Your Job Is Not Your Life

Photo by Rachael Moore Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Rachael Moore
Used under a Creative Commons license.

Recently, as I was packing up archery equipment following our weekly classes, I was approached by a family of four: father, mother, son and daughter. They all agreed that archery looked like a lot of fun. Watching a small group of archers shoot brought back many memories for the father. He recalled the six years of archery he had done during childhood and adolescence. The longer he watched, the more excited he became, remembering the positive experience. I remarked that it was a great family sport and that I expected to see them on the range in the future. He chuckled and described the current contents of his car which included supplies for rock climbing, fishing, backpacking, and skiing. All activities he said he enjoyed doing but did not have time for.

After a few minutes of silently watching the archers he spoke wistfully, “People always ask me, ‘what do you do’…and I hate that question. I know what they mean…they want to know what I do for a living…and…I…I’m an attorney…but it’s not who I am…it’s not my life….it’s not even what I enjoy doing…it just allows me to make enough money to do the things I really love…except it seems that I hardly have time to do them anymore.” The man continued reminiscing during the fifteen or so minutes he watched. He remembered Sunday drives with his family when he was a young boy and recalled his father teaching him how to read a map. I saw him reach out and pat his son on the back without saying a word.

Normally I’m irritated by wealthy people who complain about how busy they are and how little leisure time they have. And honestly, I don’t really feel sorry for this guy, but the encounter reminded me that your job is not your life. Whether you are a well-paid, burned-out lawyer, or you work two jobs to make ends meet; don’t let your job define you.

Ken Kragen talked about this in his motivational seminars and book “Life is a Contact Sport“; he said “your job is not your life; your job services your life. If your job is not servicing your life, you need to find one that will.” Of course sometimes you have to grind away at a job that interferes with your life as a matter of survival, but it’s important to look beyond the immediate situation and work toward the future you want, while carving out whatever little moments you can.

Weird LA: The Stuff We Missed

I hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of some of the interesting things to see around LA; we plan to continue to show you around town as we find things to show you. Meanwhile, here’s a look at a few destinations we had to skip due to distance, traffic, or time constraints.

Photo by Jennifer Gaillard.  Used under a creative Commons license.

Photo by Jennifer Gaillard.
Used under a creative Commons license.

The first thing we cut from the tour was Sunken City. It’s way down in San Pedro, and I didn’t have any other destinations in that area (though if the Big W weren’t on private property, it would have been a whole ‘nother story, but we’ll get to that), so we had to scratch it. Sunken City is, or rather was, a neighborhood overlooking the ocean, which one day in 1929 decided to stop overlooking the ocean and fall in. The 600 block of West Paseo Del Mar Road just dropped right into the drink. It’s weird and disconcerting; they have a barricade and they don’t want people walking around on the edge (it’s still unstable and more is likely to fall at any time), but everyone crawls under the fence and explores it anyway. For the film nuts, this is where the Dude and Walter scatter Donnie’s ashes in The Big Lebowski.

"It's a big dubba-ya, I tell ya!" Photo by MGM/UA.

“It’s a big dubba-ya, I tell ya!”
Photo by MGM/UA.

A bit north up the shore from San Pedro is the little town of Palos Verdes, a very upscale neighborhood with two interesting sites, neither of which you can see. First is the Big W, which you may remember as the location of the buried treasure in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The W was formed by four palm trees planted at angles to each other. Sadly, the trees are now gone except for one stump, and the entire area is a private residence enclosed by a solid (and tall) wall, making it impossible to see anything from the street. You can hike a trail along the cliffside and see the area, but there’s not much to see.

A vintage postcard from the heyday of Marineland.

A vintage postcard from the heyday of Marineland.

Not far away, you can find some hints of the remains of Marineland of the Pacific, which was at the time the world’s largest oceanarium, an aquatic research center and entertainment destination. Opening a year before Disneyland in 1954, it was California’s first major amusement park. The TV series Sea Hunt was filmed there. Marineland was more educational and less entertainment-oriented than Sea World, more focused on the realities of sea life and a lot less on showing us how cute and funny seals and dolphins are. As a result, it wasn’t as popular. In 1987, Sea World bought Marineland, making great promises about upgrading and refurbishing the place. It turned out that all they really wanted were Orky and Corky, the breeding pair of killer whales who were the stars of the park. (Corky was the first killer whale to give birth in captivity.) They slipped Orky and Corky out in the dead of night, moved them to San Diego, and then shuttered the place. Corky was renamed “Shamu” (all the performing killer whales at Sea World are named Shamu); Orky died about a year later after fathering two females, Orkid (short for “Orky’s Kid”) and Kayla. A resort called Terranea was built on the property about five years ago, but some remnants (at least a dolphin statue) are still there, and most of the building names relate to the history of the location.

Continuing up the coast, past Santa Monica, Venice and other beach communities, you get to Malibu, the home of lots of movie stars. Once you pass through the Malibu Colony, eventually you get to Calabasas, a much more rural area, which is the home of Malibu Creek State Park, which used to be the Fox Ranch. Movies and TV shows were often filmed there, most notably Planet of the Apes and the TV series M*A*S*H, the set of which has been preserved as a tourist destination.

photo by Konrad Summers   Used under a Creative Commons license.

photo by Konrad Summers
Used under a Creative Commons license.

Over the Malibu foothills in the west San Fernando Valley stands a weird little installation on the campus of Pierce College; a collection of crudely-sculpted western figures from a long-ago-bulldozed place known as “The Old Trappers Lodge.” When the Lodge was facing destruction, somebody arranged to move the statues to the college campus, and an anonymous donor provides for their upkeep.

Even further west is what used to be Corriganville, the Simi Valley ranch once owned by western star and stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Corrigan, who later became one of the great “gorilla men,” playing apes in a wide variety of movies, purchased the property in 1937 and began renting it to movie studios as a location for hundreds of cowboy movies and TV shows. In 1949, he opened it to the public as an attraction featuring stunt shows, Native American crafts, stagecoach rides, pony rides and boating on the lake. In 1988 much of the ranch was acquired by the City of Simi and converted into a park.

Walt Disney's stuio on Hyperion Ave in Silverlake.

Walt Disney’s studio on Hyperion Ave in Silverlake.

Closer to downtown LA is the site of Walt Disney’s first animation studio at 2719 Hyperion Avenue in Silverlake. Previously operating out of a small storefront, Walt and Roy purchased the lot in 1926 and the studio opened in 1929; by 1939 they had outgrown the space and began moving to the current location in Burbank. Today the site is a Gelson’s Market.

Across the road from the Hollywood Bowl stands the Lasky-DeMille Barn, Hollywood’s first movie studio. Built in 1901 as part the Northam family citrus farm near the intersection of Selma & Vine, the property was sold to real estate tycoon Jacob Stern in 1904; Stern began renting the barn to movie producers in 1913, and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company signed a lease by the end of the year. By 1926, the Lasky company had become Paramount, and the Stern-DeMille-Lasky barn was moved to the studio’s new lot on Melrose. After several decades as part of the western set on the Paramount lot, the barn was named a historic landmark in 1956; it was moved to its present location in 1983. Today the building is home to the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

Weird LA part 4

Sadly, no gorn to be seen. no xanti either. photo by me.

Sadly, no gorn to be seen. no Xanti either.
Photo by me.

After Koop dropped us at home and headed on his way, Paul and I jumped into my car and went north. About 40 miles north of Pasadena, we arrived at Vasquez Rocks; you’ve seen it in dozens of movies from Stagecoach to the Flintstones. For the geeky, it’s where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn, and where the creepy insectoid “Xanti misfits” were left in another classic episode of Outer Limits.

The pod distribution staging area.

The pod distribution staging area.

After dinner, we made a quick run east to Sierra Madre to stand at Kersting Court. It’s a little triangle-shaped park at the corner of Sierra Madre Blvd and Baldwin Ave.; it’s triangular because there’s a road where the streetcar tracks used to pass through. You may have seen it in the movies; it was an important location for the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Photo by Monkeytime | brachiator Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Monkeytime | brachiator
Used under a Creative Commons license.

The next morning, on the way to LAX (a frankly miserable airport, redeemed only by the formerly space age and now retro-cool “Theme Building”), we made a quick detour to the Witch’s House.

A block from Santa Monica Blvd, in the heart of Beverly Hills, in a quiet upscale neighborhood of nice suburban homes, you’ll find a house straight out of Hansel & Gretel. Also known as the Spadena House, it really needs to be seen. According to various online reports, the house was originally built in Culver City to serve as the prop storage facility for one of the movie studios; at some point, it was sold and moved to its current location.

A fairytale house in the middle of Beverly Hills? Sure, why not. Photo by me.

A fairytale house in the middle of Beverly Hills? Sure, why not.
Photo by me.

One of the little joys of Los Angeles is that practically every part of the city has some odd little unexpected thing; a witch’s house, a castle, a giant donut, it’s always something. Next time, we’ll look at some of the interesting places we had to skip due to time constraints.

Weird LA part 3

On the road with Paul, Koop and Jim…

I still can't believe just how long these stairs are. Photo by me.  © 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

I still can’t believe just how long these stairs are.
Photo by me.
© 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

From the Bradbury Building, we made a jaunt over to the Silverlake area to see the “Music Box” steps, famous from the Laurel & Hardy short of the same title, wherein the boys attempt to deliver a piano to a residence at the top of the stairs. I can tell you from firsthand experience, it takes almost two minutes to climb the whole thing. I shot a video of it, but the sound of me gasping for air halfway through was too annoying.

We toodled down Sunset to the other side of Western Avenue, then headed north into the back side of Griffith Park. Winding up the canyon, we found Bronson Cave, which isn’t a cave at all; it’s actually a fairly short tunnel, a relic from the days when the adjacent area was a rock quarry. Filmmakers cleverly shoot it at an angle to make it look like a cave.

Yes, his doomsday weapon is a bubble machine.

Yes, his doomsday weapon is a bubble machine.

My Australian pal, Pol Rua, waits outside Bronson Cave for the Batmobile. Photo by me. © 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

My Australian pal, Pol Rua, waits outside Bronson Cave for the Batmobile.
Photo by me.
© 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

It’s the Batcave, from which George Barris’ wonderful Batmobile used to roar forth in every episode of the TV series. It’s also the cave from which the sinister “Ro-Man” attempted to conquer the world (and woo an Earth girl) in the MST3K classic Robot Monster, as seen here. If you’ve never seen Robot Monster, you’re in for a treat… if you have a taste for cheesy low-budget movies that are unintentionally hilarious.

From there, we wound around the canyons to the famous Griffith Observatory, which for some reason was extremely busy, or maybe it was overflow from the nearby Greek Theatre, but in any case, we couldn’t get near it, which was a pity; we wanted to check out the gigantic Tesla coil inside. For most people, the observatory is known for being a prominent setting in James Dean’s American Classic film Rebel Without a Cause, but for us, it evokes Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer. At least we got a great view of the exterior from across the canyon.

Photo by victoriabernal Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by victoriabernal
Used under a Creative Commons license.

At this point, Koop needed to get going, so we cruised through Los Feliz back to Pasadena. We thought about seeking out the house where W.C. Fields once lived, which was later the home of Lily Tomlin; she famously repainted the interior pink (including the oak paneling). In 1941, when Fields still owned it, next-door neighbor Anthony Quinn’s two-year-old son Christopher accidentally drowned in the lily pond in the yard. But time was running short, so we had to head for home.

After sending Koop on his way, Paul and I headed out for more adventures. To be continued….

Ron Howard and Distinguished Speaker Events

Recently I was fortunate to receive an invitation to attend the Distinguished Speakers Series to hear Actor/Director Ron Howard speak.RonHowardPasadena2014

It was great. He told lots of stories of growing up on camera, working with Andy Griffith, starring in Happy Days, making Cocoon and working with great old school Hollywood actors. He even took a selfie on stage. Ron Howard lived an extremely unusual life which he readily acknowledges. Not every 14 year old kid making movies in 8mm gets to show their work to Henry Fonda. I enjoyed it immensely. Several years ago I was invited by a friend who had an extra ticket to hear the amazing Dr. Maya Angelou speak and read her poetry. Another evening I’ll never forget.

If you work for a company that sponsors these kinds of events and shares free tickets with their employees – GO! If your friend has a free ticket and invites you – definitely go.  These are wonderful opportunities. Participants in the series held in Pasadena over the last 17 years include Tony Blair, Chelsey Sullenberger, Betty White, Steve Wozniak, Bill Clinton, Anderson Cooper, Sally Ride, Robert Redford, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jane Goodall, Walter Cronkhite, Margaret Thatcher, Erin Brockovitch, Lech Walesa, Carl Reiner, His Holiness the Daliai Lama, Elie Weisel. Writers, world leaders, generals, actors, doctors and more, sharing stories and sometimes wisdom.

If you are fortunate enough to receive free tickets from your employer, please take the time to say thank you. Let them know how much you enjoyed the event and appreciated the opportunity.


Weird LA part 2

The continuing adventures of Paul and Jim in Weird LA…

Friday evening, after spending the day at Anaheim’s WonderCon, we dropped into Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles for a uniquely American dinner, then headed to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a Rat Pack-era dive bar that hasn’t changed a bit since 1963. Since it happened to be William Holden’s birthday, we stopped by his star (just off Hollywood Blvd on Vine Street) to pay our respects.

On Saturday morning, joined by another friend, Tim Kupins AKA Koop, we set off on a day-long adventure in Los Angeles. Because we got a late start, we had to cut several destinations from our schedule; I’ll cover those in a separate post.

Paul and Koop at Lucha Junkie.  Photo by me. © 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

Paul and Koop at Lucha Junkie.
Photo by me.
© 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

First stop was at Paul’s request, a visit to a Lucha Libre store, “Lucha Junkie,” a little shop in East LA. We almost missed it, because the name wasn’t on the sign; instead there was a sign reading “The Tunnel.” When we went inside, we found that it wasn’t one shop, it was several all sharing space. There’s a comic shop (Legion Comics) up front, with a skate shop on the opposite side of the room. The next counter down contained art supplies on one side with punk music DVDs on the other. Behind that, there’s a screenprinting setup with t-shirts for sale opposite the thing we came for, an alcove full of luchador masks, action figures, t-shirts and DVDs of famous Mexican masked wrestlers. There were other sections in the store, but I didn’t make it that far.

After leaving the Tunnel, we headed to Philippe’s for lunch. They claim to be the inventor of the french dip sandwich, and while I can’t verify that claim (there’s at least one other place in LA that claims they invented it), I can say they make a pretty good one, with your choice of beef, ham, pork, lamb or turkey. The place is always crowded, but there’s ample seating. It’s cash only, so hit the ATM before you come in.

The Velveteria. Behind these doors are more black velvet paintings than you can imagine. They have a "no photos" policy, unfortunately.

The Velveteria. Behind these doors are more black velvet paintings than you can imagine. They have a “no photos” policy, unfortunately.

Two blocks west of Philippe’s is the Velveteria, possibly the world’s only museum of black velvet paintings. For $10, you can wander through several rooms of these kitsch treasures, which run the gamut from bling-covered portraits of Liberace to Keane-inspired big-eyed portraits of Vietnam-era US soldiers, sent to stateside families by homesick military personnel. Some of the art on display is horrendously amateurish, some are vibrant examples of folk art, and a surprising number of them are actually very good. The subject matter ranges from Playboy pinups to pink poodles, with an entire room devoted to examples intended to be seen under black light. The owners are a wonderful couple who clearly love sharing their oddball collection; if you can’t make it to LA to see the Velveteria, you should check out their book, Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights from the Collection of the Velveteria Museum.

You've seen these stairs in dozens of movies. Photo by me. © 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

You’ve seen these stairs in dozens of movies.
Photo by me.
© 2014 Jim MacQuarrie

About six blocks south of the Velveteria is the legendary Bradbury Building. Built in 1893, it’s been a popular film location for decades, most notably Blade Runner and (500) Days of Summer, and it played a vital role in the Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” written by Harlan Ellison. The interior of this building is amazing. If you remember the episode, one of the climactic moments is a chase in which Robert Culp has to try to beat the ornate wrought iron elevator full of evil aliens to the lobby by running down the ornate wrought iron stairway, finally leaping from the final landing (the stunt man broke his ankle). In Blade Runner, the Bradbury served as the home of the creepy inventor of the replicants, and the climax was filmed on the roof. In (500) Days of Summer, it’s the setting for the final scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt has his job interview. It’s an insanely cool building, and it’s free to explore the first floor lobby and take photos from the first landing of the stairways. The rest of the building is occupied by businesses, so you can’t go traipsing around the upper floors or the 110-year-old elevators.

Across the street is the Million Dollar Theater, a 1920s-era movie palace that’s recently been restored to its original state. The front facade is spectacular.

More to come…

Weird Los Angeles

Photo by Vlasta Juricek, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by Vlasta Juricek, used under a Creative Commons License.

An online friend that I’ve known for years and had never met in person came to LA recently for a visit, and I got to show him around Tinseltown. He lives in Australia and this is his first visit to the US, so I wanted to get it right. Fortunately, he’s at least as geeky as I am, so I knew the kind of things he’d want to see.

Growing up in Los Angeles, one learns early to differentiate between the things we find interesting and the things the tourists want to see. Hollywood & Vine is kind of boring if you don’t get a giggle out of kitschy souvenir shops. There are far more interesting things to see, if you know where to look. For example, even if you’re no longer star-struck (that happens after the third or fourth time you bump into a movie star at the grocery store), it’s still interesting to visit some of the locations where favorite movies were shot.

I considered giving him the “scandal tour”- all of the places associated with the notorious events and people of movie history; the condo where OJ stabbed his ex-wife, the home where Lana Turner’s mobster boyfriend was stabbed by her daughter, the house where Alfalfa from the Our Gang movies was shot in an argument over a hunting dog. Then there are all the other scandals; the bungalow at Chateau Marmont where John Belushi overdosed, the house where George Reeves either killed himself or was rubbed out (depending on who you believe), and so much more. I can even show you where would-be silent film star Peg Entwhistle jumped from the H of the Hollywood sign, if that’s to your taste.

But since Paul is more into the fantastic and odd than the scandalous and creepy, we looked at other things, which I’m going to share with you over the course of a few posts to come.

They call it the Bonaventure, but you know it as Buck Rogers' house.  Photo by Geographer at en.wikipedia

They call it the Bonaventure, but you know it as Buck Rogers’ house.
Photo by Geographer at en.wikipedia

Paul took the Greyhound down from San Francisco, so I picked him up at the station, which is on Seventh just east of Downtown in rather a dire part of town not far from skid row. On the way to the freeway, I made sure to drive past the Bonaventure Hotel at Fifth and Figueroa; you may know it better as the home of Buck Rogers from the ’80s TV show, though it’s been used in a lot of other movies and programs including This is Spinal Tap, Blue Thunder and True Lies. It’s a cool building comprised of four mirrored cylindrical buildings surrounding a slightly taller fifth one. Glass elevators run up the outside and there’s a restaurant at the top that slowly rotates.

Driving up the 110 Freeway (the world’s first), I told him the true story behind Roger Rabbit; this very freeway was the result of behind-the-scenes collusion between the auto manufacturer, oil refinery and tire manufacturing companies that had filled the city council and county board of supervisors with their hand-picked stooges, who voted to destroy the Red Car trolley system and replace it with “fast, clean freeways,” just as was shown in the movie.

Once home to a maniac, now a chiropractor's office. Photo by Jack Stiefel Used under a Creative Commons license.

Once home to a maniac, now a chiropractor’s office.
Photo by Jack Stiefel
Used under a Creative Commons license.

We got off the freeway in South Pasadena so that we could swing by the Michael Myers house, a sinister-looking home that was the setting for John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was an abandoned derelict when he filmed there, but since then, it’s been moved about half a block and refurbished; it’s now a chiropractor’s office.

We’ve lived about a mile from Doc Brown’s house (from Back to the Future) for the last 15 years, and yet it’s still fun to give it a glance and nod when passing by or point it out to visiting friends and relatives. We pulled up in front and gave it a good look on the way home. (Okay, it’s better known as a pioneering example of the Craftsman style as practiced by legendary architects Greene & Greene, and even better known as the former home of the Gamble family of Procter & Gamble fame, but for me it’s Doc Brown’s house.)

Doc Brown's house; later he moved into the garage, which is just to the right of this photo. Photo by J Kilmer  Used under a Creative Commons license.

Doc Brown’s house; later he moved into the garage, which is just to the right of this photo.
Photo by J Kilmer
Used under a Creative Commons license.

Come back next time, we’ll visit the luchadore store and more.

Learn to Draw for Free!

Back when I was a kid in the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time at the Torrance library, most of it in the Dewey Decimal System’s 700 section, which is where they keep the art books. I spent hours there reading about everything from the great comic book heroes to the history of burlesque, from how to do stage makeup to how to draw. That last one was important to me. I started drawing at about age 4 and stuck with it through the school years when drawing was no longer cool, when it tagged me as a nerd or worse. By 8th grade I was vacillating between trying to get into animation or trying to draw superhero comics (I’ve dabbled in both a little since then), and there was one book in particular that turned out to be very helpful for both.

andrew-loomis_drawing-the-head-and-hands_titan-books-2011The book was “Drawing the Head and Hands” and the author was Andrew Loomis. There were a couple of other Loomis books on the shelves, and I studied those as well, but the head and hands book was the one I most tried to absorb.

The books were old even then, published in the 1940s and ’50s and long out of print; the library’s copy had been re-bound in a nauseating olive drab cover. When we moved a couple of years later, I found that the library in West Covina didn’t have my Loomis books, and I was left to try to remember the lessons from them. I’ve kept my eyes out for them for years at every flea market, antique shop and thrift store, to no avail. When I’ve seen them on eBay or Amazon, they’ve been too expensive, sometimes selling for hundreds of dollars. Turns out I had good taste in art teachers; Andrew Loomis is regarded as a modern master.

049The books are now back in print, and can be ordered from Amazon, but if you want a preview, or want to put them on your Kindle or iPad for easy access and searchability, you can download them for free from the Illustration Age website. If you want to learn to draw people, you can do a lot worse than to study the works of Andrew Loomis.

We do not stop playing because we get old…

pillowfight…we get old because we stop playing.

Or so the old saying goes. I think there’s some truth to it. I remember my grandfather at age 90, running down the hall of his apartment building, arms extended, making airplane noises as he flew beside us, a marvelous man-child in all the right ways, and I hoped to be like him someday. Of course, I do fall into the grown-up trap of being cranky and curmudgeonly all too often, but the goal is still there. John Cougar Mellencamp put it best, “growing up leads to growing old and then to dying, and dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.”

Years (decades) ago, my favorite acting teacher told me “it’s vital to know the difference between childlike and childish; childishness is selfish, impatient, petty and demanding, but being childlike means being open to magic and wonder and delight.” Being an actor, artist, writer or Internet jester depends in large part on being able access that childlike state.

One of the wonderful things that the internet affords us is the opportunity to indulge that penchant for the silly, absurd, nonsensical and frivolous, to find kindred spirits and co-conspirators in the grand plot to make the world a little more surreal and bizarre for the sake of amusement. Now, granted, I did once write a surly rant about “why I hate the internet” (short answer: because it allows the nutjobs to find each other), but that was really more about obsession and monomania; the Internet is a tool, and you can use a tool to build things or clobber people, the tool doesn’t care which.Anything can be unhealthy if it’s taken too far. Relax, have fun, but don’t be a nutjob.

From National Gorilla Suit Day to the No Pants Subway Ride, there are all sorts of ways to be a big kid in public for the hell of it. Groups like Improv Everywhere, flashmobs, my own beloved GuerilLA, meetup groups like Drink & Draw or Eat, Meet, Geek, all serve to connect the people who are prone to such antics.

This weekend, one such event is occurring: International Pillow Fight Day. Organizers around the world have chosen venues and arranged to stage massive pillow fights, to which you are invited. Check out the Pillow Fight Day website and see where they’re gathering in your area. Grab a pillow and let the feathers fly.

It’s fun, and as Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” once said, “isn’t fun the best thing to have?”

Going to a Comic Convention on the cheap

SDCC-DisneySpring is here, and with it, the beginning of comic book convention season. This past weekend, the annual Emerald City Comic-Con was held in Seattle, a convention I have long wanted to attend (I have several friends in the area and several more who travel in for it, and from all reports it’s a pretty great event.) Coming up in April is WonderCon in Anaheim and then in May there’s the Big Wow Comic Fest in San Jose, which I intend to be at again. All of which leads up to the big one, Nerd Mecca, Comic-Con International in San Diego.

SDCC-robotI’ve been attending the San Diego Comic-Con sporadically since 1981 (when it had 5000 attendees), and have been there every year since 1997. Now that comics have gone mainstream (or at least comic book characters have; comics themselves have not matched the popularity of the same characters in other media), Comic-Con has seen a dramatic increase in attendance and interest. It’s also expanded far beyond the boundaries of comics and related material; it’s now the destination for any and all entertainment and pop culture, from Angry Birds to 2 Broke Girls. As the San Diego Con has gone mainstream, other conventions have popped up across the country, some of them becoming quite large and popular. Over time, we’ve learned a few things about how to do it without going broke. Whether you’re attending KatsuCon, WonderCon, HeroesCon, Emerald City, C2E2, Big Wow, or another convention, there are ways to save money at it, which you can then spend on comics, toys and t-shirts. Here are a few tips for the upcoming convention season.

Some of these tips are specific to San Diego Comic-Con; some of them may not apply to the convention in your area, due to differences in geography, amenities or weather, among other factors. Even so, there may be something helpful here for you.

1. Set a budget.
When you enter the exhibit hall, you will find yourself facing a huge room full of people who want to sell you things. Movies, limited-edition prints, t-shirts, toys, collectibles, original art, signed photos, comic books, and lord-knows-what else. If you have poor impulse control as far as spending goes, it’s a really good idea to not bring in more money than you want to spend. Keep your souvenir money separate from your food, lodging and transport money.

2. Convention food is absurd.
It’s really easy to forget about lunch until you’re standing in line somewhere and realize that (a) you’re starving and (b) your only option is that pretzel cart over there. It’s much better to just pull a PBJ, an apple, some string cheese and a bottle of water out of your backpack and save $10. As soon as you check in at the hotel, go find the nearest grocery store, assuming your room has a mini-fridge. (If not, a large ice chest will do for any perishables, but you can also just get stuff that doesn’t need refrigeration.) Stock up on breakfast and lunch foods and snacks and brown bag it at the Con. You could make friends with an exhibitor and maybe they will let you stash your lunch in their booth, but a more reasonable option is to take advantage of the bag check service that most larger Cons offer. Let’s face it, $5 for a hot dog and $4 for a Coke is just dumb, especially when you can have a tastier and more nutritious option for a lot less.

And of course you’re going to follow the “5-3-1 Rule” while you’re there, right? (5-3-1: make sure you get 5 hours of sleep, 3 meals and 1 shower every day at the Con. Please keep the shower as priority one; the food and sleep is for your health and well-being, but the shower is for everyone else’s.)

A lot of exhibitors will put out a bowl of candy as an incentive to lure you into their booth. Do not try to make a meal out of these offerings; you’re not at Costco, and there just aren’t enough candy dishes to make it practical.

San Diego tip: Most of the old hands at SDCC know that the Ralphs grocery store up on Market Street is where to go for food, and the store does land-office business this week. In recent years, they’ve begun setting up shop under canopies outside so people can buy the necessities (soda, sandwiches, chips, etc) without even going inside the store. They also sell decent sushi if that’s your thing.

3. If there’s public transit, use it.
Most conventions are in decent-sized cities, and two things are true of most of them: there’s some form of public transport, and parking near the convention is expensive. In San Diego, parking lots are at least $10-20 per day; parking at any of the adjacent hotels will run you at least $25 a day, and in some cases as much as $40. No big deal if you can expense it, but that adds up to a big bite out of your Con budget if you’re not going for business purposes. Many hotels offer free shuttle service from the airport, but if yours doesn’t, you can still blow past the car rental desk if you plan ahead. Before going to the con, check your favorite geeky message boards and Facebook pages to see if any of your friends are coming into town or already live there, and make arrangements to share a ride from the airport to wherever you’re staying. (if you don’t know any geeky message boards, why exactly are you going to a comic convention?)

San Diego tip: Practically everything you’re going to want to do during the Con will be in the Gaslamp District; all the parties, meetups, screenings, and other events are right there. There is a trolley stop right in front of the convention center; buying a daily trolley pass is a lot cheaper than paying to park your car anywhere near downtown. A daily pass runs about $6.

If you’re coming in from Los Angeles, take the Amtrak down and leave your car at home. Traffic is paralyzed in the area anyway. If you’re flying in from far away, don’t bother to rent a car. You can take a bus or cab to a trolley station, or simply look around the airport; there are no doubt dozens of other Con attendees in the vicinity, and one of them may be happy to split the cost of a cab. Just look for a superhero t-shirt and you’ll probably strike gold.

4. You don’t need to stay downtown.
Most conventions that I’ve been to, even some pretty big ones, are pretty localized; they don’t take over the whole area the way SDCC does, and the hotels don’t jack up their rates the way they do in San Diego. Even so, you may find that staying even a few blocks away from the convention center will give you a lower rate. Look for one on the transit line. If you or someone you know has a time-share with a location in the convention city, put in a reservation for convention week. Check sites like AirBnB or Couchsurfing or the Craigslist for the city you’re going; you might find a cheap alternative to a downtown hotel.

San Diego tip: The hotels within walking distance to the Convention (and most of the more outlying ones) are going to charge insane rates for this week, anywhere from 4 to 10 times their regular rates. Crappy little motels are going to ask for (and get) over $200 per night. The rates are more reasonable the further out you go, and since the trolleys run from almost the Mexico border to Santee, you have a lot of options. We’ve stayed at motels near SDSU, in Chula Vista, in Mission Valley, National City and in Little Italy, and the trolley got us there and back.

5. Camping is an option.
If you have an RV, you can usually arrange to park somewhere close to the convention center. If it’s summer, there may be  campground somewhere outside the city (in which case you may need a car after all). Many KOA campgrounds have nice cabins that make for a nice alternative to a hotel room.

San Diego tip: You can stay in your RV or a tent at Campland by the Bay, the Sweetwater Reservoir or the Chula Vista KOA, but all of them are now filling up several months in advance. All of them are some distance from a trolley line, so you’ll need a car to get from there to the nearest trolley stop, but most of the outlying stops have free parking.

6. Eat dinner away from the Con.
A couple of trolley stops away, you can find wonderful and reasonably priced restaurants that aren’t completely overrun by guys in Spider-Man t-shirts. Check Yelp, Urban Spoon, or your favorite dining site.

San Diego tip: Little Italy in particular has some great dining. For dinner close to the con, the restaurants at nearby Seaport Village are pretty good.

7. Eat on somebody else’s dime
There are often parties and social events in the evenings at comic conventions, usually divided between fans, retailers, exhibitors and industry people. Try to get invited to them instead of going out of pocket. They always have some sort of food, or at least appetizers or snacks. Networking is the name of the game.

8. Donate blood.
Many conventions have a blood drive now.Sign up and donate a pint, and then you get cookies and juice; stuff ‘em down and ask for more. Free lunch! You also often get a bag of swag. Too bad you can only do it once per Con.

San Diego tip: The annual Robert A.Heinlein Memorial Blood Drive is a longstanding tradition at the Con. The signup booth is usually upstairs in the Sails area, with the actual donation facility being a couple of blocks away.

9. Get in for free.
You can usually sign up as a volunteer at the con; if you agree to put in a certain number of hours working as a gofer-lackey-underling-henchman-minion, you get a free pass. Check the convention website, as those slots sometimes fill up fast. And make sure you fulfill your obligations or you won’t get to do it next time.The cool thing is you may find yourself schlepping for somebody famous.

Another option: if you happen to have any basic writing skills and can do a little networking, it’s not too difficult to get signed on as a “stringer” (freelance reporter) for one or more comic fan websites. Even if they don’t pay you, they can score you a press pass. If you’re planning to try this, your best bet is to have a blog of your own to establish your credentials, and contact the sites in advance, so that when they start handing out the press badges, you’re in line to get one.

If you keep an ear to the ground you may also find retailers who will need a “helper monkey” to work their booth, and they are happy to swap a badge (and sometimes even some money) for your strong back and eager attitude. Back when the conventions were a nerdy boy’s club, there were a lot of opportunities for “booth babes” – pretty girls in short skirts to attract men and sell merchandise. As the conventions get bigger and attract more women, the prevalence of booth bunnies seems to be declining, but if you’re female, good looking, and don’t mind exploiting it, keep an eye on Craigslist for vendors who want you and your snug tank-top to decorate their space.

This last tip is applicable only to San Diego, though it may apply to other conventions in the not-too-distant future…

10. Don’t go to the Con

You might find yourself hanging out with Ed Brubaker (he wrote the comic that the new Captain America movie is based on) and Doug Jones (he played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four 2).

You might find yourself hanging out with Ed Brubaker (he wrote the comic that the new Captain America movie is based on) and Doug Jones (he played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer).

No, I’m not telling you to stay home; I’m suggesting you go to Nerdi Gras, the plethora of geeky events and venues that fill several blocks around the convention. As I explained over at GeekDad, the events surrounding the Comic-Con are rapidly threatening to eclipse it; there is so much to do around Comic-Con now (much of which does not require a Convention pass) that it’s possible to have a completely enjoyable convention experience, complete with celebrity sightings, collectibles and comic books, without ever actually entering the convention center or ponying up the astronomical cost of a pass.

Now that I’ve possibly saved you some money, here’s a request: if you’re not a comics fan and you’re going to the convention to see the celebrities and the previews of movie and TV stuff, would you do me a favor and pick up a few comics while you’re there? Talk to somebody at one of the booths; tell them the kind of movies, TV, books and other media you like, and they can probably tell you about a comic book you might also like. All those multi-million-dollar blockbuster movies we’re watching started out as comic books, but so did The Walking Dead, Road to Perdition, Men in Black, A History of Violence, Ghost World, The Rocketeer, American Splendor and a lot of other movies you liked. Give ‘em a chance.