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The last BronyCon: tears, but the promise of one big final party

For Shir Goldberg, the best BronyCon ever was last year, his first as convention chair, when he welcomed thousands of “My Little Pony” fans on opening night. For Cole Daigneault, the highlight has been simply “getting to know these people as friends.” And for Aaron Siebenga, the best time of all came a couple years ago, when he and about 60 more Bronys partied in the basement of a Baltimore pizzeria — especially after they found a karaoke machine and really started getting into it.

“Somebody put on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and I’ve got a video of one of our rather more heavyset guys doing the lead role, standing on a table, singing, ‘Mama mia, Mama mia!'" he says. "That was a lot of fun. ... We ate a thousand bucks worth of pizza that night. Phew.”

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This weekend, for the seventh and final time, thousands of fans of the animated TV show “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” will descend on the Baltimore Convention Center for this annual gathering of the faithful, a fan convention filled with panel discussions and celebrity appearances, concerts and vendor tables, art displays and costume play.

A summertime tradition in Baltimore since 2013, BronyCon was named for the predominantly (and perhaps surprisingly) male teen and young-adult fan base that arose soon after the show’s 2010 debut. “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” is based on the Hasbro line of toys and follows the adventures of Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia and the other sentient, talking ponies of Ponyville.

The con will be exiting on what its organizers are determined will be a high note. They’re expecting an attendance, judging by advance ticket sales, of around 11,000.

“We wanted to go out on our own terms and do this one last time,” says Goldberg, 23, who is returning as convention chair, explaining last year’s surprise announcement that 2019 would mark BronyCon’s swan song. “The community has been really incredible in showing its love and support for the final year. But it’s been really sad, too. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like on Sunday, when it’s over and everybody is just trying to figure out what comes next.”

Organizers aren’t saying what they have in store for BronyCon’s final day on Sunday, save to assure fans it will be something special and appropriately celebratory. But they’ve already expanded the convention by a day from past years, opening on Thursday instead of Friday. There’s a three-night BronyPalooza, with live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Thursday’s opening day featured Bar Trots in Fells Point and Federal Hill and a cupcake workshop at Charm City Cakes in Remington.

Guests who will be appearing at the convention, meeting fans and signing autographs, include series creator Lauren Faust; Rebecca Shoichet, who sings the show’s opening theme song; voice actors Andrea Libman, Cathy Weseluck and Michelle Creber; and Andy Price, artist for the “My Little Pony” comic book.

Goldberg, for one, says he has never been surprised by the show’s fan base. To him, one of the main attractions of BronyCon and other fan gatherings like it — including Seattle’s Everfree Northwest and San Francisco’s BABSCon, both of which will be returning in 2020 – is that everyone is welcome. Busting stereotypes, he says, can be fun.

“A common refrain in the early days was, ‘I never thought I’d be a ‘My Little Pony’ fan,'” Goldberg says. “That’s true for me as well…Most of the fans are male, most of them are straight, into video games. Some are in the military. They really got taken in by this show about pastel horses.”

Clearly, BronyCon — the “brony” tag is a combination of “bro” and “pony”— has come to mean more than just a place where fans of a TV show can gather. Veteran attendees speak glowingly of the peaceful, friendly nature of the show, currently in its ninth and final season on Discovery Family. And they speak just as fondly of the supportive, accepting nature of the fandom that has grown up around it.

“When they first came out as a fandom, they were really alienated, the press and media and public mis-reported on them, or they reported on them in a negative light,” says Siebenga, a 28-year-old apartment caretaker from Vancouver, Canada, who has attended all the Baltimore BronyCons. “So the only place where they could coalesce and mingle with other people who were like them, without being judged or looked down on, was at these conventions.”

The first BronyCon, held at a midtown Manhattan conference center in June 2011, attracted about 100 people ― hardly enough to fill a good-sized screening room for an episode of the “My Little Pony” show they had all come to celebrate. But attendance grew steadily, to the point where organizers needed a larger space than they could afford in NYC and its environs. Attendance peaked in 2015, at more than 10,000, but has been slipping steadily since. Last year’s attendance of just under 5,500 helped convince organizers it was time to move on.

“When they announced that it was going to be the last one, a lot of people walked back into the room, and it was, like, ‘Did someone die?’” recalls Jessica Blank, one of the convention’s founders. “They were in tears.”

Though “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” was originally targeted at young girls, the series’ fan base grew to include all ages and sexes, a good mix of which can be found at every BronyCon.

“The real message of the show is ‘friendship is magic’ — I really think that encapsulates the message,” says Daigneault, 24, who teaches computer programming to elementary-age kids in Seattle and, since 2015, has been playing one of the convention’s mascots, Hoof Beetz, at BronyCon. “The fans have really embraced those ideals.”

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If you go

BronyCon 2019 is set for Aug. 1-4 at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Opening ceremonies are set for 6 p.m. Aug. 1, with closing ceremonies slated for 4 p.m. Aug. 4; scheduled events begin at noon Aug, 1, 9 a.m. Aug. 2, 9:30 a.m. Aug. 3 and 10 a.m. Aug. 4. Tickets are $35-$50 for a single day, $80-$150 for a four-day pass. Information: bronycon.org.

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