Warren Buff recently sat down with Ron Zukowski to discuss ConFederation, the 1986 Worldcon. ConFederation is a major landmark in the history of Southern Fandom, it also paved the way for another little convention in Atlanta called DragonCon. Ron (with Penny Frierson) was the Con Chair. Here’s how Ron remembers it…
I didn’t get into fandom until 1975 at RiverCon—but one of the things that happened as I looked around at what the Francises [Steve and Sue] had done in Louisville I said, “You know we’ve got hotels that big or bigger in Atlanta.” And they went to 1979 and had a real big NASFiC in Louisville, Kentucky, which I said, “We can at least do that and we actually can do a Worldcon.” In the meantime, other people had been moving on this. Notable examples: Database maven Joe Sokol lived in Atlanta for a long time, he was one of the people on that. The author, David Weber has a brother named Mike. He’d been around a lot of fandom, he was in on that. His then wife Sue Phillips, who still does the literary thing, she was in on that. And a guy who runs a comic book shop in Atlanta was a leading light there, Cliff Biggers and his wife Susan, she was very active then and they all were part of the Atlanta Science Fiction Club—ASFiC.
I was all in favor of this but I was nobody in particular. But then something happened. I got hired by a guy who ran two organizations, the Georgia Optometric Association and the Southern Regional Council of Optometry. He was part of that, and they had a big convention, twenty-five hundred optometrists and another thousand service personnel, and that would alternate between Atlanta and New Orleans, just like science fiction conventions did, because those are the two biggest cities. So I just learned what was necessary. I didn’t know I was preparing for anything big. And everybody who was in ASFiC also had a lot of friends in the other two cities in the ABC thing [Atlanta-Birmingham-Chattanooga]. Birmingham had a much more vibrant fandom then. Now most Alabama fandom that I’m aware of is in Huntsville but then Birmingham had just as big a contingent and Chattanooga had a big contingent already.
And since neither of those places were quite big enough and had quite the airline connections, [fans said,] “Ok, we’ll hold our nose, Atlanta can do it and we’ll help.” And boy did they ever help. I got a co-chairwoman out of that. The wife of then-prominent attorney Meade Frierson, Penny Miller [Frierson] was my co-chair. And basically we split that thing up; Penny was the meet-and-greet and quietly “You are going to do this, aren’t you?” lady of the thing, and I was the guy who wandered around with the lists and tried to organize things. So when I walked into the hotel, at least the Hilton, they knew who I was. I was the guy who was with the eye doctors. And as far as the city of Atlanta, it really was amazing to me how well it “just came together” even though we had some fractures and frictions. It did seem now after all these years to be an “it just happened” kind of thing but it wasn’t, there were a lot of people that were analyzing this and working at it, trying to make it work. The biggest situation that I think we actually faced is that the fans, had a tendency to be centered in the publishing area which tended to be the Boston, New York, Washington corridor and of the groups we were bidding against, both of them were in that corridor. New York had a bid using the Marriott Marquis and I don’t remember which hotel Philly was using. That was our opposition and [the] real serious situation was that we had two strong fan groups in those cities.
Atlanta had two virtues. First off, it was brand new. Second off, people were already starting to have to change planes in Atlanta. And I said, “You know, I could just fly there and I could stop,” and we had a number of good contacts that were willing to talk us up among people. We seemed to get out ahead mostly because: a) it hadn’t been there, and b) people had finally gotten over the idea of thinking of the entire south as though it were Dogpatch from Lil’ Abner. And then into this—although he never attended the convention, I’m not sure he ever realized it was there—John Portman, the architectural and developmental overlord of Atlanta, he decides that having designed two big hotels wasn’t enough, he wanted to design a third one, and it was also going to be run by the Marriott and it was called the Marquis and they were going to be opening in 1986. So when we walked in there to talk to those fellows we not only had the hotel across the street, the Hilton—which was in competition with them—already interested… they had nobody booked because they didn’t even have a building. So we’re sitting there and talking about 4,500–5,000 people, actually it may have been more than that, we may have gotten close to 6,000. [Attendance was 5,811.]
Here’s the other thing about it… Since we had that [projected attendance] those hotels were not worried about weirdness, or whether a brand new ad hoc 501(c)(3) organization could do anything. The Marriott was desperate enough (and the Hilton didn’t want to give any ground to the Marriott) that the idea of working this thing out if it was really that big [was favorable to them] so they were very helpful. We were going be voted on in L.A. in 1984 and L.A.’s 1984 Worldcon was held on a Hilton property. That was very useful.
My biggest thing was I didn’t have that many enemies in fandom, nobody had heard of me. I actually knew what a hotel was and how to talk to it. Some fans may be wonderfully accomplished in whatever they do in their mundane life but when they get involved in fandom they want to forget that and be something else. So you have to kind of keep one foot in both worlds. Mike was real good at that and several of our other people were real good at that. Meade was an actual attorney of note in Birmingham, Alabama. He also had kind of Old South mannerisms and some connections with that world.
And then came the matter of the guests, which you are not supposed to talk about before you are selected at all. I think the Philadelphia people may have gotten the idea first. They looked around and they said, “Ray Bradbury has never been,” and a little bit of skulduggery and digging and asking people questions we found out that he was going to be invited by two previous conventions, but they lost [their] bids. So we did something, we not only talked about guests [with our competitors] we actually made an agreement. I don’t know that that would’ve been considered the right thing to do, but we all said, “If we win it’s going to be Ray Bradbury.” New York… Philadelphia… [we all said,] “If we win it’s going to be Ray Bradbury.” So all three of us could walk in as a group and talk to Bradbury’s people and say, “It doesn’t matter who’s won, Ray is going to get it—will Ray come?” And the only problem was that Ray Bradbury had a real problem with flying. Here’s a guy talking about us going to Mars and I found out after he died that he didn’t even drive a car, and he lived in Los Angeles… most of his life. I don’t know how he managed that trick. But we got him there.
I think the biggest thing as far as the regional and southern fandom [that] was really amazing is that all the city envy, kind of got settled early on. Birmingham and Chattanooga threw in pretty much with us. Nashville under Ken Moore’s leadership. Dan Caldwell did our art show, he was from Nashville in those days. There were folks in New Orleans who were cooperative. So we had a lot of people from all around who were very cooperative and buried some very interesting hatchets. The Friersons knew where a lot of bodies were buried. But I didn’t know anything except the local Atlanta scene and I didn’t know much about that. I think that the region actually came together to put this in place. The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau was very fond of us. DragonCon was founded the same year. [The first DragonCon was actually held in 1987; their first fliers debuted at ConFederation in 1986.]
No one was on the scene, and nobody had ever done anything like this in the area so it was a perfect storm. You could not duplicate that again.
And then there’s the story of how we budgeted very tightly because we had been under the impression that being a nonprofit organization almost mandated [us] to lose money. Some previous conventions had lost money, sometimes rather large amounts I understood, but we budgeted very, very tightly. And then our final at-the-door price was something absolutely horrendous. I’m going to use the even number of a hundred bucks for 1986, which was tremendous. It was just saying, “Okay, we have plotted out for this many [people], that’s how many supplies we have.” Joe Selko doing the con suite had this many things lined up. It didn’t bleeping matter. They showed up anyway. They paid that seventy-five or one hundred bucks and we wound up with revenue over expenses of a tremendous amount. I’m going to say more than 50 grand and that created the pleasant problem of what went on afterwards with anything we wanted to do last minute, there was no question. I had no trouble authorizing last minute stuff once we had an inkling that that was happening. [There are legends of sushi in the con suite.] Joe may have done that. I didn’t get up to the Con Suite that often.
Penny’s husband was squiring around Ray Bradbury. And Penny was going around doing all the mom things except on this gigantic scale… working her own sons to death. And I was there being the guy that the hotel guys walk up to and say, “Is this gonna happen now and is that gonna happen then?” and I could tell them whether it was or wasn’t. And they were happy as long as somebody knew. It also enabled us to kick a couple of other things off. For instance, I believe there was some money spent to help one of those previously erring cons out that hadn’t made enough money. [Probably the 1983 Baltimore Worldcon.]
And another thing is, I know, the Atlanta Radio Theater, I’m still involved with that. They were just spinning off as a (c)(3) organization to be a more educational thing. We were able to get them a grant. But all that really was was tight budgeting. It was Irvin Koch. And also people actually cooperating among those three cities, the three closest cities, and others like Nashville, Louisville, and others. You couldn’t duplicate that, plus there was more a sense of Southern pride. That was the image we wanted to convey of Southerness.
A couple of things we did that were different… we had an actual public speaker give our keynote address; my Congressman at the time, a guy named Newt Gingrich, he gave the keynote address. It was very much almost cribbed from two personal friends of his. They wrote Future Shock and Newt knew those people and basically it was very much a future shock thing. No political notes, no partisan content.
We had an opening ceremony thing because the same guy who was involved with Atlanta Radio Theater, Thomas E. Fuller the long-time creative director of ART, he wrote a little play in one short act called Creation is a Circle and we did that as our opening thing. I just didn’t walk up there and say, “Hey, y’all welcome to Atlanta. The 1986 World Science Fiction Convention, the 44th Worldcon is in session.” We didn’t say that. We added this thing, Creation is a Circle, and I was told a hundred times nobody’s ever done that before.
We also seemed to have a level of cooperation between those hotels that didn’t start until later bigger stuff started happening. They are fiercely competitive usually, but for that they worked it out. It’s the way things are supposed to work in this business; sometimes they don’t, they did for us.
We only had one untoward incident with the Hugos and it wasn’t an untoward incident—somebody refused a Hugo. But I won’t go into that unless it’s necessary.
I don’t recall actually doing anything which means I must have done a lot, but nevertheless if I can’t recall it it must have been all detail shit that’s now passed away.
I don’t think we had very much local publicity but we had a little tiny bit. A couple of mentions in articles in newspapers and everybody talked it up in fandom. And this was the first time that people in the region had been able to go to something that they could get to that they didn’t have to drive for four hours and that contributed to a number of people showing up who had never shown before.
So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And that’s off the cuff. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of people I didn’t mean to. I tried to mention all the folks that I remember were there. Of course there were leading lights of fandom around: Jerry Page, Hank Reinhardt, and [others] and they were helpful. But as far as the committee goes it was either people from out of ASFiC like myself, from Atlanta, the Birmingham club, Charlotte Proctor, and Jerry Proctor [who] was a newspaper editor in those days.
We had a number of people from the Huntsville area. Some of them genuine rocket scientists at the time. They were all helpful. The Chattanooga fans were absolutely marvelous and Mike was living in Atlanta in those days. There was one person who was on our committee but never got to show up, he did a lion’s share of work: Joe Siclari. And here’s two little personal notes, tragedies for both Joe and myself, my mother passed Memorial Day of 1986 or actually the Sunday before it and Joe’s father was diagnosed with, I believe, cancer and passed away in the fall, but he still had to be taken care of. And Joe was the one so Joe could not get to Worldcon. I wish that Joe Siclari had been able to be there. He would’ve got all the accolades that he deserved. He did a lot of work. Avery Davis did a lot of work on the operations part of things. There was a lot of things that just came together in a way that is really difficult to describe. It was not a complete accident, but it seemed a lot more accidental then it was.
Unfortunately though, it was wearing to do that. I basically took every year, beginning 199- off from fandom. I did find myself going, “Can I live my life now?” and I went off and sorta did that. I’m only now getting back in when I’m retired and useless.
There could be a thousand stories, but fortunately I don’t remember most of them and basically what I remember is people being amazingly cooperative even if they didn’t like each other. Things worked out and we did a couple of things that were new and worked and the whole idea of lining those hotels up and even using a couple of rooms in the Regency Hyatt House so we had two of Portman’s three massive buildings working for us, even that worked. So I have to say it was a great success and I can remember it fondly now.
And we may not have been the very first one but I think we’re one of the first ones to have somebody that actually looked after folks who had problems moving around. There’s a lady named Samanda Jeude, she herself was a victim of polio, and she was interested in being able to move her wheelchair around so we actually had a serious effort to try to work it out and the Americans with Disabilities Act I think was brand new at the time. [The ADA was passed four years later, in 1990.] But where the hotels were already starting to think about it, Samanda made sure that they thought about it harder. And we probably were as accessible as it was possible to be in that time and that was largely her and her husband Don Cook’s effort on that part. That kind of thing happened, and it came together because we had the right people and they thought this was cool and wanted to work on it and also I got to admit there was a strong desire among a lot of people to say the South is really as good as the rest of the country, we can hold these things too. I think we proved it, but who knows?
You can download the full transcript of Warren’s interview with Ron, at http://www.nthzine.com/FR.ConFederation.pdf and you can listen to the entire interview on Fancyclopedia. We also recommend reading “Wake Up and Smell the Coffin!” a reminiscence of ConFederation and the bid for Nolacon II, 1986 in Guy Lillian’s Challenger.