Philcon 1947–5th World Science Fiction Convention
by Margaret Trebing
The Millennium Philcon will be the third worldcon to be held in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia hosted the worldcon in 1953 (the 11th), and in 1947 (the 5th). A lot has happened between then and now, and we wonder if the fans who put together those early cons would have believed it then if someone had told them of the magnificent spectacles that modern worldcons would become. Many things have changed since then, of course, but many things have not. The Millennium Philcon will feature programming and exhibits looking back over the history of fandom in Philly. But we needn’t wait until 2001 to get started. In this article, we present a look back at days in Philadelphia fifty-three years ago- the 5th World Science Fiction Convention.
Philcon ‘47 was held over Labor Day weekend, from August 30 to September 1, at the Hotel Penn-Sheraton, Philadelphia, PA. The Main Speaker was John W. Campbell. The gathering included a glittering line-up of pros and fans, many whose names are as well-known (or better!) today as then – George O. Smith, Forrest Ackerman, Fred Pohl, Willy Ley, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Wilson Tucker, Sam Moskowitz, A.E. van Vogt, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, and many others. Total attendance was about 160 The Chairman was well-known fan Milton Rothman, one of the founders of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.
The committee (called “staff”) was very small. Milt handled all the programming. The dealers’ room and art show were in the same room as programming, and required little organizing. There were no logistics, child care, information, volunteers, security, operations, programming ops, member services, etc., etc. Still, Milt didn’t do everything himself. A listing of Philco Staff reads:
In his welcome message in the Program Book, Chairman Rothman thanked the “great many people who helped make this convention.”First credit is given to Oswald Train, without whom P.S.F.S. (Philadelphia Science Fiction Society) would not have existed by 1947. Ozzie was one of the very few P.S.F.S. members who was not drafted in World War II. He held the society together throughout the war years without meetings by continuing to publish the P.S.F.S. News and distribute it to members around the world. Ozzie remained an active member of the Society until the day he died.
Robert A. Madle and Jack Agnew produced the Program Book. A. E. Waldo’s job was not mentioned, but he and Albert Pepper were thanked for their assistance. James A. Williams provided technical assistance and “moral support”. Alexander Phillips, who was a well-known writer at the time (author of The Mislaid Charm), was the official convention historian. Forrest J. Ackerman arranged the “Big Pond Fund”, a fund to bring fans from Britain, which debuted at the ‘47 Worldcon. William S. Sykora acquired original artwork from SF magazines for the auction. Others, not listed as staff, also contributed. John V. Baltadonis and Solomon Levin created artwork for the Program Book. Alfred C. Prime was in charge of Vari-typing. Allison Williams and Helen Cloukey worked, sometimes all night, to make sure the Convention Issue of the P.S.F.S. fanzine, Variant, was ready on time.
The entire program took place in a single hall, of which, thanks to the memoirs of Mr. Phillips, we have quite a complete description: “The hall was painted a powder blue, trimmed with white and set off with strikingly red drapes. The ceiling was set with white bas-relief ornamentation and supported whitepaint chandeliers in baroque style. The general effect was very French…”
The art show was hung on the walls of this meeting room. Fantasy Press had a section unto themselves in which they displayed illustrations from Spacehounds of the IPC, The Legion of Space and “The Forbidden Garden”. Professional art on display included works by Lawrence, with the cover illustration for “The Minimum Man” (Famous Fantastic Mysteries); Cartier, with drawings from “Old Doc Methuselah” (Astounding); Virgil Finlay; and Hubert Rogers, represented by the cover illustration for Children of the Lens. There was fan art by John and Gordon Cockroft, Ralph Rayburn Phillips (no relation to A.M. Phillips), and Russell Swanson.
The festivities began with a speech by Chairman Rothman and the introduction of significant pros and fans to the members. Then things really got rolling as John W. Campbell took the podium to speak on atomic power.
John Campbell began his speech by asking the audience to distinguish between atomic energy and atomic power. Atomic energy, as he defined it, is the energy released directly by the process of fission (i.e., an atomic explosion), whereas atomic power is that energy transformed into another form of energy (electricity).
He went on to express some doubt about the potential of commercial atomic power. So little is known, he said, about the physics of atomic power, that the investment (which he. estimated at $20,000,000) could be too much for a plant which might turn out to be inefficient. He was also well aware of the problem of nuclear waste; he stated that an atomic power-plant, once set in operation, could not be dismantled for 5,000 years!
The discussion then moved to politics, and became heated when a fan in the audience announced that he favored the elimination of civil liberties for “subversive individuals”!
The second half of the day’s program-”The Editors Speak”-was somewhat marred by the fact that only one editor showed up. However, Sam Merwin, of Standard Magazines, expressed optimism about the future, stating that his magazines, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, were vigorous and healthy and steadily improving the quality of their stories.
Following Mr. Merwin’s speech, E. E. Smith read a “short and violent” statement lambasting the policies of certain editors, which were, he said, spoiling their magazines. These policies, from what we can gather, had to do with a certain disdain for space opera.
At the business meeting, the agenda to be dealt with was introduced. The actual voting took place at the final business meeting, giving the members the weekend to think about it.
On Saturday evening, the auction took place. There were two auctioneers, Sam Moskowitz and Erle Korshak. (Later in the evening Al Brown helped out.) Although one reporter described the bidding as “lax”, Korshak apparently got carried away enough to attempt to sell the Fantasy Press paintings, which were not for sale. Reports differ regarding what fetched the highest price, with one attendee claiming the Rogers cover for Children of the Lens (selling for the “fabulous sum” of $27 or $35), and another stating it, was a cover illustration from the April 1934 Wonder Stories, by an artist named Paul (selling for $31 ). There were three heavy spenders, with the rest of the fans apparently tight with their money. This may have been partly due to the fact that the main after—hours activity at the convention seems to have been poker. The auction took in a grand total of $360.
After the auction, the programming for the day was over, but the convention went on. Then, as now, parties were as important a part of the con as any other. The parties at Philcon ‘47 were as exuberant as any we’ve ever seen: “…high and mighty editors sat on the floor singing bawdy songs with writers and fans, and a glass in the hand was worth two in the sink.” Interestingly, there seems to have been a lot more liquor than you see at most modern conventions, and we don’t mean beer. As we mentioned, poker was the major activity, after drinking and gabbing. As one member put it, “What would a convention be without a poker game?” In room 1048 Oliver “Natural” Saari and Neil “Bones” Dejack held a game that ran all weekend. The partying went on all night. (It’s a good thing all the programming began at 1 p.m.!)
On Saturday morning Sprague de Camp spoke on occultism, a topic he had been researching for his new book on the subject. Among the subjects he covered were astrology, numerology, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and yoga. Sprague described a number of the con games and tricks employed by people claiming “occult” powers, and expressed the opinion that the only person truly qualified to judge such claims is a professional magician. There was lively discussion after his talk, with, it seems, no believers speaking up for the occult. One fan, after ascertaining from Sprague that astrology pulled in the most money, asked how one could get started in the field.
The highlight of Saturday’s program was Erle Korshak’s talk on collecting fantasy literature. He concentrated on the rare and very rare, discussing such works as “The Swoop, or how Clarence Saved England” by P. G. Wodehouse, “The Flying Cows" of Benson Bidwell, and the writings of M. P. Shiel. He saved the rarest for last, finally mentioning a work (title not recorded!) of which only two copies were known to exist, both in libraries, whereupon a fan in the audience announced that he had one too.
The meeting of the Eastern Science Fiction Association (E.S.F.A.) started with a discussion of the “early days” of science fiction and ended with a defense of series stories in the magazines, apparently a topic of controversy at the time.
Saturday evening was the “fan entertainment” night. The entertainment consisted mainly of musical performances. Milt Rothman played “Sunken Cathedral” and “Ritual Fire Dance” on the piano; Theodore Sturgeon and L. Jerome Stanton played “St. Louis Blues” on guitar and banjo, fans Burgess, Fox, Maddox and Kennedy sang “When They Bring Out Amazing”; Chandler Davis played piano and sang his own science fictional songs, and Mary Mair sang Theodore Sturgeon’s poem, "Thunder and Roses", set to music. As well as the music, William Tenn (real name Philip Klass), anticipating the slush pile panel, read (fictional) letters from his fans which had the attendees rolling in the aisles. In one letter, the Deros (see The Shaver Mystery) threaten to steal the hyphen from Ziff-Davis Publications if they don’t send them more virgin princesses. George O. Smith enacted an elaborate pantomime involving a nonexistent human hair which ended with George sewing his fingers together with the invisible hair. A fan who was there told us George was famous for this performance. “You could almost see that darn hair,” she said.
Afterwards, not yet done with entertainment, a large contingent of fans headed for Philly’s famous burlesque house, the Trocadero. There they were surprised to spot another large contingent of fans occupying a box seat. New York fan Joe Kennedy was impressed by the palace, which he described as “an ancient and decrepit-looking place with a beer ad for a curtain”, and especially by the chandelier which consisted of “one lonely light bulb dangling from a cord”. The show, he said, was pretty good, and some of the jokes were really funny, although he couldn’t reprint them.
That night one of the extracurricular highlights of the convention occurred. The story grew in the telling, starting the next day. Several increasingly elaborate versions eventually wound up in the fanzine reports. The truth appears to be that late in the night (or early in the morning), having consumed quite a lot of liquor, Jack Speer, Chandler Davis, and Ron Christensen fired off fireworks from the roof of the hotel, while the police circled around the block searching for the culprits. When the hotel (staff and guests) had been sufficiently aroused and the management was headed for the roof, the gang fled via the fire escape. The whole thing was blamed on the Sigma Alpha Rho fraternity, which was also holding a convention in the Penn Sheraton. By the next morning, rumor had it that Jack Speer was: in jail; on the run; had been bailed out by Davis and Christensen with their poker winnings. One report later published in a fanzine had the three engaged in a frantic flight from police up and down the fire escapes, and another turned the incident into a story in which the fugitives were rescued by a beautiful goddess named Niquita! All in all, it must have added quite a bit to their reputations.
On the last day, the main program was the symposium on interplanetary travel, starring Willy Ley and Thomas Gardner, Ph.D. At that time, the available chemical fuels could not get a rocket from the Earth to the moon, and it seemed to be Mr. Ley’s feeling that perhaps they never would. The next big advance, he said, would be the Navy’s Neptune rocket which would reach a height of two hundred miles, just beyond the atmosphere. The path to the moon, said Ley, lay in the construction of an orbital station from which a rocket would be launched.
Dr. Gardner took a different approach, discussing the use of an atomic pile as a fuel source for a rocket. (Technically, the fuel would be hydrogen peroxide; the atomic pile would be the heat source.) He admitted that shielding the pile was going to be a big problem. The symposium generated a great deal of enthusiastic and highly technical discussion among the audience, with a lengthy period spent on the effects of heat and abrasion on rocket tubes.
With the programming concluded, all that remained was the final business meeting. The first order of business was the tallying and dispersion of the convention profits. (Yes, right there at the convention.) So as not to keep any readers in suspense, we now present in full the final financial report for Philcon ‘47:
Total profits: $300
To the treasury of the P.S.F.S.: $100
To the 1948 World SF Convention: $50
To buy books and magazines for a permanently hospitalized veteran: $15
The remainder to be divided between the N.F.F.F. (National Fantasy Fan Federation) and the Fantasy Foundation.
Three hundred dollars was a good amount of money at the time, and everyone considered the con to be a great success financially.
The next serious item of business was the selection of the site for the next worldcon. There were two bids present — Milwaukee and Toronto. There were rumors of two others — North Carolina, and (we think) Colorado — but there were no representatives present. There was also an ad in the program book for San Francisco, but nothing about them appears in the reports.
Toronto had three bidders: Beak Thompson, Ned McKeown and John Millard. Jack Speer, of New York, had driven to Toronto to pick up Thompson and McKeown and bring them to the convention in his car, proudly named the Quintessence of Foo Foo. (Yes, painted on the car. Naming your car and painting its moniker on it like a boat was not uncommon among early fen.) At the convention they met fellow Toronto-dweller John Millard. They mentioned to Millard that they had been tossing around the idea of a worldcon in Toronto, but were not sure they could do it. Millard was enthusiastic about the idea, and convinced the others to go ahead with it. They printed up flyers and banners and wrote their bid speech over the weekend. What now takes about six years, they accomplished in three days.
The spokesperson or persons from Milwaukee go unnamed in all of our reports, and there is no record of their presentation. In any case, Toronto won, and preparations for Torcon, the 6th World Science Fiction Convention, were begun. Jack Speer brought up a proposal for “proportionate representation”, an early attempt to invent the rotating zone system (now done away with). Under his plan, votes for site selection would be weighted depending on the geographical location of the voter’s home in order to prevent large blocks of fans keeping the worldcons in the same part of the country permanently. The proposal was defeated.
The serious business out of the way, the attendees opened silly season. The longest part of the business meeting consisted of impassioned debate about the policies of Ziff-Davis Publications regarding the Shaver Mystery. At the opening business meeting, Jack Speer had introduced an anti-Amazing resolution. Many people felt that the last paragraph was potentially libelous. A milder resolution was proposed as an alternate. After much debate (which one reporter said was less heated than at the other cons he had attended), both were tabled until next year.
The business was done, the con was over, and there was only the banquet left before the parting of the ways. When all the fans had been collected from the bar and seated for dinner, scheduled to start at 7:00 p.m., they found themselves in a room empty of food and waiters. Dinner wasn’t served until 8:00 p.m. due to the fact that the hotel had scheduled two banquets at the same time and had only enough waiters for one. George O. Smith, a man with a legendary appetite (he once ate a steak dinner and then ordered lobster for dessert), attempted to eat the palm fronds decorating the tables, but gave up. One table of nine somehow got hold of a single fruit cup and shared it. (It went around twice.) Fans being fans, they found a way to entertain themselves while waiting, and put on a mini talent show, which ended with Harry Moore singing “Cocaine Lil”. (“As she lay there in her dishonor/ She felt the hand of the Lord upon her/She said “Lord my soul repents/But that will cost you eighty-nine cents’“) Fortunately, dinner was then served.
So what was the final judgment on the Philcon? Almost unanimously the fans were pleased. Out of all the records we have read, we found only a very few negatives. One was a fan angry at the “big boys” for bidding too high at the auction, and leaving nothing for less well-off folks. Another, who left an anonymous message on a typewriter, seemed to be miffed because he had not had sex all weekend! Everyone seems to have grumbled at the way Philadelphia rolled up its streets on Friday night and didn’t unroll there again until Tuesday. (This is not true today!) But by far the majority of comments glowed with praise: “I think this is the best convention that’s ever been held, and I’ve seen them all.” “It surely was a swell convention. Everything went off smoothly and it was a great success as everyone said.” “…the curtain fell on a swell convention.” “I was really sorry when the last goodbyes were said.” “This had been without doubt the finest, the best-planned science fiction convention I’d ever attended…”
As Alexander Phillips closed his recollections of the Philcon, he said, “And yet, and yet, I had, and have, the feeling that the Fifth World Science Fiction Convention is but the predecessor of better, finer, more delightful, and more entertaining conventions to come, for which it has but set a pattern and an example.” Time has proven him right, of course. While Phillips didn’t live to see his home city put can the mantle of the worldcon for the third time, many others who were there in 1947 did. And when they, and you, come to, Philadelphia in the late summer of the year 2001, all will see just how right he was.