The weekend before Thanksgiving has become a tradition of celebrities of sci-fi, wrestling, and nostalgia. A half-hour west of Boston, a Sheraton hotel again became the home of the annual Super Megafest, a convention for comic book dealers, cosplayers, and all manner of geeks and fans.
Having attended last year's Megafest, I knew what to expect: a small but full hall of merchandise, with a few smaller aisles of celebrity signings. I'm not a collector and, as appealing as the vintage toys, comics, and posters were, I wouldn't need to budget much time to peruse the various vendors' wares. I'd be there for the stars, who offered not only their autographs but also their time. A fee for their signatures meant the lines to meet these guests would be short, which equated to more time they could spend with each fan. There were actors, wrestlers, artists, and other big names to appeal to everyone, but I narrowed down my must-meet list just three.
Meeting them occurred more quickly than I predicted. Aside from the show floor, there was a too-small conference room in which each celebrity was granted a half-hour moderated Q&A session. No schedule was posted to the show's Web site, so I took a gamble and showed up as late as 2:30 PM on Saturday. At exactly that moment, the first star on my list was taking the stage, followed immediately afterward by the next. I could not have planned my first hour at the Megafest more precisely.
Dawn Wells, famous for her innocent portrayal of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, was happy to entertain questions from the fans. Though Ms. Wells now runs a film school in Idaho, most of the discussion was about the role and show she is best known for. Ms. Wells said that in the Sixties, Gilligan's Island was how the rest of the world saw America, though she made no allusion to another group that thought the show was real. More recently, she considered the 2004 reality show based on the series a travesty — "Why would you take anything so wholesome and have Mary Ann and Ginger mud wrestle?" Yet even the original series has its dark rumors, such as that the seven castaways were modeled after the seven deadly sins, with Mary Ann representing envy. "Preposterous," claimed Ms. Wells. During this short session, I did not get the opportunity to ask either of my burning questions: how did she and the Professor feel about the theme song reducing them to "the rest"; and why could the Professor build a radio out of coconuts, but he couldn't repair a hole in a boat?
I bumped into Ms. Wells again later when she was signing autographs, but she seemed preoccupied. I briefly mentioned the book Gilligan's Wake to her, but she'd never heard of it. We then both moved on.
After her Q&A, I kept my seat for Jonathan Frakes, prolific sci-fi actor and director best known for the role of Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He paraded down the room to the theme of TNG, courtesy his own vocal talents — remarkable, since the theme has no words. "Sorry, but I love that song," he grinned. That introduction set the tone for the rest of the session, as Mr. Frakes seemed genuinely amused by absolutely everything: his history, his fans, their questions. I did not expect someone attending his umpteenth convention in 20 years to be so gracious, but there he was. He asked our opinion of the new Star Trek movie. I offered "cautiously optimistic", to which he replied, "I feel the same, except for the 'cautiously' part." He added, "I got to visit the bridge, and it is spec-TAC-ular" (emphasis his). "And the studios are serious about it. For the money they're pumping into it, we could've made three or four more Trek films — NOT THAT I'M BITTER!" Mr. Frakes also had a full portfolio of other roles he was happy to discuss: everything from having recently auditioned for a part on Reaper to his work as host for Alien Autopsy. "I was the spokesperson for the paranormal for several years," he reflected. "'We can't get Stewart, but call Frakes! He'll do anything!' I was the Mikey of sci-fi." This time, I got my turn to ask a question: "I loved Gargoyles. Could you talk about your work as a voice actor?" (two sentences which he interrupted with, "You have excellent taste.") "It's a dream job. You get to go to work in your pajamas." Also: "I don't understand why Gargoyles didn't last longer." That makes two of us.
I later caught up with Mr. Frakes at his autograph table. Just ahead of me was a young girl of six or seven to whom Mr. Frakes was enthusiastically recommending Seussical the Musical. As she left, he commented to me, "She had no idea what I was saying." I disagreed: "You'd be surprised what sticks at that age. I was only eight when my dad sat me down to watch the sequel to a show he'd grown up with." "And he made you watch every episode after that?" "Are you kidding? After that first episode, he didn't have to make me do anything!" "… You were born in 1979?" he asked. I expected this question to lead into an unoriginal crack about how old I made him feel. Instead he nodded sagely and commented, "That's a good age to get into Star Trek." I'd brought along my copy of First Contact for Mr. Frakes, the film's director, to sign, telling him, "This really was the best movie. You really understood what Star Trek was about." Another director might've taken that as an opportunity to denigrate Stuart Baird, who capsized the TNG film franchise with his direction of Nemesis. Mr. Frakes simply added, "We had a great script to work with." Before then, I'd already respected him as an actor; I did not expect him to exhibit such humility and grace as to leave me also respecting him as a person.
The final highlight of the day was meeting Carroll Spinney, the man inside the Big Bird costume since 1969. (Mr. Spinney also brings to life Oscar the Grouch.) Like my three older brothers, I grew up on Sesame Street and was moved to meet someone who had been such a good friend to me; part of me regrets not taking the opportunity to give him a big hug. When I told him I still remembered the day everyone met Mr. Snuffleupagus, he replied, "That was a Thursday." What a gentle and amusing sense of humor!
I got far more out of my two hours at this year's Megafest than one would think. Whereas Adam West and Burt Ward charged $50 per signature in 2007, this year was more reasonable, almost disproportionately so: $30 for Dawn Wells, $25 for Jonathan Frakes, and $20 for Carroll Spinney. But though I went home with fewer autographs this year, I took with me more memories. Sure, Ray Park and Helen Slater have an undeniable "cool" factor, but their performances didn't have nearly the impact on my upbringing as Mr. Spinney's and Mr. Frakes'. This weekend, they gave me more than their autographs: they gave me the chance to say "Thank you."