’70s conventions were different

“We just called. We didn’t go through agents or intermediaries. Maybe for Shatner or Nimoy, but not for the rest. I had Jimmy’s personal phone number and address.” — Michael Zarrillo

The 1970s were the heyday of Star Trek conventions. Sure, the big convention now held annually in Las Vegas easily surpasses the scope of any cons that came before but the 1970s were a period of intense innovation, when the pattern was laid and lessons were learned. Fandom in that decade saved Star Trek as a franchise, and conventions were a huge part of that scene. 

Almost all the merchandise at early cons was fan produced — and unlicensed. Enter Michael Zarrillo and his brother Robert. Michael was a dealer and organizer of many cons during that decade; he had no connection to Toronto Star Trek ’76 but he had interesting insights on running cons and selling merchandise.

“My brother and I in 1972 convinced our parents to lend us $100 and we bought 1,000 comic books. In those days, collecting comic books was just beginning as a hobby. We made a lot of money selling those, and we formed the Gold Coast Comic Collectors Society. We started off at comic shows and also sold movie memorabilia and then it evolved into also selling Star Trek stuff, and then Star Trek took it over.”

The brothers then moved into renting Trek episodes. “The shows were sent to TV stations on 16mm film and, when the contract to show the episodes ended, Paramount didn’t want the film back, so usually someone at the station just brought the films home and then sold them on the black market, as you might say. So my brother and I found this guy in Maryland in 1973 or 1974 who had all 79 episodes and we bought a bunch of them. We then became the source of the film program for pretty much every convention on the eastern seaboard.” 

That was step one for their TOS entrepreneurship. Step two was photos. “Lincoln Enterprises sold film clips, so we bought a bunch of them and we found this company that would convert the film clip into a 35mm negative, and we could then print 8x10s from that. They were crystal clear. We sold them at shows and we were always afraid that Paramount would come and pound on our table and confiscate everything, because we didn’t have a license for any of it. No one did. Roddenberry was really pissed about it because he wasn’t getting a cut.”

Then and now

At one early con in Boston, the brothers had a room on the same floor as Nichelle Nichols. 

“Nichelle was so great with the fans. The program would run to 5:00 or 6:00 and then she would go to the top of the hotel where the lounge was and hit the bar for a few hours. One night, my brother and I were heading back to our room and Nichelle was wandering the hall, trying to figure out where her room was. We escorted her to her room and the next morning I put a sign on her door: ‘Nichelle’s room.’ She thanked me for that.”

A flyer for Trekon 76

Modern conventions are very different. “I went to a con last year for the first time in ages, and it was so commercial. You had to buy a ticket ahead of time to get an autograph and, when you get your item signed, they say two words to you and that’s it. Back then, it was so different. The stars were very accessible, they interacted with the fans, and autographs were free. I don’t think they even dreamed of selling autographs back then.”

Fans, Zarrillo said, were at the centre of those early gatherings, and he pointed to George Takei as an example. “At Trekon 76, when I went to pay George his fee on Saturday night, he told me that he would not accept it if the convention was not doing well. He told me he was there for the fans first and not the money. I never forgot that. He did get paid, but that speaks volumes about George.”

We just called

One element that baffled me early in this project was how Elizabeth Pearse managed to contact all those TOS glitterati to invite them. Her daughter told me it was simple: Pearse had all their phone numbers. And Zarrillo said that level of access was common among a certain group.

“Oh god yes, we just called. We didn’t go through agents or intermediaries. Maybe for Shatner or Nimoy but not for the rest. I had Jimmy’s personal phone number and address.”

And the celebrities were usually happy to get those calls. “Most of them weren’t acting much, so the conventions kept them going until the movies hit.”

Sci-fi novelist Robert J. Sawyer expanded on this.

Remember, this is ’76. The show’s been off for seven years, we had The Animated Series but it’s been canceled, so they were delighted that anybody remembered and cared about the work they had done. Every one of them struck me as perfectly pleasant and nice people.

Star Trek conventions today are very much about making money, and there are people who go to conventions who do not even like Star Trek or even the fans; they just like money. That has changed the character of the whole thing. The commercial Star Trek conventions are great extravaganzas but there is nothing like simply being able to chat with Mark Lenard or Nichelle Nichols or just standing around getting autographs for free, and the stars are just tickled to be there.

At Star Trek events today, except when stars are on their contracted four hours to be on stage or at their autograph table, they are invisible, they might as well not be in the same state or province. But back then, they were everywhere…and you could just walk up and chat.

Star Trek actor James Doohan is seen surrounded by a large group of fans. Doohan seems relaxed and happy.
James Doohan chatting with fans. Photo by Frank Goodman

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