They had me at Margaret O’Brien.
I don’t remember what made me browse the web site for the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention earlier this year, but as soon as I saw Margaret O’Brien on the celebrity list, I ordered my tickets.
MANC takes place each fall in Baltimore. For three days, celebrities make themselves available for autograph signings and Q&A sessions; experts hold seminars on old-time radio, classic television, and classic movie topics; vendors sell movie posters, books, and other collectibles; and classic screen performances play in the Movie Room.
I’ve thought about attending before (and I really wish I’d attended in 2009, when Johnny Whitaker and one-time Family Affair guest star Lee Meriwether were guests). The chance to see my favorite child star in person stirred me into seizing the moment. It’s a sad reality that few golden-age stars remain with us, and we lose more every year.
This was the first nostalgia convention I’ve attended, and what follows is a brief, impressionistic review. Unfortunately, it lacks photos—I forgot to pack my camera, and my iPhone images didn’t turn out well.
Mornings at MANC are devoted to presentations on vintage entertainment topics. The presenters are people who’ve invested enormous time into learning about their subject. John C. Abbott, for instance, has produced an exhaustive three-volume work called The Who is Johnny Dollar? Matter about radio’s famous insurance investigator. He’s analyzed not only the remaining recorded episodes but those that exist only in script form. He can tell you everything from Johnny’s address to how many times he’s been shot.
Sally Stephens talked about Gracie Allen’s 1940 run for the presidency, a months-long joke that played out on several radio shows and in live appearances. Stephens effectively integrated radio clips into her presentation, which made her topic come alive.
Joanna Wilson gave a great presentation on TV adaptions of A Christmas Carol. I’d been eagerly anticipating this presentation for two reasons:
- I love TV Christmas specials and episodes.
- Wilson is a fellow Classic TV Blog Association member, and I hoped to meet her and to purchase her book, ‘Tis the Season TV.
Wilson’s presentation didn’t disappoint–her passion for her subject matter really came through, and the audience responded with similar enthusiasm. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of straight A Christmas Carol adaptations. (What does it say about me that my favorite theatrical version features the Muppets?) I still enjoyed learning about all the versions TV has produced, and I was glad that Wilson touched on many of my favorite Dickens-influenced TV episodes, including ones from The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Avengers, and Family Ties.
It was fun to meet another blogger, and I’m enjoying Wilson’s book, which I highly recommend to all Christmas TV fans.
(Be sure to read her convention recap, too–it has pictures!)
Author Gene Blottner did a presentation on film noir star Audrey Totter and made good use of clips from Totter’s career.
Garyn Roberts, a noted Ray Bradbury scholar, hosted a celebration of the author and gave another talk about Dick Tracy in popular culture.
As Ed Asner walked into his Q&A session, his cell phone rang. Nodding to the audience, he quipped, “It’s for you.”
This was the perfect introduction for Asner, who was as gruff, unfiltered, and entertaining as you would expect. He had high praise for many of his former co-stars, especially Ted Knight from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Nancy Marchand from Lou Grant. (He also had high praise for Marchand’s legs.)
Johnny Crawford from The Rifleman appeared on a panel with Jeff Connors, real-life son of Rifleman star Chuck Connors. Both men recalled the elder Connors with affection. Crawford said that Connors was protective toward him on the set; no director who treated Crawford unkindly would continue working on the show.
Crawford reminisced about some of his favorite guest stars on the show, including John Anderson and Royal Dano. He especially enjoyed working with two-time guest star Sammy Davis Jr., who loved Westerns.
His favorite episodes from the show are “The Pet” and “The Sharpshooter.” (Sam Peckinpah wrote the latter’s script.)
All the talk about the show’s warm father-son dynamic inspired me to make The Rifleman a regular part of my Me-TV viewing.
Crawford also talked his experiences as a first-season Mouseketeer and joked about his crush on Karen, which Cubby thwarted.
Julie Newmar shared a Q&A session with Elizabeth Shepherd, a British actress best known for her role in 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, as well as her status as The Avengers‘ first Emma Peel. (Producers quickly replaced her with Diana Rigg, and the scenes that Shepherd shot for the show no longer exist.)
Newmar and Shepherd made an interesting study in contrasts. Newmar was expansive, dramatic, and occasionally random. (She sometimes interrupted Shepherd to ask her an off-the-wall question.) Shepherd was down-to-earth and good at telling stories, as when she described her perilous encounters with trained ravens during the filming of The Omen II.
Newmar said her ballet background gave her the cat-like physique that served her well in her famous Batman role. Her most challenging role was on the short-lived series My Living Doll because it was difficult to find the humanity in her robot character.
An experienced Shakespearean stage actress, Shepherd made an interesting point about theater being a burgeoning new field to the Elizabethans, as social media is to us today. She treated the MANC audience to an excellent dramatic recitation from Shakespeare.
(Note to the loud talker behind me who rarely shut his mouth throughout the Newmar and Shepherd Q&A: Not cool. Seriously. When everyone around you is glaring, it’s time to shut up.)
Margaret O’Brien exuded graciousness throughout her presentation.
She had good things to say about nearly everyone she worked with, from Charles Laughton (“He was wonderful”) to Lionel Barrymore (“He was almost like a grandfather”) to Judy Garland (“She loved children”).
She even had a good relationship with studio head Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to marry her mother, glamorous flamenco dancer Gladys Flores.
O’Brien talked again and again about the supportive, protective role her mother played in her life. Flores made sure that O’Brien got the salary she deserved for Meet Me in Saint Louis. She kept O’Brien in line during the perilous teenage years, once busting her at a nightclub after she sneaked out with Natalie Wood. She kept the child-hating Wallace Beery from stealing O’Brien’s hot lunch on the set of Bad Bascomb. (Beery seemed to be the only person in Hollywood to earn O’Brien’s ire.)
It’s apparent that her mother’s influence kept O’Brien from the pitfalls of child stardom and enabled her to simply enjoy the movie-making process.
O’Brien, who traveled to Japan in 1952 to make the movie Girls Hand in Hand, talked about the importance of travel and getting to know people from other cultures. Again, she praised the influence of her mother, who served as her role model as a strong, independent woman.
“I never feel that I can’t do something,” O’Brien said.
Autographs and Vendors
The welcoming letter in the convention program noted that some people attend only to collect autographs, while skipping all the sessions. I took the opposite approach. I’ve never been an autograph collector, and I feel awkward approaching celebrities–there’s nothing that I could say that they haven’t heard thousands of times. MANC attracts a knowledgeable crowd, so audience members covered most of the questions I would have asked during the Q&A sessions. (I did hope to ask Robert Loggia about his work with Brian Keith on Disney’s Elfego Baca, but Loggia is in frail health, and I couldn’t bring myself to bother him.)
For those who do want to collect autographs, MANC is ideal. Celebrities are available for long periods throughout the three-day conference, so lines stay short, and fans have time to chat with their favorite stars.
Vendor tables lined the main hallway leading to the seminar room. When I didn’t see anything I wanted there, I figured the spending money I brought with me was safe. On the second day, I realized that many more vendors were offering their wares on another floor. I picked up a few vintage books and magazines and a set of Dr. Doolittle paper dolls. I also bought several current books, including books about Peggy Ann Garner and 1950s live television by author Sandra Grabman, who attended the convention.
My only regret was that I didn’t find any good games for future Spin Again Sunday posts.
My overall experience at MANC was wonderful, and I would highly recommend it to all fans of vintage entertainment. The $15-a-day admission price is a small price to pay for seeing your favorite stars in person and hearing from experts on interesting topics. I hope to go again in coming years. (I definitely will if Kathy Garver appears–I’m not missing another Family Affair star!)