'It's a little bittersweet': Costumed Otakon fans celebrate final convention in Baltimore

Sunday afternoon offered Baltimore a last glimpse of the curious spectacle of Otakon

Cat ears and mermaid fins, Moses robes and the sequined suit of a pro wrestler, a Spanish inquisitor, a spaghetti-western preacher and thousands more, teeming in the whimsical, costumed spectacle of Baltimore's anime convention. Welcome to Otakon, one last time.

"It's a little bittersweet," sighed Frank Holtham, 33, a New Jersey car salesman in a yellow slicker. "The last time I'm going to be here."

The weekend convention is leaving Baltimore after nearly two decades. Organizers, who estimate that 29,000 people came Friday through Sunday, say they've outgrown the Baltimore Convention Center. Next year, Otakon will set up shop in Washington.

"It's been quite a success," said Amy Calvert, senior vice president of convention sales for Visit Baltimore. "They've been with us 19 years and grown an attendance base to a place they probably couldn't have envisioned many, many years ago."

Still, the convention closed Sunday with a tinge of sadness.

"I don't think I'm going to enjoy it as much as in Baltimore," said Jonathan Trujillo, who works at Amazon and arrived as Moses, sort of. The 25-year-old carried tablets of "Bro-mandments," his own sacred rules for men: "Thou shall not soil where thy eat," and "Thou shall always stay jiggy fly."

Trujillo lives in Dover, Del., but said he never visited Baltimore before his first Otakon six years ago. Since then, he's explored the Inner Harbor and visited the National Aquarium.

"It's such a lively city and there's so much to do," he said.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called Sunday a "bittersweet goodbye."

"The mayor is so happy that Otakon found a home here in the city of Baltimore for so long," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "If they could stay, they would stay, but unfortunately they've outgrown the city."

The convention began in State College, Pa., in 1994 with 350 participants, and has grown every year since.

Some years in Baltimore, an Otakon spokeswoman said, organizers have had to cap attendance. But they've expanded in recent years to nearby hotels to accommodate a devoted following.

"We have a lot of affection for the city," spokeswoman Alyce Wilson said.

Enthusiasts celebrate everything from Pokemon to professional wrestlers such as Randy "Macho Man" Savage, aka Matt Meola, a furniture mover from New York. The bearded 28-year-old wore athletic tape on his wrists and a wrestling suit sewn from 12 feet of purple, sequined fabric.

"Baltimore has been so welcoming," he said.

Calvert said Otakon's success has proved that Baltimore can accommodate a convention of its size. She was confident the city would attract new groups, though likely smaller, for August, a popular time for conventions. Next year, the NAACP will come for its national convention.

City and state officials are again considering building a larger convention center in Baltimore. The Maryland Stadium Authority said recently it would commission a study of ways to renovate the existing center. That study will help determine an appropriate size for expansion, Calvert said.

"We want to do one big transformative project that will help add to the city's tourism package and continue to grow this important industry," she said.

Sunday afternoon offered Baltimore a last glimpse of the curious charms of Otakon: a green-costumed Gumby, a red-striped Waldo, bearded and bare-chested pirates.

A Virginia man who repairs heating and air-conditioning units lugged a 5-foot wooden cross through the convention. An Air Force staff sergeant strutted in a red trench coat like 1990s TV mastermind Carmen Sandiego. Others had purple hair and green-painted skin. The man in the yellow slicker was the weathered fisherman from a package of Gorton's fish sticks.

Outside, it was 97 degrees. Inside, there were one, two, three, four Batmans.

"I'm miserable," said Shawn Webber, tugging off his mask to mop his brow. When he isn't the caped crusader, the 31-year-old from Dundalk cuts meat at Costco.

"I'm sad to see it leave Baltimore," he said. Next year's convention in D.C. will mean a longer drive, and perhaps a hotel stay.

Webber wiped his brow again. Will he attend in D.C.?

Holy heat wave, Batman. That remains to be seen.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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