Dragon Con – The Origin Story
There was a time, before Dragon Con, when every convention focused on its one genre. Gaming conventions were for gamers, literature shows were for readers, and comic book shows were retail events. The established conventions were successful, and the organizers stuck to their formulas.
But most fans had multiple interests. It was certainly true for Dragon Con’s founders. They were all science fiction fans, but some of them also enjoyed gaming while others liked comic books. They could go to any convention and have a good time, but only for so long before boredom set in.
And that gave them an idea: Combine fandoms and genres into a single convention for fans who, like them, were interested in different things. In the early going, that meant bringing a science fiction convention and gaming convention together in the same hotel. While it doesn’t seem so radical today, it was audacious for its time and, eventually, it upended the staid convention scene.
Chipping in $300 each, Pat Henry, David Cody, John Bunnell and Robert Dennis rounded out with a few of their friends planned the first Dragon Con for the fall of 1987. With no track record to lean on, they nevertheless managed to attract top name guests. Some 1,200 fans turned out to meet science fiction luminaries Michael Moorcock and Robert Asprin and gaming royalty Richard Garriott and Gary Gygax. Moorcock and his longtime friend Eric Bloom, lead singer for Blue Oyster Cult, jammed on stage. The Atlanta Radio Theater broadcast a live performance of H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu from the con. In almost every respect, the show was a smash.
And so it was for the next two years. The mix of gaming, science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll kept fans coming back. By 1989, helped by the addition of fantasy literature and Guest of Honor Anne McCaffery, Dragon Con’s attendance reached 2,400; double that of the first show.
The next year, 1990, would be something of a breakout year. Dragon Con had been selected to host Origins Game Fair ’90, one of the largest gaming shows in the country. Back then, Origins moved from city to city but had never been held in Atlanta. Dragon Con ’90 was also the year they opened Atlanta Comics Expo, or ACE, bringing an entirely new aspect to the convention.
Expecting a much larger attendance, pushed up by Origins, the comics expo, and an unbelievable line up of guests headlined by novelist Tom Clancy and comic artist Todd McFarlane, Dragon Con moved to the Atlanta Hilton and Towers, which would become Dragon Con’s home for the next seven years. In fact, attendance doubled again, to 4,800 people.
Dragon Con was on a roll. Attendance was growing, and the ambition of becoming the convention that offered something for everyone was coming together.
For many Dragon Con fans, the quality of the cosplay and costuming distinguishes this one convention from all the others. Over the years, Labor Day weekend has become a four-day parade of the finest costumes that fans from across the country can muster, many bringing several costumes so that they have something different to wear each day of the convention. Cosplayers tend to save their best for the nighttime, though, promenading through the hotel lobbies and posing for photos.
From time to time, even the celebrity guests get in on the act, borrowing a costume from a friend or bringing one they made themselves. Those who have done it say it’s a way for them to relax and enjoy the convention the way the fans do. Or, they say, it allows them to indulge their inner fanboy or girl.
Costume contests were common enough at science fiction conventions before Dragon Con, but they were generally something for fans to do in the evening after the day’s programming had ended. The typical daytime costume consisted of jeans and T-shirts.
But Dragon Con’s organizers believed it could be more and better. They wanted cosplay to be a featured part of the convention. Beginning with the first year, volunteers armed with Polaroid cameras and a pocket full of film cartridges photographed attendees in their best outfits, with fan voting at the end of each day. And rather than have a standard costume contest in the evening, showcasing one cosplayer at a time, they created Masquerade, in which cosplayers performed in small groups.
It didn’t take long for word to get around. Cosplayers started to see Dragon Con as the place to show off their best work. Costume contests were added for each night, and eventually the bigger programming tracks added their own costume contests. Masquerade remains a staple of Dragon Con, and is among the longest-standing costume contests in all of fandom.
In the early to mid-1990s, Dragon Con was a small, fast-growing show that attracted con-goers from around the South. Even as attendance jumped around – up in some years and down in others – Dragon Con was the rising star on the Atlanta science fiction convention scene. The appeal of a hybrid convention that mixed fantasy literature, D&D, costuming and rock bands continued to attract a crowd.
With the tremendous success of the 1990 convention, the organizers looked to grow the convention in new directions. The key to evolution, they believed, was to respect the core interests of their fans – fantasy, sci fi, gaming and comics – while continuing to incorporate new and interesting things. Friday Night Wrestling and Robot Battles, convention staples today, were added in the early 1990s.
Around that time, Sherry Henry joined the convention to strengthen its relationship with vendors in a way that distinguished Dragon Con from other conventions held around the country on the same weekend. While the retail effort was important, Sherry also brought a mother’s sensibility to the convention. She weighed in on programming choices, leading the convention to drop some programs, add family-oriented programming and move the adult fare to the nighttime hours.
Guests from the traditional realms – literature, comics and the movies – continued to be the convention’s drawing card in the 1990s. Some of the notable guests included Dr. Timothy Leary, authors Larry Niven, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Block, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Anton Wilson; comic book artists Todd McFarlane, Jim Steranko, and Dave Stevens; comic book editor Julie Schwartz; and, from the movies, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and director John Carpenter. Rock bands, including GWAR, continued to have their place.
In 1995, seeking to attract a wider audience, Dragon Con agreed to host the North American Science Fiction Convention and the STARFLEET International Conference. Though a record number of fans came to Atlanta that summer, the show was a low point from an organizational point of view.
Dragon Con bounced back in 1996, though. In addition to a roster of great guests and an expanding line up of programming, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell presented Dragon Con with a certificate of acclamation for hosting its 10th anniversary convention in the city.
The next year, 1997, saw a change of venue as Dragon Con moved to the Hyatt Regency. The convention’s organizers signed a multi-year deal that started with modest room blocks in the early years that escalated to the full hotel over the course of the deal. The convention’s organizers had long dreamed of having a whole hotel just for Dragon Con fans, and nobody else. They’d get there before the decade was out.
2000 and a Turning Point
As hard as it may be to believe today, there was a time when Dragon Con’s organizers invested as much time and energy attracting fans as they did attracting great guests. Most of that responsibility fell to the Pat and Sherry Henry, who spent the spring and summer of each year traveling the convention circuit talking about Dragon Con and handing out fliers.
By 2000, Dragon Con had grown significantly – some 10,000 people attended the show that year – and the Henrys were exhausted. The toll of running a business – a small chain of comic book shops – and the convention – essentially, a hobby – had worn them thin. They were giving serious thought to stepping down from Dragon Con.
One afternoon, watching the convention from the Hyatt’s second floor balcony, Pat and Sherry were talking about taking a step back from the day to day operations of the convention – the fatigue, the hassles, and what he might do with their new-found free time – when they were interrupted by the marshal stomp of Imperial Stormtroopers. Fans, milling about moments earlier, parted like the Red Sea so that a column from the 501st Legion, escorting actors David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bollock (Boba Fett) to their panel, could pass.
The crowd went nuts, and the Henrys changed their minds. The convention craziness – the fun that fans were having – was worth the work, they decided.
Rather than step back, Henry sat down with Cody and Dennis, two of the remaining original convention organizers still involved with the show, and made a deal. They would restructure the management of the convention and they would run the show more professionally. Sherry Henry would join the board as the fourth vote. Dragon Con wasn’t a hobby anymore: It was a year round business.
The changes they made in late 2000 not only stabilized the convention but also made it a fixture on the convention calendar. Beginning with the show in 2001, Dragon Con moved the convention dates to Labor Day, held their inaugural Dragon Con parade, and added the Marriott Marquis as a second headquarters hotel. The 2001 lineup included animator Don Bluth, rocker Alice Cooper, and actors Anthony Daniels and Jimmy Doohan, while attendance reached 13,000 – a 30 percent increase and the largest one-year jump in actual attendance to date.
Ask any Atlantan about Dragon Con and their first response is likely to be about the parade. The spectacle of thousands of cosplayers, young and old, dressed as their favorite pop culture characters marching down Peachtree Street is simply too much to resist. With an estimated attendance of some 75,000 people, the annual Dragon Con parade is the city’s best attended parade.
It was a happy coincidence. Taking a break during the 2000 convention, Henry and a friend were strolling down Peachtree St., where they witnessed a Salvation Army parade pass by. Thinking that Dragon Con should do a parade one day, they didn’t realize that the chance was right around the corner.
In 2001, for the first time, Dragon Con would be held in two host hotels – the Hyatt and the neighboring Marriot Marquis. Organizers were concerned a kind of convention inertia would set in: Fans would spend all their time in the Hyatt, just as they had for the past four years, but not visit the Marriott. To make sure fans knew about the second hotel, they routed the parade right through the Marriott’s front door, where parade participants and parade-goes alike were greeted with lemonade and cookies.
The Year Dragon Con Broke
Henry, Cody and Dennis laughingly call 2003 “the year we nearly broke Dragon Con.” Looked at another way, it’s the year that Dragon Con broke out and kicked off a long period of steady growth that continues up to this day.
As 2003 approached, Henry was determined to have a big show. He worked to get big name guests and use all the convention space the two hotels offered. And then he snagged the one guest – James Marsters – who would let the proverbial genie out of the bottle.
Marsters, best known as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a bona fide teen idol. And he agreed to appear at Dragon Con with the caveat that he could bring his band, Ghost in the Robot. In addition to Marsters, fans were treated to a terrific roster of guests including authors Ray Bradbury and Anne McCaffery, actors John Rhys Davis, Luke Perry and Ray Park, wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper and comic book hero Jim Steranko. Attendance that year, well, spiked more than 40 percent.
But the popularity of the guests, Marsters especially, overwhelmed the convention. At the convention, on the day Ghost in the Robot, was to perform, there was chaos. Fans started lining up at 10 a.m., for a show that started at 8 p.m., creating bottlenecks and concentrating crowds in a way that had never happened before.
While growing the show had always been the goal, growth like that was unmanageable. Cody and Dennis argued to cap attendance, while the Henrys argued for incremental growth. Eventually, they agreed on a 10 percent increase in attendance for future years. And every year since, attendance has steadily increased between 10 and 13 percent a year.
A Decade of Steady Growth
By 2004, Dragon Con had become a fixture on the convention landscape, the one don’t-miss party on the nerd social calendar. Veteran fans returned each year, bringing a growing circle of friends with them. With the mainstreaming of geek culture, new fans joined the throng. And each year the convention was better than the year before.
As the convention grew, new hotels were added to convention, creating more space for the expanding program. The Atlanta Hilton returned as a host hotel in 2005. The Atlanta Sheraton Hotel joined two years later, in 2007, and 2010 saw the addition of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, bringing the convention to its current configuration of five host hotels. The AmericasMart was added in 2013 to hold the dealer hall.
While the convention has remained steady in its five-hotel footprint, the need for guest rooms has spread well beyond downtown. In 2014, some 62,000 fans filled the five host hotels and parts or all of some 24 overflow hotels spread around the city, from Midtown to the airport.
Programming increased and new fan tracks catered to the changing interests of the fans. More than a dozen new tracks have been added in the last decade, reaching new areas of gaming, film, robotics, and puppetry, to name a few. As the Harry Potter and Twilight series took off, the Young Adult Literature track was added, welcoming a new generation of Dragon Con fans. Dragon Con was becoming a show that parents could share with their children.
And the roster of guests kept pace, with authors, artists, creators and celebrities all in the mix. Some of the better known guests in the 2000s have included George Takei, Mickey Rooney, Summer Glau, Lewis Gossett Jr., Erik Estrada, Sean Astin, Monkee Mickey Dolenz, Hayden Panettiere, Patrick Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, Terry Gilliam, Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, John Barrowman, Lee Majors, Ed Asner and comic greats Stan Lee and Neal Adams.
One of the hallmarks of Dragon Con has always been the ability of fans to get close to their favorite actors and authors. There are, of course, the panels and Walk of Fame appearances. But it’s also not uncommon to run into a guest in a hallway, or at the bars.
In 2008, Edward James Olmos and several of his cast mates crashed the Battlestar Galactica Colonial Fleet party, mingling with fans and creating an only-at-Dragon Con moment. The next year, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both made their first appearances. Shatner, a last minute addition to the guest roster, created a Twitter sensation when he crashed Nimoy’s “In Search Of …” panel.
In 2010, Public Television aired the documentary “Four Days at Dragon Con”, just days before the convention kicked off. For the first time, people who had never even heard of Dragon Con took a one-hour “journey into the savage heart of the nerdom dream,” according to a Hunter S. Thompson look-a-like who appeared at the start of the film.
In 2011, Dragon Con celebrated 25 years of fun. A number of guests had featured prominently in Dragon Con’s past, including artist Michael Whelan, director Ralph Bakshi, game designers Richard Garfield and Richard Garriott, and Jefferson Starship. New guests included actors Christopher Lloyd, Ernest Borgnine, Carrie Fisher, Martin Landau, and Sylvester McCoy, as well as artist Boris Vallejo. The streets of downtown Atlanta welcoming Dragon Con with banners on every light post and the Atlanta City Council recognized the convention with an official proclamation.
It didn’t hurt that the unprecedented growth of cable television brought a steady stream of sci fi classics back to television, or that nerdy computer-age entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became business titans. Today, the world is more accepting of geeks. It’s been a rising tide that lifted the science fiction, fantasy and pop culture convention industry.
Across the continent, from California to New York and north to Canada, major conventions are drawing record crowds. New shows appear every year, feeding an apparently insatiable appetite for all things pop culture. Invariably, the most successful shows mix celebrities with science fiction, comic books with gaming, and more than a few throw in a little rock ‘n’ roll too.
But there was a time when TV could only handle one science fiction show at a time and geeks kept their heads down. In those days, the idea of mixing genres in a single convention seemed far-fetched. Most conventions were pretty small and, like the geeks who ran them, stuck to their knitting. But Dragon Con’s founders were willing to take a chance and try something different.
Atlanta may have been a perfect town to conduct the experiment. The biggest city in the conservative, football-loving South, Atlanta is also one of the geekiest cities in America. Fans of all types can find a home in Atlanta, which boasts Georgia Tech, a technology-based economy, a burgeoning movie industry, and lots and lots of comic book shops. Plus, Atlanta oozes Southern Hospitality, where good manners are important, no matter who you are.
While the founders were willing to take a chance on multi-genre programming, they still knew it was the fans that made a show successful. From the start, it was a show run by fans for the fans. As the convention landscape has grown, many shows today are driven by the television or comics industry, or organized by major corporations, Dragon Con remains the largest show that is about the fans.
Over nearly three decades, Dragon Con has grown from the little Atlanta convention that defied the rules to one of the largest pop culture conventions in the world. Along the way, it changed the expectations for a successful convention. While small conventions still focus on one or two genres, the largest conventions combine literature, television & movies, comics and gaming, just as Dragon Con did for the first time back in 1987.