Convention 2002

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Convention 2002

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August 24 and 25, 2002
The Beverly Garland Holiday Inn
Hollywood, California

This fascinating article by Herman Darvick originally appeared in Autograph Collector, December 2002

Stars of the Zone Convention—A “Twilight Zone” Reunion

Friday August 23, 2002 … a typically balmy day in southern California. Spirits were particularly high at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn on Vineland Avenue in Studio City. Coordinators Ray & Sharon Courts of Spring Hill, Florida and Andrew Szym of Portland, Oregon had arrived on Thursday and now were setting up the Grand Ballroom with assistance from the Hotel staff. Co-coordinator Bill DeVoe flew in from his home in Arlington, Texas to Burbank with his mother Earlene that morning. Author of two books of "Twilight Zone" trivia and also a published poet, Bill brought videotapes, DVDs, and self-manufactured "props" from various Twilight Zone episodes. All would be raffled off on Sunday. Carl Amari and Roger Wolski of Falcon Picture Group in Iowa and co-producers of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, also showed up early with mountains of boxes of the CD and cassette versions of eight newly-produced radio dramas based on stories written by Rod Serling. They occupied a wall space in the rear of the ballroom next to Stewart Stanyard's Twilight Zone Archives. Hollywood memorabilia dealers, some with over thirty boxes full of photos and movie posters, set up shop.

Sharon Courts set up chairs and draped table cloths over each table. Andrew handed over a copy of the official celebrity seating chart to Ray Courts, and together they rounded the room placing the gold name deskplates on the tables. Veteran autograph show hosts, Ray and Sharon have gone through these same motions many times for the last thirteen years. "Cliff, Mickey, and Julie need to be over near this exit door... their lines are going to be non-stop all day," in obvious reference to Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, and Julie Newmar. Jonathan Winters was also supposed to attend, but word had come down that he'd suddenly taken ill. Most celebrities were paired up at each table. Shelley Berman and H.M. Wynant (better known to Twilight Zone fans as Archibald Beechcroft of "The Mind and the Matter" and David Ellington of "The Howling Man") were set at one table behind Beverly Garland's table up near the front. "Ruta [Lee] and Barbara [Stuart] should be at this first table near the front door … they want to sit together and Suzanne [Lloyd] should probably be right around the corner", Andrew mentioned.

The few extra table spaces in the room were given to non-"Twilight Zone" stars Frank Gorshin (The Riddler of "Batman"), Michael J. Pollard (better known as Jerome Krebs of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"), and Eugene Roche (attorney Ronald Mallu on "Soap"). Noticing a few more extra spaces, Andrew suggested that Ray call up Ken Osmond and Frank Bank. "You want them here??", Ray asked. "Ok, I'll call 'em!" Unfortunately, the two actors who played Eddie Haskell and Lumpy Rutherford on "Leave it to Beaver" had out-of-town business engagements. Paul Peterson of "The Donna Reed Show" stopped by to say hi to his old friend Ray Courts. Peterson has signed autographs at Ray and Sharon's Hollywood Collectors Shows many times over the years and someday hopes to share a table at the show with Shelley Fabares (who played his sister on the Reed Show).

Earl Hamner, Jr., writer of eight "Twilight Zone" episodes, with wife Jane, drove up in his van to pick up friends Tony and Cindy Albarella of New Jersey for dinner. Tony and Earl were wrapping up completion of a book of Earl's scripts written for "Twilight Zone". Immediately, Earl was recognized and surrounded by a small group of loyal fans.

Jean Carson (Paula, one of the crooks in episode "A Most Unusual Camera") and Anne Francis came in at around 4 pm to check out their table space and to see the progress of the preparations of the show they'd awaited for nine months...and forty years before!! Jean came with her son, who doubles as her manager, and Anne with a local doctor friend who usually assists her at shows. Both bubbled with enthusiasm and greeted everyone readily. Coordinator Bill DeVoe presented Anne with a boxed gold thimble (one of the elements of "The After Hours", the first of two episodes she starred in). Anne was overwhelmed with Bill's generosity and they exchanged hugs and got a snapshot of the occasion.

Both Jean Carson and Anne Francis came from a ways out of town. Jean lives in Palm Desert and Anne lives in Santa Barbara. Other out-of-towners included three-time "Twilight Zone" star James Best (with wife Dorothy) who came in from Orlando, Florida; Russell Johnson, from Bainbridge Island, Washington; Oscar-nominee Mary Badham (aka Scout Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird") from Virginia; Susan Gordon from New Jersey; Wright King from Portland, Oregon. Barry Morse, best known as Lieutenant Girard of "The Fugitive", came from his home in London. Most stayed with friends or family in the Los Angeles area, and a few stayed at the hotel.

Meanwhile, guests from as far away as Hawaii, England, Finland, Japan, and Australia were checking into the hotel. Approximately 20 visitors (maybe more) from somewhere on the east coast and an equal number from somewhere in between here and there, showed up too. They weren't about to miss the long overdue festivities. Steve Schlich of Petaluma, CA and Andy Polak of Binghamton, New York (Rod Serling's hometown), members of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, helped make sure that the Rod Serling spirit was not left out of the event. Little did they know that by the end of the event, William Windom would be wearing one of their square emblems on his shirt pocket.

Saturday, August 24, 2002. At 9:00 am, the doors to the Hotel's Grand Ballroom opened just long enough to admit the nearly sixty actors from Rod Serling's original series. Arms full with boxes of photos, some with assistants (agents or family members), and nearly all looking not so very much different than they did forty years ago, everyone was enthusiastic and couldn't wait to get started. An oft-heard comment was, "It's about time "Twilight Zone" had a convention! I've gotten fan mail from people for twenty years saying that they'd travel the globe for a Twilight Zone event!"

Outside, fans watched still vivacious Jonathan Harris of "Lost in Space" fame come in. Dressed semi-formally in sport jacket and Polo shirt, the 88-year-old actor was one of the first to arrive. "Jonathan always shows up early at our shows," Ray explains. "He wants to make sure we put him in a prime location in the room!" Harris is also known for his two starring roles on "Twilight Zone". Following him were Arlene Martel of "Star Trek" fame, Bill Erwin, still-working character actor who acted in his first film in 1942, Martin Milner of "Adam 12", Garry Walberg of "Quincy", and fifty-some odd more.

At 10:00 am, the line of fans that had by this time extended all the way out to the street, poured into the room, each person paying a $10 admission fee (except for those who stayed at the hotel, who got free admission). A few jaws were seen dropping, a few eyes bugged, and more than a few couldn't believe that some of the old-time character actors were within earshot of them. Many toted camcorders and cameras that were in steady operation for the duration of their visit.

Frank Aletter and Jacqueline Scott, who appeared in one of the 18 hour-long episodes called "The Parallel," happily engaged in conversation. They'd seen each other no more than twice since they did the episode in 1963. Many of the stars sitting nearby each other rekindled old memories and recalled episodes of various series they'd done together in the distant past. Says actor Wright King (co-star of episodes "Shadow Play and "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville"), "Ever since I moved out of California in the '80s, I've pretty much lost touch with many of my actor friends. I hadn't seen some of these people in over 20 years! For me, the most special part of this whole thing was reconnecting." King was one of several actors who has since left the biz. Asa Maynor, co-star of the popular fright-night episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with William Shatner, is now in the securities business. Jan Handzlik, who played the kid in one of Serling's most resonating tales, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street", is a renowned attorney specializing in white-collar crime. He's also known for his Broadway and on-screen performances with Rosalind Russell in "Auntie Mame" pre-Twilight Zone.

Fans paid anywhere from $10 to $25 for photographs. All stars had at least one photo from Twilight Zone for sale, and most had photos from other series' they'd done. Many of the more ardent fans bought movie posters from the eight dealer tables and then paid $10-20 to have them signed by the stars.

Ray Courts was right … Mickey Rooney, Julie Newmar, and Cliff Robertson had the longest lines all day long. Robertson talked readily with fans as if they were all old friends, many of whom had questions about his legendary collection of antique aircrafts. Newmar seemed to make a point of asking nearly every fan something about themselves. Rooney and Robertson had previous engagements scheduled for Sunday, so only attended Saturday.

Despite the 110-degree heat and poorly-operating air conditioning system in the Ballroom, nearly 2,000 fans stuck it out and made their rounds to everyone whom they wanted signatures from. Most celebrities had relatively short lines of two or three people, which allowed for ample time for conversation about Twilight Zone and Rod Serling. Sharon Courts served coffee and bottled water to the celebrities while soft-spoken Arlene Martel, who had bit parts as 'hot chicks' on two segments, entertained a few fans with one of her famous frightening lines. Arlene is still well-remembered for her performance in the episode "Twenty Two" where she delivered the line, "Room for one more, honey!"

Also on hand was Marc Scott Zicree, author of the well-known "Twilight Zone Companion." The event certainly would have been less complete without him. Surely among the friendliest of the attending celebrities, Marc sold autographed copies of both the first and second editions of his book and got a chance to chat with the celebrities, most of whom he hadn't talked with since he researched the book more than 20 years ago.

Most stars ate lunch at their tables, while continuing to sign photos and interact with fans. At 1:30 pm, Tony Albarella and coordinators Andrew Szym and Bill DeVoe rounded up Anne Francis, Cliff Robertson, Jonathan Harris, Jean Carson, Suzanne Lloyd, Wright King, Arlene Martel, Kevin McCarthy, and James Best and led them over to the Beverly Garland Theater for participation in a panel discussion. About 150 fans and interested onlookers stopped by to listen to the group of actors talk about Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, and the early days of television. All eight generously took an hour away from their photo sales to share their TZ experience with fans. Tony admits that his task was easy..."I introduced them and just let each of them go!" He allowed some time for Q & A with the audience and each star's comments were acknowledged with generous applause. At 3 pm, Twilight Zone writers George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, and John Tomerlin, joined by Marc Scott Zicree (author of "The Twilight Zone Companion", the near-equivalent of "The Bible" to most fans of TZ) took the stage for a discussion led by writer Christopher Conlon of Maryland. This was folllowed by Gary Shusett, director of the Sherwood Oaks Drama and Screenwriting School in Sherman Oaks led an interesting discussion of "Twilight Zone" directors James Sheldon and Elliot Silverstein plus actors Ben Cooper and Susan Gordon. Sheldon recalled the casting of a young lad named Bill Mumy in the episode "It's a Good Life", which remains his favorite of the five episodes he directed. The last episode he directed, "Still Valley," co-starred Ben Cooper! They relished the opportunity to meet again after so many years.

The ever-popular film critic Leonard Maltin stopped by for an hour or so. A big fan of Twilight Zone, Maltin took time to chat with several fans about his favorite episodes.

The day wrapped at 5:00 pm, but for a few, the highlight of the Convention activities was yet to come. At 6:30, a VIP dinner celebration attended by 80 people commenced in the Father Serra Room of the hotel. [Incidental note: Father Serra set up the first missions in California 200 years ago on the same grounds as the Garland Holiday Inn currently stands on.] Fans paid an admission charge to dine. An opening mixer allowed everyone to get acquainted. Some of the thirty-eight fans enjoyed buying drinks for the stars. Dwight Deskins and wife Karen of Kentucky, enjoyed dining with Ruta Lee, Barbara Stuart, and Suzanne Lloyd. Dwight has watched Twilight Zone for over 25 years, and enjoyed the opportunity to sit down and talk with some of the more memorable stars of the series. "That Ruta is such a kick! She had us laughing the whole evening." Indeed, Ruta was the life of the party, joined by her husband Webb and manager Brooke. Barbara Stuart's friend, the well-known character actress Arlene Golonka also attended. Co-coordinator Bill DeVoe sat at Jean Carson's table. Bill had initially contacted Jean months ago about attending the Convention and had since formed a friendship with her.

A delicious buffet dinner prepared by the Hotel preceded a phenomenal 35-minute oral presentation by legendary writer George Clayton Johnson. Christopher Conlon introduced Johnson, who he credited as having a major part in influencing his career as a writer. Johnson, who wrote eight stories from the original series discussed how the series succeeded in increasing something he calls "consciousness expansion". Themes previously untackled on television such as prejudice, fear, the unknown and fear of the unknown, interracial relations...these were things that people were inherently aware of, and they resonate strongly even today. He also mentioned that his first-ever television writing credit came on January 1st, 1960 … his magnificent story "The Four of Us Are Dying" (with teleplay written by Rod Serling) opened up the tumultuous sixties. Hotel owner Beverly Garland herself was cast in the episode as Maggie, the sultry salon torch singer—and of course, the attendees took a moment to acknowledge her. Johnson also took the opportunity to thank the actors as a whole, making the memorable comment, "We, the writers, laid the foundation with the stories. You, the actors, built the temple." He finished to a standing ovation, with the addendum that he hoped this would not be the last time everyone from Twilight Zone gets together.

Andrew Szym thanked each of the attending actors individually, and also extended thanks, on behalf of many thousands of fans, for giving so many people the opportunity to unwind after a hard day's work with such great performances as the ones that can be found on The Twilight Zone. Each actor stood and was greeted with thunderous response. Andrew also mentioned Mrs. Carol Serling, who was unable to attend but sent her good thoughts to everyone. Not one to leave a mic hot, legendary comedian Shelley Berman immediately took the podium and proceeded with a Dean Martin-style roast of everyone from Beverly Garland to H.M. Wynant and even coordinator Andrew Szym. He also roasted a certain popular celebrity at the autograph show whom he never really liked, and who was no-doubt making more dollars than he on his photo sales! Shelley concluded by thanking everyone for perhaps "one of the loveliest days" he'd ever had. Stewart Stanyard extended his personal thanks to everyone for coming.

Sundays are always the slower of the two days of a weekend convention, but a large group attended and picked up autographs from those they'd missed on Saturday. Carl Amari and Roger Wolski gave an hour-long presentation of one of their Twilight Zone Radio Dramas in the Theater and discussed their project. They also played one of the dramas, based on the episode "A Kind of Stopwatch", starring Lou Diamond Phillips, hosted by Stacy Keach. The radio dramas are innovative, twenty-first century companions to the original episodes of the TV series. Back in the ballroom, co-coordinator Bill DeVoe raffled off his items to appreciative folks who'd bought tickets from him over the two days. Barbara Luna ("Baywatch") and Daniel Roebuck (best known as Ben's assistant Cliff Lewis on "Matlock") had come down to say 'hi' to some of their actor friends. When the convention officially closed down at 4:30 pm, it was a bit like the ending of an episode of The Love Boat … everyone was thankful for the time they'd been able to spend together and form friendships.

What's next for Twilight Zone, other than the new series on UPN? What's "next" is continued enthusiasm, perpetual reruns, continued fanaticism, watching the digitally-remastered originals on DVD or the Columbia House versions on VHS. Oh, the hours and hours of watching to be done. New books of Twilight Zone scripts and perhaps another book or two on Rod Serling. Perhaps there will be another gathering in two or three years. If not, it was certainly due to good fortune and circumstance that a group of actors from arguably the finest TV series of all time were able to meet in one room for a period of hours. For many of them, Twilight Zone was, and continues to be, a highlight on their resume. Even those who appeared in most forgettable of Twilight Zone stories are not forgotten. They demonstrated their often tremendous abilities as actors and in some cases, Twilight Zone helped serve as the launching pad of their careers. What can top the glow of this first Zone gathering that took place in Hollywood on a weekend in August 2002? Nothing. Not a thing. Says Jan Handzlik, "It was a great dream realized."

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