Thursday, August 31, 2023

Nobody Knows The Party Rules

You can hear it as you get off the elevator. Somewhere down the otherwise quiet hotel hallway is the muffled rumble and chatter of a crowd. Sometimes you can even smell it, the distinct odors of red wine, tonic water, off-brand tequila, lime wedges, and the occasional spilled beer. There’s a kooky flyer taped to the door, wedged open a crack with that hinged bar lock. Or maybe it’s closed and you have to knock and say “is this the place?” Either way you’re in, you’re in that milling, noisy, probably drunk crowd, it’s part of you and you’re part of it. What you can’t do is see it, because this is an anime con room party, and room parties are, as a rule, pretty dimly lit.

When anime conventions began, a lot of traditions were ported over from the culture of the SF and comic conventions that had been abusing unsuspecting hotels for decades. Nerd con standards like costume contests, vendor halls, panel discussions, badges, sometimes even entire staff departments were rebranded with new anime con colors. One such traditional if unofficial function was the room party. While at your local Chattacon, Boskone, NorWesCon or Ad Astra, you might have noticed flyers advertising various hotel room parties being thrown by various groups of fans promoting a Worldcon bid, a fanzine launch, or a new convention they were trying to get started across town. Maybe the local British SF club wanted to invite people over to watch Blake’s 7 or Adam Adamant, or the Star Trek club wanted to find out if their version of Romulan Ale was dilithium crystallized enough. Any excuse for a party, really.

I don’t want to come right out and say we just copy-pasted our room party culture wholesale from the nerd con room parties we attended as underage fans because they were reliable sources of cheap beer and weak rum & cokes, but we kinda did.


And thus was born the anime con room party, a mutant hybrid of frat bash, cocktail mixer, hospitality suite, and private movie screening. An event that, once launched, could careen off into any one of fifty different directions - transforming into a room full of drunks hollering at each other about cartoons, or  a full-on birthday party complete with cake, candles, and blindfolded party games. There might be a girl weeping quietly next to the sofa or there might be a girl cheerfully singing along to the boom box as she strips down to her underwear. Maybe a few consenting adults are consensually groping each other in the attached bedroom behind the door you thought you locked. Or maybe someone’s taken it upon themselves to “entertain” the room with a VHS tape of hilarious anime music videos, which they are showing on the VCR they brought, which they have wired up to the hotel room TV, which has turned a room full of people that used to be a party but is now merely a bunch of people watching something. Party disaster is always right around the corner.

Eventually, crews started setting up party dynasties around the country, and an anime con Saturday night might find you in a party crowd in Cincinnati or Chicago, in Atlanta or Austin, in Denver or Dallas, crammed like sardines into somebody’s hotel room or comfortably perched on a Presidential Suite sofa, socializing with guests, staff, vendors, fansubbers, artists, zine publishers, cosplayers or gate-crashers. And then, as quickly as it arose, the anime con party scene melted away, as organizers aged out of and were overwhelmed by the new, swelling anime-con demographic, which was not as interested in sequestering itself away from the crowds. The ephemeral nature of a party scene is no surprise; hosting a party is an art, not a science. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of constantly shifting variables, a lot of trial and error involving the annexation of suitable spaces, the acquisition of food & beverage, and the likelihood of anyone actually showing up.

 My own con room party-throwing experience came out of necessity, more or less; our local crowd of anime nerds was at our local Fantasy Fair and we wanted to screen some anime, and the convention proper didn’t have an anime room, didn’t have anime on the schedule, and generally didn’t want to be bothered with it. So we just imitated what we’d seen others do; we brought some junk food and Cokes, we filled a cooler with ice filled one bucket at a time from the ice machine in the hallway, and we spent a good forty minutes trying to unscrew the RF cable from inside its protective, anti-theft cover on the back of the TV. Soon we were showing “Star Dipwads” and “Dirty Pair Does Dishes” to an audience of friends and strangers crammed into our hotel room.

At some point these SF/comic cons saw we were jamming the halls with people trying to get into our impromptu, unsupervised events, and we were grudgingly allowed to program official anime video rooms. Eventually we started our own anime conventions. But we still threw parties; sometimes to promote a new fan parody dub, sometimes to promote our local anime club or local con, sometimes just… just because we’re in a space with a bunch of friends we might not have seen in a while, and the innate need of humans to socialize is a powerful force indeed..

The first step on the Party Path is finding that physical space. Sure, you can just host the thing in your own hotel room. Maybe your room-mates will be OK with this, but perhaps they won’t be thrilled with the idea of a bunch of strangers hanging out where they keep their clothes and all the stuff they’ve bought in the dealers room, strangers who will be there until the wee hours, spilling drinks and Doritos all over the place. So your best bet is to somehow get a suite, or maybe two adjoining rooms with a connecting door, so that your social gathering is in one space and your valuables are in the other.

Anime 54

Jan Scott-Frazier managed the “Anime 54” blowouts, which appeared over the course of four years at a dozen or so early 00’s conventions including Ohayocon, Anime Festival Orlando, Animefest, Onicon, Katsucon and Nekocon. Their plan was to convince the convention to give them the use of the green room, con suite or other function room, which couldn’t have been too difficult as Jan was frequently a guest at those conventions. A lot of the larger, more connected parties either managed to rent hotel suites the convention hadn’t already requisitioned, or talked their way into borrowing one for the night. Project A-Kon was home to the late 1990s “Da Bar” party crew, notable for a liquor bill in the five figures and an ultra-swank two-level suite. Anime Weekend Atlanta’s Dessloktoberfest was held yearly from 1998 until the mid 2010s in everything from top floor function rooms to suites in satellite hotels, while the jacket-and-tie martini-afternoon “Let’s Classy” commandeered con suites and green rooms for a few short years. Big Fire’s Midwestern anime con parties remain Anime Central hotel suite legends decades after the fact.

Who’s going to come to this thing? Is it a private invite-only affair, or is it open to all? Back in the day when anime con attendance was in the high hundreds or low thousands, you could throw a party and be pretty sure you wouldn’t get overcrowded. Once anime con attendance crept into the twenty thousands, the old days of simply posting flyers became a bad idea. This is why this is an art, not a science, you want to hit that sweet spot of a good crowd that’s lively but not “somebody call security” lively, crowded but not too crowded. You don’t want to run out of drinks in the first hour.


When Space Battleship Yamato fans Carol Hutchings, Mike Horne and Kathy Clarkson came from Boston to Atlanta and threw the first Star Blazers themed “Dessloktoberfest” party at the third AWA, the only admission qualification was that all attendees had to swear allegiance to Leader Desslok of Gamilon. This evolved into custom invites and laminated party badges, but entry generally wasn’t too difficult, denied to only the obviously underage or the obviously sketchy. Anime 54 was always invite-only to avoid overcrowding and noise. Eventually 54’s party invites were numbered to foil counterfeiters. Frazier says, “The main line of defense was the door and I made sure to always have good people on door. (...)We stole stanchions and red ropes from the lobby a couple times(.) “ My experience is that flashing a convention staff or guest badge will get you into pretty much every anime con room party, one of the few benefits of being an anime con lifer. 

Liven up that party with an autopsy

Which brings us to decor. Let’s jazz that boring old hotel room up a little! Switch out the light bulbs with colored party store lights. String up some patio lights or dollar store disco balls, grab your painter’s tape and temporarily hang some posters. Borrow a video projector and splash confusing imagery on the ceiling, Carl Horn style. Wire up your thrift-store stereo or MP3 boom box or blue-tooth speaker and jam out with your custom party mix. Think up a theme and let that dictate the decorations - anything that evokes fun and frivolity, whether it’s suggestive of a backyard tiki party or the hallucinogen-soaked gonzo Vegas of Hunter S. Thompson, the theme of an Animazement party that prominently featured a suitcase full of prop narcotics. And remember, either cover that hotel room TV with wax paper for an impromptu lightshow, or unplug it entirely. You’re at a convention for people whose main activity is watching TV, and if that TV’s showing something they’re going to watch it instead of chatting or singing or laughing or eating or drinking.


That’s right, people want eats and drinks at these social engagements. Could be this anime con room party is in your home town and you make a run to your local grocery store or Wal-Mart or Party City or wherever it is you get bags of ice and styrofoam coolers and 2-liters of soda and chips and snacks. Paper towels. Disposable plates. Solo cups. Maybe an electric fan to keep the room breezy. Some Hefty bags for after-party cleanup. On the other hand, this convention might be in a strange city where you lack a convenient vehicle and/or knowledge of the nearest shopping center, a situation sadly prevalent in the pre-wifi days of the early 00s, requiring you to  scout up a local guide to point you in the right direction. For extra excitement perhaps you and a confederate take your cooler (and your staff badges - this is an advanced level activity) onto a trip into the hotel’s kitchen and fill up with ice from their industrial ice maker, instead of relying on the dying hallway ice machines.  

And then there’s the question of alcohol. How much? And what kind? How elaborate do you want your mixology?  Frazier says “My party drink was the Bahama Mama. I didn’t pre-mix because those were always gross to me. We free poured everything. Occasionally had Zima if someone brought it but no beer. Beer is really smelly.“ Carl Horn limited his party bartending to one signature mixed drink, preferably one involving tonic water, which, fun fact, glows under UV light. Dessloktoberfest involved everything from German lagers to the boxed wine preferred by Star Blazers voice actress Amy Howard. I always like to bring something out of the ordinary to a gathering, and this might mean a six pack of Tsingtao or one of those two-liter Sapporo cans or vodka packaged in an artillery shell. I’ll admit a soft spot for the classic, old-fashioned bathtub full of beer, ingredients consisting of (1) bathtub, preferably clean, (2) assorted cans and bottles of beer and soft drinks, and of course (3) don’t forget the bottle opener! Mixed drinks are always a logistical challenge and it’s best to keep it simple, stupid - rum and Coke, Jack and Coke, gin and tonic, tequila and somebody else, I am not touching that stuff again.

This means one thing - you’re going to need a liquor store. Yes, here’s where the fun really begins, where the wide-eyed innocence of a festival devoted to what are largely cartoons for children gets smushed up against the sleazy, degenerate reality of the adult beverage industry. Liquor stores come in two types: the modern, shiny Beverage Expo, and the harsh, stuttering fluorescent lights of the old-school strip-mall package store, where decades of mysterious stains merge with the ghosts of last century’s cigarettes and the desperate sweat of the confirmed alcoholic who can barely keep his hands from shaking as he empties his pockets for a handle of vodka and a sixer of Busch. No matter the time of day, it’s always late at night in those liquor stores. Here’s a tip, if anyone in your crew is underage, leave them in the car! Don’t let them in the door or even on the sidewalk. Laws vary from state to state so you don’t want to delay your liquor run. Those stores might close super early, they might be in distant locations across the county line, they might even be disguised with red dots or the mysterious letters ABC, as in the Carolinas.

So when a hundred lives are shoved inside and nobody knows the party rules, who’s to blame when parties get out of hand? Usually alcohol. Sometimes somebody’s had a little too much and gravity becomes unstoppable as they slide down into that negative zone between the side of the hotel bed and the wall. Scott-Frazier remembers Anime 54’s doormen and bouncers became good at bouncing problem people before they became problems, with the exception of one drunk who got into the suite bedroom, took off his pants, and fell fast asleep on the bed. Party crowds and noise might earn a visit from con security or hotel security and you’d better do what they say, because they can and will eject you from the premises. AWA’s Dessloktoberfest could go ‘til the wee hours for two or three years without a warning and then the very next year see the hammer come down at 11pm. Frazier remembers 54 “... usually got one warning then went quiet, but there were times they shut us down. There were a number of times the cops showed up. About half the time we could bribe them and I had a bartender who was a first responder who knew how to talk with them. The worst was when people lined up outside the door even though I told them not to (...) Hotel tried to shut me down twice over that.”  Ed Hill recalls a Project A-Kon “Da Bar” bacchanal in the late 90s involving an unplanned yet wildly popular amateur striptease contest. “I was probably second out the door before the cops showed up…she did strip to Du Hast by Rammstein. There were actually two ‘contestants’. The second one didn’t go very far.” I myself was in Carl Horn’s less raucous room party on another floor and heard about the impromptu burlesque when a bunch of guys burst into the room to show us evidence on their flip camera phones, a harbinger of the digital-panopticon age that now surrounds us like horny A-Kon nerds around an undressing party girl.

Chinese New Year crashes Anime 54

Eventually the music winds down, the last guests say their goodnights, and that total stranger who’s been passed out on the couch for the past two hours comes to life and shambles away. Suddenly it’s two or three in the morning and you’re surveying a room full of empty cans, half-eaten snacks, melted ice, and a few unidentifiable stains. It’s time to start filling that garbage bag, to dump that cooler out into the sink, to start drinking water you should have been drinking all along, to take the first of the Advil you’ll be never far from tomorrow. This is the Minneapolis police, the party is over. Are the parties over throughout the anime con world?

Look at anime con growth in North America and you’ll see that sharp curve upwards as the things went from regional gatherings of a few hundred to five, ten, twenty, fifty, sometimes a hundred thousand unique individuals all jammed into one confused convention center. Throwing a room party in the midst of this crowd seems…well, it’s a bad idea. Anime cons have ditched other old-school SF convention staples like con suites and program books and judging by the “no parties” rules hotels are posting lately, it seems the anime con room party is also marching into oblivion. It’s not a surprise, really; the party crews of 1998-2008 have aged into semi-responsible middle aged nerds for whom a serious hangover lasts days, not hours, and who learned committing to serious room party action is itself serious. That party is your whole weekend; you can’t be distracted by paneling or running events or staff duties - which is why we’re at these conventions to begin with. Ever try moderating an anime con panel after a night of serious drinking? It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds.

wild shore leave for the Yamato crew

Room parties have lost any grass-roots marketing power they may have had. Your club or convention doesn’t need to promote itself by entertaining fifty people in a hotel suite. The potential party-goers themselves are a new generation, one that drinks less and is less interested in making small talk in a dark room full of strangers. Anyway, they’re busy at one of the myriad 24-hour programming tracks and late-night official supervised activities that the modern anime con provides. Why sequester yourself in a room when you could hit the rave? After seeing the chaotic damage that unsupervised, disengaged, maybe inebriated anime fans can cause, many shows partnered with their host hotels to host adults-only cash-bar mixers in convention function spaces, giving attendees that private party, alcohol-fueled, meet & greet & make new friends opportunity without having to ride the elevator up to the tenth floor and enter a room full of potential weirdos.

Of course, people will still gather in their hotel rooms to shoot the breeze and listen to some tunes while knocking back a few brewskis. But full-fledged con room parties aren’t the public displays of drunken revelry they once were. Like every other aspect of anime fandom, the late night socializing has become organized, supervised, and commodified; part of a weekend package deal of entertainment that might be less wild and more focused, but perhaps less harmful as well. Once the reputation of being a “party con” spreads, the actual anime con itself becomes overwhelmed by stumbling fight-hungry dudes tripping over themselves while sniffing out their latest assault victims. Convention organizers suddenly have to deal with cops, liability issues, safety concerns, and all the other problems that seemed far, far away from anything they expected to have to deal with when they said “hey, let’s have a convention about them Japanese cartoons we like.”


Aim For The Ace-themed AWA event

The heyday of the anime con room party may have passed. And that’s OK. We can spend less time in liquor stores and more time at, you know, the convention we traveled hours to, that we booked time off work for, the convention about the thing we’re supposedly fans of, which is anime. Not worrying about cleaning deposits while we mop spilled margaritas off hotel upholstery… there aren’t many fans of that.

 thanks to Jan Scott-Frazier, Carol Hutchings, Kathy Clarkson, Carl Gustav Horn, Ed Hill, and the brave members of all the party planning committees throughout anime fandom!

-Dave Merrill


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