I'm A Volunteer?
In July of 2007 my friend Tim and I went to our first horror convention that wasn’t Rock and Shock. We flew to Indiana for the Horrorhound convention, and it was there that I met Gina, the woman that ran Rock and Shock and would vastly change my life for the better from then on. Bill Moseley pointed her out to me when I asked him if he’d be back to our neck of the woods that October, so Tim and I introduced ourselves. I told her how much we loved her show and we talked for a couple minutes. When Rock and Shock rolled around she remembered us, and after that she and I became pals on MySpace. We talked a lot on there and were fast friends, and when summer rolled around in 2008 Tim suggested we ask if she needed help setting up tables and whatnot before the show. I asked Gina and she said setup was done by a company, but she’d give us free admission if we wanted to show up early and help with various other tasks. She also sent me flyers to hand out locally wherever I could in the meantime.
On the first day of the convention Tim and I arrived early, around 1:00 for a 5:00 show start. The guest lineup was great, with a Hellraiser cenobite reunion and Roddy Piper (RIP) being tops on my list. I had my game plan ready (Tim accompanied me because he had fun, but he wasn’t interested in getting autographs and left the planning to me), and we were both happy to have the chance to avoid the line outside and already be in the room when it opened. We went to the Palladium, where the concerts were held, to meet up with Gina to see what needed to be done. She was gracious and kind to us, totally masking the massive stress that came with the first day of the show. She introduced us to Joy, who worked in the office, and excused herself to head to the DCU Center to deal with convention needs. Joy gave us stacks of signs to hang up in both venues with event schedules and band lineups. We got those hung up in both venues, and while not much was going in the Palladium other than bands loading in equipment, it was fascinating to get to the DCU and see the rows of vendors all setting up their booths. I love to arrive early at any event I attend and watch the space go from empty to full, and with each passing year I got to see more and more of that process and it has never ceased to be mesmerizing. We reported back to Joy at the Palladium and she asked us to hang around and if she had anything more for us to do she’d let us know. We wanted to stay out of the way so we sat on a small stage near the upstairs bar. After an hour we decided to inquire about further projects. We wanted to do as much as possible to help, but in subsequent years we’d learn how many projects were all happening at the same time that were far more important, and not things we could do with our limited show experience. Because of that, in hindsight it wasn’t surprising that Joy never had more work for us and sent us to the DCU to check in with Gina.
Unlike our greeting at the Palladium, Gina was noticeably busier at the DCU. In later years I’d understand that this was the timeframe where she had to make sure everything in the celebrity area was setup according to plan as well as making sure any guest merchandise that had been shipped was in the building and all manner of other items and issues. It took a bit of time for us to be able to catch her alone, and despite her stress once we got to her she still spoke calmly and kindly. I asked if there was anything for us to do and she said not for her. She pointed to a woman at the other end of the room and said that was her sister, Nikki, and she was in charge of the volunteers and we should check in with her to see what the assignments would be. I said okay and off we went, but my brain was churning.
Assignments? Volunteers? Why did we need to meet Gina’s sister if we were just helping with setup? It was only a half hour until doors opened. A feeling of confusion clashed with an understanding I didn’t want to admit. We met Nikki, who was standing with four or five others, and I told her Gina had sent us to check in with her. There was one other new person there, so she gave us the rundown. Nikki told us how to sit with a guest, which included handling their money and making sure fans paid, and that we’d often have to take photos for the fans with the guests. My brain was spiraling, a mixture of wanting to help Gina and wanting to enjoy the convention as intended. This was not what we signed up for! Then Nikki, who was aggressive and boisterous, very much the opposite of her sister, told us we could put our bags in the show office but it wasn’t locked. When I declined, as I had brought items to be autographed and didn’t like the lack of security to a room accessible to the public, Nikki said, “oh I understand if you have your drugs in there and want to hold onto it.” While I now genuinely like, respect and have fun joking with Nikki, I disliked her the entire weekend, as that was not a way to make a good first impression on a person who clearly had the opposite personality as her. Adding that comment to my trying to process the change of plan and expectation for the weekend, I was extremely close to walking away. I didn’t need to be insulted for a job I didn’t agree to do, and this was not worth the compromising of my own happiness.
But what about Gina? We were friends more than coworkers, and even if there was a misunderstanding about the show duties I would be letting down a friend if I left (Tim didn’t care either way, as again he was along for the ride and would enjoy either experience). I couldn’t do that. This show was a big deal and huge undertaking, so I had to help. I swallowed my anger at Nikki and laughed off her very bad joke, and mentally committed to this new venture. I was a volunteer? Yes I was.
Nikki gave out the assignments, and she let Tim and I share a table to start, giving one of us the opportunity to enjoy the show while the other worked with a guest. Tim knew I wanted to get autographs so he offered to work the table, and I reworked my game plan while he awaited his booth appointment. The show was about to start so the original perk of being inside the building before doors opened still paid off, as I was first in line to my celebrity priority, some of the cast from the first two Hellraiser films. Doug Bradley (one of my absolute favorites) was followed by Simon Bamford, Barbie Wilde, and Ashley Laurence (who did not rub my arm this time). While I was never one to talk a celeb’s ear off (if they keep talking, great, but otherwise it’s proper convention etiquette to avoid being a time vampire), having a shortened window to roam the floor kept my timing tight, though I certainly had fun with each guest (well, almost). Even without having Tim there to take photos my time crunch took away all anxiety toward asking the next person in line to snap a pic for me. My next stop was Roddy Piper’s table, which I quickly noticed was without Hot Rod but had Tim at the booth. If that was going to be our table this volunteering gig might not be so bad after all. Tim said he didn’t know when Piper would be there but a lot of fans had already asked, and before too long I would notice a sizable line forming. He declined a break offer and I was off again to see the ever excellent Bill Moseley, then Tom Savini, Danielle Harris, and a truly wonderful gent who would become a legitimate friend, Jack Ketchum (RIP). After speaking with Jack for a bit about all manner of subjects, I was plotting my next move in the celeb area when Nikki called me into service. It was here that my eleven year odyssey of working for Rock and Shock truly began.
Nikki brought me over to the table of Chris Sarandon so I could take over for the volunteer there. As Mr. Sarandon was on my list of people to meet, and as Fright Night was a regular viewing choice at my house when it hit video in the 80s, I was nervous yet excited, with nerves in the lead. My fellow volunteer handed me Chris’s money bag, Nikki introduced us, and once we finished shaking hands we were alone together. My senses were immediately overloaded with a mix of responsibility and looking at the show from the other side of the table. Where moments ago I had been walking among my fellow fans, now I was looking at them and ready to provide customer service. It was a surreal tone shift to say the least. Then, when I looked to my left and saw our neighbor, Michael Biehn, there was Tim! It turned out Roddy Piper was going to have his son help him at his booth, and Tim would spend the rest of the weekend with Biehn, while Michael’s wife Jennifer Blanc was at the next table over. Nikki had explained our role in helping guests, but since every celeb is different what couldn’t be explained was how to interact with them. Every year I sat at a table there was a feeling out process. I always hoped the guest would be cool, and they almost always were, but it took some time to know if they wanted to have conversation during downtime, or what kind of humor they enjoyed (or more importantly, didn’t enjoy), or if they wanted you to handle the fans a certain way. Part of the job was to make sure the celeb was happy, so context clues went a long way to make that happen. And so, as I sat diligently next to a well regarded Hollywood actor waiting for a fan to come meet him, I worried. Chris had intense eyes, the kind that had seen all the B.S. the world had to offer and weren’t going to put up with it. When we said hello his voice was lovely yet deliberate. He was clearly a man who said exactly what needed to be expressed without a wasted word. In short, I wondered if he was going to be an asshole.
Gaze into the Sarandon stare.
Being that it was Friday, which is traditionally slow at a show, I was able to ease into my new role. Figuring out the best time to collect autograph money from the fans took a few interactions. Some were on the ball and had it ready for me. For those that didn’t I would ask while Chris signed. I felt a little bad because I knew they liked watching the signature process and seeing what he would write, but since that was the only time they weren’t holding Chris’s attention I figured it was best. Some fans would talk while he signed, blocking my plan, so I’d have to get it in the very small window between finalizing conversation and the happy fan walking away. That would happen too, the fan being lost in the positivity of the experience they just had and totally forgetting to pay. I would have to sternly bring them from their haze, which I didn’t want to do, but it was of course necessary. There would also be fans who would not read the price sign, especially when there was no line, pay for an autograph, then ask to take a photo after. I would then have to create an awkward situation and tell them it was a separate fee. When there was a line I was able to get a flow going where I always had the next person paid and set while Chris was meeting the first person, which took away all the awkwardness and was definitely the preferred method. I also would be the photographer for those that needed one, and that gave me a very quick lesson on dealing with the multitude of devices, from various traditional cameras to all types of phones. As for Chris, despite his serious demeanor he was excellent with fans. He looked them in the eye when they spoke and was gracious and gave honest, meaningful answers and information about his various classic roles. He appreciated his fans and gave them a great experience. Well, with a few deserving exceptions. While he handled it well, on a few occasions people would mention how he used to be married to Susan Sarandon, as if he didn’t know. Why a fan would bring his divorce up I have no idea, and while Chris was polite to them he would go on auto pilot for the rest of their time together. Also, he would not do the Jack Skellington voice. He was happy to talk about the role but wasn’t comfortable performing, which I absolutely understand. His biggest point of grievance was the photo snipers, those who had no plans to meet him but wanted to take photos from several feet away. He found it disrespectful and creepy, and I agree. To combat these attempts he would turn in his chair to give them a bad angle or hold up an 8x10 to obscure himself. Once he told me what he was doing I became a lookout. Speaking of photos, I also became part of the game when it came to the people that asked him to take free pictures with him. Rather than get into the business end of things, where the show paid him a guarantee to appear and giving away pictures would take away from fulfilling that guarantee, thus cheating the show that had the faith to bring him in, he would point over at me and tell them he couldn’t because the boss would get mad. I’d tell them it was a mere $10 for a photo with the person they said they loved so much, but they rarely went for it. Love is fickle. When Friday ended Chris had me count his money. He wrote down the figure, trusting my count, shook my hand and we parted. While we’d only had a short time together I had great respect for him. Chris was a good human that was wonderful to people that were respectful and had no time for those that weren’t. I gave Gina the money bag and she asked how it was. I told her it was a great night, because it really was. It was much different than how I had expected it to be mere hours ago, but Chris was so good to sit with, and the experience was so new and fun, that I was happy at this new viewpoint of a convention. And then there was Tim. We went to dinner after the show and told stories of our unexpected experiences. While mine were very positive, Tim told me tales of a very grumpy Mr. Biehn, his disinterest in engaging in any conversation with fans, and of being trapped between Biehn and Blanc while they argued with each other from their neighboring tables. I was extra thankful at that point to have been with Chris. When the doors opened for Saturday I was once again given free time to start the day. While I was grateful for the opportunity to meet more guests, I was also a bit sad as to not be helping Chris. The hooks of volunteering were definitely starting to sink in. I pushed those feelings aside and reverted to Plan A. Roddy Piper, my priority for the day, was not yet at his booth, and I’d learn over the years that he employed the old trick of building anticipation and a line by intentionally arriving late. I met Doug Bradley and Bill Moseley again, and then I went to try my luck with Michael Biehn. I had hoped perhaps Friday had been a bad day for him and day two would be better. Nope. As he signed my Grindhouse poster I asked him a question about his experience on the film. It wasn’t a great question, but I still felt it was good enough to receive a better answer than “it was good” with no eye contact. I didn’t even bother asking to take a photo with him and moved to the next table, where I met Chris as a fan and he was as gracious as I thought he’d be, and did not take my money since I had helped him the night before.
Hot Rod & Me!
I had heard a cheer during my time with Biehn and Sarandon, which signaled the arrival of Roddy Piper. I went to his sizable line, hoping I’d get to meet him before being called into service. After a wait that seemed much longer due to the time stretching abilities of anxiety, I got to the head of the line. As with everyone, Piper took time with me. I told him how he was in the first wrestling match I ever saw in 1985, as well as the first live match I saw in 1986. He asked how old I was and joked that he’d been wrestling longer than I’d been alive. He was fun and massively gracious, which I’d actually experienced the day before in the hotel. When Tim and I arrived I decided to check out the gym. As soon as I walked in I accidentally bumped into Piper, who was showing his son some holds. Even though it was entirely my fault Piper turned around and apologized profusely. He was a quality gentleman. I had time to meet one more set of fine folks, Clayton (RIP) and Sharon Hill. Tim and I affectionately called them our grandparents, as the year before at the Horrorhound convention where we met Gina they talked to us for a full half hour about not only their films but everyday life. It has been my experience over all these years at shows that with a few exceptions the best guests don’t associate with the term “celebrity” and that certainly describes Sharon and Clayton.
Mr. & Mrs. Hill
Nikki called me and asked if I would resume my duties at Chris Sarandon’s booth, telling me I’d be there the rest of the weekend, and while I felt sad because there were still guests I wanted to meet I also felt exhilarated by the chance to work the table again. Saturday was the long day, and even with the time that had already elapsed there was still over seven hours left in the day to improve on my new task and enjoy my opportunity. I felt more comfortable having the experience from the night before, so as I took the money bag from the previous volunteer I was looking forward to the rest of the day. I would only have one more pang of sorrow at not having my fan freedom when at 4:00 I missed the Hellraiser Q&A. Otherwise I was fully immersed in the newfound world of volunteering, which certainly helped because the day may have been long but it was quite busy. I kept the line in order and flowing, took money and kept it organized, answered questions, took photos, handled requests for free things, investigated lunch options, watched the table while Chris went to the private guest area to eat, watched for photo snipers, and anything else that may have come up. My sense of responsibility was massive, as was my respect for the job and love for Gina and the show, and I gave it my all. Due to the volume of fans there wasn’t much downtime, and Chris and I had a great flow going. There were only a few instances of engaging with anything outside Chris’s fans, like when Tim would come over on occasion to make change and vent quickly about his situation, as I was far from the only fan disappointed in Mr. Biehn’s curtness. Also, I found out after the show that someone had tried to serve legal papers to Corey Haim (RIP) and refused to leave, so the police were called. I couldn’t see any of that as Haim’s booth was on the opposite end of the room and Piper’s line in the middle was so long it cut the celeb area in half. One thing that was able to reach us from the far end of the room, though, was the volley of elastics that Tom Savini was launching. Earlier that year he had made a game of starting rubber band wars with the other guests at shows, and Rock and Shock was not immune. He used large elastics and had incredible aim and range, and while everyone was a target, we certainly got assaulted on several occasions. I can’t say I was a fan. Chris tried to send one back but did not have anywhere near the launch footage as Savini. Beyond that it was a solid day of taking care of the fans, and at the end of the night Chris was pleased with the amount of people who had come to meet him. We bid each other good night, Tim and I checked in with Nikki and Gina and then went to dinner to tell a great many stories. Tim was still enjoying the experience despite trying to manage the frustration of Biehn’s fans as well as sit in the middle of the arguing spouses, and I give him credit.
The Incredible Jack Ketchum
Sunday is traditionally the slowest day at a convention, the exact opposite of Saturday, and Rock and Shock 2008 was no exception. Because of that, though, I got to really see how amazing a human being Chris Sarandon is. He started the day by giving me all the candy that was in his goodie bag (the show gives them to all the guests and agents, and besides candy they contained things like Sharpies, hand sanitizer, tissues, mints, and menus for local restaurants). Then he shared his newspaper with me (which became brilliant cover from photo snipers), which led to us talking about the new football season. I had become fairly lax in my knowledge of current players but still held my own. He talked to me about his family. He taught me about singer Loleatta Holloway. He then read to me. That is above and beyond right there. He didn’t want me sitting there bored while he read so he told me about the book (Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan) and read out loud so we could pass the time between fan visits, and then we discussed it. On my end, I told him how my mom would rent Fright Night nearly every week because she, my sister and I all loved it so much, and that it became a bonding experience for us. As soon as I finished he asked their names and wrote out an 8x10 photo for them. I had so much fun just spending time with him, learning from him and talking with him. There was no celebrity and worker class system, it was two humans discovering new aspects of the other’s world and sharing knowledge, and it was exactly what the world needs. I was sad when Chris had to pack up early to catch his train back home, though before he left I got to meet two people that would end up being amazing friends: horror hosts Penny Dreadful and her familiar, Garou (RIP). They had a booth at the show and were in full costume and came over to meet Chris. Penny talked to him and Garou would make side comments to me, and since he was in character his wolf accent made it very difficult to understand him. I would adjust over time though, and as I got to know them better over the years as friends Garou (aka Magoo) would talk to me in his human voice if no kids were around. Once Chris had departed I was relieved of my service. There was still about ninety minutes left in the show, but as it was Sunday some celebs had to pack up early for transportation as Chris had. I consulted my mental list of who I still wanted to meet and got to Ken Foree, Brian O’Halloran, Tom Savini, Joe Knetter, and another man that would become a friend over the years, Derek Mears, who is one of the kindest, most generous and honest people you could meet. Seeing him was a good way to end a positive show on a high note. I met up with Tim and took a photo of him with Biehn. We checked in with Nikki and Gina and said our goodbyes, and while Tim only worked the show two more years (having much better guests to sit with, John Landis and Alex Winter), I would gain more responsibility each year right up through 2019.
Sarandon’s bag of treats
I had the chance to see Chris again when he returned to Rock and Shock in 2017. By then I was vendor coordinator, volunteer coordinator, and made sure the floor ran smoothly so Gina had freedom to work on the business stuff. I ran around all weekend as usual, but my volunteer, Emily, who knew the story you now know, texted me to say he was going to pack up. I made time to run over there and introduce myself to Chris again, and I told him how sitting with him that first year made me comfortable as a volunteer, and because of that I came back the next year, and onward, and then I told him my responsibilities for the show, and how if it weren’t for his kindness and good heart I may not have continued down that wonderful path. I’ll always be thankful for Mr. Sarandon, and I’ll always be thankful that I accidentally became a volunteer.
RIP Notes —Jack Ketchum was the kind of guy that was always more interested in learning about other people than talking about himself, and he was one of the most grounded, real people I’ve ever had the honor of calling a friend. A relapse of cancer killed him in 2018, and I miss him constantly. —Roddy Piper was a quality gentleman, and the world could use more like him. He died in 2015 from cardiac arrest, and he is missed. —Clayton Hill died from pneumonia in 2009, but he will never be forgotten, and I still think of him as my grandfather. —Magoo Gelehrter died from cancer in 2014. His wake was the day before I admitted my mother to a nursing home. It was a difficult time to say the least, though the amount of love in the room at the funeral home was something truly special. —Corey Haim died from pneumonia in 2010. I never met him, but his fans certainly loved him.
You can find more of his musings at his blog, Fitting My Skin.