Ch.5: Not Standing For It
After having very positive experiences working the King and Queen tables the previous year, there was no doubt that Tim and I would be back for our third year of volunteering in 2010. My hopes to be at the headliner booth again were huge after my favorite director, George Romero (RIP), was announced, and I sent a message to Gina asking if it might be possible. She said if he needed assistance I was the person for the job, and I set my sights on doing exactly that. Of course he would need a volunteer, I said to myself, he’s GEORGE ROMERO! I had seen his line the last time he was at the show in 2005, and I knew it would be huge again. Hell, I had been in the line, and he was the first guest I had met at my first Rock and Shock! This was clearly fate, and my excitement was at a fever pitch as Tim and I got to the show to do our usual prep work of hanging schedules around the Palladium and DCU Center. It was there that Gina told me the news that Romero’s agent, Chris Roe, had brought people to work with George, but he had specifically requested that I work with one of his other actors, Julian Sands, as he really liked my diligence the year before with another client, Malcolm McDowell. My heart sank, of course, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.
Nikki arrived in her usual tornado manner and while my job was set, Tim’s was not. We had our volunteer meeting as the start of the show crept closer and Tim was assigned Alex Winter, with whom he would have a grand weekend in what we didn’t know at the time would be his final year as a volunteer due to his job. I made my way to Julian’s booth, fully prepared to do my best even though I was totally unfamiliar with his work. His biggest films for a horror crowd were Warlock and Boxing Helena, and they represented the majority of photos on his table. Chris came over and said hello and complimented my work ethic from the year before, which helped soothe my disappointment of not working for Romero. Julian only had 8x10 photos so I had to remember just one autograph price. He said he would be bringing George over shortly, and would get Julian a little later as he’d just gotten in that afternoon from a red eye flight out of Norway where he was filming Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and he had needed a nap.
I surveyed the room and noticed Doug Bradley only a couple tables away. His booth was prepared and he was patiently awaiting the doors to open so I took the opportunity to go and say hello. Despite an awkward first meeting in 2006 that was all my excited fault, Doug and I had gotten along wonderfully since and would continue that way to present day. Knowing he was a Poe fan as well as an audiobook narrator with his Spinechillers series I had brought him a CD set of Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone reading the author’s work, and he seemed quite pleased to receive the set.
Romero arrived to a great deal of happy greetings from his peers, and soon after the show began. It was Friday so there was a rush at the start but it leveled out quick. Once things were running smoothly at Romero’s large setup, which did indeed have a lot of bodies behind the tables, Chris went to get Julian. When they returned we were introduced and said hello with a handshake. Julian was indeed a striking individual, quite handsome, and he knew it. I was standing when we met, as to me it was respectful to stand until the guest was ready to sit. Gina had given me a pouch for money, and I was ready to rock. Julian, however, was not. He walked around the immediate area and said hello to some of the other guests and talked with Chris for a bit. I kept standing because, again, I wanted to be respectful. Finally, after the show was perhaps an hour in, Mr. Sands got behind the booth. And yet, he continued standing, so I stood with him. He met his first few fans, business was done, Julian walked away to talk to some more people, came back, stood behind the booth with me standing next to him, and finally, over thirty minutes after arriving, sat down, to which I followed.
Business was slow for Julian Sands that night, and it was there that I learned he had no desire to engage in conversation. For the fans, sure, he was gracious. On the couple of tries I made at asking a question, though, one word answers were all I received, and it looked like he had to force himself to even give that much. I reminded myself that every guest is different, and this one didn’t care to talk. He had been in the air a great deal of hours to make the show, was no doubt still tired, and that could be having an effect on his demeanor. I stopped asking questions and watched people. I had body language conversations with agent and friend Mike Baronas, sitting with one of his clients, Ruggero Deodato, from across the aisle. I had made a music mix for the show consisting of instrumental soundtrack songs and he pointed up at the speakers, then at me. I nodded that I had made the playlist and he gave me a thumbs up (Kane Hodder, however, hated it, as when I walked by his booth on the final day he said to a friend, “who picked the music, it sucks”). I watched Romero meet his fans. I noticed a customer from my store in Doug Bradley’s line. He was a creepy man to say the least, one that no one in the store was comfortable dealing with, and he stood there for a minimum of ten minutes deciding what to pick to get signed. Bradley’s face grew grumpy as his line grew longer, and finally an item was chosen. I tried to lay low as to not get spotted but it didn’t work and I heard the familiar, lecherous “hi Miiiiiiiiiike” emerge as Doug signed the DVD he’d chosen. I gave a tiny nod and he continued with, “look I’m meeting Doug Bradley.” Lucky for me, he did not decide to meet Julian Sands. And excited as he had been to meet Doug Bradley he later sold the signed DVD to an FYE store across the street from my shop so he could have soda money. And to think, he talked to me more than Julian.
I didn’t have much confidence that Saturday’s booth experience was going to be better than Friday. I didn’t see Nikki before the show started so when Gina gave me a fresh bag for Julian’s money I asked her if I could have time to get autographs that morning, as it had worked out well the year before. She said she’d try to find someone to cover, but then told me Nikki had to pull out of working the show to handle an emergency. I instantly felt like a heel for asking, and Gina definitely had a rough day ahead of her between show duties and now not having Nikki for help in dealing with issues on the show floor. I told her not to worry about the free time and I had the booth covered and would help in any way I could.
I got the booth ready, which was basically pulling the tablecloth down that was covering the photos, and stood at my station, once again meaning to show respect. When Julian arrived, however, the first thing he said to me in no uncertain terms was that he wanted me to sit down so that no one would confuse who the guest was.
Okay, I can understand wanting me to sit down, or not getting that I was being respectful. I can be a little too old fashioned for my own good. However, confusing who the guest was? Look at the photo above. We definitely do not look alike, and the guy in all the 8x10 photos on the table certainly looked like one of us, but it wasn’t me. I was furious, not only by what he’d said but his tone of voice. I certainly wasn’t going to make a wave, though, not after the morning Gina was having and also because I liked volunteering and knew this was just a bump in the road. I swallowed my pride and sat down, and would only stand if I had to take a photo for a fan.
Strangely, within an hour the ice started to thaw, assumedly from a mix of a busier Saturday as well as Julian getting his grievance off his chest and perhaps a good night’s sleep. Whatever it was, he started, ever so slightly, making a little conversation between fan visits, mostly people watching and making comments, but still involving me. I wasn’t happy with him but it was a better atmosphere than the previous night, and the increase in attendees to his table made time speed up a bit. When 1:00pm rolled around (from a 10:00am start) and Chris Roe brought a young lady from Romero’s booth to cover while I went for autographs, we were actually having a tiny bit of, dare I say, fun. He even made a comment that I was his luck and leaving right as things were really picking up. Seeing how huggy he was with the ladies, though, I figured he’d enjoy his time with my replacement just fine.
Also, this really speaks to how amazing Gina is. While worried about her sister leaving and also having to run the show and deal with her own problems as well as any Nikki may have had to handle through the day, she still got coverage so I could get autographs. Gina has never gotten enough recognition for how much she does for other people, often at her own expense, and her drive to bring a great experience for the fans each year was why the show had such a family vibe.
My plan was to get my autographs as quickly as possible and get back to work so I could be present for Gina. I decided to go see Danny Trejo first, as his line was the longest of the people I had never met. It moved quickly, and when I got to his agent, who was taking the money, he gave me freebies because the day before during setup I had helped clean a spill at another client’s table that had threatened some of her photos. Before and after that moment I had always found that the agent would not return a hello and only speak to workers if he needed something, so it was nice to see that he was also capable of generosity. Danny was cool too, and had an award winning smile, which was good because the day before I’d seen him in the hotel lobby and he cut quite an intimidating figure.
After that I saw perennial favorite Bill Moseley and the amazingly cool Zoe Bell. I then met Adam Green for the first time, a man who I would have an excellent convention friendship with over the next nine years and someone who in all that time never charged to sign items fans brought. After that was the energetic Scout Taylor-Compton, then Kristina Klebe, who was the only person that ever complimented my glasses frames, the inimitably wonderful Doug Bradley, and the spiritual sweetheart that is Dee Wallace, who was also table neighbors with Mr. Sands and gave me a “neighbor discount.”
I got a message from my friend Rasheed, who was walking the vendor area, so I met up with him. As soon as that happened my sister arrived, and now we had a crew. I explained that I had limited time before checking in with Julian, so since the others didn’t have pressing agendas we hung out while I met more guests. First up was Adrienne Barbeau. They hung back while I met her, and she was sweet as always and we talked about her excellent books that too many people don’t know about. My sister and Rasheed did not hang back for the next guest, though, the marvelously engaging Meg Foster. She was tops on Rasheed’s list of people he wanted to meet, and treated him like a king, while I talked to her about Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Rasheed was so enamored with their meeting that he called it a day and went home!
My sister and I met Eileen Dietz, who was staying at her table despite being late for a Q&A panel. We were brief but she was very accommodating. I would learn in later years the difficult balance of getting the guests to their events without leaving fans waiting at their booth. Come to think of it, I would also learn in later years the difficult balance of dealing with Ms. Dietz.
We then went to see David Hess (RIP), whose booth was next to Ruggero Deodato as they both were represented by Mike Baronas, friend and enjoyer of my playlist. Earlier that year I’d had a very bizarre conversation with Hess at a Horrorhound show in Indiana, which was the best non-Rock and Shock event I’ve ever attended for multiple reasons (a tale to be told in full at a future time). I had seen Mike and when he discovered I had flown solo for the show invited me along to gather his clients. I soon found myself alone with Hess in a tiny hotel lobby far from home while he regaled me with theories about men and condoms, the music business, and everything in between. It was a deep encounter, and I’d end up spending most of the afternoon in a crew with him, Mike, Gina, Richard Lynch and others, as well as working the table when Mike needed to be away. As a result of this highly memorable weekend, I made the mistake that many fans do in the convention world when I expected Hess to remember me. Now, I’ve certainly had guests remember me, and that is always a very warm feeling, but the folly is in expecting it to happen. They had met hundreds, some thousands, of others at that show, and then more and more at others, let alone their encounters plying their craft and living their lives, so while we the fans may have had a brilliant and wonderful exchange with them and made a great connection, we are needles in their haystack. And if we bum out about it that’s our fault. I learned that lesson that weekend, and it made me a better convention attendee and worker, and a more humble person.
At that moment, though, I was a little thrown by the punch of reality, of non-remembrance, so meeting Hess started with me fumbling for things to say. Hess was naturally very energetic and straightforward, dare I say aggressive, certainly intimidating, so it wasn’t going great. Then Mike, who was going between Hess and Deodato, stepped in to make sure I didn’t pay and that I would be seeing Ruggero next. That clued David in that I was okay and the mood lightened considerably, and David signed a photo while he and Ruggero began play arguing from their tables, which led to him pulling Deodato into our hilarious group photo before I got a quick autograph from the infamous director.
I told my sister that I needed to check in about going back to work, so she said farewell, but like with Rasheed our time together had certainly ended on a high note. I went to Chris Roe at Romero’s booth and he said Julian was doing fine with my replacement and I was free for the day. I felt a mixture of surprise and relief, and even a twinge of sadness since things had been improving at the booth, and went on a quest to find Gina. Her stress was very evident in her face. The show was one thing, not having Nikki was another, but there was also the factor of putting on the biggest concert in the show’s history that night, Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper. Gina just asked that I be ready to fill in for volunteers and cover breaks as needed, to have my phone on me, and otherwise I was free. She never stopped giving and making others happy. I checked on the other volunteers but back then horror conventions were still in an incremental growing phase before the big Walking Dead explosion (I’ll get back to that). This was the last year for it, but the volunteer crew for our show could be counted on one hand, maybe one and a half. There weren’t many to check on, and realistically, even by the final year where there were less than glamorous jobs like line control, not many volunteers wanted to be away from their stations. That to me was a testament to the fun and family aspect of the show, which I feel is lost on the huge conventions and even some of the mid-size ones. Wherever show profit means more than fan and volunteer experience, the family aspect is lost and the fun diminishes in tandem.
Since I had time, I walked the vendor area and then met more guests. I saw Melissa Cowan, who was gaining fame since her image as the bicycle zombie in the brand new, two weeks from premiering, Walking Dead show was the talk of the horror world. It has been said frequently that the stars from that series, or their agents, are the reason convention autograph prices doubled in a very short time, and I believe it. In the beginning autographs were typically twenty dollars, and you could take a photo with the guest for free. Some started to tweak that when larger numbers of people just wanted to take a photo and not get an autograph, so you could either get a free photo with autograph purchase or just pay to take a picture. Eventually there would be combo deals and everything had a price, which seemed to increase yearly. There are more factors involved like guarantees and whatnot that the show has to deal with, and I’ll talk about that in the future as I got more involved in the show, but for the fans these increases were more than frustrating, because almost everyone joined in. The Walking Dead exploded in popularity so the personal appearance agents of the stars from that show would more than double the industry average from twenty to fifty dollars. Greedy move, but fans came out in droves to meet them (I’ve done it too). Then a slasher icon’s agent would see that and say their client is a legend and no newcomer was going to be worth more, so their price went up. That practice swept the scene, and the ripples fed out to middle and lower tier guests (and made price/popularity-based “guest tiers” a thing because if you didn’t assemble the right guest balance your show was in trouble), who also raised their prices to a lesser degree (but still more than the old twenty dollar standard). And that’s a big part of how shows went from being fun and about the fans to being about money and ego, and is a large factor to why Rock and Shock stopped. Also, kudos to Sid Haig (RIP), who was huge on the convention circuit for well over a decade, for never increasing his autograph price or charging to take a photo.
Before all that, however, there I was with Melissa Cowan. She was quite nice, though even then you could smell the business starting to change. Fright Kingdom, a local haunted house, had brought her in to sign at their booth, so for pictures you would stand with Melissa at the edge of the banner while the photographer took your pic with the entire banner in the shot, leaving Melissa and the fan cropped all the way to the right of the photo. Not Melissa’s fault by any means, but a sign of business to come. I moved on to Jack Ketchum (RIP), an exception to the rule I had learned earlier with David Hess. It was always a treat to talk to Jack, because it was a chance to relax. The vibe totally shifted from the adrenaline and nerves and crowd noise of a show to a quieter experience of two people talking. The egos were gone, and Jack would talk about anything. The conversation, the connection, was the important part. And if anybody in the guest room needed your dollars it was a writer, and Jack certainly had my support. I miss talking with him so very much.
I ran into Gina again, who was distributing tickets for the concert that night. Tim and I were very excited for it. And again I was in awe of Gina’s strength to keep moving forward despite the visible stress she was under. She deserves so much more recognition for planning and running that show than she ever received, and people who did next to nothing or even literally nothing for the show would take credit year after year. The convention world can be unkind, my friends.
I talked to stuntman Brian Keene, who was very funny and kept using his massive strength to nudge me off balance for our photo. Then I saw perennial show friends Sarah French and Joe Knetter, two absolutely lovely souls who have worked for and deserve the success from the slow but steady climb up the Hollywood ladder that they are starting to see more of. From there I decided to check out the George Romero area. The floor layout had room for one booth next to the headliner, and that went to Sharon Ceccatti-Hill, which made sense as she’d famously worked with George on Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders. Sharon was a sweetheart, and this was her first time back at the show since her wonderful husband Clayton had passed away a little over a year prior (RIP). As I’ve mentioned in past articles, Tim and I called the couple our grandparents, as they were the sweetest people who would talk to us (and plenty of others) sometimes for a half hour or more if there was no line. They were such genuine, kind people to talk with. It was very sad to see Sharon alone, though I was happy that she was getting out again and meeting the fans, which she loved to do. We talked for a while until other people wanted to meet her, and the next day after the show ended I saw her heading for the door and raced over to say goodbye and we hugged over a guardrail. That was the last time I saw her, and I hope her days are always happy.
There was no way I could pass up the chance to see Romero. Chris Roe even put me at the front of the line (apologies to all I cut) and gave me a print to be signed. This was the first time Romero had been back to the show since 2005, my first time attending, and he was of course at the same headliner booth. (He was supposed to be there a couple years later but had a health issue that caused a cancellation.) I was determined to be less nervous to meet him than I had been before, and things went fine until I screwed up. George had a great quality where he would often ask fans questions about themselves and engage them in conversation. So, I sat down next to him to take our photo and he saw my G.I. Joe Arashikage tattoo. It is also a hexagram from the I-Ching, but I got it for the connection to the comic and my favorite characters, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. He asked me what it was and I failed. Rather than be myself I wanted to say the “smart” answer so I said the I-Ching. He said “oh” in that way that is a polite conversation ender. I should have been true to myself and said G.I. Joe. He might have liked comics more than Chinese philosophy. Lesson learned, Mr. Romero, and thank you.
Once the celeb area was closed for the day and Gina gave us the okay to leave Tim and I made a beeline to the hotel room to drop our stuff off and have a quick protein bar before heading back for the concert. Rock and Shock guests and staff had their own section in the DCU Center (due to the size this was the only concert we had at the DCU rather than the Palladium during show weekend). It was at the opposite end of the stage, centered so we could see everything straight on, and in the balcony to give privacy to any celebs who may have wanted to attend. For me it was perfect, as Tim and I sat in the front row and I could sit and absorb the show in my own comfort zone. No one sat on my left, and on the right was Tim so that was fine. I chose the better seat, as next to Tim sat Joe Knetter. I adore Joe, and he has always treated me amazingly well. We couldn’t be, however, more opposite about partying. Joe is notorious for his convention antics, and I could see the horror and discomfort on Tim’s face halfway through Zombie’s set when Joe, who was standing and dancing while we sat, shook himself right out of his pants! He didn’t pick them back up either. Tim did not love having Joe’s undies-laden genitals next to his face for forty-five minutes, moving to and fro by the accelerated beats song after song. I would catch his panicked eye between songs and couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. As for the music, though, both sets were incredible, each bringing an excellent stage show with costumed characters aplenty, and Zombie also had his usual excellent video screens and dancers, and played a video loop segment of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as an outro since it was almost Halloween. I had seen Zombie a lot, and he never disappointed, but it was my first time seeing Alice Cooper live and I was massively impressed, classic song after classic song coming to life within a superbly orchestrated theatrical show.
I knew I’d be with Julian again on Sunday, and hoped he’d be in a good mood. I got in early and set up his booth. Gina came by, and Nikki would not be coming in but Sunday would be slower and shorter anyway, and neither of us anticipated any big issues that would affect the volunteers. I took my place behind Julian’s booth and was sure to be fully seated when he arrived. Chris Roe brought him over and we said good morning, and Doug Bradley came over to talk football (soccer) with him. It was always fun to watch celebs just being themselves and talking to each other about life. That was one of my favorite volunteer perks.
Julian and I got along very well on Sunday. He made a lot of conversation with me and was in a good mood. Early into the day he jokingly made a goal of getting twenty paying fans, playing on the good but not great traffic at his booth as well as the large amount of people who just wanted a free picture with him. He began making a tally on the tablecloth, and we’d give extra cheers when a fan added to the count, which made them feel extra special, even if they didn’t know why we cheered for them. Julian, as usual, was very good with them, and still gave the ladies extra special treatment. The mood at the booth was so much better than Friday, and I was actually sad to see the day end. When it did, though, the final count of paying fans was a goal busting twenty-three! We gave a cheer, and Julian offered me a signed photo, which I was happy to accept. From there I caught up with Tim, who was finishing up a very fun weekend with Alex Winter, and we checked in with Gina. Hugs were given, goodbyes were said, and another wave of sadness hit as we walked out to the car and the drive home. It was a weird but overall good show personally, and while I didn’t know it then my responsibilities were about to start rising yearly for the remainder of Rock and Shock’s existence.
—David Hess died in 2011 from a heart attack, just one week shy of a year from the weekend he was at Rock and Shock. He was the youngest looking seventy-five year old I’d ever seen, his honesty, energy and intensity no doubt keeping the hands of time from turning so quickly.
—All other passings noted above have eulogies in previous articles.
You can find more of his musings at his blog, Fitting My Skin.