The Gathering of the Fellowship - History of Middle Earth Part XXIII

History of Middle Earth, Volume XXII

The date was December 2001, just a few days before the much anticipated release of Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring.

Somewhere down in Texas, an idea was born: A gathering of Tolkien fans was envisioned that would allow them to view the Jackon movies together. In one place. All in one sitting.

Wait, isn't the Gathering of the Fellowship in December, 2003?

Oh yes, a mere 90 day or so away, and legions of Tolkien fans are already preparing costumes and packing bags in anticipation! The Gathering of the Fellowship, mellyn, this little venture of a few TORC online pals getting together to see the Return of the King movie premiere, has grown to ENORMOUS proportions.

In a word, it has become VAST.

Gloriously vast, I might add.

It was in December 2001, though, that Paulina Gibson, Tolkien Online member and longtime Tolkien fan, first posted on the Tolkien Online boards concerning her and Ed Rodrigues' little idea to get together and see the Return of the King. Did anyone else wish to join in, she innocently asked.

Flashforward to September 25, 2003. Gibson now wears the titles of a Board of Director, Committee Coordinator, and many other "hats" in regards to the now non profit, incorporated, Gathering of the Fellowship International Tolkien Fan Convention. In fact, GOTF now proudly boasts 1300 memberships, 584 banquet attendees, along with special guests such as Ted Nasmith, Craig Parker, Mark Ferguson, Bruce Hopkins, Dr. Michael Drout...and the list goes on.

Boy, can two years make a difference.

And the story of how this last year has engaged and challenged the GOTF Committee and attendees to respond to the needs and wants of the Tolkien international fan community is nothing short of phenomenal.

The initial post at Tolkien Online by Paulina quickly revealed a desire by Tolkien fans to draw together for this final installment in Peter Jackson's epic films. Even Purists, (like myself), had to admit that Jackson's films were something special and it was Jackson's films that had, by and large, drawn the international Tolkien fan base together via the Internet. We had gotten to know each other over our excitement about the films, even as we sometimes debated their content and visual representation, but a great many of us came to realise that SEEING the films together was quite the amazing and fun experience. Beyond that, seeing them for the FIRST TIME together enhanced that "high" all the more. Thus, finding a city and time to see Return of the King, in its first showing, together, became like the Quest for the Holy Grail. It was within reach; we just had to find the means to get there.

Ed Rodrigues donned the seat of GOTF President, (and was dubbed "Gathering Guru" not long after), and with him, Kelli Voth and Paulina Gibson took the roles of the GOTF Board of Directors. The three of them would lead the Tolkien fans who wanted to see this adventure through to the end. First, they had to find the city where Tolkien fans wanted to meet and make sure that this city could provide exactly what the Tolkien fans needed and wanted.

Cities from all over the North American continent submitted proposals; these proposals came from Tolkien fans who had meticulously researched their city's services, climate, theaters, and convention spaces. It was but the tip of the iceberg for what was happening worldwide: The Gathering of the Fellowship was becoming a convention and film experience, planned and
brought to life completely by Tolkien fans. Who better to know what WE want to see and do at such a Gathering?

Atlanta, Charleston, Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto...and others. Each city had its own appeal and the proposals were tantalising. How to decide? The wise Gathering Guru and his trusty sidekicks turned it back to the fans: A vote was taken at the Gathering of the Fellowship website and the nominees were narrowed down even more. Finally, the winning city was announced: TORONTO!

The other city's representatives, were, undoubtedly disappointed to a certain degree, but Toronto did indeed look fantastic in the proposal from future GOTF President, Ed Rodrigues. In fact, it looked perfect. Medieval Times was proposed as an evening's entertainment dubbed as King Eomer's Tournament of the Riddermark. The Colony Hotel had committed to fantastic rates and, especially for the American buck, the convention was more than affordable. Early Bird Reservations were put on sale and the GOTF Committee was pleased to see brisk sales.

Did I say that Rodrigues was wise? Indeed he is. Rather than recruiting new folks to help him with the Toronto endeavour, he recruited those that had submitted proposals for their own cities along with Tolkien fans that he knew had convention experience. Obviously these people LIKED doing this sort of thing and were enthusiastic about it; so, why not let them lend
their expertise?

The GOTF Committee was forged. This group of intense Tolkien fans took it upon themselves to make the Gathering of the Fellowship happen...and happen GLORIOUSLY. Through their love of Tolkien's works and Jackson's movie interpretations, this group of individuals would pull together and begin to plan the very first international Tolkien fan convention ever.

One of their first priorities was making the convention non profit. No one had an interest in turning this into a moneymaking venture for anyone BUT Tolkien fans in general. In fact, all GOTF Committee members bought their own convention memberships, have paid for their own travel to and from Toronto, and are paying for their own hotel rooms during the convention.

So, where would the money go? Again, a wise decision was made: Since the convention was formed because of the movies, why not make the profit go to something to support Tolkien's books? Voila, the charity was chosen: Pro
Literacy Worldwide: The National Book Scholarship Fund and Laubach Literacy of Canada. It seemed completely natural and reflected a beautiful balance between the new Jackson films and our beloved Tolkien classics. Lending even more credence to the path chosen so far, the GOTF Committee was wonderfully surprised to find that Kirk Shisler, the Pro Literacy representative, was an avid Tolkien fan as well!

As the search for special guests commenced with newly appointed Director of Programming, Ginger Wages, (another Tolkien Online member and your very own Elbren :), another wonderful partnership was formed: Heren Istarion, New
York's Tolkien Society, contacted Ed Rodrigues with an offer to partner up for the GOTF. Anthony Burdge and Jessica Burke came onboard with the responsibility of fashioning a JRR Tolkien specific programming track that would cover topics from Beowulf to the Books vs the Films. With their experience and contacts, Heren Istarion has been able to commit guests such as Dr. Michael Drout, Amy Sturgis, Professor Jane Chance, and more. Truly, the Tolkien Programming Track, called "Bag End", is one of the most impressive academic tracks ever presented on Tolkien's writings. Tolkien scholars and casual readers alike will drool over what they will find waiting for them in Bag End.

How did the committee come up with Bag End for the academic track? Well, actually, Rodrigues had another moment of genius. Or, as some thought at the time, a moment of insanity: Rodrigues wanted to decorate the entire convention area as Middle Earth. There would be a reception area called the Grey Havens, rooms called Bag End, Lothlorien, Fangorn, and Isengard. Each room would BE that area of Middle Earth. Big dreams? Oh yes. Feasible? Oh yes. Gonna happen? OH YES!

Heren Istarion also brought gifted artist Catherine Sparsidis to the Gathering for the specific purpose of creating Middle Earth at the Queen Elizabeth Exhibit Hall. Plans were set forth, meetings were held, and even as the Committee themselves watched with gaping jaw, it became very apparent that the Gathering of the Fellowship was indeed going to be a portal to Middle Earth. With the signing of special guest Ted Nasmith shortly thereafter, the GOTF was granted permission to use Nasmith's art in the decor, on the GOTF website, and on the GOTF member badges. In other words, when you walk into the Pelennor Fields gaming room at the GOTF, you can expect to SEE the Pelennor Fields in your surroundings :) Oh, and Bag End WILL have a round door complete with party signs!

But even with the signing of Nasmith and Middle Earth inspired rock band, Glasshammer, distressing news hit the GOTF committee in winter 2003: The University of Toronto had purchased the Colony hotel. The GOTF Committee
also realised that the Queen Elizabeth Exhibit Hall just wasn't quite right for what they needed. With the sale of the Colony Hotel, the committee decided to take the news as a "sign" that they needed to be elsewhere. Preferably, having the convention and host hotel at the same location.

After the Colony Hotel recommended several alternatives, the GOTF Committee decided to host the Gathering at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in downtown Toronto. The hotel was beautiful; the location was very close to public transportation; and they could host the entire convention, with all programming (sans the movies and Medieval Times), in the one location. Perfect.

Plans hit high gear again and the Committee went back to the grind. More guests were signed and more guests were sought as ticket sales continued and as the budget allowed. For Director of Programming Ginger Wages, (dat's me), the realisation that something big was happening was when the special guests starting contacting the GOTF committee expressing the desire to attend! It was in this method that GOTF was able to sign Craig Parker, (Haldir), Mark Ferguson, (Gilgalad), and Bruce Hopkins, (Gamling).

And then SARS hit Toronto. Or, so the media told the world. Tolkien fans became concerned that not only might SARS shut down Toronto for the Gathering, but that it might just shut down the Gathering completely.

However, the GOTF prevailed again. Ed Rodrigues and the GOTF Committee issued a statement on SARS after verifying the status of SARS in Toronto with both the City of Toronto and with the Center for Disease Control in Atlana. Toronto was not only safe at that moment, but it would most certainly be safe in December 2003.

The committee kept a steady pace and finally all met face to face in Toronto, at the Sheraton, for a meeting in May 2003, (during the 'height of the SARS scare' ). Oh, I didn't mention that most of the committee lives OUTSIDE of Toronto? The first meeting of the then committee members took had taken place at DragonCon, Atlanta, Georgia, in September 2002; but by May of 2003, the committee had doubled in size and the convention had grown to almost enormous proportions. In fact, it was at this point that the committee decided to slow down the pace a bit and get all the proverbial ducks in a row before plunging ahead into the last six months of pre-convention. So, meeting in Toronto, the committee toured the hotel, presented departmental reports, organised their priorities, visited and toured Medieval Times, and managed some sushi and a viewing of The Two Towers as well.

Kropserkel Productions was brought on board to assist with an opening ceremonies idea that was dreamed up by Director of Programming, Ginger Wages. Donna Maloney was added to the committee as decor director for Medieval Times as (you guessed it): the Committee wanted to transform Medieval Times into Edoras complete with Middle Earth banners, tapestries, Knights, and characters. More special guests were added...

..more programming was added...

..more staff was added...

And now, the GOTF Committee and Tolkien fans from all over the world, are less than 90 days away from three days of Middle Earth heaven in Toronto.

No indeed, not all those that wander are lost, and many, MANY will be wandering towards Toronto very soon!

(This is the first of several articles highlighting The Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. Future articles will cover the Art of the Gathering and the Music of the Gathering.)

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