Back to Space-Con: Keeping Nostalgia Alive!
An Interview with Producer/Director Tom Wyrsch
Author: Bob Johnson
Official Website: Garfield Lane Productions
All Pictures courtesy of Tom Wyrsch.
People growing up across the country have their own local nostalgia that stays with them a lifetime, embedded in their memories along with other old friends and experiences. Horror hosts, amusement parks, local attractions… some areas are or were overflowing with them, each a unique brand representing the cities and towns they originated from.
Most lie only in people’s memories. Long gone, torn down. Making way for more modern attractions like strip malls and business parks.
In the San Francisco Bay Area we had a rich history of parks, attractions and our fair share of horror hosts. However, far from distant memories, they are being kept alive and well documented by local fan turned producer/director Tom Wyrsch.
His latest film BACK TO SPACE-CON is a look back at a series of STAR TREK/Sci Fi conventions that took place in the 1970s when cons were plentiful and mostly put together through grass-roots efforts, rather than corporate machines charging top dollar for a simple autograph.
In honor of this tradition, Tom is premiering the film on March 12 at Auctions by the Bay in Alameda, California as part of a mini Space-Con like convention. We caught up with Tom to talk to him about his films, our memories and how he keeps nostalgia alive and well.
SciFi Japan: Tell us about your background growing up. With all the work you do on Bay Area nostalgia, you must have lived through a lot of it?
Tom Wyrsch: My family’s San Francisco roots go back to when my grandparents moved here, from Switzerland, in the late 1800s. My parents moved our family to Sonoma County when I was five, but we went to the city often. So I experienced all the city’s attractions just like living there. Maybe more. Then of course I watched Bay Area television all through the years. So making films about San Francisco subjects was really a natural.
SFJ: How did you get involved in the world of CREATURE FEATURES? Going from a fan to actually archiving and keeping the show’s memories alive?
TW: Local San Francisco television was full of Horror and Science Fiction movies through the 1960s and 70’s. Most days after school and Saturdays. I loved the genre right from an early age. Add in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and one felt like you had it all. Then in early 1971 Bob Wilkins and CREATURE FEATURES came to KTVU channel 2 in Oakland, CA at 9:00 p.m. Saturday nights. Prime time which was unusual for that kind of show. But it was great to have such an early start. And Bob was definitely the main draw. I watched the show faithfully throughout it’s run 1971 to 1984.
Then in the early 1990s I talked to John Stanley about releasing some of his CREATURE FEATURES shows on VHS tape. He was interested, but he was unsure of how much demand there would be. When I wrote “The Bob Wilkins Scrapbook”, Bob was thrilled with it, but like John, not sure of the demand. Will Viharo was hosting his Thrillville show at the Parkway Theater in Oakland. He had asked Bob if he would appear. Bob was living in Reno and wanted me to meet with Will and get the details. A show came together in 2000 and was called “The Return of Bob Wilkins.” The show was a fast sellout, and it started a resurgence of interest in the Bay Area. Bob, John and I went on to do nearly 50 other shows and conventions together from 2000 to 2006. Fans of Creature Features loved seeing Bob & John again. We released a lot of show clips on VHS and eventually DVD.
SFJ: What can you tell fans about working with Bob Wilkins and John Stanley?
TW: I found both to be exactly the same as you saw on TV. Bob loved joking around and always had that dry sense on humor. I remember how he would use it on my kids at the dinner table. They didn’t know what to make of it, not growing up seeing him on TV like I had. John, of course, is a walking encyclopedia of film. And not just Horror and Science Fiction, but all types of film.
SFJ: What are your favorite memories about CREATURE FEATURES?
TW: I was a big fan of Bob’s humor. I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to what he had to say. I could hardly wait week to week to be entertained by his comedy. And Bob always gave out information on upcoming events around the Bay Area — Special movie premieres, shows and conventions. Even Halloween haunted houses. And you can’t forget the movies. They were definitely not all bad. The Universal Horror Classics were always my favorite. When John took over, I loved the information he give on that night’s movie. Then there were his mini-movies, on-set skits and all the interviews.
SFJ: How did being the caretaker for CREATURE FEATURES lead to your second documentary, REMEMBERING PLAYLAND AT THE BEACH ?
TW: Writing and publishing the CREATURE FEATURES scrapbooks and authoring nine different CREATURE FEATURES DVDs lead to a desire to tell the CREATURE FEATURES story. Fans of the show had so many questions and there were so many different answers. What better way to get the story correct than with a video documentary. So WATCH HORROR FILMS, KEEP AMERICA STRONG was made and became a hit. As time went by the bug got me “Could I do it again?” Make another film and achieve the same level of popularity? So I decided to try, and my first pick was to do a documentary of the first STAR TREK conventions in the Bay Area. (Now my third film BACK TO SPACE-CON) Strephon Taylor and I got together and talked about it. I mentioned that a documentary on Playland at the Beach would also be a possibility, as my friend Richard Tuck wanted something for his museum Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, in El Cerrito, CA.
SFJ: The film REMEMBERING PLAYLAND AT THE BEACH was a big success. It had a very long run at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco?
TW: I was amazed. People just kept coming night after night to see the film. They wanted to see Playland again. It ended up running on and off at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco for a full 6 months. Definitely their biggest film of the year. It also ran in 12 additional venues and was a big draw at all. It played to packed houses at four different branches of the San Francisco Public Library. The film is definitely a window back to an exciting era in San Francisco’s history. People had missed Playland for a long time, and you can’t beat the experience of the big screen and a large audience. Each screening was like a family reunion.
SFJ: You also helped build the museum, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach. Tell us about that…
TW: Richard Tuck and I have been good friends for forty years. My family and I were involved in developing the museum for nearly ten years, in fact from its very inception. At the time when the museum was near completion but still needed some major items — electrical wiring and finals on the building permits — I was available to get involved. Having experience in both areas, we completed the project and Richard was able to open to the public in 2008.
SFJ: Your latest documentary is BACK TO SPACE-CON. What makes Space-Con stand out from other conventions of its kind? What made it unique enough to base a film on?
TW: Space-Con conventions were really big events for the mid 1970’s. Each show drew well over 10,000 people. So they were well equipped to entertain that many fans. Members of the original STAR TREK series were there, they had huge dealers’ rooms, and plenty of film rooms so that you could see rare science fiction films on the screen. These were the days before home video, so it was still very rare to see movies other than waiting for them to come on the TV. During these 2 to 3 day convention events, there was more than enough things to do. Of course nowadays conventions like these are much more common.
SFJ: Who did you talk to about the conventions? Were any of the guests available?
TW: I was fortunate enough to locate the original organizers of the conventions. Chuck Weiss and Arian “Sandy” Sarris put on the very first Star Trek Convention in San Francisco called the Red Hour Festival in February of 1975. They also ran the Federation Trading Post STAR TREK store in Berkeley. I got in touch with Chuck and he agreed to an interview. Later he contacted Arian and I interviewed them both and they are in the movie. Terry Terman organized of all of the Space-Con conventions. I had spoken to Terry many years before about a documentary. Terry put on over fifty STAR TREK, Science Fiction and Science Fact events on the West Coast during the late 70’s to early 80’s. Eight were called Space-Con. So interviewing him was very important. His interview gave us all the historical information about the conventions. We ended up interviewing twelve people total–convention organizers and guests. Fortunately for us, Bob Wilkins had interviewed many of the original stars at the conventions, so we were able to use these in the documentary. The best part of the documentary is the 40 plus minutes of the convention footage that Bob had a cameraman film but never used in any of his projects. This footage includes the dealers room, costume contests, and the stars on stage. Super rare footage all shot in 16mm color sound. These were the days long before portable video cameras.
SFJ: Tell us about the documentary’s premier coming up on March 12 at Michaan’s Theater in Alameda.
TW: We plan to make it like a mini convention. Dealers tables, information tables, refreshments, HARDWARE WARS & STAR TREK shorts, the main feature and a substantial Q&A. Also time for people to mix and enjoy the event. A trip back to the 1970s in many ways. The theater in Alameda is fantastic for the premiere. Plenty of space, parking and all for us. No other events are planned for that day in the theater. The event will be hosted by John Stanley and Mr. Lobo from CINEMA INSOMNIA. All the cast and crew of the film plan to be present.
SFJ: What does the future hold? Any more strolls down memory lane coming up?
TW: Strephon Taylor and I are currently working on a follow up film to REMEMBERING PLAYLAND, THE SUTRO BATHS STORY. I was asked at all the PLAYLAND screenings if we planned to do it, so we decided we had to. And the further we get into the project, the more we are discovering what an unbelievable place Sutro Baths really was. People who never had a chance to visit, it closed in the early 1960’s, will be amazed at the attractions. It was a lot more than just swimming and ice skating.
If you are local in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like to see the premier of BACK TO SPACE-CON, here is the information:
BACK TO SPACE-CON World Premiere – Feature Length Documentary Film
Saturday, Mar 12 1:00p to 5:00p
at Michaan’s Theater, Alameda, CA
THE BAY AREA’S VERY FIRST STAR TREK – SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTIONS RETURN IN A 4-HOUR EVENT! HOSTED LIVE BY JOHN STANLEY (CREATURE FEATURES) AND MR. LOBO (CINEMA INSOMNIA)
This documentary film tells the story of the 1970’s Bay Area Sci-Fi conventions called Space-Con. Told by the original organizers and fans.
Price: General Admission: $10. Seniors (60+) and Children (11-) $7.00
Age Suitability: All Ages
This documentary film tells the story of the 1970’s Bay Area Sci-Fi conventions called Space-Con. Told by the original organizers and fans. Includes celebrity interviews by Bob Wilkins, 1970s costume contests and over 40 minutes of rare convention footage. See the Federation Trading Post in Berkeley and very first Star Trek convention in San Francisco. A real treat for any Star Trek or Star Wars fan. Film stars Bob Wilkins, John Stanley, Ernie Fosselius,and many more. From the makers of last years hit film REMEMBERING PLAYLAND AT THE BEACH.
Event will be hosted by: John Stanley from CREATURE FEATURES and Mr. Lobo from CINEMA INSOMNIA.
Special guests include: Ernie Fosselius (HARDWARE WARS), the producers of the original Red Hour and Space-Con conventions, members of the Bob Wilkins family and the makers of the film, Tom Wyrsch & Strephon Taylor.
Also shown will be: Bloopers, HARDWARE WARS, rare clips and a Q&A session after the film.
Related items for sale in the lobby plus refreshments.
A real fun retro trip back to mid 1970s.