Once viewed as a disease, nostalgia is now considered to be an important resource. Revisiting cherished memories from drive-in experiences to classic television programs of the 1950s and 1960s provide feelings of social connectedness. That is why the staff of the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (MANC) provides people the opportunity to meet their childhood heroes. For three days every year in September, Hollywood celebrities are flown into Maryland to meet and greet fans, answer questions, pose for photos and sign autographs. The celebrities at MANC, however, are not the same that attend those heavily-publicized Comic Cons. The convention itself is something altogether different.
From the outset, an attendee would not consider the Nostalgia Con too much different from Comic Cons, science-fiction and horror conventions. But closer examination reveals a variation-on-a-theme. Instead of actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or popular Netflix programs, the celebrity guests are more of appeal to a fan base over the age of 50. Over the past thirteen years, MANC has brought over 100 celebrities to Maryland including Patty Duke, Davy Jones, Shirley Jones, Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers, Robert Conrad, Lee Majors, Robert Fuller, the cast of Lost in Space, Tony Dow (Leave it to Beaver), David Hedison (The Fly), Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) and many others. Celebrities are welcome to the convention based on the requests of attendees, it was explained by volunteer staff Terry Salomonson. WWE Wrestlers and Playboy Playmates are instantly rejected; the decision is not based on who is playing the starring lead in today’s hottest television program. “We have to maintain a standard at the Nostalgia Con,” he explained. “We have turned down celebrities who wanted to charge too much for an autograph. Convention policy is to never ask for a percentage of the autograph fees so we can ensure the pricing does not creep up into an uncomfortable number. We have the attendees to keep in mind.”
Modern technology is applied to ensure the volunteer staff of the nostalgia event are on the same page. “I recall reading unfavorable reviews on a website once where attendees were complaining about how they were fed conflicting information from multiple staff members,” Michelle explains. “We have a system in place so if there is a change in schedule or venue, everyone on the staff will be aware of the change within seconds.” During the weekend, it was explained, staff members oftentimes have to make a judgment call in their positions. The answer most paramount is often the simplest: whatever is best for the attendee.
If all of these bullet points gives pause to question the success of an unconventional business model, check this out: statistically attendance numbers are growing between 14 to 19 percent every year. Last year showed the smallest growth, 14 percent, but two major celebrities had to cancel due to professional and personal commitments (celebrity cancellations are not uncommon at conventions) and a hurricane roared up the coast to threaten attendance numbers. “To add, last year we missed a few opportunities due to a busy schedule and as a result, we conducted the least amount of publicity in the history of the convention,” recalls Martin Grams, events coordinator. “The fact our attendance still grew in size was a testament to the retention rate of returning attendees, along with word of mouth recommendations from fans. That is impressive.”
Thousands of people attend the convention annually from all over the globe; attendees fly in from Britain, Belgium, Finland, Germany, and Australia. “What I value most about MANC is the personal attention,” says Josh Michnik of Vancouver, Canada. “At comic cons, we are numbers and cattle. The convention promoters make it obvious that it is all about money. They herd you into a room to pose for a photo with the celebrity, you pose for five to ten seconds, hand you a number for your photo, and herd you out. At the nostalgia convention, we are treated like family and the celebrities take their time answering questions and sign autographs. There is a laid-back atmosphere here.”
For many of the actors and actresses, there is no shortage of accolades from attendees. Kent McCord, co-star of television’s Adam-12, was a guest at the show a few years ago and was pleased to hear from many who were inspired to become police officers because of his portrayal on the weekly program. “There were so many fans who came from so far away that I stayed behind my table until nine in the evening to sign autographs,” recalled Robert Conrad (The Wild, Wild West). Davy Jones insisted on not charging for his autographs. Ron Ely, television’s Tarzan, spent the evening hanging out with fans while sharing drinks in the hotel bar. Mark Goddard paid a visit to the movie room to provide commentary during a screening of television’s Johnny Ringo, which he co-starred back in the late fifties. Patrick Duffy decided not to do his Q&A panel on the stage; instead choosing to stand off the stage to answer questions from fans in a more intimate setting.
“Fans bring everything to be autographed from LP records, board games, lunch boxes, and original art,” explained Michelle Vinje, volunteer staff. “But all of the celebrities have glossy photographs for fans to choose for free when getting an autograph. Sometimes the collectibles are more appealing – especially when the actors stop to take a close look and admire their image on a product they never even knew was produced years prior. Patrick Duffy was amazed when he saw a Man from Atlantis collectible produced in Brazil that he never knew existed.”
“Like hundreds of fans lining the red carpet during the Academy Awards, we fanboys flock to this same hotel every year in September determined to memorialize a celebrity moment,” adds Mark Gross, staff photographer. “The time-honored scrawl on a glossy photo, or vintage memorabilia, that we now consider the gold standard of that brush with greatness now warrants bragging rights to our friends.” The photo of oneself for posting on Facebook and social media has become so popular that it has added a new word to the lexicon – “selfie.” Yep, more bragging rights. “Almost since the beginning of the convention’s inception, I have been able to snap photography of fans admiring the tens of thousands of collectibles on vendor tables, fans interacting with celebrities, fans enjoying the slide show seminars upstairs. Those, to me, have become the keepsakes that exceed Hallmark excellence.”
“Among my fondest memories was bonding with Davy Jones (The Monkees) who consented to a filmed interview about his career,” Mark continued. “Afterwards, he asked me subtlety if I could please take him over to meet the great Patty Duke and introduce him to her. Turned out Davy Jones was a huge fan of hers and was just as nervous of meeting her as most of us. According to Davy Jones, that was how a gentleman meets someone of Patty Duke’s stature. An introduction from an associate. I walked him over to her and he acted like a giddy fanboy.”
In an era where Comic Cons (fan gatherings primarily focusing on comic books and superhero motion pictures) dominate social media, the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention focuses on days gone by where people can attend slide show seminars hosted by museum curators and historians, watch old movies in a large dark room and shop with the vendors who offer vintage toys and collectibles. “We have been blessed to have the Hunt Valley Delta Marriott in Maryland host our annual convention,” Michelle remarks. “There are very few venues in the state larger than this hotel. It is large enough to allow for more than 200 vendor booths.”
It remains difficult to compare the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention to comic cons across the country simply because the business model is different from other counterparts. Besides being non-profit to benefit children with treatable cancer, the attendees come first and foremost. “No one is referred to as a number,” explains Michelle Vinje. “When an attendee asks a question, whether they ask for directions to the nearest bathroom or what time a specific celebrity starts signing, we ask them what their name is and refer to them by name at least twice. And we never give directions; instead, we take them to what they are looking for.”
The evolution of fan gatherings is defined by the events schedule, explains Martin Grams, the events co-ordinator. “Over the years a number of conventions along the East Coast dropped seminars and movie screenings to favor autograph hunters,” he explained. “Over time, many of those events simply evolved into an autograph venue. At the Nostalgia Con, we insist on screening rare movies and presenting slide show seminars through the weekend – often hosted by museum curators, authors, and historians – so our event will always maintain the convention aspect. We even have a 52-page program guide in full color, like a magazine, provided free to attendees. We will have celebrities signing autographs and vendors selling vintage toys and collectibles, but never will we diminish what the convention represents… a throwback to when conventions were about thousands of fans gathering together to share a common interest.”
“Fourteen years have made us realize how vital it is to continue the tradition of bringing people together who share a common interest,” adds Michelle. “This is the weekend when we learn what has been happening in the hobby during the past year, examine vintage treasures on the vendor tables, meet our heroes and icons who flew in from California to sign autographs, and hang out for lunch and dinner with friends we see once a year.”
“We have a lot of young people attending who admit that black and white movies are cool, they try out for old-time radio re-enactments on stage and proudly pose for the camera to show off their celebrity meet and greet on Facebook and Instagram,” adds Martin. “The majority of our attendance may not be youngsters in superhero pajamas and costumes, but we do not discourage cosplay. If anything, I would describe our attendance as more appreciative of retro pop culture because they attend seminars to learn something new about something old. They go home not just with collectibles to proudly display in their homes, but with experiences they will treasure for years.”
Every weekend contains a number of memories for the attendees. Whether it be a slide show seminar offering recent historical finds that change the way we thought about a particular television program or Hollywood icon, or the screening of a recently-preserved motion-picture found in a film archive, attendees have much to return home with. “A few years ago Lee Majors, Lindsay Wagner, and Richard Anderson from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman attended the convention,” recalled Mark Gross. “As Lindsay pointed out on stage at the beginning of the question and answer panel, this was the third time all three of them had been together for the same convention since the programs went off the air in 1978. That was history in the making; there can be no doubt that I snapped tons of photos from that event.”
In the grand scheme of things, fourteen years is not such a long time. But the world changed since the first Nostalgia Con in 2005. By the fourth year, the size of the attendance outgrew the four walls of the hotel in Aberdeen, giving cause to move to the present-day Hunt Valley location. “Success is relative,” says Martin, “but in my view success is based on the size of the attendance. If the attendance continues to grow in size every year, we did our job. And we must be doing something right because our attendance continues to grow every year.”
This year’s event will be held September 12 to 14, 2019 at the Hunt Valley Delta Marriott, in Maryland just north of Baltimore. Celebrity guests include Angie Dickinson, Richard Thomas, Maud Adams, Nancy Kwan, Loni Anderson, Tatum O’Neal, and many others. For more information, visit www.MidAtlanticNostalgiaConvention.com