“She did not set out to lose money. She set out to throw a hell of a good party. Because she loved Star Trek.” — Debra Pearse Hartery
Toronto Star Trek ’76 lost a fair bit of money. That was not uncommon then. Frequent convention guest Harlan Ellison wrote off conventions in 1977, telling Newsday in February of that year: “It’s over. It’s dead. The whole convention scene is falling apart. I’ve been to 12 conventions this year and all of them lost money…except for two.”
What was unusual, however, is that no one in Toronto lost out. Elizabeth Pearse made good on all the debts, using her own money to make up the shortfall on the celebrity fees, the hotel and airline bills, and all the other expenses she took on.
“There have been Star Trek conventions that lost tons of money and there have been fights and lawsuits, especially in the mid to late ’70s, but for the Toronto Star Trek convention everyone remained friends, everyone was on good terms and everything got taken care of,” said volunteer and friend Michael Wallis. “The only outstanding debt was to the Royal York, and that got paid over time.”
The convention’s finances came up short, according to her daughter and other members of the inner circle, because Pearse’s pursuit of a great Star Trek celebration had her race past what Toronto-area fandom could support.
Smaller is better
Conventions can make money if they are either modest events in mid-sized markets or huge galas in large markets, according to Michael Zarrillo. The latter is the model that has been successful for New York Comic Con and the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. The former is the type of event Zarrillo used to run.
“The little local conventions where we didn’t have any stars also had fewer people show up but we tended to make money on those. We ran the event and the film program, and if you had 200 people show up your costs were very low and you could make some money. Not a lot, but some, and you felt you could do another one.”
The ’76 Trekon in Florida was a little bigger and featured George Takei and James Doohan. “That broke even. We didn’t make anything.”
Contrast Zarrillo’s experience with the scope of Toronto Star Trek ’76 — 21 guests, six of them significant Trek actors. Each of those people was paid an appearance fee and set up with a hotel room, food and drink, and round-trip flights. And then add in the cost of building a bridge set, showing a ton of movies and Trek episodes, and holding the whole thing in a large downtown hotel.
Those expenses were one side of the challenge. The other was the attendance numbers which, while impressive for conventions at that time, were not quite enough.
No written record of the ticket sales exists today. Either the final tally has been lost to time or was never really calculated. I think the latter is true, as none of the inner circle remembers a number even being stated.
Both The Toronto Star and The Canadian Press reported right after the weekend that 6,000 fans attended, while The Windsor Star said 5,000 in an article dated August 9. To put that number in perspective, the World Science Fiction Convention, held in Toronto three years earlier, drew about 2,900 people, and Toronto Trek III in 1989 had a total attendance of about 1,000, according to a piece written by Lou Israel in the TREKisM newsletter. That makes the Toronto Star Trek ’76 ticket sales quite impressive.
David Warren was listed in the program as Treasurer and that title put him high on my interview wishlist, but it turns out he wasn’t in charge of the overall numbers. “I was actually what we call a floor treasurer. I did not do the budget; Elizabeth did all of that. But she gave me that title because I went three or four times each day to anyone who took money at the door or the art show and I took the cash to the hotel safe. She trusted me.
“Elizabeth planned for a huge convention. We were not sure we were going to get the numbers but we thought there was a possibility that we would. I don’t remember what the percentage of pre-registrations was, but it was okay, it wasn’t ‘We are going to die here’ but we certainly knew we weren’t going to make a profit.
“She probably was expecting a lot of American fans, but the percentage of Americans was pretty low.”
Debra Pearse Hartery believes the con beat the newspaper estimates. “I think there were more than 8,000 people there, but not many more. I think we needed 10,000 (to break even). In general, with the amount of money we spent, we underestimated the number of people we needed.”
The tickets cost $10 if you bought by June 1, $15 until July 15, and $20 after or at the door. A rough calculation using an average of those fees and a sales figure of 6,000 tickets puts the attendance gross at $90,000. The Globe and Mail said there would be 74 dealer “booths” at the con; even if we assume only one table per dealer, at $50 each that’s $3,700. So the revenue, in 1976 dollars, was not insubstantial.
Gregg Hagglund, one of the principal organizers, recalls some different numbers. He said the break-even point was 7,500 tickets at the $20 level – if they “got the room block.” Toronto Star Trek ’76 arranged for a set number of hotel rooms to be available at special convention prices, a standard arrangement then and now. If those rooms were all rented, the fees for the convention spaces – the panel rooms and ballrooms – would all be waived. “We filled the room block by Tuesday of that week,” Hagglund said, dramatically reducing the con’s costs.
Hagglund said the fire marshal put the total attendance at 15,000 for the weekend, with 8,000 fans in the hotel on Saturday afternoon alone. He is the only person interviewed who could provide definite numbers.
The sales were good, whether you go with Hagglund’s numbers or the newspaper estimates. The problem was the costs.
The celebrities. The hotel. The bridge. The Dorsai
The consensus among the organizing group is that Pearse agreed to a lot of expenses that she should not have.
Trekon ’76 paid George Takei $1,500 and James Doohan $2,500, in US dollars, plus travel expenses. The Toronto rates were likely comparable, and the con had a massive guest list.
I have no idea how much the hotel cost. Early in this project, I had visions of pulling yellowed receipts signed by Pearse out of dusty filing cabinets in the basement of the Royal York and reporting on the actual fees paid. And I was encouraged in this hope: the hotel’s PR Director told me in April of 2019 that an intern was “organizing our hotel historic materials” but then the intern left, COVID hit, and the PR Director was temporarily laid off. So I never heard back. There is a good chance those records no longer exist, but they may.
The bridge set, while really impressive, was not actually required and cost Pearse $1,500 to build, according to The Globe and Mail and Gregg Hagglund.
And then there were the Dorsai Irregulars. The Dorsai were a group of fans who volunteered as convention security and Pearse paid a lot of money to have 20 of them there. Her daughter points to this, with some bitterness, as a prime example of her mother’s financial reach exceeding good judgement. “The Dorsai had all their expenses paid. She was talked into paying for all the Dorsai, she was talked into paying for a lot of people she should not have. When you volunteer at a convention, you get in for free, you run around and do stuff, but you’re volunteering. At this convention, a lot of people wanted to be paid.”
This was just one example of a pattern, according to Hartery. “She got talked into doing these things. She was a very generous person, and sometimes she was treated like a chequebook. That’s not appropriate. I’m not talking about making a profit; that’s not important. But breaking even is important.
“She should have cut the guest list in half. How many famous people do you need at a convention? We had disagreements over this. She was trying to get Nimoy and Shatner there. That would have been a disaster, with the money you would have had to put out.”
Hartery is correct. The Globe and Mail reported before the convention that William Shatner’s agent was “demanding $15,000 plus expenses.” Taking the at-the-door admission price of $20, Shatner’s fee alone was supportable only if he drew 750 people who would not have come otherwise. That certainly seems unlikely.
On the Sunday of the convention
“We just didn’t have the attendance to make up the [costs],” said Peter McGarvey. “I was in the room with Elizabeth when she got the final numbers, and she was in tears.
“It wasn’t a pretty picture, and she was picking up the tab for it.”
“It was a financial disaster,” Hagglund said, “but the show came off beautifully and a hell of a lot of people were entertained.”
“It was tragic, it was grim,” Hartery said. “She was saying ‘How do I tell your dad? What do we say to him?’ And he would throw that in her face on a regular basis for years after. I felt really bad for her, because she wanted to put on a good show, she wanted people to have a lot of fun, she wanted the Star Trek franchise to take off. She was a real fan.
“So, it didn’t work out. It happens. People lose businesses all the time. But they had fun and they met lifetime friends. I still know people from those days and I have great memories. She put on a great show.
“There were a lot of conventions at which the debts were not paid, but she paid the debt. It was quite a bit of money. I don’t know if she would be happy, even in memory, for people to know how much.”