Downtown KC becomes galaxy of big-name sci-fi with MidAmeriCon II

MidAmeriCon II organizers are excited for sci-fi convention

Ruth Lichtwardt helped bring the sci-fi and fantasy convention to town. Now she can't wait for MidAmeriCon to finally begin.
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Ruth Lichtwardt helped bring the sci-fi and fantasy convention to town. Now she can't wait for MidAmeriCon to finally begin.

Sometimes, legends turn out to be true.

The stories go that back in 1976, when the world science fiction convention Worldcon came to town, Kansas Citians were among the very first to glimpse a little cinematic space opera called “Star Wars.”

Not only that, but at the same convention, author George R.R. Martin threw a party so epic that it continues as an annual event some 40 years later.

(Yes, that George R.R. Martin, the man who would go on to dream up the Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens of “Game of Thrones.”)

Both of these events actually happened, and they’ll be revisited in various ways at this week’s Worldcon, dubbed “MidAmeriCon II,” at Bartle Hall.

[ We talk to George R.R. Martin, coming to MidAmeriCon II this week ]

If a “world science fiction and fantasy convention” sounds like just another in a seemingly endless list of proms for nerds, you don’t get it. The annual Worldcon is a big damn deal. A change-the-banners-on-the-city-lampposts kind of event.

Every year, the convention moves to a different city and takes on a different name. The 2014 Worldcon in London was called Loncon III. Last year’s Sasquan was in Spokane, Wash. Next year’s event — the 75th — will be in Helsinki.

Kansas City’s competition for this year’s convention? Only the second-largest city in China.

“Beijing came up almost at the last minute to bid against us,” said Ruth Lichtwardt, , the chair of the committee that brought the con to KC. “But we won the site-selection vote, and we’ve been working on this Worldcon for the last two years.”

The breadth of the convention — which runs Wednesday through Sunday — is staggering.

Attendees can have beer or coffee with their favorite author, attend lectures on finding meteorites in Antarctica or learn how to style their hair like Elsa from “Frozen.”

They can play Quidditch, design video game characters, build with Lego masters, listen to writers read their works, play Dungeons and Dragons and on and on and on — to infinity and beyond.

“Worldcon has always been like that,” Lichtwardt said. “The range of interests of the people who attend is huge. A lot of people who come are scientists or amateur scientists. And right along are the people who are interested in costuming.”

Guests include NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Stanley Love, comics creator Kurt Busiek, Hugo Award-winning authors Joe Haldeman, Ann Leckie, John Scalzi and dozens upon dozens more.

MidAmeriCon II also will have a Kansas City flavor. It’ll pay tribute to the dean of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, who was born in Butler, Mo., and grew up in Kansas City, with a series of workshops and discussions.

And Thursday is Kevin Willmott Day in honor of the Lawrence filmmaker, who said he was honored by the gesture.

“I tell you, man, it’s kind of hard to get your head around,” Willmott said. “It’s great to see your films placed in a larger context. So many of my films are seen as a ‘black’ film or a ‘what if’ film. I think in a lot of ways my films touch a lot of different bases, and I think the convention is a great platform to celebrate that.”

The convention will show three of Willmott’s films: “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” a faux documentary imagining a world where the South had won the Civil War; “The Battle for Bunker Hill,” about townsfolk who turn against one another when they lose contact with the outside world; and “Destination: Planet Negro,” featuring a team of 1950s scientists who board a rocket for Mars and end up landing in present-day America.

“I like science fiction that has a social point of view,” Willmott said. “Years ago before I made ‘C.S.A.’ I was telling Isaac Hayes about it, and he said, ‘Ah, yeah. That’s like “Planet of the Apes.”  

And then Friday, MidAmeriCon II turns its attention to a galaxy far, far away.

Eight months before the very first “Star Wars” was released in 1977, MidAmeriCon in Kansas City was the first real promotion of the film, said author Alan Dean Foster, the ghost writer for the “Star Wars” novelization and the writer of the sequel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.”

Foster, who attended the 1976 convention and will return for this week’s event, said filmmakers brought to KC not only props and designs from the making of the movie, but also the film’s young star.

“I ran into Mark Hamill in the comic book room,” Foster said. “We discussed comics very briefly. He was intent on finding back issues of ‘Batman,’ and I was after the Carl Barks ‘Uncle Scrooge’ comics.”

(For those playing along at home, Hamill went on to voice the Joker in the animated “Batman” series.)

On Friday, Foster will be part of a discussion of the revolutionary marketing of “Star Wars.” It’s just one of the day’s dozens of “Star Wars”-related events — including a look back at the 1976 exhibit at MidAmeriCon.

Martin said the “Star Wars” exhibit and Hamill were kind of off to the side of the main action of the 1976 convention.

“People would come in, and he would say, ‘Hi, I’m going to be in this science fiction movie that is coming out next year,’ and everyone said, ‘Oh, OK. That sounds nice. I hope it’s good,’ ” Martin said. “Nobody knew quite what they had there. Looking back on it, it’s pretty amazing that Kansas City fandom got a glimpse of that before the rest of the world.”

Which brings us to the “Game of Thrones” author’s legendary party …

In 1976, Martin was up for two Hugo Awards.

“I lost both of them,” he said. “And my friend Gardner Dozois was also up for a Hugo and he also lost. And in the aftermath, we saw all of the winners celebrating at the bar with champagne and all that, and we said, ‘You know, we ought to have a party for the losers.’ 

Thus, the annual Worldcon Losers Party was born.

“I had a hotel room that was right next to the pool deck,” Martin said. “Of course, Gardner and I, we were both struggling writers back in those days, and neither one of us had any money. So we went around and we scrounged up all the leftover liquor from the other people’s parties.”

(Now, if you’ve read Martin’s books in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” you know he has a propensity for tantalizing lists of food and drink at feasts, so it was hilarious to hear him recount the booze they pilfered: “Half bottles of gin and bourbon and six-packs of Coke and beer, and there was a big bottle of box wine, as I recall.”)

The first Losers Party turned out to be the biggest party of the convention. A magical event where those who lost celebrated and those who won — in order to gain admittance — were booed, pelted with pretzels and forced to make their case for actually being a loser.

It became an annual tradition that Martin hosted for several years. He gave it up once he got involved with Hollywood.

Over the years it became stuffier, Martin said, with the formality of guest lists and the like. So he has taken it over again and will host it this weekend in Kansas City.

“But I’m not going to tell you much about it,” Martin said, “because it’s only for losers.”

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

Starting Wednesday

Worldcon’s MidAmeriCon II science fiction and fantasy convention runs Wednesday through Sunday at Bartle Hall. Admission per day ranges from $40 to $70. For a full list of rates and a schedule of events, go to MidAmeriCon2.org.