Wednesday, February 25, 2015

magnum opus con 1986-2001

Magnum Opus Con was ahead of its time; embracing movies, TV, comics, gaming and all the other fandom categories that now make the various Comic-Cons and Fan Expos gigantic spectacles, and doing so in secondary markets far from typical con territory. MOC's peak attendance was somewhere in the thousands, but in spite of the nerd appeal and an enthusiastic crowd, MOC was its own worst enemy. After 16 years of conventions in Georgia and South Carolina, it vanished, never to rise again. 

MOC began in Macon GA, home town of its chairman. Early iterations of the convention were titled "Macon Opus Con", the “Opus” apparently a reference to the penguin character from the Berke Breathed comic strip “Bloom County”.  It soon moved to Columbus GA, to their unique downtown Columbus Ironworks Convention Center and several satellite hotels, linked by a shuttle service. Combining a strong media guest list with a crowd hungry for SF convention fun in the early Spring, and a geographical location under-served by fan conventions, MOC’s second and third years were busy affairs.  The second MOC became infamous as the last appearance anywhere of Dr. Who actor Patrick Troughton, who passed away in his sleep late Friday night of MOC 2.  

On the topic of MOC and Patrick Troughton and death, reader "A Million Masks" has this to say:

I am from Columbus, GA..where the infamous Magnum Opus Con was held in 1987. I didn't attend that show, but the guy who organized it was Pat Robinson, owner of Columbus Book Exchange which is the only comic shop left in that town. He's had the CBE since the late 70s/early 80s. At one point in the 90's, there were 7 comic stores in Columbus and Pat's the only one still going. He's also a kind and genuinely good man.

Anyhow, Pat told me about Patrick Troughton's death at the show that year. Apparently, he woke up, ordered his breakfast and talked to Pat about an episode of Dr. Who he personally selected for a screening at the show that day. When it came time for him to go down to the show floor, he was found dead apparently still sitting in front of his meal. Pat's still sad about that day. For one, nobody wants anyone to die on them and secondly (and certainly of lesser importance), it ended Pat's foray into organizing conventions forever.

For its fourth year MOC struck a deal with the city fathers of Greenville SC and became South Carolina's number-one (and only) fan convention. From 1989 to 1994 the downtown Hyatt Regency was filled with Trekkies, SF writers, Whovians, martial arts instructors, and “Bimbo Pageant” contestants of both sexes. The nightlife aspect of MOC began to take on more and more importance as crowds of liquored-up nerds surged through the city in various stages of inebriation and different crews of revelers competed with each other in "party battles." The convention added an extra day, becoming a four-day show, and events like the slave auction, the “MOC-Alympics”, belly dancing, MOC(k) Marriages, Casino Night, and the Mr Macho Contest captured the attention of congoers, to the perceived detriment of more traditional SF convention activities.

MOC’s guest list impressed then and is more impressive now considering many of them are no longer with us: Dr Who actors like the aforementioned Patrick Troughton, Colin Baker, Jon Pertwee, and Louise Jameson rubbed shoulders with Star Trek stars DeForest Kelley. George Takei and James “Scotty” Doohan; SF writers like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ben Bova, Robert Aspirin, Timothy Zahn, David Weber, Lois McMaster Bujold, Roger Zelazny and the unstoppable Brad Strickland mixed with astronauts and scientists like Dr. Story Musgrave and film & TV talent Phyllis Coates, Chris Potter, Bruce Campbell, Tom Savini, Bruce Boxleitner and Yvonne Craig, giving fans from all over the fandom spectrum somebody to get autographs from.

MOC made good use of direct mail advertising and several times a year would publish a magazine titled simply "Fandom", a black and white newsprint affair of 48-72 pages advertising the upcoming convention, highlighting the guests and events, showcasing glamour photography of the convention's costumers, and serving as a bulletin board for MOC attendees to ask questions and as a soapbox for MOC's staff and directors to sound off on whatever topics came to mind, with varying degrees of coherence and readability.

During the Greenville iteration of MOC, the Atlanta convention scene was then witnessing a bitter if meaningless struggle between the Atlanta Fantasy Fair and DragonCon. MOC's convention chair came down firmly on the side of the AFF in this debate, accusing the DC organization of sabotaging the AFF and any other fandom convention that threatened DragonCon's hegemony.  To this end MOC scheduled their 1995 convention directly opposite DragonCon, and moved it to Callaway Gardens, a resort complex located in Pine Mountain GA, close to Columbus and the "Little White House" historical site near Warm Springs, far away from anyplace fans had ever attended a convention.

This was a gutsy move, and as is so often the case with gutsy moves, was largely a failure. Attendance figures plummeted as Southeastern fans found themselves forced to choose between two conventions when they would normally have attended both, and Dragon Con, having a larger guest list, more attractions, and being in a city people could actually find, garnered the lion’s share of attendees. MOC compounded their problems by staging the next Magnum Opus Con in DC’s home turf of downtown Atlanta, on the weekend before the 1996 Dragon Con.  MOC 11 itself was reasonably well attended and its host hotel, the downtown Radisson, was a friendly if architecturally confusing facility with a charming indoor pool built for late-night convention socializing. Problems came when staffers from DragonCon rented a Radisson hotel suite and threw a DC room party welcoming MOC to Atlanta. MOC's con chair saw this as an “invasion” and made very public his feelings on the matter, removing the flyers advertising DC's party and at one point attempting to physically eject DC staffers. Atlanta fandom witnessed this in real time via posts to the Usenet group alt.fandom.cons, and the impression received was that of a friendly gesture irrationally rejected by an angry con chair.  The chairman’s behavior both at MOC and online would continue to repel potential MOC attendees for the remainder of the convention’s run.  

Antics such as these by con chairs continue to happen in the fandom world, but today social media gives fans the ability to spread news and gossip far and wide and with amazing speed.  These days, bad conventions and/or bad con chair behavior usually won’t last long. MOC, however, continued on for several more years.

MOC 12 would be in downtown Atlanta, attended by a dwindling number of fans attracted mostly by the convention's reputation for parties. MOC would move in 1998 to Athens GA, to a sprawling facility known as the "History Village Inn”, which was extensively remodeled in 2001 to become the “Foundry Inn & Spa” and after more remodeling has reopened as a boutique hotel operating as “The Graduate”.  MOC 13, 14, and 15 would be at the History Village in Athens, a location closer to the con chair’s comic book shop and a facility the convention could safely book every hotel room of, in order to keep out the vandals and secret agents thought to be working to destroy MOC. 

Pages from one of the final "Fandom" issues. Click to enlarge for more information about 'cronies'
In MOC’s declining years, the chairman’s behavior became even more erratic as guests, long-term staffers, and attendees alike were banned for transgressions real and imagined. The most frequent and most famous charge leveled against MOCs enemies was that of being “cronies” in the thrall of Dragon Con. Repelled by this behavior, fandom ironically turned its back on the convention whose magazine bore Fandom’s name. Surly, paranoiac, and stressed, the con chair retreated to the safety of his suburban Athens comic shop, where, with disturbing frequency, he’d ask female customers and employees to pose for nude photos.

 In 2001 the convention would have its sixteenth and final show in Atlanta, in what was then the Ramada Plaza Hotel Perimeter North and is now just the Presidential Hotel, a mixed-use residential/commercial building recently rendered bereft of electrical power owing to a billing dispute. MOC’s last year would wring maximum drama from a minimum number of attendees; a mere handful of fans attended the show and even this small group was subject to bannings, criminal trespass warnings, restraining orders, and threats.   The con chair suffered a heart attack while prosecuting some of “the cronies” in court, and as a result of his health condition and many other factors, turned MOC over to long-term staffers for an attempt at a 17th MOC that did not come to pass.

It's a shame MOC self-destructed.  The convention mixed literary SF, gaming, genre film celebrities, and fandom events in a way that hasn't really been matched since, and when it was focused on its strengths it was as fun a convention as could be.  However, its successes – and there were many - have been overshadowed by its apocalyptic and apoplectic end. MOC endures as a cautionary example to convention organizers and staffers alike of what not to do and how not to do it, and its legend still looms large in the collective memory of Southeastern fandom.

More information and photos of past MOCs can be found here:


Grant Goggans said...

The alt.fandom.cons link about the DC room party "invasion" becomes pure gold once you scroll through a thousand boring posts debating the ethics of "crashing" MOC to hold that party. At one point, it's alleged that the off-duty cop hired for extra security got drunk and was threatening to arrest an attendee in the bar if he didn't leave the hotel. Pure gold.

LGB said...

Always fascinating to hear about MOC - it's decline was pretty sad, it went from a con with something for almost everyone to yet another sad insular con that attracted only a few hundred people at best and was made up of almost nothing but the sort of events that appeal to hardcore con attendees, that at a larger more inclusive convention would be fringe events at best. It wasn't even really a sci-fi convention as MOC started going down in flames, it was almost all about the slave auctions and "Bimbo Parades" and other such nonsense. It became one of those grim cons that is held really, only for the sake having a con, to be attended by the same few hundred people who show up at such things on the local circuits, disdain "normals" and "outsiders", sit around telling inside reference-riddled stories about the "glory days" and resist any sort of change while wondering why more people don't show up.

Dustin Kopplin said...

I got a question Dave. Is this comic book store your referring to in Athens the Bizarro Wuxtry? I was there this past Valentines Day with my folks and my girlfriend to hang out in Athens for a day, and they had a lot of cool anime merch, but would sell them at ebay or higher price.

I tried to get a damaged retro Char's Gelgoog MG kit that seems to have been rotting under a pile of newspapers for 2 decades, only for this guy working there saying he didn't know the value of it and didn't mind it being quote " furniture, because we don't mind it being here." I offered 3 bucks for it, because that is literally how much it was worth.

If it's not the same store, then no such loss. If it was, there's my rant for anyone to care.

d. merrill said...

The comic book store referred to in the MOC article is not Bizarro Wuxtry, but another store which is no longer in business. I make a point of visiting Bizarro Wuxtry whenever I'm in the Southeast, it's a great store, and its proprietor has provided much of the historical material used on this blog.

Dustin Kopplin said...

I'd figure with you knowing comic book stores in GA, that would be on your list.

They had some interesting stuff that I would love to have, but some of the prices for it was overpriced. Even this guy working there was proud of the fact that they would overprice it because they don't know what the value is, and if someone is willing to spend 125 bucks on a vintage Devilman figure, then its win win for them (which they do have in a glass case).

I guess that's a comic book business model that just stands tride and true these days. I did find a VHS tape of bizarre toy commercials for a couple of bucks that I'm curious to know whats on it, and for potential Anime Hell material if I ever decide to do one one day, which is a possibility. Also got a fanzine looking pamphlet called "Destroy All Comics."

d. merrill said...

Well, I'm going to go ahead and give Bizarro Wuxtry the benefit of the doubt on their business methods; they have been running that store for decades and have seen literally every other comic book store in Athens fall by the wayside, so I figure they must be doing something right.

As far as Anime Hell goes, franchise opportunities for that particular name brand are no longer available.

Dustin Kopplin said...

Well you gotta point there. I guess I don't know too much about owning a business, so im not gonna pretend too act like I do. I mean if it works for you and others for the past few decades, what do I know.

I wasn't even aware "Anime Hell" had any kind of franchise opportunities too it, or could be considered as a franchise. Is this kind of a committee decision thing to grant someone to helm an Anime Hell at their local con or something?

d. merrill said...

I started doing Anime Hell back in the day, it was my idea. There are friends of mine who do Anime Hells of their own in Dallas, Boston, Chicago, etc., we swap material and stuff but it's not anything organized. But, rather than it become this generic event that happens at every show, run by who knows if they're even funny, we put a lid on it. When people ask if they can do their own "Anime Hell" these days, I say they should take five minutes and come up with their own name for their own crazy clip show. We'll all have more fun that way.

Dustin Kopplin said...

I got a feeling I must have read that post long ago, and I see your point completely.

Rest assured, I do my own crazy panel clip show at the local cons in SC, but they ARE NOT called Anime Hell. That's probably why I never got any cease and desist notice with your name on it telling me to "cut that shit out!"

I shouldn't have said the term Anime Hell earlier, but rather "my-poor-attempt-in-doing-one-at-local-cons-that-some-people-attend-that-show-anime-and-dumb-movie-trailers-and-whatever-I-rip-off-from-Animazement-Anime-Hell-sometimes" panel. So that's my mistake there titling mine as Anime Hell when it is truly not, and nor should be.

I appreciate the convo on this post, but I don't wanna flood it with all my comments and responses to you entirely. I'm already subscribed to this forum so i'll wait to see what you got next Dave.

Rex Gambill said...

I actually was involved in Macon Opus Con (1) as an organizer/volunteer but didn't take part in the later shows. It's interesting and sad to read people's accounts of the late MOCs. Thank you for sharing this account.

MandaLynne said...

MOC will always hold a special place in my heart as MOC II was my first ever con.

I met and actually hung out with James Doohan, George Takei and Anthony Ainley.

In fact, Mr. Takei borrowed my pen to sign autographs and then returned it to me when he finished. If you have an autograph from Mr. Takei in pink ink - that was my pen. :)

Mr. Ainley sang to me and gave me his home phone number which I made use of several times. He was an interesting man to talk with.

I am now a regular attendee of Dragon Con. Two years ago, I again met Mr. Takei and was so pleased to find that he remembered me from MOC and my pink pen.

While I do love DC, I miss the days when cons were more informal and the stars more approachable as it was during MOC's heyday.

Wenni Donna said...

Truly a wonderful article!! Reading through this post was so great. You know dear there was an international comic book event at one of the local DC venues. My son was so excited to attend this event so I took him over there and he bought 5 amazing comics.

don r p said...

as a relative of the original owner and starter of moc, him and is wife are some of the best people I know. they worked very hard trying to make these conventions fun for everyone. they spent and went in the hole and payed large amounts of money back to there banks for loses at these conventions, but tried every year to have them for friends and followers alike. as a personal friend of the so mentioned comic book store owner and his hard working wife , I know they both were highly disappointed in not being able to hold moc anymore,they enjoyed them as much as the people who attended them and me and my wife nd children worked them and enjoyed them more each year we went. all the luck to you big guy and god bless you and wife,

Unknown said...

Looking for copies of Fandom magazine! Give me a call If you would like to sell yours ! Robert---'864-553-1041. Thanks!