This is the story of my first Reuben Awards convention as National Cartoonists Society (NCS) president, in 2000.
We wanted to do a 50th anniversary of Peanuts celebration, but hotel construction put the plans for a Santa Rosa convention on hold. United Media, the syndicate that owned Peanuts, was located in Manhattan, and NCS conventions draw the biggest crowds when they are in New York City, so I decided to do the 2000 convention in New York. My wife, Peg and I flew to New York twice and visited a half dozen prospective hotels. We got competing bids from three hotels and spent a month haggling prices with all three before deciding on the World Trade Center Marriott in lower Manhattan, which gave us a great deal on Memorial Day weekend, when lower Manhattan is traditionally deserted. Before that, the NCS usually had their Reuben Awards on Mothers Day weekend. I got some angry blasts of criticism from old NCSers in New York who thought it was outrageous to have the convention in lower Manhattan because it should have been in Midtown, where it always used to be. “Nobody wants to go downtown!” they told me.
The convention was extra difficult because our previous management company had crashed and burned soon after I became president. I had just hired a new management company, but they didn’t want to run the convention because they hadn’t gotten to know the NCS yet; they wanted to come to their first NCS Reubens event just to observe. My wife Peg ended up doing nearly all of the organizing work that we would usually expect a management company to do: starting with handling registrations and tracking all the payments, making seating charts and dealing with menus, responding to the many special requests, arguing about hotel bills and comps, manning the convention registration desk throughout the weekend, and serving as the bouncer for those who overstayed their welcome in the Presidential Suite. I couldn’t have done it without Peg. (And the new management company folks were good sports; they ended up pitching in on site –more than they first planned.)
The convention would be a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Peanuts. Charles M. Schulz (“Sparky”) was on board with it; United Media was delighted and generously offered to cover the cost of a big Sunday brunch for everyone at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the North Tower. Political cartoonist, Mike Luckovich stepped up and was a tremendous help; he did all the organizational work of getting the newspaper comic strip artists to draw 50th anniversary of Peanuts strips on the same Saturday that our banquet was held, when we planned to give our lifetime achievement award to Sparky.
All seemed to be going well when we received the terribly sad news that Sparky had died in February. With all the Peanuts celebration stuff planned for May, 2000, and with the commitments I had already made in the hotel contract, I thought we might be in trouble. We ended up having the biggest NCS convention ever, kicking off with a grand opening cocktail reception on the 2nd floor promenade of the North Tower lobby.
Mike Luckovich contacted all the newspaper comic strip cartoonists and got them to draw Peanuts “tribute cartoons” for that Saturday, rather than the Peanuts anniversary cartoons we had planned earlier. The tributes in the “funny pages” were great, and I was walking around the convention the whole time, with my cell phone on my ear, giving interviews to journalists who were writing about the big newspaper comics tribute. We gave the lifetime achievement award to Sparky posthumously.
Steve McGarry and Jeff Keane both have previous show business experience and ran the shows for the first time, raising our production quality to levels the NCS hadn’t seen before. Bil Keane, Jeff’s dad who drew The Family Circus comic, was a very funny guy; he had been the emcee of the Reubens for many years, but at his insistence, this was going to be his last year as Reuben emcee. Steve had the idea to do a Bil Keane Roast on the Sunday night, which led to a repeat of the King Features/Mort Walker kerfuffle, this time with King objecting to the Bil Keane Roast –Bil liking the Roast idea, and King adopting a positive tone again, becoming a second big sponsor, and paying for dinner before the Roast. Steve’s Roast of Bil involved lots of cartoonists doing skits and was great fun.
There were other fun things that happened. I’m a big David Levine fan, and he was a speaker, so I got to meet him. We had a panel of features editors from top newspapers across America talking about the comics (that’s something that would never happen today). There was an odd debate in the NCS at that time about seminars at the conventions, which were still a new part of the Reubens weekend; some old-timers thought the conventions should only consist of parties and objected to seminars. I was “pro-seminar” and pushed lots of seminars into the schedule. RJ Matson managed the many seminars and did a great job.
What is most fun about being the NCS president is that the president gets to “commission” the Reuben weekend artwork; I called my first choice, who graciously agreed, which gave me the delightful opportunity to serve as art director to the legendary Jack Davis. I love Jack’s work and I grew up looking forward to his art in each new issue of Mad Magazine; it was great fun to work with him on this. He was such a Southern gentleman. Jack Davis was, and always will be, my cartoonist hero.
My kids, Susie and Michael, were 16 and 10 years old at the time, and starting with the site visit, they had gotten to know the World Trade Center well, hanging around the shopping mall and becoming well acquainted with every nook and cranny of the entire complex. Susie danced with Jack Davis on Reubens night, and both kids went to most of the seminars.
There were also plenty of nervous moments. There were over 630 people at the banquet (a typical Reuben banquet size is half that size). Several local cartoonists waited until the last minute, that Saturday, to decide they wanted to come, and showed up at the hotel to register on site for the dinner. No one was turned away, though it meant continually juggling seating and adding extra chairs to numerous tables. The ballroom was filled beyond capacity and the new management company people got nudged out of the banquet, so more NCSers and guests could have their seats. We were lucky the fire marshal didn’t make a visit.
We always had a live band in those days, so I hired a band that the old-timers liked; one that had played for the NCS years ago when the Reuben Awards dinner was a single night at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South. The band didn’t show up until the exact minute that the show was set to begin. I learned that if you want the band to be in place before the show starts, you have to pay them more for those few extra minutes.
The Sunday brunch at Windows on the World ran well over budget, with open bars and cartoonists who will drink everything they see. United Media contracted for the brunch directly, so the bill of well over $100,000.00 went directly to United Media (thank goodness). It was a great, boozy brunch, but chilling in retrospect. All of the staff at the Windows on the World restaurant were trapped above where the airliner hit the building on 9/11/2001, and the employees who served us brunch did not survive the attack.
When the Twin Towers fell, the entire 22-story Marriott was also destroyed. Most of the hotel staff got out safely, but forty people reportedly died there, primarily firemen who were using the hotel as a staging area. While it was a shock to the entire world to see the towers and hotel fall, the fact that this had recently been home to our convention and a playground for my kids made it feel personal. Marriott chose not to rebuild the hotel and the site is now a part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
I look back on our convention at the World Trade Center with both warmth and chills.
Read more old stuff about my career as a cartoonist on DarylCagle.com