Mike Mirobelli of Pittsburgh's Snake Eyes Gaming surveys the field during Sci-Fi in the Valley Con's "Warhammer 40,000" tournament play.
On Friday and Saturday, the North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg was the epicenter of a splash of sci-fi, fantasy and horror subculture previously unseen in this area.
The first "Sci-Fi in the Valley Con" packed the rec center for two days of geeky communion.
The event wraps up today, yet many starships have landed, lightsabers have “vwoomed” and undead have shuffled alongside pirates and robots on the show floor - luckily, author Kirk Allmond put together a "Zombie Preparedness" panel.
The force is strong with Althea Kirssch of Leechburg, Pa.,
one of the few Jedi in attendance. Order 66 is a suspected
factor, but there's no official word from Imperial spokes-
persons at this time.
The convention was a pet project of 23-year-old Casey Bassett of South Fork. He once asked himself after the Pittsburgh Comic-Con why the Greater Johnstown area couldn’t host something just like it. When he was unceremoniously laid off at Concurrent Technologies Corp. earlier this year, he devoted himself to making the con the best it could be.
Through canceled guests and vendors as well as a last-minute venue change, the duress of planning a large-scale event like Sci-Fi in the Valley Con for the first time caused him some sleepless nights. But with its marked success the last two days, Bassett will probably sleep like baby come Monday.
“I had nine months of preparation. I just took things one step at a time. Basically, it all just came together at the end,” he said. “It’s been great. I’m exhausted.”
He said said pulling together creative talent, geek merch vendors and charities from all around the region has been a dizzying whirlwind. But according to Bassett, the benefit auction for The Machine Gun Preacher's "Save the Children" Foundation raised around $1,200. He said next year's con - and there will be a next year, Bassett assured - will host different charities, and larger donations could be netted as the show finds its legs in the community.
But for a first-year event, several attendees – and Bassett himself – remarked at the large turnout.
"It's been a huge success - we've had a lot more people and a lot more things going on than we thought we were going to," he said.
He estimated that when the space dust settles on Monday he’ll have hosted more than a thousand sci-fi and fantasy lovers from all over Pennsylvania. He attributed the success to the strength of the genre fiction community he’s trying to bring together.
“I think it’s pretty strong. We’ve got people from all around the state coming here,” he said.
“In a couple years, we may outgrow the North Central Recreation Center.”
A man known in the horror and sci-fi community as "Beef Treats" - the super-amiable Mark Tierno of "Day of the Dead" fame - told Bassett he'd never seen first-year cons promoted so thoroughly and with visible results. The first-time convention organizer doesn't blush well.
"(He said) he's seen more promotion for this show than he has for a lot of the bigger (shows) in the area," said Bassett. "That was pretty nice to hear him say."
Sarah Shaffer of Lebanon eats cons like this for breakfast.
Sporting latex Vulcan ears, she clutched a plush William Riker doll that she made herself – as huge a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fan as any that one might find on the convention floor. Sci-Fi in the Valley Con met her “logical” approval.
“I think it’s great. It’s humble beginnings. It’s the first year that they’re doing it, but it’s a lot bigger than I expected,” Shaffer said. “I think I’ll probably add this to my ‘regimen’ (of con visits) every year.”
Bassett feels the time for an event like this was long overdue.
“People are responding. People come through here all day long, saying ‘thank you’ to all the volunteers and everything for bringing this to the area,” he said. “People are pretty excited and I think next year’s will be two or three times bigger.”
And just a couple of months ago, Bassett was worried about being able to pull it off at all.
“I found that after months of getting all the vendors and all the artists and everything signed up that Johnstown required $150 for a peddler license,” he explained. “The city manager was unwilling to give us a deal, so we just had to move because (the guests) don’t have the kind of money to be able spend on different licenses.”
After researching the ordinance that held him up, he said he learned that Thunder in the Valley is the only event that is exempt from paying for individual licenses. So it was either pay the fees himself – which would have been impossible – or cancel the event outright.
“I was at hour 11. I wasn’t sure if I’d have to cancel it or not. If it wasn’t for the War Memorial being able to transfer me up to the new rec center, I don’t know what would’ve happened. That was the biggest hiccup,” he said.
“Everything turned out great. Whenever Friday got here, I just couldn’t believe that everything came together so smoothly and everyone came out to the show,” Bassett said as he looked out at the show floor with a grin.
"I can barely get enough time to sleep," he said, smiling past his heavy eyes. “But, it’s been a dream, the whole thing coming together.”