“10,000 Star Trek nuts plan to invade Toronto.”
— Toronto Star headline
Toronto Star Trek ’76 was the first Canadian Star Trek convention. Held at the Royal York Hotel on July 23, 24 and 25, 1976, it was a remarkable gathering with a stellar guest list and it was hugely important to many of the organizers and attendees. It was also a big moment for Canadian Star Trek and sci-fi fandom of the 1970s.
The action was centred in the main ballroom, which featured a full-sized and reasonably accurate bridge replica, with the celebrities sitting in the captain’s chair or strolling around the stage.
The convention also offered a large main dealers’ room, smaller dealers’ rooms run by Toronto stores Bakka and Memory Lane, a costume competition, two projection rooms showing films and Trek episodes, and an art show.
The hotel’s ballrooms and meeting rooms were crowded with 5,000 people over that three-day weekend. Or 4,000. Or 6,000. It depends on which newspaper account you read. No formal attendance or financial records survive today, if indeed those numbers were ever compiled. But by any measure, this con was a massive undertaking.
Toronto Star Trek ’76 hosted an impressive number of A-list guests. James Doohan. Nichelle Nichols. George Takei. Walter Koenig. Mark Lenard. Grace Lee Whitney. Gathering six significant Star Trek stars is a feat most cons today do not match. The 2019 New York Comic Con — an imprecise comparison, but illustrative — offered three Trek celebrities of that stature: Doug Jones, Sonequa Martin-Green and Nichelle Nichols.
Con organizer Elizabeth Pearse also brought production luminary DC Fontana to Toronto. David Gerrold was scheduled but a last-minute medical emergency kept him in California. And in a nod to the literary roots of sci-fi conventions, noted writers Hal Clement and Harlan Ellison appeared, as did fan authors Joan Winston and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. (Ellison will get his own article in this series.)
Attendees also had the chance to meet NASA aerospace engineer Jesco von Puttkamer; artist Rick Sternbach, who would go on to be a production illustrator and designer on The Motion Picture, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Nemesis; and superfans Bjo and John Trimble, who ran the famous letter-writing campaign that got TOS a third season.
As we’ll see, that huge guest list proved to be extremely expensive but, for attendees who paid at most $20 for a three-day pass, the celebrities alone made this con a great value for money.
But Shatner was a no show
Pearse had hoped to entice William Shatner to Toronto, but the fee was just too steep, as reported by journalist Arthur Johnson in The Globe and Mail newspaper two days before the con.
Trekkies bent on hanging about the Royal York Hotel on Friday, straining for a glimpse of stellar TV heroes, may be in for a galaxial disappointment.
Captain Kirk, you see, won’t be there. The fearless, feckless leader of the starship Enterprise, otherwise known as William Shatner of grocery “price is right” fame, won’t be appearing at Toronto Star Trek ’76.
What it boils down to, by gosh, is the price isn’t right. Bill Shatner…won’t be appearing because his agent is demanding $15,000 plus expenses for a three-day appearance and the outraged organizers won’t pay.
“Feckless” means ineffective, useless or lacking strength of character, and its use here indicates either Johnson did not know the meaning of the word or wanted to tell readers he disliked Shatner. Either is problematic for a journalist.
Pearse also invited Leonard Nimoy but, as Johnson reported, “Mister Spock (pointy-eared Leonard Nimoy) won’t appear either, but the reason is not monetary. He’s appearing in the stage revival of My Fair Lady, and can’t get away.”
The Royal York is one of Toronto’s grand hotels and even if “back then it was looking pretty tatty,” as organizer Peter McGarvey told me, its location — right downtown and directly across from Toronto’s Union Station — made it a far better venue than the airport hotels that often host sci-fi cons.
The convention took place on two floors: the main mezzanine and the convention floor. Some room locations were switched around before the doors opened. Notably, Bakka, Toronto’s science-fiction bookstore, expanded its presence from one room to two, giving it a selling space that was bigger than the actual store over on Queen Street West, according to Bakka founder Charlie McKee. “Our rooms were busy every time I went in there. There were lulls when Ellison was talking or when the crew was on stage, but otherwise it was busy. In terms of money, we didn’t come out of there great, but I went into bookselling because I enjoyed selling books to people and buying books” and not as much for profit.
The elevators were important
The freight and service elevators played important roles behind the scenes. The service elevator was reserved for the volunteers and celebrities, McGarvey told me.
We used the elevator at the back of the ballroom (the Canadian Room) to get up and down. We were all staying on the same floor, the organizers and the stars. We arranged with the Royal York that no one could get on that floor without key access or one of our security people.
My favorite memory from the convention is from that elevator. I was taking the elevator to go back to my room and it was just me until James Doohan came and stood beside me, waiting for the elevator. We both got on and I hesitated and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to say it, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘What floor are you on?’ and we both had a laugh, and he said, ‘No, you want to say it, don’t you?’ But I didn’t say it. How many times had he gotten into an elevator and someone said, ‘Beam me up’?
The freight elevator did the heavy lifting. The Bakka crew transported all their wares from the store in McKee’s Jeep, which they just drove on and off the elevator. Similarly, the bridge set, built for the convention in Mississauga, was disassembled and loaded into a U-Haul truck for the drive downtown. The pieces of the set were carted onto the elevator for the trip up to the convention floor.
The dealers’ room
Conventions today are places to buy screen-accurate props and models, books and posters, action figures and other collectibles — all of it licensed by the various rights holders. Not so in 1976, according to science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, then a 16-year-old Trek fan who spent all three days at the convention.
There was a lot of fan-made stuff in the dealers’ room. There was nobody there from Paramount, so there was nobody clamping down on licensing. I remember resin-kit prop things and lots of fanzines for sale. I bought almost nothing. The Franz Josef blueprints were out at that point, the Technical Manual was out, so there was stuff. But it was like a flea market, where you could sell your stuff and not worry about Paramount.
Photos by Richard McDonald
Photos by Conrad Felber
George Hollo was 13 in 1976, a little younger than Sawyer, and he too was at the convention for all three days.
I saw things in the dealers’ room I had never seen. This was, of course, before video cassettes so they had audio cassettes of the episodes so you could listen to them whenever you wanted. That was huge. Back then, there was a company called Langley & Associates that put out these 8x10s and they were like three for $5 and they were really affordable for a little kid who didn’t have a lot of money and that’s how I got most of my autographs. I ended up buying about 20 or 30 of these photos, most of which I still have in a photo album. They also had all of Leonard Nimoy’s record albums.
The con was big news
The convention got a fair bit of coverage in Ontario print media, with articles appearing in large newspapers in Toronto, Windsor and Ottawa. Sadly, the writers of the day sometimes lacked professionalism. In addition to the “feckless” comment mentioned above, the Toronto Star also delivered this front-page dig.
That same paper quoted two fans on the Monday after the convention.
It’s the ultimate trip, man. It’s a people happening — a human high.Carl Palmer, Chicago
It’s been proven through studies that watchers of the Star Trek series are of slightly higher intelligence than your average TV fan.Marc Gerin-LaJoie, Ottawa
Another attendee, Wilda Robinson, apparently convinced Nichelle Nichols to take a copy of her spec script. “Wilda’s script has gone to Hollywood with Nichelle Nichols, who was Lieutenant Uhura in the series, with her promise to read it and submit it to Gene Roddenberry’s ‘think tank’ if it lived up to the promise she saw in the few pages she had read.”
It is unlikely the Great Bird of the Galaxy ever heard of that script, but Robinson had a great story to tell for the rest of her life. And those connections are the real value of sci-fi conventions. “It was the fun of sharing Star Trek,” said Linda MacDonald, a teenage attendee. “For many people, this convention was the first time we could share Star Trek.”