A TRIBUTE TO AL RODIN
Report on the Nineteenth Annual Dayton Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle Symposium
"A Tribute to Al Rodin"
March 10-12, 2000
by Joseph T Major
Last year, a familiar figure was missing from the many hard workers who made the Symposium. Dr. Alvin C. "Al" Rodin, its originator and mainspring, had retired to California the year before; that year, he was unavailable because of ill health. On Thursday, March 18, 1999, four days after the end of that Symposium, he died in Solana Beach, California. In an even crueler irony, his death was from complications of Alzheimer's; a particularly poignant means, given his phenomenal and prodigous memory. Accordingly, this year's Symposium was dedicated to him, and would honor his memory with many fond reminisces of his many talents and virtues.
Our trip there was also highlighted by a passing; Lisa's uncle Vernon Shelton had died on March 7, and was buried on the tenth. Lisa and I drove back from Hopkinsville in the uncharacteristically mild too-early spring weather. Instead of going directly to Tim's and Elizabeth's place, as we had planned, we went to our house and got our coats, and only then drove down to Bradford Drive. We would be extremely grateful for this change in plans.
We left there at six-thirty, and after a brief stopoff at Carmichael's Bookstore (to look at books) and Winn-Dixie (to buy provisions for the trip and Symposium), we set off to Dayton. We made our usual dinner stop at Wertheim's in Covington, where the food was up to its usual high standards, and also as usual this excellent place was almost totally deserted. You could not walk into any restaurant in Louisville at eight on a Friday night and be seated right away, as happened to us at Wertheim's.
(It was worth discussing Kate Wilhelm's Let the Fire Fall in that context, where the bustling urbanization we were dining in was described as being a few houses along a road winding into the Kentucky Hills. The book has an alien surviving the crash of his spaceship and hiding in a Kentucky farmhouse in Covington; having it hide in a strip joint would be a lot more reasonable. Harry Turtledove's Great War: Walk In Hell is a lot more realistic about the city.)
The Ohio rest stop very conveniently had booklets of motel coupons, and we obtained ones for a Knights Inn at Exit 44. The Motel 6 we had been accustomed to staying at had been converted into a Motel Suite 6, renting by the week instead of by the night. Not quite what we had been planning on. The Knights Inn was remarkably clean and comfortable, not to mention affordable.
By morning, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was now raining, and we proceeded to the Perkins Cafe in front of the motel for breakfast. The place is going downhill; not once were we approached to join in a major or even a minor intrigue, and never caught even a glimpse of Blackie DuQuesne. He must be sticking to the Washington franchise.
Next was a stopoff at the Borders and Half-Price bookstores down the road I got Lennard Bickel's new book on the Ross Island party of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Shackleton's Forgotten Men; the Hon. Celia Sandys's tale of her grandfather, Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive; and some really bad news for some publishers, The Kinder, Gentler Military by Stephanie Gutman. Then we went off to the Symposium.
Lisa looked into buying some historical mysteries from Mary Frost-Pierson. Alas, most of them were imports at $14 per for a mass-market paperback. I ended up getting Nova 57 Minor by Jon L. Lellenberg, the strange and sad history of the story "The Man Who Was Wanted" which was not the 57th Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but a pastiche by Arthur Whitaker.
Another author has taken up the burden of describing the history of Colonel Moran before he took up with the Professor. No, it's not Larry Millet, or Nicholas Meyer, or Carole Nelson Douglas, or Michael Kurland, or even Philip José Farmer (incidentally, Mary had for sale a copy of the original version of The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (the one with Tarzan, not with Mowgli) for $150). It's George Macdonald Fraser, and Flashman has some unusual tangles with Sebastian "Tiger Jack" Moran, in which are involved his usual knavery, cowardice, and lust. Flashman and the Tiger should be released in the US this coming November. Oh the suspense.
Not one but two awards of the Al Rodin Award of Excellence were made. The first was to Al's widow, Jean; the second was to the regular contributors, participants, and attendees, Tom and Ruthann Stetak. This award is given for contributions to the Symposium.
Finally, Sullivan read the moving obituary from the Times for Dr. Rodin. This cited his many contributions to the medical field as well as his interest in Doyle and in Holmes.
Session One of the Symposium was titled "A Tribute to Al Rodin", and it began with Al's fellow annotator Roy Pilot reading "The Baker Street Journal Obituary of Al Rodin", which he himself had written, and a tribute to Dr. Al by yet another of his collaborators, Jack Key, "Echoes from Our Past: Alvin E. Rodin (1926-1999)".
Rodin and Key met in San Francisco, at a meeting of the American Osler Society, and discovered they had many things in common. These common interests led to, for example, a number of works that drew attention to Arthur Conan Doyle's substantial achievements in medicine. They also played up Holmesian medical connections, writing a work on Doctors Palmer and Pritchard.
Personally, they got along well, albeit this was by passing over certain matters. Driving with Al, for example, was very exciting.
And excitingly enough, we went on to still more memories, delivered by Mary Frost-Pierson, who spoke "On the Proper Uses of Friendship". In the days when Mysteries from the Yard had a real existence (as opposed to its current virtual one), one fine day a bouncy little fellow bounced into the shop, and as he bounced around (endangering the stock), he informed Mary that he and some friends were putting on a little conference out at Wright State University.
That was the first of many Symposia. Mary had many fine and profitable ("By now  I was making more money in sales during this one day event than I generally did in an entire month at the shop") experiences at the Symposium, discussing various approaches to her preferred topic of introducing children to mystery reading.
Meanwhile, Al himself was introducing little theater people to Sherlock Holmes and vice versa. Mary told with pleasure the many tales of the Readers Theatre presentations at Symposia and elsewhere.
Being so close to him, she observed his sad physical and mental decline at close hand. As an example of the latter, she described one of his last visits to Mysteries of the Yard, where he tried to buy things he already had, just to help her.
But he wished to return his accumulations to the world. Mary was one of many who wished that Al's vast collection of Sherlockiana and Doyleana would be donated to some university library for use by scholars, but Al's opinion on the matter was clear; it was to be sold. Now others could have the pleasure of finding those rare items that he had had.
The next speaker was Greg Sullivan, who discoursed on the topic of "AER and Me A Nostalgic Journey into the Past". After a somewhat casual introduction by the Symposium's chairman, Greg began by pointing out that Al Rodin's paper at the first Symposium that he had been to was titled "ACD and Me a Nostalgic Journey into the Past and Present" and so he wanted to do likewise.
"I met Al, not because of Sherlock Holmes or Conan Doyle, but because of community theater," he said, and told the tale of how Al's effervescent energy sparked yet another field of interest. Al Rodin was never lukewarm; he either liked or hated a thing, and did so with powerful energy. This made associating with him hard, if rewarding.
Greg had also become interested in Holmes and Doyle, somewhat later than most fans, thanks to the Granada presentations with Jeremy Brett. Being thrown into the company of an expert in the field had many positive results.
And what Greg stressed was Al's interest in Conan Doyle, listing the many discoveries the one doctor had made about the other; that his medical career was financally average, that he had made advances in medical knowledge, and so on.
He also mentioned Al's other interests that he shared. One that might not surprise last year's Symposium-goers was that they were both Star Trek fans. Al was particularly interested in discussing Star Trek as theatre, the staging of the episodes.
This was followed by a selection of short pieces as "Sherlockians and Friends Remember Al Rodin". These tributes came from such pillars of the Symposium as Roy Pilot, Tom & Ruthann Stetak, Steve Doyle, Robert Cairo, Robert Fleissner, John Zamonski, and Cathy Gill, not to mention the Readers Theatre people like Jim Lockwood and John Coriel.
Listening to these, what strikes the hearer is how personable Al Rodin was. Almost every article contained a story of how he had been polite, encouraging, and welcoming to the writer. This was an enthusiast who shared and encouraged enthusiasm, instead of seeing competition. Hearing these many stories made it clear that the illness and death of Al Rodin made for a great loss indeed; he had the power to inspire and encourage many.
All around the hall, there had been posted colored flyers advertising next year's Symposium
(which will be March 9-11, 2001) with the curious phrase, "If idiocy had a name . . ." Well,
now we found out that "If idiocy had a name, it would be Homer Willoughby!" Greg Sullivan
showed a video of the fabulous adventures of Homer Willoughby, the
stupidest most daring
archaeologist-detective of the century. Most of the scenes seemed to involve Homer
Willoughby (who bore a curious resemblance to Greg Sullivan) falling down.
Next year, in parallel with the Symposium (instead of being part of it), the attendees will have the opportunity to solve "The Case of the Curious Hound's Tooth". It is possible that Homer Willoughby himself will make an appearance.
This led to the break. It had been raining that morning, recall, and combined with the chill, that made for a particularly bad omen. Sure enough, it was snowing, and under the circumstances we decided to pass up (again) the Readers Theatre.
There was snow inside the hall, too, as Ruthann Stetak discussed the topic of "Cocaine"; yet another of her useful and informative papers on ordinary life in the Victorian Era. You must understand that drug laws are of comparatively recent date. In 1895 an advertiser could say about anything about a substance and get away with it. For all that the drug laws were extremely premodern, a Parisian named Angelo Mariani used some remarkably twentieth century-style advertising methods to push, or promote, his Vin Mariana a wine tonic made using Bordeaux and coca leaves, at the ratio of one liter of wine to 60 grams of coca leaves. Mariani got celebrity endorsements, and Ruthann showed us several of his advertisements, which also didn't seem that far out of date.
A temperance (non-alcoholic) beverage in that line is still made today. It was invented by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, combining with the coca leaves cola nut extract and other fruit flavors. It comes today in diet, cherry, caffeine-free, and diet caffiene-free versions as well as the classic formulation Coca-Cola TM. Well, not quite classic, the coca leaves have all the cocaine removed now.
As you know from having read The Seven Percent Solution, Sigmund Freud was an enthusiast for the stuff at one stage in his career. Other experimenters showed an enthusiasm for the stuff that passed the bounds of insanity, as when the two doctors started sticking pins in each other's eyes. (They were looking for a local anesthetic and found one.) Freud himself discovered the speedball (cocaine and heroin or morphine), by trying, with the help of this new drug, to get a fellow researcher to break a morphine habit. Perhaps not surprisingly, he tried to suppress his research papers on cocaine.
Ruthann ended by arguing that Holmes was not a cocaine addict. (The thought of doing a few lines in the back bedroom of Baker Street before going out after Professor Moriarty is a bit much.) For one thing, he took drugs in an experimental fashion; for another, the cocaine experimenters of the nineteenth century tended to die young in painful fashion (something that hasn't changed) and as we all know Holmes lived a long and peaceful retirement, tending bees on the Sussex Downs.
One of the problems of the "Holmes Actors You Never Heard Of" was that they had weak supporting casts. Detroit Sherlockian Regina Stinson discussed one aspect of this in a discourse on "Sherlock Holmes' Other Woman", though she didn't take the idea as far out as the Wellmans did in Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds.
The paper was accompanied by film clips demonstrating Regina's theses. She began with a clip from one of the Arthur Wontner films, where Mrs. Hudson, played by Minnie Rayner, was used as a comic relief character.
Her principal examples, though, were from the Universal films with Basil Rathbone and Mary Gordon, and the Granada TV shows with Jeremy Brett and Rosalie Williams. Rathbone's Holmes acted respectfully towards Gordon's Mrs. Hudson, and in return she looked after him well. Brett's Holmes seemed to regard Williams's Mrs. Hudson as something of a burden. Both of these interpretations are, nevertheless, validly drawn from the Canon. Regina gave a selection of items from the stories themselves which demonstrated this, ending with more film clips, including a joke.
One expects certain things from Cathy Gill, and in her preaching on "The First Church of Sherlock Holmes" she gave no reason to find her lacking. Back in the old days, though not quite the old old days, Richard E. Geis had in Science Fiction Review a discussion of Star Trek as religion. So (with regard to last year's point about "As One of My Ancestors Said") here, too.
The parallel is intriguing. Cathy discussed how the followers cluster about certain perspectives related to the Canon, from the Orthodox, who stick strictly to that, through the Conservative, who admit varying differences, to the Reform, who add everything and go far out. Well, that's not precisely "church", but . . .
She went on to draw a number of parallels between the events and background of the Canon and those of more commonplace religions. Her finale was an exposition of the moral values displayed by Sherlock Holmes, and their religious nature, and she ended with, "Finally, when I die, I hope I go to Baker Street."
This was followed by the "Auction", raising money for the Twentieth Anniversary Symposium next year. The items offered tended to be more closely related to the Symposium, including model cars printed with the logo, a complete set of Al Rodin's Readers Theatre scripts, a cross-stich pillow with scenes representing the four novels, and a Sherlock Holmes Gift Basket with wineglasses showing Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and a vial of water from there. There was some hot and heavy bidding and things went for substantial prices.
However, for now we hoped to go to the dealers and other facilities of the place. For the past few years the Symposium has been running on time, and this was a noteworthy example. Therefore, with a little slack to deal with, Chairman Sullivan was able to discuss some of the attendant matters, such as the pastiche contest.
This year's Symposium had a pastiche contest, with booklets of the pastiches available to advance purchasers. He had been unable to finish his second Readers Theatre script and so offered copies of the pastiche booklet as a compensation and alternative to a refund. Greg then announced the winner of the contest, and we went on to a different sort of pastiche.
Or perhaps an anti-pastiche. "Sherlock Holmes for President The Speech" had a well-documented provenance. As the campaign manager Brad Keefauver explained, "today . . . the speech writer that would be me is going to speak the words of the candidate . . . rest assured: these are the words of Sherlock Holmes and no other."
It was quite an interesting campaign speech, with an explanation, campaign promises, and comments on the opposition. For example:
We will open our campaign by having a good close view of him. [CREE] (Points to photo of
I beg that you will look upon it not as a battered billycock but as an intellectual problem. [BLUE] American slang is very expressive sometimes. [NOBL]
Well, his position is unique. He has made it for himself. There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. [BRUC] Was it politics, then, or was it a woman? That was the question. [STUD] I was inclined from the first to the latter supposition. [STUD] I had heard of him before as being a man of evil reputation among women. [BERY]
The bracketed items, which of course Brad did not say, but which are in the text in the
Presentation Book, are the standard abbreviations for the stories of the Canon CREE: "The
Adventure of the Creeping Man"; BLUE: "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"; NOBL:
"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"; BRUC: "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington
Plans"; STUD: A Study in Scarlet; BERY: "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet".
Candidate Holmes had one platform plank that would be very popular: "I will not impose any further tax. [ABBE] Can we save the money? [RETI] Yes; I have a turn for both observation and deduction. [STUD]" With words like that, small wonder that the audience stood up and cheered. [ABBE: "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"; RETI: "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman"]
A candidate has to have a residence, however, and so Chuck Kovacic returned to tell us what we should do about "Making Our Holmes Comfortable". Putting the Great Detective at the ease necessary for him to make his deductions [particularly for the Inland Revenue] required a certain standard of furnishings.
Chuck discussed the layout of the building at 221 Baker Street [note: "221B" meant merely the subsidiary mailing address; in spite of countless movies, "221B" would never appear on the building], presenting floor plans and perspective drawings. He also discussed what went into the rooms, describing the overt and subtle functions of chairs and such.
The papering and carpeting of the rooms are also significant, and Chuck went into the various trends to be found in the Victorian era. Also significant was the actual fenestration; he discussed the ramifications of window size, even showing with photos how upper rooms had smaller windows. This affected the heating, too.
Incidentally, Chuck recently got married. One thing his new bride insisted on was that he reconstruct his Holmesian sitting room in their new house. Get in touch with Chuck at email@example.com and you, too, can see it the next time you are in Los Angeles.
And so the speeches ended and we adjourned to the Sherry Hour, where we chatted with acquaintances from past Symposia. Gnomi Goldin, for example, enthralled us all with tales of machine politics.
However, when it was all over we had to hit the road, forfeiting the pleasure of seeing the Reader's Theatre presentation of "The Cardboard Box". I picked up my copy of the Presentation Booklet, thanked Greg for another good Symposium, and then we were off down the road to Louisville.
While it was snowing full blast in Dayton itself, by the time we got to Bill Knapp's it was clear. However, on the way south it picked up again. In fact, at one of the Kentucky rest stops I saw the radar weather map, and by an annoying circumstance the edge of the snowstorm happened to coincide with the route of I-71. Elizabeth had a very uneasy time driving, I daresay. Still, we got home all right.
The SH/ACD Symposium is not quite like any other, I understand. Most such do not mention Arthur Conan Doyle at all, or very well. (An attitude he resented, as comments in Nova 57 Minor revealed.) This is not quite like your ordinary con, either, as it is more program-oriented. However, we have to miss the Friday reception and Sunday quiz hosted by the Agra Treasurers (the Dayton scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars), so there is some sort of partying.
The overall impression one gets, though, is that these are people who are dedicated to their interest, yet very definitely not humorlessly dedicated. Speakers have discussed substantial, serious matters about books, movies, background material; speakers have presented humorous concoctions (albeit well-grounded humor) of absurd takeoffs. Greg, Cathy, Mary, and all the rest deserve to be commended for the substantial labor of love they have undertaken in bringing this presentation to the assembled fans.
The Twentieth Annual Dayton Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle Symposium will (as said above) be held March 9-11, 2001 at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Fairborn, Ohio. Information may be obtained from Greg Sullivan at:
39 Sherwood Avenue
Danvers, MA 01923
It will be possible there to see the Reader's Theatre performance of Raiders of the Adventure of Too Many Heroes, as well as meet Homer Willoughby. If idiocy has a name . . .