Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Grand Slam: The Future of Star Trek

I figured that when we saw Nichelle Nichols on stage, she’d tell us she’s semi-retired. You know, lounging around in a silk robe, chewing on chocolates and reviewing a great career in hindsight. Actually, I figured that all the Trek actors I saw on stage at the Grand Slam would be like that. Boy, was I wrong!

It’s hard to keep up with Nichelle’s career even though she’s in her 70’s. She spent most of her time on stage just telling us what she’s been up to. She starred in an independent film called Lady Magdalene’s, which is due out in December. She sings in the movie, and even wrote one of the songs!

Of course, she also did Of Gods and Men for Tim Russ, and you can see the first two parts online. And she’s new on Heroes, following fellow Trek star George Takei. She went in for the Heroes audition and discovered “at least 20 to 25 men and women on a raised platform. Who are all of you? ‘We’re the writers!’ ‘We’re the directors!’ ‘We’re the producers!’” They were all fans.

And to introduce her credits, she told us about how she started on a little show called Star Trek. “I’ll stay for a season or so. This will be a wonderful addition to my resume. Yeah,” she added, wryly.

I came to the Grand Slam to see a new Star Trek actor (Zachary Quinto, the new Spock) as well as some familiar ones. And I had a great time catching up with them.

Tim Russ is almost as busy as Nichelle. Who would’ve thought that he’d be one of the busiest Trek actors working? Part of this, I think, is his aggressiveness, as Tim doesn’t seem to wait for things to happen to him. He put together Of Gods and Men, is directing a series of 10-minute short films that star former Trek actors, and appears periodically on the new T.V. hit, Samantha Who? But apparently his biggest acting moment came when he appeared on Hannah Montana. “I didn’t realize (how big it was) until I went to pick my daughter up at school. Talk about Star Trek fans. It’s huge! Scary huge.”

Vaughn Armstrong, who played several aliens until he finally landed a recurring part on Enterprise, is “doing some plays.”

Max Grodenchik (Rom on DS9) recalled how he put the Ferengi teeth in and couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘N.’ Max also reported, “I’m in a serious relationship and it takes up all my time.” I thought that was terribly funny, but he wasn’t laughing.

Suzie Plakson, who played K’ehleyr, Worf’s mate, on Next Gen as well as a mysterious Andorian on Enterprise, reported in. “(The makeup) was a wonderful way of filtering expression. The antennae (on the Andorian) made noises,” and she thought that would interrupt her thoughts during scenes. “They called ‘Action’ and it was the oddest thing. Everything fed the character.”

Salome Jens, who played the nefarious shapeshifter on Deep Space Nine keeps busy acting, directing, and teaching acting. “I was known as the one-take girl (on DS9) on set at 3 am, and you’re very tired – it was a lot of pressure!”

Brent Spiner was at a little table in the convention hallway – much to our amusement – hawking his new CD. When he appeared on stage, he told us he thought that Nemesis shouldn’t have been so badly received by the fans. After all, he said, it’s not nearly as bad as Insurrection. His favorite role was John Adams on Broadway in 1776, “a dream come true.” When one fan asked if he had been typecast by Star Trek, Brent replied that he was never typecast by appearing as Data, but weirdly enough by Independence Day. He played a scientist in that film. And now every script calls for him to be a scientist.

Roxann Dawson appears so much more relaxed in front of the fans than ever before. She hasn’t acted on film in the last three years, she’s been so busy directing. She directed an episode of Lost earlier this year, and is now directing as well as producing Cold Case. In a reference to Voyager, someone asked what it was like portraying a half-Klingon, half-human. “Like being myself,” she reported. “It sort of justified my schizophrenia.”

When the two Spocks came on stage together, the room was packed with fans anxious to hear anything about the new J.J. Abrams movie. The two actors, Nimoy and Quinto, gave very little away except to say that the movie, unfortunately, had been pushed back six months to open now in May 2009. Leonard saw that as an encouraging sign, that the studio thought the movie was good enough to hold its own during the prime summer months. “In 58 years of experience, I have never been involved in a project of this size. Great script, great cast. They feel this film will do very, very well.” And so does he, obviously.

Zachary Quinto, who is still acting on Heroes, appeared to be a quiet, soft-spoken young man. It became obvious that he was wearing his hornrim glasses not just to see, but to also hide his shaved eyebrows. He seemed very intense.

Leonard told us that “it’s been about 18 years since I played Spock. It was a very emotional moment for me.” That comment was when it dawned on me: this is the last movie we’ll see Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. And when he whipped out his own personal t-shirt, the one he often wears to conventions that reads, “#1 Vulcan,” and gave it to Zachary, it was an emotional moment for both of them. And I realized that he just passed the torch to the younger generation.

What a contrast to see how Leonard and Nichelle approach these years after 40 years of Star Trek. One has given up acting for good, and the other embraces that art. Now I really have to see the new Star Trek movie, to watch the end of one career and the beginning of another (Zachary Quinto). And, in addition, I’ll be watching for Nichelle’s new movie, as well as her other projects. After all, we’re not just Star Trek fans. We’re Star Trek actor fans.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Grand Slam: How Tall is Boomer?

Saturday was loaded with talent on stage. And with Saturday came all the fans. It was packed. We still didn't fill out our row, but there were fewer gaps.

Brent Spiner started. Brent could talk for hours and I'd be sitting there. He is more disciplined than Robin Williams, but the guy can non-sequitur with the experts. He's been very busy, but typecast as a "scientist," all from his appearance in Independence Day. He really enjoyed appearing as the singing John Adams in 1776, a role he reprised on Broadway right after Next Gen ended, and I'm sorry I missed it. He was selling his new CD in the lobby.

Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst came up next. Since I enjoyed Hercules: The Legendary Journeys at the same time I was watching Xena, it was great to see the two of them. Michael is in a new movie called Bitch Slap, and there are bit parts for Kevin, Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor. They played us a trailer from the movie. Even though it has some of my favorite actors, it's not my kind of movie, as I figured from the title.

Grace Park came on stage, and many of us had been waiting for her. She plays a pivotal role on Battlestar Galactica, and the show is filming its last season. She tried hard not to give us any spoilers.

A couple of hours later, a youngish girl with a volunteer badge from Creation came over after we had gotten all of our autographs, and asked if we were done. I figured she just wanted us to move along, but it turns out she had nothing to do and just wanted to chat. Amanda told us that Creation was unprepared for the number of people Grace Park had drawn to the photo ops and autographs. And that they had charged too little for the fan opportunities. She confided that Creation usually charges by demand rather than just cost, what it cost them to book the star, and I found that quite interesting. "So, if she ever comes to another convention, like the Battlestar one in November, expect the price to go up." She said that Grace was really put off by Comic Con, with the no-boundaries crowd pushing and shoving and asking usually inappropriate questions. But she really seemed to be enjoying herself at this one, as it's much smaller and most of us know how to behave.

When we went through her autograph line at the end of the day, we found that they had created another totally separate line just for Grace. Grace has many names on Battlestar Galactica, as she was revealed to be a Cylon very early on. Boomer is her military code name (like Apollo and Starbuck), but Sharon Valerii is her real character's name, and Athena is one of her Cylon names. We figured out the reason her autograph line was slow pretty soon: she was talking to everyone who came by. (Also, I suspect, that since this was her first convention, people bought extra autograph tickets for her to sign their photos and banners.) Many of the stars just sign, maybe smile, and wait for the next. She probably wanted to figure out: who are these people, why do they watch the show, why do they come to conventions. When we finally got up there, my question to her was, how tall are you? Why, she asked. Why, what? Oh, why do I want to know? I laughed. "Well, we met Katee Sackhoff last November, and she seemed about my height. I just couldn't tell how tall you are on stage." It was her turn to laugh at that point. "Katee's a shrimp. I'm 5'9". You don't notice it because Tahmoh (her costar most of the time) is so tall!"

So when I returned to my seat so that Amanda could eventually find us, I yelled to fellow Oaklanders Amy and Jennifer, who were seated in the back, "She's 5'9"!" They laughed.

On our other line tour, I saw Julie Caitlin Brown, who was helping Smallville star Erica Durance (Lois Lane) with her autographing. (Since I've talked about Julie a couple of times, I thought I'd post her picture.) I said hi to Julie and asked her how her two kids were. When Erica was finished signing Rick's photo, she turned to our conversation, and I told her that, "You know, Julie used to be a big star on Star Trek. She had her own fan club and everything." Now Julie is a manager of talent. Julie cried defensively but half-laughing, "I'm still a star!" I quickly tried to slink away while Rick teased me.

I am quickly figuring out that the stories are the people. It never used to be that way....well, maybe it always was and I'm slowly noticing it all. Being here brings back memories of when Rick and I used to stand in autograph lines for hours at the old Pasadena Convention Center, memories of Andrew Robinson signing in the dark, waiting for us, and hours getting to know some of the fans rather intimately. Some of them are still here, still coming to these. Like me. I'm really having a ball.

Grand Slam: The Singing Trekkie-Deckies

Friday at the Grand Slam is mostly a blur at this point. I remember driving in, waiting for Ricky to arrive, and then checking in, which is always a brief uncomplicated moment. Then dealer-shopping.

The Burbank convention center is pretty small, and there are never too many dealers crammed into their hallways. I recognized Marilee and Sean at their respective booths, and promised myself I'd buy some stuff later. As it turns out, they had more merchandise out on Saturday, so I'm glad I waited. And glad I hit them early in the day before all of it was gone.

Friday's attendance was pitiful. There were 3 of us in our row. Two or four more would show up occasionally, and then disappear again. That's kind of how it goes, though, for these new conventions. People buy photo op and autograph tickets, and they're forever in lines. However, that still doesn't explain why many of the gold ticket seats were empty. Many of these seats were bought some 15 years ago, and the same people show up to claim them every year.

While the highlight of the day would turn out to be the concert that night, there was one interesting moment on Friday. Tom Lenk, who played on Buffy and Angel, came out and, while I don't know who he is, some young actor trying to make his mark, he did say that he went to an acting class of Salome Jens, and she told him to come back to class when he learned how to act. Salome, who played the female shapeshifter on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, appeared on stage just an hour later.

The "celebrity cabaret" featured Nichelle Nichols, but also had Tim Russ and his band, Vaughn Armstrong and Max Grodenchik. Creation has done this for years, giving a forum to actors who would like to do other things that they don't normally do on stage, like sing or play an instrument or give a reading. In all cases tonight, they sang. Tim's band is very good, very tight for a trio, and they play very pleasant blues-edged songs, not too loudly (important to this aging crowd). Max is always funny, as he sings parodies of real songs, providing his own Ferengi-based lyrics. Vaughn Armstrong is hilarious as he plays the ukelele -- gosh, you don't hear that much any more, thank goodness -- and sings songs he wrote. One song stuck in my head all night, and I found that I woke up with it in my head at 6 am the next morning.

On the Trekkie-deckie with a bottle of Dos Equis, on the beach at Waikiki...

Nichelle Nichols is gorgeous at hmmmm-something, and although confident, not arrogant. That's always wonderful. She sang some songs from her new independent film, Lady Magdeline's, where she plays the owner of a brothel.

But before Nichelle came on, an unusual event happened. Adam, who co-owns Creation Entertainment and who was our host, came on, sat down at the piano, and asked if anyone thought they could sing Bohemian Rhapsody -- you know, the old Queen version. So, 3 brave souls went on stage, including the person who was sitting to my right. And they sang. Without lyric sheets. It was great! One of the guys remembered most of the lyrics, the woman in our row was trying to harmonize, and the older guy on the left would come out with a note from time to time, mostly loud and off-key.

When the woman sat down again, I told her I'd send her some photos in email, so she wrote down her email address and her first name: Cynthia. Cynthia was a hit.

Friday's talent was brief during the day, but plentiful at night. And with visions of Trekkie-deckies in Waikiki in my head, I finally made it to sleep.

Grand Slam: Just Desserts

We met Sylvia tonight at the Grand Slam dessert party. As we were waiting for the Smallville stars to come to our table, she told us about her stint at the Ambassador Hotel. She met Rudy Vallee there and Robert Young. She was wearing the yellow plastic wristband of the gold ticket for the convention, and the talkative man next to her was her son.

The woman next to her was dressed all in red, which I thought was a bit unusual because of the setting, and, if I may dare say, her age. She went on and on to me, in a conspiratorial tone, about how her mother turned nasty when she came down with Alzheimer’s. I found it a very personal conversation for someone I had just met.

Both of these women seemed to enjoy meeting the celebrities. They weren’t concerned with what roles they played, or their past projects. They just wanted to chat about where the actor grew up, apparently wanting to share their own history in that conversation.

I have to say quite selfishly that I was much more interested in hearing about Phil Morris, who plays the Martian Manhunter on Smallville, than I was about hearing that Sylvia used to live in Toronto.

As it turns out, I met Phil’s father once, Greg Morris. When I was a Customs Senior Inspector at Air France, Greg imported some expensive watches through cargo. He came down to clear them personally. In spite the fact that we were quite busy, he came into our office, sat down and chatted with us a good half an hour. Hey, he was a celebrity, having played for many years on the original Mission: Impossible. It seemed that he was much in awe of us as law enforcement officers. As he was about to leave, he quietly asked me how he could get one of those shiny Customs badges, like the one I was wearing. “You can’t, “ I replied. That was the last I saw of him.

These dessert parties are hit-and-miss. Hit-and-miss for the desserts, although most of the time they do it right. And hit-and-miss as far as the celebrities go. We all lined up in the narrow hallways of the remodeling Marriott, and came in promptly at 10 am. Valerie, Creation's long-time security person, motioned us towards the ice cream and cake, and said, "Have at it!" The spread wasn't as good as most of their dessert parties, but good enough. And then the celebrities came in, and marched to the front of the room for our photo op: Michael Hurst from Hercules, David Palffy from Stargate SG-1, and Aaron Ashmore, Laura Vandervoort and Phil Morris from Smallville.

After the brief photo op, we all put our cameras away and took our seats. And waited. Each celebrity would be escorted to the table by their herder, who would keep a stopwatch on them: about 3 minutes would be allowed for each table. Except that at our table, Laura, our first visitor got about 1 minute, and our second visitor, David, got at least 10 minutes.
I don't remember what Laura said, except for something about where do you live (which is always a safe question for them to ask), and I know too much about David. I don't watch Stargate and don't know his character. However, I learned plenty about why he shaved his head, and why it's still shaved.

But it was a better time with Aaron and Phil. Aaron Ashmore, who plays Jimmy Olsen on Smallville, has a twin brother who is mostly in movies. Aaron and he have appeared once or twice in their early careers together, but mostly Aaron keeps to T.V. and Shawn is in movies (e.g., X-Men).

This is a great opportunity to sit down with the stars, even briefly, and just chat. I usually sit back and just listen. I was a bit amazed, however, at some of the questions asked by our table. And the fact that one or two of them kept asking questions even when they were being dragged away by their handlers.

It was an hour well spent.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Is It Always Chicken?

I started off with an easy question: "Tell me: Do they always serve chicken?"

I was trying to get to know my "neighbors" at the table. "Oh, no," she said, looking at me seriously. But no explanation followed.

However, soon another woman sat down, just a few minutes prior to starting the first A's Booster Club luncheon of the season. I asked her the same question. "Oh, no," she said, looking at me seriously. "Beef." She said this with such gravitas that I could only nod.

But she had much more information to impart. Turns out, she's a member of the Booster club executive committee, or something like that. She actually took my money for the luncheon when I came in the door. (I can't remember all the Boosters. Frankly, they all look alike. I know, a horrible thing to say...) She was full of juicy info. Like, how they tell the staff how many chicken -- oops, sorry, sometimes beef -- dinners to bring out, according to the numbers on our little yellow cards. And how much the lunches have cost through the years. ("It was $15 for the longest time. But then we found out we weren't charging tax. The Treasurer just paid the bill for about five years, but we finally figured it out.") So now the bill is $17. A good deal for the entertainment you get.

The "entertainment" we got from the Oakland A's today was Robert Buan as MC. He came in, as he usually does, with his wife and youngest child. Then manager Bob Geren came in. He could talk for about 20 minutes but then he had to leave. No autographs. The first chicken-answer neighbor said to his wife, "Well, no media guide signed today," so his wife put away the book with her lips pursed in regret.

But in truth, the real entertainment is the Boosters themselves. Our new president, Shirley Schapiro, was telling us how much work Candi had done for the last spring training group, and how important it was to follow through on our reservations. Apparently she had repeated this one too many times, because a man in the middle of the room, dressed in his green Oakland Athletics jacket, waved his hand in the air and yelled, "Enough! Shut up, already!" Apparently, also, he thought the "already" saved his comment from this side of rude. I didn't think so. But you had to laugh.

And the questions. I love these. "Why didn't you keep Marco Scutaro and trade Dan Johnson?" Bob tried to explain that one had little to do with the other, a utility infielder versus a first baseman, but nobody can explain why a team trades away their favorite player. I was actually surprised I didn't hear anything about other players traded, e.g., Swisher or Haren. I think the Boosters realize they need the kids.

And another Booster asked, why are there so few giveaways this year? She had counted them. The media guy who just happened to be there was caught off guard, but countered with, yes, there may be one or two less this year, but the quality is better. We all agreed the quality was better.

He mentioned the DVD commemorating the A's 40-year history, the giveaway this Sunday, and the blanket being given away next Wednesday. The little 80's-ish woman in front of me suddenly looked up and said, "Blanket? Blanket?" But her friend reminded her that Wednesday was a night game. "Oh. We don't do night games."