light saber!
Of course, William Shatner was one of the highlights of the show. He stood in front of a packed ballroom and did a monologue with questions and answers about his life and career for over an hour. Shatner talked about the jokes he played on Leonard Nemoy during the Star Trek years.
Shatner also told a story about his first Broadway debut. So afraid that he would eat something at dinner that might not agree with him, he decided to get a plain hamburger instead of the exquisite dishes that his dinner guests were eating at the fancy restaurant. Although others ate raw fish, he got the food poisoning!
As Shatner told it, the Broadway critics are ruthless, and he knew that they could not wait to criticize him, but he persevered – even with one of the worst cases of diarrhea he had ever encountered. He said the audience thought his uncomfortable facial expressions were just his way of getting into character.
Fantasy author Peter S. Beagle (best known for The Last Unicorn) also had a rather noteworthy attendance at Dragon Con 2013. Instead of setting up shop at the conventions “Walk of Fame,” where famous authors, actors and personalities meet fans and sign autographs for a fee, Beagle held a separate table in the America’s Mart among the vendors. The 74-year-old sat nearly all day, signing and talking with whomever happened to walk up.
It was also the first year that certain items were sold out from his available merchandise (books, prints, ect). One fan garnered an visibly emotional reaction from the author when they brought him a photo of a graffitied wall from the Vietnam War, where a soldier had inscribed a quote from Beagle’s work, “She will remember your heart when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits.” Beagle later held a talk with fans of his work, packed into a small, lower floor room of the Hilton.
He spoke candidly of his time as a screenwriter, dear friends who have passed and his own writing process. He even broke down into tears while re-telling one of his short stories. His visit to Dragon Con culminated in a screening of the animated adaptation of “The Last Unicorn” during which Beagle noted, “It’s good to see this can still pack a house.”
Last, but not least were the costumes. People dressed like sci-fi characters, superheroes, hobbits and dwarves, zombies, animals and cartoon characters. Surprisingly, this year the largest group of costumes seemed to be inspired by something known as ‘Steampunk,’ which combines Victorian culture with 100 plus year old steam powered science fiction.
Yet most noteworthy of all was Dragon Con’s charitable work done during the conference. More than 2,800 pints of blood were donated at the event. According to LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, Dragon Con is the number one event in blood donations each year. Similarly, this year there was an even stronger Jewish connection – aside from the Jewish celebrities – as Dragon Con raised $20,000 for the Marcus Autism Center here in Atlanta.