Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Sense of Wonderfest, Part 1

This must be the place!

Today is my 50th birthday -- the Big 5-0, the Book 'Em Danno, the Half Century, the Halfway Mark, the Summit, the It's-all-downhill-from-here birthday. I'm not feeling too profound or eloquent about it, but I had a few unexpectedly profound experiences while attending Wonderfest this past weekend at the Executive West Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

Constant readers are aware there has been a sense of depression here at Video WatchBlog of late, brought on by the recent death of our friend Wayne Perry and a couple of other deaths in the family (we returned home on Monday to learn that Donna's Uncle Paul had died that morning), not to mention overwork and too many years spent without a vacation. Getting away for a weekend and spending some concentrated yet relaxed time with old and new friends was just what the Doctor ordered (his name is Dr. Gangrene, by the way, and he stands about 6' 5").

Dr. Gangrene meets your Video WatchBlogger.

The event is well-named. Being at Wonderfest is like being present at a sampling of what life would be like if people were into imaginative fantasy rather than competitive sports, politics, and other polarizing pastimes. Everyone there was so friendly and so polite; if I ever bumped into someone accidentally, another smiling apology would be made as I made mine. I felt absolutely no tension, no fannish antagonism, nothing negative or needling from anybody. It was heavenly. And, as Donna remarked, it was also uplifting to find ourselves in the good company of so many artistically gifted people:

Graphic maestri like Basil Gogos, Kerry Gammill and Frank Dietz...

Actors like Yvonne Craig (a sweetheart), Donnie Dunagan (a superman and a super man), and the wonderful Bob Burns (Monster Kid #1), who brought along the original armatures of Mighty Joe Young and, yes, King Kong ("Somebody get my picture with this guy!" cried Major Dunagan. "I finally found someone here older than me!")...

Effects artists like Chris Walas (with whom I was reunited for the first time since we met on the set of THE FLY -- could it really be 20... gulp... years ago? -- and the two of us yammered about Aleksandr Ptushko and Karel Zeman like a house afire)...

Fellow editors (like David Colton of USA TODAY and The Classic Horror Film Boards), magazine publishers (like Jim & Marion Clatterbaugh of MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT), and writers like Tom Weaver (who paid me a cherished compliment as he accepted his fourth consecutive Rondo for Best Writer) and Gary Prange (who's pregnant with what promises to be one hell of a book on silent films)...

VW fans like Paul J. Schiola and Jason Bechard, whose enthusiasm and affection for the magazine was almost palpable...

Old pals like Joe Busam (Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year 2005) and John Clymer... new friends like Larry "Dr. Gangrene" Underwood, MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES star Richard Olsen and daughter Angie, and the unforgettable Donnie Waddell (who can set any situation to the theme of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald")... and of course, that earthly angel Kathy Burns, who, during the Banquet festivities on Sunday night, was rightly presented with an award simply for being herself and so well-loved by everyone present. (My heartbreak of the show was not getting to spend more time with Kathy, or a picture together, but we share the frame in the Rondo winners roundup shot taken by Eileen Colton, which can be found at the CHFB "Horror Events" folder, under "Live from Wonderfest '06.")

If it sounds more like Lovefest than Wonderfest... well, it was that too. There was a whole lot of hugging going on.

You never know just who you're going to meet... at Wonderfest!

Some stories from the weekend...

I took a copy of the British edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS to Wonderfest as a gift for Joe Busam and it sat in the hospitality suite shared by him and Gary Prange through Friday and Saturday, waiting for me to sign it. Then, on Sunday morning, as Donna and I were preparing to attend the Yvonne Craig Q&A, it suddenly dawned on me that Yvonne was mentioned in THROAT SPROCKETS and could, in a sense, be called a character in it (her surrogate, anyway)! After the Q&A, I found Joe and explained the situation to him, and he graciously returned the book to me (he's getting his replacement copy tonight); I promptly inscribed it and got in line at Yvonne's table.

I introduced myself as the fellow who had asked the two embarrassing questions at her Q&A -- one about the Batgirl theme song, and another about the made-for-TV behind-the-scenes BATMAN movie, of neither of which she's very fond. "Now," I continued, "I have to bring up something that just might embarrass us both..." I proceeded to tell her the basic outline of THROAT SPROCKETS (as her eyes enlarged) and then explained that there is a fantasy-tinged chapter in which my hero finds a movie theater called The House of Usherettes (she laughed) that is staffed by four '60s starlet celebrity lookalikes (a bright lady, she now anticipated the punchline to all this preamble): Pamela Franklin, Stella Stevens, Barbara Steele... and Yvonne Craig, all of whom were responsible in different ways for, shall we say, erecting a composite Feminine Ideal in my fevered brain during my formative years.

I presented Yvonne with the book and she seemed very surprised and touched by the tribute, then she asked quickly if I had her book of memoirs, FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND. I didn't, so she pulled one over, put it under her pen and signed a gift copy to me. "We're two authors swapping books!" she told her sister Meridel, who was assisting at the table.

Back in the House of Usherettes... but this time, it's for real.

Yvonne and Meridel. Aren't they cute together?

Sidebar: I've now been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to share THROAT SPROCKETS with three of my Usherettes over the years, the other two being Pamela Franklin and Barbara Steele. When I brought it to Barbara's attention, she was in the process of reading the book but hadn't reached the Usherettes chapter yet, so I read it to her aloud. She was amused by the key line I gave her, and later told me she thought TS "a masterpiece." Pamela Franklin, my first movie crush and an enduring one, I've never met but we have spoken a few times by telephone. I sent her a copy of the book and she later told me honestly that, while she was flattered by her cameo, the book wasn't her "cup of tea," though she did find it "very well-written." Yvonne told me that she was especially pleased to receive the book because she had been dreading her flight home, not having brought anything along with her to read. I hope she likes it; I've already read her book, which I enjoyed a good deal, and I got a kick out of thinking that we might be reading each other simultaneously. The woman conveyed by her autobiography is bright and quirky, well-read and full of humor, so she just might appreciate it. I hope so.

On Saturday night, everybody was hoping to eat together at one big table, but it just wasn't possible at the Executive West's restaurant. Donna and I lucked out because we were assigned to a booth with Donnie and Dana Dunagan, whom we've known by e-mail since the time we accepted Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning interview with Donnie for publication in VW #112. We met them for the first time when they accepted our invitation to join us upstairs in the CHFB hospitality suite hosted by Gary Prange and Joe Busam, where Donnie held the room spellbound with the story of their very scary flight to the convention through stormy skies. "His mudder was de lightnink!" indeed!

L to R: David Colton, Maj. Don Dunagan (retired on wounds), Donna and me, and the lovely Dana Dunagan (in a T-shirt of her own design)

It's one thing to talk to Donnie about his Hollywood experience, and it's an incredible thing because this is a man who shared the screen with Boris Karloff (in his Frankenstein Monster makeup no less) and took direction from the same man (Rowland V. Lee) who inspired Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill to give what are arguably their greatest performances. He also has the last line in the picture! On top of that, he was the voice and animation model for BAMBI, which might very well be the one Disney animated classic whose negative I, as an animal lover, would rescue from a burning building over all the others, if it came to that.

But after you work through all the movie questions with Donnie, and you move on to more important topics that concern anyone and everyone who draws breath, that's when you discover how fortunate you really are to be sharing his time. Women seem to love him at first sight, but there is also something profound that happens to men when they meet the Major (and I had others agree with me on this). To stand in the same room with him makes you want to stand up straighter, to suck it in, to look him right back in the eye, to cash in all your bad habits and follow his example. He is a walking inspiration. What did I take away from meeting Donnie Dunagan? I grew up without a father; I've known many men in my life, of course, and most of them are (like me) big kids. I have to say, in all candor, that the Major is the first man I've ever met who gave me a profound sense of what I missed out on by not having a father.

Donnie Dunagan - my new Zen master.

I don't have the best memory in the world where details are concerned, and after that dinner, I felt almost emotional over the fact that I knew that the details of much of our conversation would fade sooner than later. (The acoustics in the restaurant were also terrible, and I had a hard time hearing some of what he said -- and, I'm sure, vice versa.) But one thing I'll never forget: As the four of us sat there in the booth, impressed by our food, I said, "Donnie, here's a question for you: You're 72 years old, you've lived and worked all over the world -- what was the greatest meal you ever had?"

He looked up, as if in search of an answer, or humbled by one already in mind. His eyes sparkled as he told me: "An orange!" About ten years ago, the Dunagans were involved in a terrible automobile accident when someone fiddling with their CD player slammed into the side of their car. Donnie was thrown from the vehicle and Dana rolled forward, over the edge of the road and down into a nearby ravine. She suffered some relatively minor injuries, but Donnie was nearly totalled (and not for the first time in his eventful life) with a broken neck and a lot of upper torso damage. He lay in a hospital bed -- in a body cast, unable to open his mouth, fed only by IV -- for the next three months. During that time, he focused on the taste of orange juice and the simple act of eating an orange obsessed him. His desire to taste an orange again saw him overcome the odds for recovery that his doctors had given him. His damaged throat had required some reconstructive work and, after his swallowing mechanism was tested and deemed safe, he was treated to the greatest meal of his life.

I was expecting maybe a colorful description of some incredible Thai dish he'd sampled while stationed in Asia, or perhaps a mind-melting Down South dinner he'd eaten back in the days when he twice marched as a Federal agent with Dr. Martin Luther King. But, instead, Maj. Dunagan astonished me with a snap return to basics, reminding me of what really counts in life, and the preciousness of the most common, easily-taken-for-granted human experience.

To Be Continued.

"There's more in store / Of Wonderfest lore / Right here on the WatchBlog Fitzgerald.... Woo-HOO!"

All photos reproduced in this blog are copyrighted (c) by Tim & Donna Lucas. All rights reserved.

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