Ch. 4: The King Table
In 2009 Tim and I went back for our second go ‘round as Rock and Shock volunteers. Getting to that point, for me, was physically difficult, as two weeks prior I had severely wrenched my knee helping friends move. The next day I started my promotion at work as store manager, meeting the employees of my new location with a severe limp that did not get any better by the time we were Worcester bound.
We arrived in the early afternoon on Friday so we could hang flyers of the weekend schedules and whatever else may be needed. There was a winter chill to the fall air as Tim and I parked and headed to the hotel. We had a few flights of stairs to descend in the garage, and my knee was so bad I had to walk them slowly, both feet on each step before going to the next. I felt it was going to be a rough weekend. This thought was fortified by the hotel refusing to check us in until 4:00, over three hours away. We trekked slowly back to the car to stow our bags, back up the familiar steps (the elevator was at the other end of the building and would’ve been more steps to take), the air biting us the entire way. From there we took the elevator, as it was in the direction we needed to go, and began the walk up the steep hill to the Palladium to meet up with Gina. The ascension on a good day would shorten my breath, but on that day the pain stabbed deep with each forward shift in weight, the bite of incline a sick joke.
Tim and I found Gina, forever busy yet forever cordial, and she gave us schedules for films and Q&A panels at the DCU Center as well as the band lineups for the Palladium. We got to work, first covering the walls of the historic concert venue and then heading back down the hill to the DCU. It was during this walk that I discovered Rock and Shock had healing powers, as my knee, for the first time in two weeks, did not hurt. What had thirty minutes prior been excruciating pain that had me limping was now a calm normal. I had felt no indicator of repair, no pop of something moving into place, nor a drain of any amassed fluid or thinning of swelled tissue. I had, in fact, felt nothing, and it was wonderful! Some may say it was the adrenaline of the work setting in, and they would be smart, but I like to imagine it was the power of the show I loved so dearly using its healing power to restore my body, especially since the pain never returned.
Flyers were hung (by the chimney with care) around the DCU, the cold outside turning into the warmth of the busy preparation by many inside the exhibit hall. Once finished we walked back to the Palladium only to be sent back to await further projects at the DCU. On the way Tim asked me, if I had my choice, who I would want to sit with. That was easy, because my favorite actor, Malcolm McDowell, was one of the headliners. I returned the question and he chose the other headliner, John Landis. We shared a chuckle, knowing there was no way either wish would happen. It was only our second year, and the other volunteers had a few years seniority on us.
We were able to check into our hotel room, my knee handling the garage steps without issue, then we patrolled the DCU, exploring the vendor setup and waiting around in case something came up. Volunteer coordinator Nikki arrived like a tornado and we said hello as she moved around quickly greeting all those she hadn’t seen since the last show. Tim went off to the restroom and Nikki came by again, wanting to talk. She told me that she had really appreciated and respected our work ethic last year, how we put the show first and didn’t need breaks, and because of that she wanted us to work with the two biggest guests, McDowell and Landis. My mind made a series of happy pops as I reflected on how wrong we had been earlier and how quickly we had climbed the ladder. Maybe the others took the work lightly, but we didn’t, and we were being rewarded. I thanked Nikki very much for the recognition, remembering how I’d been frustrated with her humor the year before, and was glad I not only stuck it out but also returned. And now, I was about to work with someone I referred to as The World’s Greatest Living Actor.
The two headliner booths (which as a coordinator I would call the King/Queen Tables) were at opposite sides of the room to account for line snaking. Unlike last year, when we were at neighboring tables, Tim and I could only see each other before the show started, the fans walking the celebrity area blocking us the rest of the time. We would rely on story sharing at post-show dinners to catch up as well as texts when our celebs were away from their stations. I stood behind Malcolm’s huge booth setup, nerves mounting as I thought of the responsibility on my shoulders. There were six tables, side by side and two rows deep, of photos, another two with DVDs, then a single table where I would sit and take the money, and right next to me at the end would be Malcolm. Ropes were arranged to snake the line in one direction from the photos toward me. It was an efficient and necessary setup to be sure.
About ten minutes from opening I watched as Malcolm walked over to the booth with his manager and a couple other people. My heart kissed my tongue before I swallowed it down and my professional side took hold. The manager introduced himself as Chris Roe, a man I’d have a mostly great working relationship with over the next several years. Chris, unlike almost all the other agents/managers I’d encounter, wasn’t just in charge of booking signing appearances for his clients but handled all of their business, be they acting jobs, interviews, you name it. He was on top of things and always polite, and sometimes he’d feed you some bull but at least he did so in a disarming way. I only got angry with him once years later, but that’s a small story for another time.
Chris got my name and introduced me to Malcolm. We exchanged upbeat hellos and shook hands, and I got a little bit shorter as I began to melt. Chris introduced me to the other two people, one who ran Malcolm’s new website who would be asking fans to sign up for notifications, and the other who was there to observe, assumedly so they could start working shows with Chris’s clients when he couldn’t be there, or if he had multiple stars at the same show (agents, of course, wanted to stack shows with as many of their clients as possible).
Chris went over the prices with me, and there were a lot. 8x10s, 11x17s, DVDs, Blu-rays, and box sets all had different prices, and then some of the DVDs had different price points from others. I wrote them down but got them memorized before too long. Gina came by and handed me a zippered money pouch, the show doors opened, and it was make or break time.
Watching the attendees fill the room is always an adrenaline rush. Gone is the comfort zone of preparation, of looking to the future, potential energy turning kinetic in a heartbeat. I took a breath, ready, as people filled Malcolm’s line, stopping long enough to peruse his item selection before moving forward. The website person asked everyone about signing up, slowing everything down, and the trainee was in the way, people thinking they gave their money to him. The line engaged my manager mode, and my “coworkers” were clearly not working out. Of course, as they worked for Chris and not the show, I had no say in their level of attendance, but was happy when they abandoned their posts more and more often over the weekend.
Despite the rush of fans, I was able to keep my end under control, adrenaline, excitement and respect for the task keeping me at my sharpest. Malcolm was fantastic with his fans, and I began to hear stories that I would hear several times over the weekend. They were engaging every time, because Malcolm was born to entertain, and he kept us all laughing. He was very generous with his tales, and on occasion he would begin branching out, telling his story to the entire line. On the other hand, he did not accept rude or disrespectful people, and if he didn’t like someone it was evident to everyone (except the person in question, of course), as he would shut right down.
About forty-five minutes in we hit a lull. This was a bit stressful, as the question of etiquette came up. Every guest was different, and being “on” all weekend is no doubt stressful, so I waited to see if Malcolm would chat or not. Within ten seconds he turned to me, taking in my giant red beard, Fulci’s Zombie shirt and copious tattoos, and said:
“Do you scare young virgin girls?”
I knew I was being tested. The rest of the weekend and our working comfort level with each other hinged on my response. Here I was, an introvert that would normally crumble with such a query, needing a witty response RIGHT NOW. But this was Rock and Shock, a place where I had gotten much better at interacting with celebrities over the past few years, and I was a worker, there to create a comfortable space for my charge, especially as it was my favorite actor. No, I could not and would not fail. Flashing a sly grin, I said:
“Yeah, and some not so virgin ones too.”
The wording was clunky, but success was mine! Malcolm let out a hearty “ha!” and clapped me on the back. Website and Trainee laughed too, and I had earned my spot at the table.
The night moved forward, Malcolm getting visits from the man on my shirt, Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (who I proudly exchanged a hello with) and the lovely Catriona MacCall as well as John Landis, who would spend the entire weekend trying to get Malcolm to agree to a role in his upcoming Burke and Hare film. The line rebuilt before too long, and the night remained steady. Chris would come by occasionally but mostly was out on the floor or in the “green room” (celebrity rest area, conveniently directly to our right), probably hanging out with Gina, who made that her base of operations to be close by for any guest needs. Over the weekend he would mainly come by to take money out of the bag (especially as these were the days before guests could take cards at their booths, so cash was king), which he would have me double count as Malcolm had a guarantee to keep track of, or to bring Malcolm to lunch or a Q&A. When the night ended a final money tally was made, and while I was prepared to pay, Malcolm gave me a free autograph and we took a photo. He had packed up a little early, the Friday crowd thinning out about an hour before closing. Nikki said I were free to go, and I used my time to meet convention favorites Bill Moseley and Sid Haig (RIP). Nikki walked me over to John Landis to allow me a free autograph. Landis was as energetic as Malcolm, and signed my Muppets Take Manhattan DVD (the only one of the weekend, Tim later told me) while telling me how he had angered Cheech Marin at the premiere by making light of Marin’s son being frightened when Kermit was hit by a car. From there I met stuntman Chris Carnel (cool guy) and talked to the Shilling Shockers crew I had met the year before at Chris Sarandon’s booth, who had become friends in the time between (RIP Magoo), and when Tim finished up with John we had our customary dinner and story swapping session.
Saturday opened with Nikki giving me time to meet some of the other guests. I was torn, wanting to get autographs yet not wanting to leave Malcolm, and also paranoid about losing my spot even though I was told to report back there when I was done. I decided to have fun but work quick. I saw friend and agent Mike Baronas, who had a great roster of clients at the show. He introduced me to Gunnar Hansen (RIP), an intimidating yet gentle soul who I’d meet many times over the years, and then I saw his other clients, all representing the filmography of Lucio Fulci. Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, my favorite zombie, was first. Two weeks prior I had finished a multi-session tattoo of his classic appearance in Zombie/Zombi 2, and while his English was extremely limited (though still better than my Italian) he seemed to like the tribute. I then saw the surprisingly soft spoken yet fun Al Cliver, and ended the Fulci trio with an instant crush on Catriona MacColl, who gave me a smooch on each cheek. After that I visited with the irreplaceable Jack Ketchum (RIP), then Ezra Buzzington followed by Tiffany Shepis, who gave me a free extra autograph because I had the courtesy to use exact change (bringing small bills is a huge necessity for a convention attendee). And then I met a new friend, one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known, Adrienne King. We spoke personally and deeply in no time, and when we hugged it was with our very essence. That’s who she is, a sincere, caring human, and every interaction with her over the ensuing years was a wonderful wave of positivity, right up until last year’s final Rock and Shock, a decade after first meeting her, where she recounted to me the events of the meetings I am describing here. If you go to a lot of shows you meet a lot of people, and while most are great very few rise to that very top level from a soul to soul perspective. She is certainly on that list.
I made it back to Malcolm’s booth with the vast majority of the day ahead, and I felt good as he met me with a happy “hi Mike” as I put my bag down and told my fellow volunteer I was tagging in. I was given the money bag, and it would take some time before I got the bills in the same direction and ordered by denomination (volunteer tip: it is respectful and professional to keep a neat money bag), and I worked on that between fans. Malcolm’s line was considerable, the busy Saturday in full swing, and it was fun to listen to his stories and feel his energy overtake the line and put smiles on faces. He is a true showman, magnetic to fans and fellow guests alike, especially John Landis who came by a couple more times and would later take him and Chris to lunch in his fervent quest to land Malcolm for his movie (he was ultimately unsuccessful).
Of course, the quiet times were also interesting, especially since most of Saturday and Sunday was just Malcolm and me at the booth. During one lull I bought a few autographs and he tested me again, happy that I knew the film O Lucky Man! (my second favorite of his). There were also a couple of odd fan interactions. One was from The Photographer, a Rock and Shock regular who would bring two cameras and direct whoever was taking the pics in how to line up each shot. One camera was for portrait, one for landscape, no exceptions, with constant, deliberate direction, and the guest’s interest in participating in this photo shoot was second to the fan’s photo quest. After I handed the man his equipment he said I did a good job, and when I told him I’d put it on my resume Malcolm let out a laugh and clapped me on the back.
Another “fan” came over during a late day lull, disregarding the roped setup and just walking up to us through the exit. He had a mean and dumb look in his eyes, setting my inner alarm off. The money bag was already obscured (always a good idea), but I nonchalantly moved it between my knees and held it there to free both hands. Aggro said, “You that Clockwork Orange guy?” Malcolm said he was, his warm and happy tone gone. Aggro grunted, looking us over. Then, to me, “You his bodyguard?” “I’m whatever he needs,” I responded quickly, my warm and happy tone also gone, my eyes locked with his, leaning closer to Malcolm. Aggro stood there for a moment, turned, and left. For better or worse, sometimes volunteers need to be bodyguards. That was my favorite part about never having those day-glo staff shirts most shows have. Our presence behind a booth with a guest led people to believe we worked for the guest rather than the show, which afforded us more respect, which kept more people from trying to push the fan/guest boundaries. There was still plenty of pushing, don’t get me wrong, but I can only imagine how much more there would’ve been otherwise.
In the afternoon Malcolm had a Q&A and then lunch with Landis directly after. From opposite ends of the room Tim and I had a text conversation in which I found out Landis had barely been at his booth, opting to sit and watch an entire film in the movie room. I still feel very bad for the fans that wanted to see him during that time. I spent that couple of hours watching the booth and telling fans an approximate time for Malcolm’s return. When one young lady came through the area, perusing the photos, I mentioned he was at lunch and she said that she didn’t care and thought having actors signing autographs was like animals in a zoo. Can’t please everyone. I still wonder why she even came to the celebrity area. Tom Savini also came over and asked where Malcolm was as he looked over the pictures. I told him, then told him the story of how a couple years prior I bought a DVD from him at a Horrorhound convention but there was no DVD inside. To his credit, he immediately started to say he’d go get me one, but I continued and told him I had written to him and he replaced it right away, and just wanted to thank him. Savini can be difficult and has earned his 50/50 reputation at shows, but I feel in his heart he does care.
On Sunday morning Tim and I went to breakfast at the hotel, and when we finished and got up to leave Malcolm was at a neighboring table. “Hi Mike,” he said as we went by, and I admit I was quite happy he remembered my name all weekend. We checked out of the hotel, loaded the car, and went over to the DCU for the final day. It was slow, as Sundays tend to be, but Malcolm was his usual, effervescent self. At one point Adrienne came to visit, and as she waited for Malcolm to finish talking to a fan I asked her about the painting she was selling at her booth (I had been looking at it from our area all weekend and loved it). She told me she had one left and would hold it for me, and I was happy I’d get to talk to her again. Speaking of being happy to talk to someone, my friend Sheila came to visit. Sheila is one of my most trusted and best friends, and when she came over to the table Malcolm worked his charm and she told him she was actually there to say hi to me. Perhaps feeling challenged, Malcolm pressed and kept asking personal questions. Sheila, to her credit, was politely cool to him, her focus on our conversation, and left when a fan came through the line, saying goodbye to me warmly and Malcolm respectfully.
Right around the end of the show it began snowing, and it was the wet and sticky variety. That was certainly going to slow down airport runs, vendor load out and more, but since I wasn’t knowledgeable about those aspects of the operation as of yet I was only thinking about the long drive south. Chris appeared with the website person and trainee, doing a final count of the money for the day with me. Malcolm signed a photo to me as thanks and both he and Chris said I had done a great job and made the weekend run smooth. That compliment meant a great deal to me, and still does. Then, feeling like it was only moments since we met, Chris brought Malcolm to the hotel while Website and Trainee started packing up the table. Other than his dialogue with Sheila he had been incredible and I was overjoyed to work for and enjoy time with my favorite actor.
I went over to Adrienne’s table. Not a surprise to anyone who has met her, but she went to extraordinary lengths to protect my new print from the snow. She found trash bags and a perfectly sized flattened box from around the hall, and wrapped it all up safe for me. She gave me a “family discount” and signed another picture to me too. We hugged forever, promising each other to travel safe, and it felt so nice to meet someone so genuinely kind.
I checked in with Gina and Nikki, waiting for Tim as he was nowhere in sight. They gave me their blessing to leave when he returned, and we exchanged thanks and hugs. I found Tim, who told me Landis wanted Tim to take photos of him in the snow (Landis lives in California). We started the journey home, the precipitation thankfully lessening as we got farther south, and exchanged more stories. It remains one of the best show experiences I’ve ever had, and one of the best weekends of my life.
—Sid Haig died in 2019 from chronic pulmonary disease, but until then he spent the entirety of his eighty years living the most straightforward and true life possible. The only time you could smell BS on Sid was if he stepped in it.
—Gunnar Hansen was killed by pancreatic cancer in 2015, but before that he was a brilliant, soft spoken man with a wit so dry it would soak up water. He lived a peaceful life in Maine, loved nature and photography, and was as genuine as they come.
—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.
—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.
You can find more of his musings at his blog, Fitting My Skin.