An unexpected adventure in Germany's Bonn

From playing a small role to becoming a major attraction, Hobbit actor John Callen experiences Hobbitcon's buzz.

Cos-play at Hobbitcon.
Cos-play at Hobbitcon.

Call them mad, call them fanatical, call them devoted — fans of The Hobbit are a very happy and dedicated family who do what they do because they love it.

The Middle-earth brand has attracted more than $3 billion a year to the country's economy, according to Tourism New Zealand, but the impact of the two trilogies of films has been felt worldwide. And nowhere more so than at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn, Germany, where the fourth and final Hobbitcon was held recently.

Fans from around the world headed to the former West German capital — and birthplace of Beethoven — to meet Kiwi and British actors, to dress as their favourite characters and share their experiences with like-minded friends. This year people came from Japan and Australia, across Europe and Scandinavia, from Russia and even Aotearoa.

As a jobbing actor and director in New Zealand for the past 40-odd (sometimes very odd) years, the phenomenon of "fandom" was new to me when I attended my first convention back in 2013.

As a senior citizen and having had a relatively small role in the Hobbit films, I was unsure I'd even be recognised, let alone sought-after. How wrong I was. It turned out to be a unique and uplifting experience.

There's nothing new about fan conventions. They started back in the 1930s with groups of British and American and comic and film fans coming together to share their love of fantasy, science fiction and drama.

Thirty years later the power of television was exemplified by the Trekkies — Star Trek fans who just couldn't get enough of their favourite sci-fi TV drama. Their sheer numbers astounded even the studios and stunned many of the actors. One early convention alone attracted 40,000 fans. In his 80s, actor William Shatner is still a sought-after star of Sci-Fi and Fantasy conventions.

Hobbitcon organiser Dirk Bartholomae.
Hobbitcon organiser Dirk Bartholomae.

In Germany, Dirk Bartholomae knew this was something he wanted to be a part of and in 1982 held his first "Fan Convention".

"Back then it was just a house and 50-60 Star Wars and Star Trek fans," he told me.

Then he discovered the US conventions had stars attending and many more fans.

"So I really wanted to pursue that dream and did my first FedCon 1992 in Augsburg with Walter Koenig (Chekov from Star Trek, the original series) and we had a sold-out convention with 400 fans. One year later we had George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek), moved to Munich in a bigger hotel and had a sold out convention with 600 attendees."

For years Bartholomae has operated the RingCon events and, since 2013, the Hobbitcons. This year's event drew 2500 fans, down from last year's 4000 but definitely one of the best events he's run.

I wanted to know what it is that attracts people from around the world.

Bartholomae's example was of Leonard Nimoy (Dr Spock from Star Trek).

"He was a Jewish actor and had his concerns about our German past and the murdering of millions of Jewish people," said Bartholomae.

"So we kept inviting him and he kept declining. But all his colleagues told about how great the FedCon events were. So we asked him again for FedCon 7 [in 1999] and he asked his rabbi. The rabbi told him to do it and tell the fans about the Spock greeting and its Jewish origins.

"So Mr Nimoy came and when he went on stage at the opening ceremony the audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation for more than 10 minutes. Many people were crying; he just stood there and did his Spock greeting. It was one of the most fascinating moments in my life."

But just why would otherwise intelligent, sane people want to dress up in costume for a long weekend, parade themselves as characters from fictional books, comics and films, and learn how to fight, learn the secrets of prosthetics and about Tolkien himself? Why would they want to be photographed with the so-called stars of these films? Why would they pay money for a signature on a photo of an actor — or for some, a number of actors. Of me? Because they love it.

The dedication of the fans to characters and even specific scenes in a film, is such that some will spend more than 1000 hours to make a costume for a "cos-play" parade of lookalike talent. They are among like-minded people and proud to wear their costumes.

Stephanie Schmidt, 25, from Auvernier in Switzerland arrived at the recent Hobbitcon with three costumes and wore a different one each day. She also competed in the cos-play contest in an outfit as Ciri from the game The Wither Three; the costume took her three months of planning and preparation followed by solid graft for another three months.

John Callen as Oin.
John Callen as Oin.

Marie Granier, from France, dressed as dwarf Kili with a five o'clock shadow, spent 20 minutes explaining to me why she thought the final scenes of the deaths of dwarf leader Thorin and the brothers Fili and Kili had been seriously compromised in the third Hobbit film. Not only that, she had worked out exactly how it should have been done.

Many fans have small incomes and save incredibly hard just to be there. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths to overcome sickness and disability to be there. Others are professional people; I met a doctor, a psychologist and a physiotherapist — all devoted fans who have returned year after year. For many they have made "friends" on Facebook and other social media and a convention is a chance to meet their new family. Friendships made at these conventions last for lifetimes.

Last year, after my third trip to Bonn — and a variety of other conventions in Britain, Australia, the US and a few in New Zealand — a friend said quite bluntly: "It's all a bit weird, though — grown people dressing up like that."

Not long after making that comment he was wearing a nurse's costume at the Wellington Rugby Sevens. Sports fans happily turn up in their team's kit, shirts emblazoned with their favourite sports star's name and number on the back. It's much the same for the film fandom.

But my friend was right — it can be a bit weird to be faced by a female fan wearing the outfit and beard and moustache of one's own male character.

Or to see a couple, kitted out as Dwarfs and with huge false beards, in a passionate embrace on a park bench in the hotel grounds. Now that is true love.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Frankfurt, via their hub in Dubai. Express rail goes to Bonn.

Further information: See magiccon.de.

- NZ Herald

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