Starlogging With David McDonnell: Saddest Trek Encounter Ever
I’ve met a lot of Star Trek people.
Editing Starlog and three different series of Trek licensed publications (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, plus one-shots devoted to some of the movies), I oversaw multiple interviews with hundreds of different Trek folks (actors, writers, directors, producers, technicians, novelists, etc.). And thanks mostly to SF conventions and press events, I’ve even met a number of them. The saddest one of all was the late Angelique Pettyjohn.
Now, I’ve debated the appropriateness of indulging in this memory play, but since it was a public event of a science fictional nature, it seems fair to comment. I certainly don’t mean to disparage Pettyjohn, but my encounter with the actress was offbeat, poignant and, well, uncomfortable.
It was 1985 or 1986—and one of the initial Los Angeles Starlog Festivals, this con was held, I think, at the historic but decaying Ambassador Hotel, once a vibrant part of the city’s social scene, but by then a fading backdrop to tragedy. It’s where Robert F. Kennedy, brother to a slain U.S. President and vying himself for that same office, was assassinated in 1968. Over the years, its urban surroundings had deteriorated, leaving the Ambassador as a somewhat threadbare jewel in the tarnished crown of Los Angeles. It was the perfect setting, not so much for an SF convention but a horror movie (and indeed numerous films and TV shows used the Ambassador as a shooting location, decades after it played host to early Oscar award ceremonies).
Starlog’s name had been licensed by Creation Entertainment for these events, and although the magazine’s staff suggested guests and programming, Creation’s longtime partners Adam Malin and Gary Berman ran the show and made the major decisions. Unlike Starlog Festivals in other cities, the Los Angeles conventions didn’t have to budget for guest air travel, hotel rooms, food and such expenses. Since the celebrities were local, costs were lower (and may have been reduced further by the use of the well-worn Ambassador; other LA Starlog events utilized the more-inviting LAX Airport Marriott and the fabled Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim).
We knew who the guests were (drawn from various SF movies and TV shows), but not all of the specifics of what they were to do. So, Starlog publisher Kerry O’Quinn, special FX editor David Hutchison and editor (me) were surprised by Pettyjohn’s Saturday night performance (as part of the events filling out the evening). Her claim to science fiction fame, of course, was "The Gamesters of Triskelion," an episode of Star Trek, broadcast in 1968. Frankly, it’s not one of the better Classic Treks. Maybe you remember it? Kirk, Chekov and Uhura are forced into fun and games in the gladiatorial arena on the planet Triskelion. Pettyjohn plays Shahna, a slave/fight trainer who represents both the fun and the games for Kirk. Fortunately, (SPOILER ALERT!) Kirk applies his action hero brand of seductive starship diplomacy and frees the thralls.
That night at the LA Starlog Festival, Pettyjohn donned a homemade replica of her original William Ware Theiss-designed, scanty outfit. It looked partly made of aluminum foil. As footage of her (then-) almost-20-year-old Trek appearance played on the screen above at the front of the hotel banquet room and a music track blared, Pettyjohn danced. She weaved and ducked. She haphazardly waved around a metallic, duct-taped facsimile of whatever Triskelionic prop she had used as a drill thrall (alien battle axe or cosmic can opener?).
At least three jaws dropped and mouths remained open in shock and awe—Kerry’s, Hutch’s and mine. This was misconceived, a bad idea, an embarrassment. Her dance was intended to be exciting, nostalgic, futuristic and (probably) erotic. But this amateurish Trek rock video/live performance art just came off as...well, awful.
Pettyjohn apparently could dance, but this act didn’t indicate that. It was a train wreck, one of the saddest things I ever experienced at an SF convention. Sadder than the "sci fi" scribe, intoxicated by his own ego, swirling his fame around in ways that diminished the legend. Sadder than the film previews for non-genre pix nobody wanted to see and special promotional appearances by their "slumming" celebs who expected accolades for just showing up. Sadder than the youngish mother dressing her toddler up for costume contests at consecutive cons and going crazy when the kid didn’t win first prize every time. On second thought, no, definitely, this Triskelion waltz was the saddest Trek encounter ever!
The musical number went on and on, long after the audience had tired of it. At last, the dance ended and the crowd stirred into polite applause. Perhaps because most of us were glad it was over. Or, more likely, because nobody wanted to humiliate this poor woman any further. She meant well. She thought this would entertain the fans. She had no clue, I believe, to the real reaction. (Or if she did, she hid her disappointment well).
I just felt bad about it all— despite the fact I hadn’t been involved in programming her efforts. And, she later did the dance at several other Trek cons (so some people must have appreciated it far more than we did). So, did select Trekkers think this was hot stuff? Could be.
Yes, Kerry, Hutch and I did meet Angelique Pettyjohn that weekend. She had two different sets of photos of herself available for sale and signing. One offered family-friendly images from Star Trek; the other was for the over-21 crowd, with her topless or otherwise semi-bare.
She tried to give the naked set to Kerry, who, as the magazine’s co-publisher, was the Big Cheese V.I.P. of our visiting Starlog contingent. Kerry just laughed it all off, "Thanks, but I’m not interested." She had picked the wrong guy. As he would announce publicly years later (outing himself), Kerry is gay.
I didn’t know, at the time, that after her days in 1960s Hollywood, Pettyjohn had moved to Las Vegas and worked as a showgirl and burlesque star. She made adult flicks. And her convention agent told me there had been other difficulties (I don’t recall details). In 1992, she died of cancer.
It just gets sadder and sadder, doesn’t it? I’m glad for those of us in that audience (and for Angelique Pettyjohn herself) that when she danced, as uncomfortable as it was to watch, we didn’t laugh at her. That would have been the saddest part of all.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2013 David McDonnell