You may be asking yourself “What’s a Filthy Pierre?” Is it a new drink? An unwashed nether region? A new wrestling move? If one was so inclined to have one’s own Filthy Pierre, how might one go about making it? Well, here’s a start: begin with a very bright, well-educated American, mix in some early exposure to SciFi, an interest in physics, a Parisian college experience, and a homemade musical instrument. And voila! You have Erwin S. Strauss.
Spiffy recipe aside, Erwin Strauss is still a long way from Filthy Pierre. Unless you’re a French college student in 1961 and meeting a “feelthy Aymereekahn” around the same time as the cartoon and movie Lucky Pierre made the scene. Ahh, you say, now it all makes sense. Sort of. OK, let’s move on… I had the chance to sit down with Erwin during Balticon 37. I’ll let him fill you in on the rest in his own words.
ND: So, give me some stats!
FP: Well, I live in Newark, New Jersey—downtown, across from City Hall. I’m 60 years old and single, no children.
ND: How’s the career?
FP: I’m retired. I retired at 55, well, really ten days before my 55th birthday as I had to one-up my sister who retired at 55 herself. I had really been planning to retire 18 months later and attend the WorldCon in Australia in ’99. However, my employer had other ideas about moving the project I was working on to Alabama. I decided that I’d prefer to not go to Alabama. Plus, at the time, the market was hot. I took vacation, crunched numbers and determined I could leave for good. So, off I went.
ND: So, clearly you had a career! What did you do?
FP: I was a computer consultant focusing on Business Process Analysis for both GE and Computer Sciences. I would talk to customers about why and how they did stuff and how they could do things better.
ND: Sort of a “know-it-all”?
ND: How did you get into SF and conventions?
FP: I really need to credit my mother who was an avid SF reader. She had me reading SF when I was nine. I attended my first convention in 1965—Philcon in Philadelphia. My interest in Fandom really started when I arrived at MIT to do my undergraduate work in Physics. By then I had the Filthy Pierre nickname so I kept it for Fannish purposes ever since.
ND: Did your interest in Fandom help in your career?
FP: Not really. I was not a career-oriented person. If I really wanted to be in Physics, I’d need my PhD and it’s all really competitive. It’s all about being one-up on the next guy and I’m not that competitive. I think it’s very difficult to be a practicing physicist—there are very few jobs out there.
ND: How many conventions do you squeeze in per year?
FP: Oh, about 12-20. Twenty was my max at one point. I don’t commit to going as I may not feel up to it. I tend to focus on the big cons like WorldCon, of course, and Boskone, Arisia, Lunacon, Philcon and [waving emphatically] Balticon! The con organizers know I’ll generally show up with my racks and ready to play my music.
ND: Your racks? Expliquer, s’il vous plait…
FP: I’ve designed the racks that many cons use to display the abundance of free materials people wish to distribute. I’ve sold about twelve rack designs/plans to different groups around the country. I don’t know if they’ve actually built them. I’ll bring 4-5 to an average-sized con. I’ve got as many as twenty racks on hand to handle as much as a WorldCon can offer. Each rack breaks down so much that a couple of them can fit into a suitcase for easy travel.
ND: And your music? Is that an instrument or scuba gear?
FP: Oh, it’s my Hohner Melodica! I know some call it the Annoyatron or the Sonic Disruptor. It’s sort of a harmonica with a keyboard. Inside is very much like a harmonica or an accordion as it’s got brass reeds. Back in the day, Hohner made two different Melodica models. A piano player by training, I glued the 2 & 3-octave models together as I wanted as much range as possible. Over the years, I’ve added the cover and a hose and a little rig so I can put it over my shoulder and march down the street with it. Oh, and I’ve also added a bagpipe’s mouthpiece to the end of the hose. The hose blows the air through the reeds inside so I sit around hotel lobbies with my organ in my mouth.
ND: Got any good con stories?
FP: The funniest story had to be the ’74 WorldCon in Washington. We were rounding up a piano for a filk sing and it was at a multi-level hotel on a very steep hill where the lobby of one level led to the 9th floor on the other level. We wound up in the sub-basement of one building while trying to get to an upper level in another building. Hilarious. The saddest story was probably the 1983 WorldCon in Baltimore. They rented a DiamondVision projection screen for $25,000 and the convention went bankrupt. It took years to pay it off. The convention organizers all had their own ideas of what to do to make the con a success and, in the end, they were just twelve Cardinals in search of a Pope.
ND: How about a brush with greatness?
FP: Oh, one rubs elbows with all of the authors at these conventions. In 1966 I ran my first convention—Boskone 3—with Co-Guests of Honor John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov. It was totally impromptu and was great fun! Campbell was coming up to speak at MIT and Asimov was teaching at BU. It was sort of a “Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland” moment when it was suggested that “hey, we can put on a con right now!” It was considered sort of an in-between con as we had been holding cons every six months but after Boskone 2, we planned to wait a year. The availability of Campbell and Asimov was just too great to pass up so we had an instant convention with 75 people in attendance. Another great “brush” was in 1976 in Kansas City. I grew up on Robert Heinlein and he was the GOH. He and Sally Rand (his own childhood idol) were judges for the Masquerade. I played my Melodica as a trainee bandsman from Starship Troopers and received a Judge’s Choice Award. I’d like to believe that it was from “Master Bob.”
ND: Hey, you’re published in Asimov’s! You’re a celeb!
FP: Oh, no. Not really. Years ago, I started publishing an “Upcoming Conlist” that [still] has its own mailing list distribution. George Scithers took note of it about 22 years ago and started including it in the magazine. It gets printed 11 times per year. I think I’ve been on Asimov’s masthead more than anyone else—save for Mr. A. himself.
ND: Well, on that humble note… thanks for your time today!
FP: You’re quite welcome. Would you like a picture of me with my organ?