Rex B. Hamilton reports on the 2009 TransWorld convention
April 5, 2009
Greetings Fellow Haunters:
The TransWorld show in St. Louis last weekend was my first visit to the Gateway City in darn close to 40 years. It was a fun show with lots to see and do. For me personally, it was a time to feel proud and as well as a time to feel exonerated. I’ll talk about these further down the page.
More than a hundred years ago St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the country, something we attendees noticed in the many old, large, warehouse-type buildings that lie about the city. Prop-making companies and haunted attractions have plenty of places to set up shop.
The drive from Cleveland to St. Looie was a 10-hour journey through the flatlands of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It was mile after mile of gazing upon manicured farmland, gathering strength in the warm sunshine to produce another bounty of corn and soybeans this summer.
My traveling companion, Jeff “Scared Stiff” Glatzer and I shared a room on the 16th floor of the Renaissance Grand and Suites Hotel. When we looked out our window, we could plainly see the entrance to the America’s Center. It is a nice-looking convention facility that had plenty of room for the haunt industry along with a large convention of energetic teenagers who are associated with the D.A.R.E. program.
As soon as we unpacked the car late on Thursday afternoon the 26th, we headed across the street to one of the meeting rooms in the convention center. TransWorld threw a cocktail reception for those who had already registered for the convention. TW big shots Joe Thayer and Jennifer Braverman stood just inside the door, quietly greeting their guests. The party featured a free bar, a few hors d’oeuvres, and plenty of space for attendees to mingle.
Around 7:30 PM Jeff and I jumped into the car and headed off to a restaurant called Jake’s Steaks in the nearby “Landings” district. There we met Shane of Greystone Manor in Alabama, the haunter who had first proposed the event earlier this year via the Internet. The multiple dining rooms at Jake’s had plenty of haunters seated in them. Even though it was a Thursday and a “work night” parking lots were full and the sidewalks were dotted with groups of friends out for an evening.
Friday the 27th was the first day of the convention itself. Dutifully, I was at the entrance door at the 9:30 opening bell. We all rushed in, gawking at everything that came across our path. I slowly voyaged around the convention floor until the clock turned 11 AM.
I returned to the hotel, grabbed my camera and headed out on a road trip with no road map and no GPS. My first year of college (1968-1969) was spent at Parks College of Aeronautical Technology of St. Louis University in the small village of Cahokia, Illinois - just south of East St. Louis, IL. It was an all-male, Jesuit college that attracted geeks who wanted to become aeronautical or aerospace engineers. From the little bit of research I’d done earlier this year, it appeared that the college was closed and abandoned some years ago.
Having no maps of the area, I worked on feel. There are three bridges that connect Illinois to St. Louis and I drove back and forth over two of them in my efforts to find landmarks that I remembered from so long ago. It took about an hour and a half and lots of U-turns to find the college. Much of this haphazard driving was in East St. Louis, probably the worst-looking city I’ve ever seen. Forty years ago it was a horrible, crowded slum with lousy government and a school system that had collapsed. Today it’s mostly an abandoned wasteland that is difficult to describe. There isn’t a single stretch of road in reasonably good shape. Most of the buildings have been torn down. You don’t just see vacant lots - you see vacant _blocks_ and plenty of them. Trees - what trees? The rest is a weed-infested, trash-strewn, wrecked-building Beirut. It’s only about 4 miles away from downtown St. Louis.
I’ve worked at a few haunts that have had large, artistic scenes that depicted a major urban disaster. Maybe caused by war, disease, radiation poisoning, attack of the zombies, etc. At one haunt, this scene of urban apocalypse was three stories tall and featured wrecked automobiles and light trucks as set dressing. If you ever need inspiration for an urban disaster scene, go drive around East St. Louis, Illinois for a few hours. It makes the ghettoes here in Cleveland look downright pretty by comparison.
I actually drove right by the campus without recognizing it. What was the landmark that made a light bulb go off inside my head and memories come rushing back into focus? Thumping over a particular railroad crossing at the edge of a nearby abandoned airfield. It was like somebody flipped a switch inside me. It just goes to show you what 40 years can do to your memory.
For nearly an hour I wandered around the small, still campus. I snapped a few photos. Mostly I gawked at how small the buildings actually are. Most are one story high. The whole place only had about 500 on-campus students.
It was a luscious Spring day. The daffodils were blooming like crazy, the tulips had a good week to go and flowering trees were just coming into their annual glory. And through it all, I was a visitor in the land of the dead. I was the only human in sight. Around me was a dead college, mourning for her geeky students and oddball professors. (I could tell you many tales.) There was peeling paint like crazy, rotten tree limbs that had fallen onto roofs, holes in walls and signs that had blown completely away. But not a speck of graffiti or vandalism. The entire place is frozen in time like the fictional town of Willoughby. After all these decades, I finally met a part of my past and was exonerated by it. A true Twilight Zone moment.
The rest of Friday had more surprises in store for me. I spent as much of the late afternoon as I could touring the convention floor. At 5 PM I zipped back to the hotel to get ready for the IAHA Banquet. Jeff and I met a soft-spoken redhead named Maggie Courtis from Fresno, California as we left the hotel for the historic Lemp Grand Hall, site of the banquet. She asked for a ride to the party and we happily complied. We shared a table just to the right of the speaker’s podium. Later that evening we were surprised to learn that Maggie was a candidate for the IAHA Board of Directors election that was held during the banquet. She won a term of office. Face it: it’s hard to know everyone in the haunt industry, and in the long run it pays handsomely to be friendly to all.
The Lemp Grand Hall is on the top floor of an elderly commercial building the size of a city block. As banquet halls go, this one wasn’t very big but it had a nice rooftop patio attached to it so that you could take your cocktail outside and gaze over the St. Louis skyline. For the second year in a row, the association provided a nice buffet dinner to the attendees. There was but a single bartender, but this guy was definitely on the ball.
I was proud to receive The President’s Award that evening for my three decades of work in the haunt industry. The plaque itself is made of clear acrylic, shaped in the form of a church window with purple, metal-flake edges to it. The etched inscription reads: “In grateful recognition of your support for the International Association of Haunted Attractions and your outstanding dedication and contributions to the haunted attraction industry.”
Bobbie Wiener, Leonard Pickel, Rodney Nightscream, Froggy’s Fog and other vendors and haunt luminaries also received awards that evening. It would have been a better party if there was a sound system so that attendees could hear what we speakers were saying. Instead, we relied on voice power alone.
Right around 9 PM the banquet shut down and we happy haunters clomped down the steep wooden stairs to street level and walked around to the building’s opposite side. There we entered the large, raucous Creative Visions party. When I visited Mark McDonough, the president of the company, at his convention booth early that morning he told me that more than 500 people had signed up to attend his shindig.
There were plenty of party trays sitting out for consumption. The bar, as far as I could tell, was free. The firm has a lot of space to create its creations and entertain gobs of guests. Their most recent piece was a replica of the Moon which in the last few days was hoisted atop a new hotel in town.
As the evening wound down, Jeff and I drove back to our hotel to find it packed with people. We couldn’t help but join in the festivities for a while longer. Probably longer than I should have.
My main task on Saturday the 28th was to pull my annual shift at the IAHA booth from Noon until 2 PM which I did with pleasure. My mates in the booth were longtime board member Randy Young, his daughter Marie Young and the handsome Kevin O’Dea.
Booth traffic has been way, way down since the IAHA changed their fiscal year to coincide with the calendar year. It used to be that we were re-signing members like crazy at the booth. Now that you renew your membership at the end of the year, this year’s booth was the quietest it’s ever been.
On Saturday evening, I was a surprised guest at a private party at Digital Sound and Lighting. My fellow Scab Jeff Glatzer wrangled our invitations. There were about eight of us at this gathering on the 7th floor of a large warehouse building on Cherokee Street. We entered through the cargo dock doors and were taken up in a big, rickety freight elevator. The company has 19,000 square feet of space which was filled with large shelves and tables full of all kinds of stuff - electronic, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, painting, molding and so forth. Owner Stan Jung was giving a couple from North Carolina, Travis and Chris, a hands-on demonstration of the .50 caliber prop machine gun that they were taking delivery from him.
I’ve seen other .50 caliber M2 replicas in past years that were entirely driven by compressed air. Stan’s design is different. It relies on these three power sources: a tank of compressed oxygen, a gas grill tank of propane gas and a 12 volt automobile battery. You must wear ear plugs because this gun is too loud. Stay away from the muzzle blast, too. The barrel spat out orange flames three or four feet long with every report. We also got a demonstration of Stan’s twin .30 caliber machine gun replica which he will mount on the custom dune buggy he’s nearly finished building. Indeed, Stan has a lot of talents.
Around 10 PM, we made our way to the Darkness haunted house for a tour with actors and effects in operation. My ticket was stamped for a 9 PM admittance. Jeff’s ticket was for the 10 PM group. We hung out for a time with other haunters outside the entrance door and yakked it up before entering. Ultimately, we found ourselves in the second-to-last tour group of the evening.
The Darkness is a large haunt. According to co-producer Jim Kelly the total size is 27,000 square feet. But what truly sets it apart from all others is the staggering amount of stuff screwed in to the walls in each scene. Walking through the scenes in the Darkness is like going from one Fridays/Applebee’s restaurant on steroids to the next. The rooms are large and there is so much to be seen that one can’t ingest it all in a single gulp. Some of the themes in various sections of the building are difficult to recognize because of their high level of “visual busyness.”
The actors and actresses at the Darkness have it tough. For the most part, their scenes are designed for them to do little more than pop-out scares. (We call it “cuckoo-clock acting”.) Scenery is king at the Darkness. There isn’t enough free space to do a more elaborate act for the customers. The scenes are constructed so that the high walls and mounds of stuff on the floors guide the customers through them without the need for railings, fencing or other barriers.
As Jeff and I drove back to our hotel, the weather steadily deteriorated. It had rained hard all evening, accompanied by a stiff, cold wind out of the West. By the time we arrived, the rain had changed to snow. As we looked out the windows of the packed bar in the Renaissance Grand, the snow was coming down hard and nearly horizontally.
The rooftops of the buildings we could see out our hotel window were covered with snow on Sunday morning. The streets and sidewalks were completely clear because the temperature never got cold enough for the white stuff to stick.
Sunday’s convention floor traffic was much lighter than on Friday or Saturday. By lunchtime most of the remaining attendees had left and vendors were starting to tear down their booths. As mid-afternoon approached, the show was effectively finished.
TransWorld set up a couple of bars near the inflatable haunt at the rear of the show floor and, from 4 to 5 PM, offered free drinks to the vendors and few attendees still present. It was the last official function of the convention.
I had decided to stay in St. Louis until Monday since it is a long drive home to Cleveland. The two of us had thought that we would spend Sunday evening in the hotel bar whooping it up with the hard-core vendors and show attendees. But those folks never materialized. The bar and lounge in the hotel were nearly vacant. We spent the evening in our room watching mediocre movies on the TV and began the drive home early Monday morning.
Overall, the 2009 TransWorld haunt show probably had more vendors than we ever saw on the 2nd floor of the Rosemont convention center in years gone by. The attendee count also was quite healthy. Hopefully, someone who has proven data on these counts will quickly chime in here. For a new city, one that had never seen a haunt convention before, St. Louis seems to have been warmly embraced by the haunt community.
Some of the events that you normally see at TransWorld, such as the IAHA auction and the IAHA Casket Basket Raffle will take place at other haunt conventions later this Spring. Special events such as the Haunter’s Pavilion, make-up and scenery contests and poster, photograph and ticket judgings will have to wait for another day.
I will attend the Great Lakes Fright Fest and Midwest Haunters Convention in early June. My spies tell me that 2009 will be the final year for the Ironstock convention in southern Indiana and if that is indeed the case, I will be there. I am told that the original plan for Ironstock was to produce it for ten years and then call it quits. If this story is true, then the weekend of June 27 and 28 will witness the end of a beautiful era.
I have several haunts who are interested in my spooky services this coming fall. The year 2009 will be my 35th season of screams. I have every reason to believe it will be one to remember.
Very truly yours,
Rex B. Hamilton
13939 Clifton Boulevard
Lakewood, Ohio 44107-1462