“Elizabeth was exciting. She could turn you on, and the next thing you knew you were on the streets of Toronto, putting up posters, talking to people, doing this and that, all for Star Trek.” — Charlie McKee
Elizabeth Pearse was already well known in the sci-fi convention community when she first raised the idea of creating a Star Trek convention in Toronto. She and her daughter, Debra Pearse Hartery, had been going to cons for years.
“She had tried a number of things before, like a bowling league, because that’s what women did then, but none of that worked for her,” Hartery said. “Our first sci-fi convention was in 1972. We went together but we had no idea what you did at these, and we were kind of shy. But she had a passion for science fiction so we went, and she merged right into the scene.
“She found her people.”
Draco Film Society
But cons were not Elizabeth’s first foray into media gatherings. A year earlier in 1971, Elizabeth and Debra founded the Draco Film Society. Draco showed movies in the theatre at Clarkson Secondary, a high school in Mississauga, Ontario, close to the family’s home. Club membership in 1976 cost $15 per year for 10 films, plus $0.25 at the door. Non-members could attend single showings for $2.00. The movie nights sometimes drew 20 people and sometimes filled three quarters of the 190-seat theatre. The films were loaned to Draco by studios hoping to build some buzz.
“I phoned Paramount Pictures, for example, and told them I wanted 16mm films to play in the theatre,” Hartery said. “I ended up having the vice-president of Paramount Canada call me and say, ‘We’ll let you have the films but we want to also send you information and posters for movies that are going to come out, because we want you to get your people excited about the films.’ They would send us stills, posters and all kinds of stuff.”
It was through Draco that Elizabeth Pearse met Peter McGarvey, who would soon become one of the organizers of Toronto Star Trek ’76. “I would go out to those screenings all the time, and Elizabeth would pick us up at the train station and take us to the school,” he told me. “I started to make suggestions about films she could show, and when the Star Trek thing came up she had a list of people she wanted involved. I was fortunate enough to be on that list.”
By 1975, Pearse had befriended a number of celebrities through conventions. “She had a pleasant personality and, when she met the actors from Star Trek, everyone liked her,” Hartery said, an assessment echoed by McGarvey: “Elizabeth was very personable. She made friends very easily and she made friends with a lot of the people involved in Star Trek, so she had good contacts.”
A convention for Toronto
Pearse began thinking about creating a Star Trek convention close to home. “She was in New York at a convention (most likely Star Trek Lives! in 1975) and she was having dinner with George Takei and (writers) Gordon Dickson and Harlan Ellison and the subject of a Star Trek convention in Toronto came up,” Hartery said.
The group encouraged her and the ball began to roll. “Elizabeth had been to some Star Trek conventions and just thought it would be a perfect fit for Toronto,” McGarvey said. “This was within a couple of years of the World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto at the Royal York. That was the catalyst.”
(That convention, held at the same hotel that would host Toronto Star Trek ’76, was Torcon II, August 31 to September 3, 1973. Its total attendance was 2,900, a number that will soon become important to our story.)
Another person pulled into the orbit of the convention was Charlie McKee, founder and co-owner of Bakka, Toronto’s storied science-fiction bookstore. “She was Toronto Star Trek ’76,” McKee told me on the line from Quebec City, where he has lived for a number of years. “Elizabeth was exciting. She could turn you on, and the next thing you knew you were on the streets of Toronto, putting up posters, talking to people, doing this and that, all for Star Trek. I had a store to run but we were more than happy to help her.”
McKee sold tickets in the store and handled a lot of the promotion for the con, including asking a local artist, Allan O’Marra, to create a poster.
McKee was also a general troubleshooter over the big weekend. “I spent the whole convention walking around doing little jobs like keeping down a Klingon revolution. I am serious.” McKee is referring to the Dorsai Irregulars, a group of fans who attended conventions as volunteer security staff and often dressed as Klingons.
His efforts earned him a shout-out in the convention program: “To Charles McKee without whose generous and willing assistance the Star Ship Royal York would never have left parking orbit.”
McKee had forgotten about that tribute when I read it to him in 2019. “Really? I don’t remember that. I haven’t read it in years. Wow. Thank-you, sweetie. Okay, I am going to go cry. She was a wonderful lady.”
“She was with her people”
Elizabeth Pearse created Toronto Star Trek ’76 but she was known best as the premier organizer of convention art shows. She died on May 19, 1990 at Marcon in Columbus, Ohio. “She died at a convention. She was doing what she wanted and she was with her people,” Hartery said.
Pearse was herself an artist and she won “a substantial number of awards for her art work,” according to an obituary published by the Friends of the Merril Collection. A tribute written by Larry Tagrin in the Summer 1990 quarterly published by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists had this to say: “I met Liz at NolaCon II… I was attracted by her ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude and the ‘That’s Ms. Bitch’ button she sported. In the short time I knew Liz, I was touched by her strength and purpose — her humor and joy of life.” David Lee Anderson wrote in that same issue: “She loved art and artists. Elizabeth took care of us.”
Toronto’s Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy has five of Elizabeth Pearse’s paintings and staff member Isabel Fine was kind enough to send me some images.
Gordon R. Dickson, one of the group that encouraged Pearse to launch the Toronto con, wrote of her in the July 2, 1990 issue of Locus magazine: “All in all, she was a remarkable person. The temptation is to once more take a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and adapt it only slightly to read, ‘we shall not look upon her like again.’ Certainly, we did not look upon her like while she was alive, and I find myself doubting whether anyone will ever come along who could stand a chance of filling her now-empty shoes.”
Elizabeth Pearse was 62 at the time of her sudden death.