I Miss Wisconsin Part 3 - Parkside
The week after Gen Con 06 I drove up to Milwaukee to attend Irishfest. Along the way I stopped by Parkside. Classes had not started and I had the place to myself. I though about how my journey to Gen Con geekdom had started here and how things had changed from failing college junior to Keeper of Ancient Gen Con Lore. But its good to know where ones root are.
The University of Wisconsin at Parkside is about half way between Racine and Kenosha. Even though it’s ten minutes from Kenosha proper, the campus itself is almost completely surrounded by a small forest, making you feel cut off from the world. From 1978 to 1984 it was the 2nd home for Gen Con, and my favorite Gen Con location.
You would exit the interstate at the Country Road E exchange into nothingness. There were a couple of close gas stations but that was it. You pointed your car east. You were either going to Gen Con, or to a dunking into Lake Michigan. It was mostly farm land with a few houses, a church, and a tavern near the railroad tracks.
After crossing Highway 31, you noticed the big patch of trees and the sign for the University of Wisconsin at Parkside (UWP), home of the "Rangers." A quick turn onto Highway JR, and you’d soon see the Sports and Activity Center. It has doubled in size since it was the unair-conditioned sauna it was when it was the dealer’s room, but more about that later. Next to it was a huge parking lot that was the 24 hour party place for all of us who camped out for Gen Con.
By taking Loop Road, you wound around to the head of the UWP Complex to the Union. Today you would pass Ranger Hall dorm and University Apartments, which were not there when Gen Con was, and were probably built shortly after Gen Con left.
All the buildings are connected, except the Sports and Activity Center, on the 2nd floor, or level 1. This must have been a powerful draw for the TSR folks after the mish-mash venues of Lake Geneva. You could walk from the Union to the Communication Arts Building, a ½ mile or so, in air-conditioned comfort. So let’s take a closer look around the joint.
On the north side was the Union. For the Parkside run it held Registration; later, the auction took place in the Theater. It had a great cafeteria that served breakfast and lunch, with a pleasant view that overlooked the woods which surrounded the campus. On the ground level was a pizza joint that served beer! It was here that one year that Duke Seifried entertained the crowd with the stylings of "Duke and the Dragons'A shock to those of us who have gone to school on a dry campus. The basement contained a bowling alley.
The next building was Molinaro Hall which, if I recall correctly, was a general classroom building, so it had rooms for games and the show offices. The two big lecture halls were used for seminars and the like. Greenquist Hall was much smaller than Molinaro Hall, but it too had some rooms that were used for general gaming.
For the 1st half of Gen Con tenure Wyllie Hall was the home of the dealer’s room. With that big cracked egg thingie on the wall, it had dealers set up on three levels. This is when Gen Con was first introduced to the concept of the booth babe. Now, some would say that would be TSR with the Gygax sisters. Compared to Metagaming, who had hired some hot babes to work their booth, the Gygax sisters had to work due to familial obligations. Still, this was the days of AD&D and it was difficult to get to the TSR Booths anyway.
At the bottom level was TSR and ICE, and also a pretty good hot dog stand. Again, it was the early days of AD&D and you had to fight the crowds to get down there and get a copy or a dog. For several years in a row, TSR released its latest AD&D book at the show to mobs of adoring fans. That’s why I didn’t make it down too often.
In my one of my recent visits back to UWP’s Wyllie Hall, it felt funny to be there without the mass of gamers there, either buying and selling games, or playing them in the later years. It was quiet and didn’t smell at all funky; quite the change!
Last in the complex is the Communication Arts Building and I have nothing to say about it. In all the years Gen Con was there, 1979-1984, I never went in there. Even when I have visited in the past I never went into that building. Something I will have to fix in the future; anyone know what went on there?
A short walk from the main complex of buildings is the Sports and Activity Center (SAC). Before it was expanded, it consisted of a gym, a pool, a wrestling room, and lastly the locker room and showers.
The best thing about the Gym was the showers. I could roll out of bed at 9:30 and drive like a manic to the hall. We’d open the booth and then cycle our crew through the showers. When things got really steamy, we’d take an afternoon shower just to remove the gamer funk. TSR did not want to pay for the air conditioning, so we who worked the dealer’s room in the SAC we sweated like piggies.
I wish I could remember the year, but one year, one day early in the morning before things had really started, I was walking from the main building to the Gym. The sidewalk went over a small rise with just a hint of mist. The sun was behind the woods to the east of the sidewalk. I was walking along when I heard it a set of bagpipes playing. When I turned to see where the music was coming from, I saw a piper in full regalia, full kilt and everything. That scene raised the hair on the back of my neck, sort of invoking some primal memories. It was spooky in a good sort of way
One of the last years, either 1982 or 83, TSR was ensconced in the dealer's room and I was running the till for Heritage Models. For various reasons that year, many gaming companies sent minions to run their booth but the bosses stayed home. Heritage sent a bunch of great guys to run the booth, but it appeared I was one of the only guys who had set up and run the Heritage booth before. So I ended up being one of the guys running things for Heritage. Now, these Texans were used to the heat, but not 90 degrees and 100% humidity Wisconsin weather we were going through.
As the days went on all our brains started to cook. It was then that TSR bought in a radio controlled robot to entertain the masses. It would work slowly down the aisle to the TSR end and then whip back to the head of the row, and then back down again. Our brains having been fried, we began to think of this robot as evil, and we started to plot the demise of the android. Luckily things ended on a happy note when someone went out and bought ice cream, and we set aside our plans for robotoicide.
(One of my favorite incidents was the Ernie Gygax and Steve Jackson encounter. It was the same year as the robot of doom; I was stewing in the Heritage Booth trying to stay awake when Ernie Gygax and some big guy came by the Steve Jackson games booth across from my booth. Ernie told Steve that he had to pull his game "Killer" because it violated Gen Con products standards. Something about the game making people want to kill one another. Steve looked up and Ernie and said that this was the 1st time he had heard of "Gen Con product standards" and that he would like to see the policy. Ernie told him that it had not been written up yet but "Killer" clearly violated it. Steve told him to get lost, and I went back to my nap.)
The lack of hotel rooms is one of the main reasons that Gen Con moved to Milwaukee in 85, but that lack of hotel rooms didn’t seem to bother those who camped in the parking lots. I had my old VW Microbus, the Phantom Cruiser, with an old army cot in it. I slept very well.
Under the parking lot lights, folks were talking, playing hacky sack, and generally having a good time. If you needed to use the restroom there was always an unlocked door available to use to sneak into a building. And every so often a certain odor would waft over the parked cars. Funny smelling, sort of like Otto’s jacket from the Simpson’s. I have no idea what it was. The last year of Gen Con at Parkside, the University banned overnight parking. Bummer.
The good thing about UWP was it was a secluded spot where Gen Con could grow. Away from a public that would readily call DnD devil worship, Parkside had easy access from the highway but was set back enough to allow our inner geek to thrive. Sure you had to eat University food, but most of us were used to that. Heck, in my 19 years of study for my degree in history, university food is always fondly remembered.
It was a gathering of …well, geeks, but we could revel in our geekitude, and prepare for Gen Con to make that big move out of its parent’s basement to the Mecca in Milwaukee.
The past couple of times I have gone alone to Milwaukee, I have made that right turn onto County Road E, and walked once again around UW Parkside. The halls are now quiet, and empty. There is no Duke and the Dragon belting out a DnD songs in the Union. There are no gamers running up and down the halls. There isn’t even anyone out in the parking lot playing a walk up game of DnD under a street lamp. It’s just quiet.
As 1984 rolled around, Gen Con was using every square foot of UWP, and also some Technology Center a mile or so away. Attendance had doubled or so, and the time had come for a move. With no hotels nearby, Gen Con had to pack up its tent and head north to Downtown Milwaukee. When the move was announced, there was no public outcry, and there were no letters to the editor of Dragon Magazine. We all wanted air-conditioning and clean sheets to sleep on. Besides, it was only an hour away.
The University of Wisconsin at Parkside was sort of like the teenage years for Gen Con. There were a lot of mistakes, goofs, and silliness, but it was also a community growing up. So, when it was time to head north, we all were ready. Yes, Milwaukee and the Mecca Convention Center was a big step, and it took a few years for Gen Con to grow into it; and grow into Mecca it did. There would be beer and brats in large numbers, and it would be fun. But we remember those days when the woods around Parkside did have monsters, and we were there to slay them.
As always I am your Keeper of Ancient Gen Con Lore
Special thanks to Marimacc who makes my words understandable. :)
Next time: Milwaukee, Mecca and brew