First held in 1979, the annual Shore Leave convention is one of the longest-running, fan-organized science fiction conventions in the United States, held each year in Towson, Maryland. Featuring several guests each year from genre television and movies, Shore Leave has also become as the biggest Star Trek literature event in the country, with dozens of top-tier Trek authors and editors attending annually.
The convention enters it's thirty-fifth year this August 2-4, and we spoke with Shore Leave management committee member Mike Schilling to get an insider's look at this annual event.
Mike Schilling: The Shore Leave Interview
TREKCORE: Tell us about the history of Shore Leave – how did the event first get started, thirty-five years ago?
Mike Schilling: The Star Trek Association of Towson (Maryland) – which runs Shore Leave, and started as a bunch of ambitious, college-age Star Trek enthusiasts who wanted nothing more than to get together as local fans, talk about their beloved show, and maybe make some new friends – had already been in existence for some time. To my knowledge, there was never any intention of being in serious competition with the regionally and nationally known Trek conventions that had already been running for a decade or longer at that point – such as BaltiCon or August Party, or even the huge “Committee” conventions being run out of New York City.
The first Shore Leave, held in 1979, was a one-day event that took place in the upper floor of the University Union building on the campus of Towson (State) University (my alma mater, by the way) in 1979. At that point, the first movie hadn’t been released yet, and it would be another eight years until TNG was on the scene. There were only the 79 originals (plus the long-overlooked Animated Series) to concentrate all of fandom’s love and devotion to. It was truly a very different time, not just in society, but in how fandom operated and communicated.
To me, the greatest leap of faith by STAT in the early formation of the convention wasn’t just the first step into the convention world with Shore Leave I, but the idea that someone in that original fan group decided that it wasn’t just a one-shot deal – that the convention could truly be a yearly, three-day event with guest speakers. After the first year, the convention moved to the Hunt Valley Inn in the Baltimore suburbs for Shore Leave II, and it’s been held there for all but one of the last thirty-four years. The convention hotel has become like a second home to many of us who have been working and attending the convention.
Besides our first smattering of writer, technical advisor, and ‘zine’ editor guests, the first “Hollywood” guests started to attend around Shore Leave V in 1984 – this was a tremendous risk for that still-young group who were, in many cases, using their own personal funds (and their parents’ savings!) to finance the venture.
From the beginning, it was decided that Shore Leave would be an all-volunteer, all fan-run convention – and never a ‘for-profit’ venture, no matter what profits (or losses) were accrued during any given year; any remaining funds at the end of the year would be carried over the next convention’s budget.
TREKCORE: How did you get involved with the convention?
Mike Schilling: The first weekend I attended was Shore Leave 8 in 1987, which was the only convention besides the first one to take place away from the Marriott’s Hunt Valley Inn. It was just a really fun gathering of like-minded sci-fi and fantasy fans like me that I knew, and that I really enjoyed seeing and exchanging opinions and memorabilia with – and I knew I wanted to come back again the next year! I later joined STAT, and around the time of Shore Leave 20 in 1999, I graduated from the volunteer staff and became a member of the Shore Leave committee.
Dozens of science fiction/fantasy writers and editors attend Shore Leave each year,
including Trek literature's Robert Greenberger, Peter David, Marco Palmieri,
David Mack, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and Greg Cox, along with several others.
TREKCORE: Shore Leave has really become the biggest annual event for fans of Star Trek literature, with “big-name” Trek authors and editors like Christopher L. Bennett, Greg Cox, Peter David, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and David Mack – along with several more – attending each year, with an annual “Meet The Pros” book-signing event each weekend. Did the event always have such a literary focus, or did that evolve as the years progressed?
Mike Schilling: Really, I wouldn’t say that Shore Leave has always had a literary focus, or that is our main focus now, either. We still emphasize our above-the-title actor guests first in all our advertising and promotional efforts, because we know that they are the ones that are going to garner the most attention amongst potential attendees – especially those who may not have been to any (or very many) conventions of this type before.
In the earliest, formative days, writer guests were – to be quite candid – just about the only guests we could AFFORD to get! A great many of the “original gang” were fairly young themselves, and the vast majority of them lived along the East Coast, so their travel expenses were not really all that prohibitive. The first two writer guests that really worked their way into the hearts of Shore Leave attendees everywhere were Robert Greenberger and Howard Weinstein. I don’t know the circumstances of how their particular names came up or how they were first invited, but by the time I first started attending, both they and their families (and even their pets, in Howie’s case!) were considered family by our attendees. To this day, both are regular attendees, and it is next to impossible to think of Shore Leave without them being there.
Over the course of years, the family of genre writers just grew and grew and grew, and we now have literally dozens of professional writers who attend every year. They take part in panel discussions, help put together workshops for other aspiring writers, perform readings of their work, and they also take part in charity events. They may not get the glory that the actor guests do – but they are just as woven into the fabric of what makes Shore Leave a successful event as any other element, and I’m very proud of that.
TREKCORE: Some people think of “fan-run” conventions as smaller, disorganized shows when compared to the big, nationally-run conventions put on by professional event organizations, without the draw to bring in “A-List” genre guests.
Shore Leave obviously defies that expectation with this year’s guests (including Star Trek’s William Shatner and Brent Spiner, Stargate’s Amanda Tapping, and Warehouse 13’s Saul Rubinek and Eddie McClintock) and past attendees like Kate Mulgrew, LeVar Burton, Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, and several other big names. What makes a fan-run event different from those large-scale shows?
Mike Schilling: I can’t speak to what “pro” cons are like today, but when I used to go to conventions but on by groups like Creation Entertainment and Slanted Fedora, my feeling was although they brought in incredible guest stars and had huge dealers’ rooms, they really didn’t offer much of anything else in terms of programming choices. You went in and saw a guest, walked around the dealers’ room where many of the booths sold the exact same items, and….repeat. Huge hotels, thousands and thousands of people, but not too much to do.
Also – and again, this was just what I felt at that time – it seemed like contact between guest star and fan was kept to an absolute minimum. Move the line along, no dawdling, no talking, no personalization of the fan experience, nothing like that. When conventions are in settings that large, with that many attendees, I think you lose something special in the fandom experience. You should be able to just take a step back, and just enjoy the weekend, too. You need to be able to just talk to other people, in a lounge, a restaurant, a quiet corner, what have you.
Shore Leave is limited to a membership of roughly 1,500 at one time. That’s a large enough crowd to get a good wave of positive vibes rolling throughout the hotel, and to make some serious noise in any of the meeting rooms – but it’s still small enough to allow people to be able to relate to each other as people, both guest-to-fan, and from fan-to-fan. You can very easily turn around and bump right into a guest star without an entourage around them and talk to them for a moment or two, making the experience far more resonant than just the obtaining of a signature.
You can have a conversation with one or one hundred fellow fans about some movie or TV show you saw, and it could be well-planned-out, or very spontaneous in nature. So, to summarize, the goal of Shore Leave, is to provide all the programming one would expect out of a giant fandom event, only in a comfortable, welcoming setting that has personal meaning to everyone there, for their own unique reasons.
TREKCORE: What about other fan-run events? What makes Shore Leave stand out?
Mike Schilling: That’s hard for me to say, as my number of conventions attended has greatly diminished over the years due to career commitments and family responsibilities, but I will say that Shore Leave is extremely fortunate to have committee members and volunteers that truly care about the quality of the convention experience. This care we’ve shown in putting something fun and memorable out there year to year to year has allowed us to grow our reputation in fandom to the point where fans will tell other fans all over the world that Shore Leave is THE convention to be at in this part of the country.
That fantastic word-of-mouth also has found its way into the ranks of the actor guests we seek to obtain as special guest speakers every year. From what I have heard over the years, it is not unusual to have a guest from a new genre show attend Shore Leave on a chance, then tell their fellow actors around them that Shore Leave is really a wonderful place to visit, because of all the welcoming and supportive fans that are there and how well they were treated by everyone. While other longer-tenured conventions have packed up shop in more recent years – due to factors like the aging of the fan base, the unstable economy, expenses, etc. – Shore Leave not only is still solvent, but is quite possibly stronger now than it ever has been before.
TREKCORE: For our readers who haven’t visited, what sorts of events are usually offered during the weekend? Is there anything special planned for this year’s big anniversary?
Mike Schilling: This may be an overused, hackneyed phrase, but there is literally something for everyone to do and enjoy there, from the greenest of con newbies to the grizzled convention veteran. Personally, I especially enjoy taking part in as many fan panel discussions as possible, both as a viewer and as a member of the panel. I also have a particular fondness for watching as many of the guest stars’ presentations on stage as time will allow.
For those who don’t attend events like these, it is such a rare opportunity to interact with television and movie actors – particularly today, with such a tremendous gulf in not just salary, but in style of life. Seeing them up-close like this, especially if it’s from a show that you’re followed for some time, allows you to relate to their experiences in what is almost always a very jovial, unrehearsed way that is very enjoyable and very refreshing.
Other Shore Leave mainstays include the craftsmanship on display in the Art Show and in our Saturday night Masquerade, our writer guests doing readings from their work, special presentations by our scientist guests, and video presentations of the latest fan films.
There are so many elements of Shore Leave programming already in place that quite frankly there is very little room to continually squeeze in extra items with the highly limited amount of guest space we have afforded to us, but we do our best to work in something special - we’re just starting to work on specific programming for this year, and I have been told that many extraordinary ideas have been proposed for the 35th Anniversary!
TREKCORE: Mike, thanks for sharing this with us – I’m certainly looking forward to attending in August.
Mike Schilling: Thank you for your interest and your support!
Portions of this interview have been condensed or edited for clarity.
Photos courtesy of Shore Leave.
Be sure to stay with TrekCore in the coming weeks, as we'll be bringing you another preview to August's Shore Leave 35 convention with a special roundtable interview with several of your favorite Trek authors!