It began as a small gathering for a handful of people. Next weekend, they'll host the masses. Chris Schulz meets the small team running Auckland's biggest event.

Twenty-three years ago, Bill and Adele Geradts invited a group of like-minded fans over for a chat. "We'd argue about Dr Who," says Bill. "It was lots of fun." The meet-ups turned into a regular event, held every three months. Attendance grew, with up to 50 people cramming into the couple's small Auckland home.

As numbers increased, so did the Geradts' family. When their second child arrived, a boy called Duncan who they struggled to settle, the regular influx of Dr Who fans became an annoyance. "I went, 'This is it,'" says Adele. "'These people are getting out of our house. We are not doing this any more.'"

But Bill didn't want to give up. He persuaded Adele to help him organise something bigger. So, in December 1995, they booked the Freemans Bay Community Centre, passing around flyers for a one-day experience celebrating popular passions of the time: card games like Wizard and Magic: The Gathering, phone and sporting card trades, and - yes - arguments about Dr Who.

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It was, say the Geradts, the first iteration of Armageddon, the annual pop culture juggernaut - some call it a "geekfest" - that has grown astronomically. Its four New Zealand events each year attract 130,000 people, the equivalent of three sold-out All Blacks test matches.

So how'd that first one go? "I think we lost about $5000," says Bill, a small fortune for someone earning $20,000 a year as a retail assistant. "We were like, 'I don't know how the f*** we're going to pay that.' The wife said, 'Look, well, we're not doing that again. That's just a giant waste of money.'"

"He convinced me that it wasn't," replies Adele. "And I'm very glad he did."

The Armageddon team at home in Halswell, Christchurch. Back, from left: Courtney Collins, Therese Costello, Thomas Barrer; front, from left: Bill and Adele Geradts. Photo/Martin Hunter
The Armageddon team at home in Halswell, Christchurch. Back, from left: Courtney Collins, Therese Costello, Thomas Barrer; front, from left: Bill and Adele Geradts. Photo/Martin Hunter
T

here's a Dalek in the garden, a black and ominous presence sitting amid trees flowering in spring. Inside, there's a painting of an exploding Tardis on the wall, and

Dr Who

DVD box sets are stacked in neat orders on bookshelves. A samurai sword sits sheathed underneath the TV.

Pop culture collectables can be found throughout the Geradts' large Halswall home in Christchurch, but most of it is crammed into one room, an office, where the five-strong Armageddon team is based. Bill's just added a model Viper from Battlestar Galactica, cramming it between a Predator figurine and one of wrestler Rick Flair. "I'm reasonably particular about what we add in here because if I'm not, literally there'd be no room," he says.

But on Monday mornings, when communications manager Courtney Collins, event manager Therese Costello and graphic designer Thomas Barrer arrive for work, they don't head to the office. Instead, they meet Bill and Adele in the lounge and watch the latest episode of Dr Who together, while Camper, their ageing dog, snoozes on the floor.

It's a laid-back atmosphere, mostly. When Weekend arrives, however, things are humming. A celebrity guest has pulled out of attending next weekend's Auckland event, and they've secured Shannon Doherty to fill the place. There's a website to update, and posters to change. The Beverly Hills 90210 star will be appearing alongside The Addams Family's Christina Ricci and Stargate's Michael Shanks. Each guest charges $50 for an autograph, $60 for a fan photo.

These days, Armageddon has fully outgrown its humble beginnings as a Dr Who fanclub. As well as TV and movies, it covers video games, wrestling, cosplay and comics. It attracts big names, like MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson and Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa. In Auckland, Armageddon covers four days over Labour Weekend. It is, claims Bill, the biggest celebration of pop culture in Australasia, and among the top 30 events worldwide.

The numbers are staggering: In Auckland, 70,000 fans will attend. Add in annual events in Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch and that takes Armageddon's tally to 130,000. Bill credits the success of Marvel's superhero movie franchises as part of their explosion in popularity over the last 10 years. "Star Wars doesn't make a billion dollars if only geeks are going to see it," he says.

You'd think their ongoing success would open a few doors. You'd be wrong. Bill says the Auckland Council often closes train services over Labour Weekend for maintenance. According to Auckland Transport's website, parts of the Southern, Western and Eastern Lines will be closed for maintenance and upgrades, with buses offered as replacements.

Worse than that is media coverage in which Armageddon's guests are portrayed in a negative way. "Some media pick out some of the most flamboyant people (and) almost make fun of that," says Adele. "They'd find this person who spent a year building this beautiful costume, put them in the paper, and the little sideline will be almost derogatory."

"It's weird because in every city that we do a show, we're the biggest show in the city," says Bill. "We're the biggest public expo in Auckland, we're the biggest one in Wellington, we're the biggest one in Tauranga, we're the biggest one in Christchurch. We pull in more people, and yet we still have that stigma of people going, 'What are you?'

Adele agrees: "[It's seen as], 'Oh, it's a little geeky thing, not that many people would be interested.'"

That's not the case. Armageddon is, they say, a chance to be around like-minded people, celebrate their favourite things, and, if they want to, let their freak flag fly. "Last year I saw a family dressed up: the mother was Rei, the dad was Finn, the daughter was also Rei, they had a baby Stormtrooper, it was just the sweetest thing. You see so many families swimming in the geek sphere in such a great way."

All those events, attended by all those people. But the Geradts say they don't always make the best business decisions. They've had more failures since that first event, but they've always decided to keep on going. "There's a lot of times: 'Holy crap - we've lost a lot of money. How do we make it back? We'd better do it bigger next year,'" says Bill.

To attract the right talent, and to keep fans coming, they have to spend money they might not get back. "There's this perception of, 'Look at all the people coming to the show, they must be rolling in cash.' The reality is, a lot of what we do, particularly in the regional shows, loses money. If we were a business, there's a lot of things we shouldn't be doing. Some things are just too good to say no to. But we should."

B

ill Geradts was attacked for liking a television show. "I'm an old-school nerd, and I grew up when this wasn't a good thing," he says. "I got beaten up by a Kiss fan because he was obsessive about Kiss and I was obsessive about

Dr Who

and he didn't like it. I don't think that was a unique experience."

So, when he, Adele and the rest of the Armageddon team open the doors to thousands of people next weekend, they see themselves as among family. Literally: many of their family and friends work at the event. Their son Harrison is staff co-ordinator, while their closest friends, Trev and Natasha, look after the guests.

First and foremost, they remain fans of the things Armageddon is celebrating. "The fact that we're living in an age when The Flash, Supergirl, The Arrow, Cloak + Dagger, Daredevil, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones are on TV now, it's crazy," says Bill. "I'm glad for it, it's good stuff. It's nice to see it so embraced."

Despite Armageddon's intimidating size, Bill hasn't forgotten its roots. As that Dalek in the garden shows, he remains a massive Dr Who fan. Sometimes, he takes that fandom to extremes. When Peter Capaldi was announced as the new Dr Who, he and Therese flew up to Auckland to see the new Doctor on a flying promotional visit. They weren't trying to persuade him to appear at Armageddon. They didn't want photos or autographs. They just wanted to say "hi".

"We stood outside for five hours," admits Bill. That patience worked. They got to meet him when Capaldi stopped for a chat while leaving the venue. But as Bill knows better than most, fandom can take a little time to pay off.

Five things to do at Armageddon this year

Get a photo with Christina Ricci:

Guests are a key fixture of Armageddon, and this year's biggest international star is Wednesday Addams herself, Christina Ricci. She rarely does conventions - this is only her fourth - so make the most of this rare opportunity. There will also be a mass

Addams Family

photo on Monday.

Try the latest video games: Armageddon is the best places to check out the latest upcoming releases. PlayStation fans can win a rare console at the Sony stand, while Nintendo fans can trial the new Super Smash Bros Ultimate ahead of its upcoming release. For those who can't handle a small break, you can play Fortnite as well.

Throw on your best costumes: Move aside, comics: cosplay is what conventions are all about these days. Hand-crafted efforts months in the making fill the ASB Showgrounds ever year, and 2018 won't be any different. Cosplayers can pose for professional photos and take part in the annual parade, while us plebs can marvel at their creations. Just remember to ask for permission before you take a photo.

Enjoy more than just geeking out: Armageddon is not just for nerds. Well, it mostly is, but if you're looking to keep the kids amused while you're searching for that one Avengers issue you don't have, have no fear. There are fairground attractions and an inflatable laser tag maze to keep everyone amused. For those dragged along by friends and partners, you can enjoy live music from Openside every day at 1pm.

Go shopping! Plushies. T-shirts. Posters. DVDs. Candy. Video games. More Funko! Pops than you can shake a bobblehead at. From the rare to the collectable, from the mass produced to the independently crafted, Armageddon is like a geeky reimagining of a Moroccan bazaar. Be prepared to leave with far more than you arrived with. (Ethan Sills)
• Armageddon, October 19-22, ASB Showgrounds. Visit armageddonexpo.com for tickets and schedules.