Balticon grew to 50 as sci-fi, fantasy grew more mainstream

Balticon at 50: a celebration of fantasy and sci-fi that never grows old

Even 50 Balticons later, Ray Ridenour remembers his introduction to the annual gathering of the Baltimore region's science-fiction and fantasy aficionados.

Ridenour, then a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, recalls taking the elevator to the top floor of the city's since-demolished Emerson Hotel. This was the first Balticon put together by the then-4-year-old Baltimore Science Fiction Society, and he had little idea what to expect.

"As soon as I stepped out of the elevator, I heard something very noisy and stepped back in," he recalls. "Two guys roared by in a wheelchair; one of them was singing loudly, the other was pushing loudly. They careened down the hotel aisle and then zoomed in another direction and disappeared."

Ridenour asked someone walking by if they had any idea what was going on. "'Oh, yeah,'" came the reply. "'That was the president of the club.'"

Ridenour, now 68, a graphic artist and designer living in Hampden and a veteran of every Balticon since, knew he was in the right place. "So I said, 'Well, these guys look like they know how to party.'"

They did, and they also knew how to organize a fan convention that would last. Over the course of its lifetime, Balticon has mirrored the growth of the fantasy/sci-fi genre itself. 

Debuting in the mid-'60s, when "Star Trek" was just a struggling TV series (that would, in fact, nearly be canceled during its second season, surviving only after a fierce letter-writing campaign by its fans), the convention started attracting sizable crowds about a decade in — around the same time (1977) that an interstellar Western-style adventure movie called "Star Wars" broke box-office records and made sci-fi acceptable to the masses.

"It was an explosive growth, right there around 1975 to 1980," says author Steve Miller, a one-time Balticon guest of honor who continues to write with his wife, Sharon Lee, from their home in Maine. "The situation was ripe, with 'Star Trek,' 'Star Wars' and the technologies that were changing, in terms of film availability and stuff like that."

Today, with "Game of Thrones" a TV phenomenon and fantasy/comic-book heroes propping up the movie industry, Balticon is still going strong as one of the country's premier literature-, music- and art-oriented fantasy and sci-fi gatherings. Next weekend's Balticon 50, running Friday through Monday at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, will feature the usual panel discussions and presentations, plus a dealers' room, costume contest, gaming room, music and movies.

But since a golden anniversary comes around only once, organizers have planned something special.

For one, they've booked as their guest of honor the hottest writer working in fantasy and science fiction these days, "A Game of Thrones" chronicler George R.R. Martin. For another — and this is where the programming becomes grandly historic — they've invited all the past guests of honor to join the celebration. Nineteen are expected to attend.

"It's something that no other science-fiction convention has done," says Balticon 50 chair Nora Echeverria, who is the same age as the gathering she'll be shepherding into its next 50 years. "We're expecting a total of about 3,000 people," more than twice the number the event normally attracts.

Baltimore natives Miller, 65, and Lee, 63, authors of a series of books set in the Liaden universe, were guests of honor at Balticon 37 in 2003. Veterans of Balticons dating to the mid-'70s — they met at Balticon 10 in 1976, when Lee won a short-story contest Miller had helped start — they have been married since 1980.

Balticon's strength, Miller says, lies in its deep fan base. At a time when many fan gatherings have become massive affairs staged by professional organizations whose business is organizing conventions, with an emphasis on movie- and TV-star guests, Balticon is still organized and run by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society and skewed toward the written word.

"Balticon hasn't lost touch with the fact that it's a bunch of fans putting this together, for their own interests and the interests of their friends," Miller says.

Adds Lee, "It's a group of fans that happen to throw a convention."

That was certainly the idea back in 1963, when a group of local fans, after riding a bus back from a sci-fi convention in Washington, decided Baltimore needed its own fan group. Four years later, the group held the first Balticon.

"We had been to regional conventions in Washington and Philadelphia, Jack Chalker and I, and we decided to have a Balticon — whatever madness possessed us," says David Ettlin, 70, a retired Baltimore Sun editor and reporter who was one of the society's founding members. "The idea then that Balticon would become an event that every year would draw more than 1,000 people, maybe even way more than 1,000 people, was not on our radar."

The first incarnation of the society, in fact, would only last until 1968. The group would go into dormancy until being revived in 1974. But even without a functioning society, the Balticon tradition continued, attracting a stellar roster of guests of honor who included such fantasy and sci-fi legends as L. Sprague de Camp, Damon Knight and Poul Anderson.

Balticon really took off, says Miller, in the mid-'70s with the advent of a pair of big-time sci-fi movie franchises and the growing popularity of videotapes and related home-theater technology. What had been a gathering of maybe a few hundred local fans ballooned into a convention that attracted upward of 1,000 people, including many from outside Baltimore.

And it wasn't only that sci-fi fans were becoming more numerous. They were also becoming more mainstream. When "Star Trek" debuted in 1966, just a year before the first Balticon, sci-fi was a decidedly niche genre, with a devoted, but smallish, fan base that was still looked on somewhat askance. By the mid-'70s, the success of "Star Wars" blew that notion out of the water. Today, from the superhero movies that dominate the box office to shows like "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead" that are among TV's top-rated programs, fantasy and sci-fi dominate the pop-culture landscape.

"The public acceptance of the fan base — I think that has grown a lot, especially with the comic-book culture," says Echeverria. "The comic-book universe, Marvel, DC, those things are becoming so much more mainstream, as evidenced by all the movies that you see out there now."

"Yes, the word 'crazy' was sometimes used to describe science fiction," says Ettlin, who lives in Pasadena and plans to show up for Balticon 50, just as he's shown up for most Balticons. "But today, everybody's exposed to it. It's part of the main culture now. I'm just kind of pleased that there is more [fantasy and sci-fi] now than I can possibly pay attention to.

"It makes me smile," he adds, "to think how big this has all become."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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If you go

Balticon 50, with guest of honor George R.R. Martin, runs Friday through next Monday at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, 202 E. Pratt St. Registration is $10-$49 per day, $35-$70 for the entire weekend. Information: Balticon.org.

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