Tuesday, July 5, 2011


  A growing number of people in Berkshire County and the surrounding areas have been visiting their back yards at the crack of dawn and in the dark of night on a regular basis. Some wear headlamps.  Some bring blanketsThey range in age from kindergarteners to grandfathers. And they're all after one thing: giant pumpkins.
  Phil Daignault of Hinsdale started down the garden path with just a seed of an idea and a question, "Can I actually do it?" He needed to know, and now his interest has produced a source of fascination for his whole family.
   Some giant-pumpkin growers spend thousands of dollars and some spend a few hundred on what many refer to as their obsession. Its roots may have begun in Canada, with a man named Howard Dill, and the craze appears to have spread from Canada to Australia and almost every continent in between over the past 20 years.

   In 1996, Berkshire County growers formed their own self-help group. Dues are $10 a year. They meet once a month for seven months. Their first meeting is in March and their last is in September. They buy their supplies in bulk to save money and share their ideas, advice, knowledge, equipment and muscle freely.
   To top it all off, this down to earth group has no desire whatsoever to find cures for their particular predicaments. They are carving out a way to enjoy themselves and they're having too much fun to stop now. In fact, they invite everyone to join them in their gigantic passion.
   "It's something the whole family can become involved in and have fun with," Daignault said.

   He and other growers admit it is a huge responsibility. From 5 a.m. feedings and warming blankets to better methods of providing important vitamins and minerals, to finding a dependable, experienced babysitter if they need to go out of town, they are all putting their hope, faith and best efforts into growing the healthiest, strongest, and of course biggest giant pumpkin they possibly can.
   First prize in some contests can go as high as $35,000, with bonuses from sponsors like Coca-Cola. Some contests are more modest, such as the Sept. 25 event at Whitney's Farm stand in Cheshire, which drew 25 entrants - nine in the under-18 category - where first prize was $200.
   Joe Goetze, of Pittsfield, was the big winner that day with an 846-pound pumpkin. Five-year-old Casey Hopkins won in the children's category with a 474-pound pumpkin of her own.

   Goetze had a larger pumpkin in his backyard patch, which he harvested on Oct. 1 for the Topsfield contest. The Topsfield Agricultural Fair is the oldest fair in America, established in 1818. Topsfield's biggest pumpkin contest started in 1984 with just 16 entrants and a winner of 433 pounds.
   Goetze won first prize at Topsfield in 2000 with a 917-ound pumpkin - just 2.8 pounds heavier than the second-place pumpkin. He did not fare as well this year, coming in fifth with an even larger pumpkin weighing 1,124.8 pounds. Another member of the Berkshire Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, however, Bill Hopkins, (Casey's dad) also of Pittsfield, placed third with a 1,170.6-pound giant pumpkin. Steven Sperry of Johnston Rhode Island was the 2004 giant winner with a 1,253-pound pumpkin, and Fred Macari of Coventry, R.I., placed second with a 1,173.4-pound pumpkin.

   But none of this year's hopefuls beat the world record of 1,337.6 pounds, grown by Charles Houghton of New Boston, N.H., in 2002. Maybe next year.
   Daignault and his wife have both won at Topsfield. In 1996, the first year they went, his wife, Joan, won with a 746.8-pound giant. They met Senator John Kerry, who was attending the fair that year. That was a big year for the Daignault's three sons as well. Their mother, sure she had no chance of winning as a first-time pumpkin grower, had promised that if she won, she would buy them motorcycles with her winnings. Jon, now 16, Bryan, now 13 and Matt, now 11, much to their mother's chagrin, well remember that promise.
   The Berkshire Giant Pumpkin Growers do not have a full-time fundraiser, so their president, Goetze, who works full-time for the town of Lenox, was able to find only one sponsor for the contest held at Whitney's this year.  But that was enough. Steve Garrity of L.B. Corp., in Lee, sponsored the local event. The growers hope that, as interest spreads, more sponsors will follow suit.

   Nancy and Chris Fischer of Averill Park, N.Y., who attended the contest at Whitney's, are also members of the Berkshire group but are ineligible to win the Topsfield contest, since New York is not part of New England. The Fischers' pumpkins were the shiniest at Whitney's, and Nancy Fischer shared their secret: "a weak solution of bleach to clean it and Lemon Pledge to shine it," she said.
   Chris Fischer's pumpkin weighed more than his wife's this year, so she had to buy him dinner. She donated her pumpkin to a local Cub Scout group, which is selling guesses on its weight to benefit the Hunter Dobert Medical Fund. Dobert has leukemia.
   The challenge to grow giant pumpkins is time consuming, intensive and rewarding but can sometimes be downright disappointing.

   "There‚s a lot of luck involved, and my family and I have been extremely lucky," Daignault said, "You can do everything right and things can still go wrong."
   His family has had pumpkins rot from the inside from too much watering. One hailstorm can destroy a season's work; too much rain won't leave enough time to fertilize, and drastic changes in the weather can cause the pumpkins to split and explode.
   Patrick Walsh, 17, a Pittsfield High School student and 4-H Club member, had his crop destroyed the year when his uncle's cows got into his pumpkin patch to have a snack. Walsh's passion for pumpkin growing started at his grandparent‚s farm in Washington but spread to his own back yard, which is a plus, according to Walsh, because "There's less lawn to mow now."

   One of the Berkshire Giant pumpkin growers, Dan Hajdas, also had some bad luck this year. As workers prepared to load his giant for Topsfield, they found a hole in the pumpkin, which disqualified it.
   "The agony of defeat," Daignault sympathized.
   The year one of Daignault's giants was to travel to New York City for carving, it cracked right before the trip and was unusable.
   "They were going to pay $1,000 for it," he said with a grimace.

   At the end of the growing season and after the contests, the Daignaults usually give their pumpkins away, carve them into giant jack 'o lanterns or parboil them and freeze them for pumpkin pie - a lot of it.

  "It takes about 12 hours and a lot of freezer space to cook and store one of the giants," Daignault said.   "They have a coarser texture, but they are just as sweet as field pumpkins. The seeds can be dried for snacks too, though they have fewer than you would think for something that big - about 100 per pumpkin."

Daignault applies his success with giant pumpkin growing to life:
   "You can do anything if you work hard at it and want it to happen bad enough," he said. "You could spend as much raising pumpkins as you do raising kids, but kids are easier. The most important thing to remember is to make it fun."
   The generous, friendly growers said they have learned through their giant-pumpkin experiences that you will reap what you sow, and they are grateful for the chance to share the harvest.



   San Diego Comic-Con International, also known as Comic-Con International: San Diego, and commonly known as Comic-Con or the San Diego Comic-Con, was founded as the Golden State Comic Book Convention and later the San Diego Comic Book Convention in 1970 by Shel Dorf and a group of San Diegans. It is traditionally a four-day event (Thursday through Sunday — though a three-hour preview night on Wednesday is open to professionals, exhibitors, and some guests pre-registered for all four days) held during the summer in San Diego, California, United States, at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con is both the name of the annual event and the common name of the organization.
   Comic-Con International also produces two other conventions, WonderCon and the Alternative Press Expo (APE), both held in San Francisco, California. Since 1974, Comic-Con has bestowed its annual Inkpot Award to guests and persons of interest in the industries of popular arts as well as to members of Comic-Con's Board of Directors and convention committee. It is also the home of the Will Eisner Awards.

The floor at Comic Con

    Originally showcasing comic books, science fiction/fantasy and film/television (as was evident by the three circled figures appearing in Comic-Con's original logo), and related popular arts, the convention has expanded over the years to include a larger range of pop culture elements, such as horror, anime, manga, animation, toys, collectible card games, video games, webcomics, and fantasy novels. The convention is the largest in the Americas, and fourth largest in the world after the Comiket in Japan, the Angoul√™me International Comics Festival in France,  and the Lucca Comics and Games in Italy, filling to capacity the San Diego Convention Center with over 125,000 attendees in 2007.

History and Organization

   The convention was founded by Detroit, Michigan-born comics fan Shel Dorf, who in the mid-1960s had mounted the Detroit Triple-Fan Fairs, one of the first commercial comics-fan conventions. When he moved to San Diego, California in 1970,  he organized a one-day convention (Golden State Comic-Minicon) on March 21, 1970 "as a kind of "dry run" for the larger convention he hoped to stage.  Dorf went on to be associated with the convention as president or manager, variously, for many years until becoming estranged from the organization.

Some of the characters you just might run into

   Following the initial gathering, Dorf's first three-day San Diego comics convention, the Golden State Comic-Con,  drew 300 people and was held at the U. S. Grant Hotel from August 1–3, 1970.  Other locations in the convention's early years included the El Cortez Hotel, the University of California, San Diego, and Golden Hall, before being moved to the San Diego Convention Center in 1991.  Richard Alf, chairman in 1971, has noted an early factor in the Con's growth was an effort "to expand the Comic-Con [organizing] committee base by networking with other fandoms such as the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Mythopoeic Society, among others. (We found a lot of talent and strength through diversity)".  By the late 1970's the show had grown to such an extent that Bob Schreck recalled visiting with his then-boss Gary Berman of Creation Conventions and reflecting, "While [Berman] kept repeating (attempting to convince himself) 'This show's not any bigger than ours!'  I was quietly walking the floor stunned and in awe of just how much bigger it really was. I was blown away."

   The convention is organized by a panel of 13 board members, 16 to 20 full-time and part-time workers, and 80 volunteers who assist via committees.  Comic Con        International is a non-profit organization, and proceeds of the event go to funding it, as well as the Alternative Press Expo (APE) and WonderCon.  In September 2010, the convention announced that it would stay in San Diego through 2015.


   Along with panels, seminars, and workshops with comic book professionals, there are previews of upcoming feature films, portfolio review sessions with top comic book and video game companies, and such evening events as awards ceremonies and the Masquerade, a costume contest, as well as the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival, which showcases shorts and feature length movies that do not have distribution or distribution deals.

   Traditional events include an eclectic film program, screening rooms devoted to Japanese animation, gaming, programs such as cartoonist Scott Shaw!'s "Oddball Comics" slide show and animation expert Jerry Beck's program featuring TV's "worst cartoons ever", as well as over 350 hours of other programming on all aspects of comic books and pop culture.
   Like most comic-book conventions, Comic-Con features a large floorspace for exhibitors. These include media companies such as movie studios and TV networks, as well as comic-book dealers and collectibles merchants. Like most comics conventions, Comic-Con includes an autograph area, as well as the Artists' Alley where comics artists can sign autographs and sell or do free sketches. Despite the name, artists' alleys can include writers and even models.
   Academicians and comic industry professionals annually hold the Comics Arts Conference at Comic-Con, presenting scholarly studies on comics as a medium. Educational forums such as the Comics Arts Conference help Comic-Con maintain its non-profit status.

Some of the folks from Gotham City and friends

Exclusive Collectibles

   In the 21st century, the convention has drawn toy and collectibles designers who sell "Comic Con Exclusive" products. Such companies have included Hasbro, Mattel, and Sideshow Collectibles.  Most such exclusives are licensed properties of movie, comic book, and animation characters.

In The Media

   Comic-Con International has served as the setting for Mark Hamill's Comic Book: The Movie, and for an episode of the HBO television series Entourage, the latter of which, while set at the event, was not filmed there. Comic-Con also served as an excuse for the fictional characters Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood's trip to Tijuana, Mexico in the first season of TV series The O.C. The convention also featured prominently as a setting for the Numb3rs episode "Graphic". In Season 4 of Beauty and the Geek, an episode was featured where the contestants traveled to Comic-Con 07 and were given a challenge to create their own superheroes. In an episode of Punk'd, Hilary Swank gets Punk'd after an "attack from talking robot." In season five episode six of the Showtime show Weeds, attendees from Comic Con 2009 are seen in Silas and Doug's medicinal marijuana club. It has been reported that a mock up of the external area near Hall D of the Convention Center depicting Comic-Con will be shown in the movie Paul which will be starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  Issue #72 of The Invincible Iron Man (published by Marvel Comics in the fall of 1974) was set at the July–August, 1974 Comic-Con at the El Cortez Hotel. The issue features cameos by a few of the special guests.


Mark Evanier on the first Comic-Con venue:
   "I never stayed in the old U.S. Grant [hotel] but it was the scene of the first San Diego Con, which I attended way back in 1970, back when we thought it was mobbed to have 500 comic fans in the same place at the same time. The hotel was undergoing a massive renovation then as well, but was merely upgrading from Extremely Shabby to merely Somewhat Shabby. The place I still miss is the El Cortez Hotel, where the con was held for several years in the seventies. I'd say the place was a dump but that would be demeaning to dumps. Still, it was a fun dump, run by a management that didn't seem to care all that much what we did to it".
Evanier on an early spillover venue:

Some of the Stars that have appeared over the years

   "In the seventies, when we all started going to San Diego Comic Book Conventions, back when they called them that, the Hotel San Diego was a frequent venue for con events. Some years, before it outgrew any available hotel ballroom, the Inkpot Awards presentation was held there. There were many memorable parties and gatherings, such as in 1982,  when a group of Jack Kirby's friends staged a memorable surprise birthday party for him in one of its halls. Perhaps some year, you were either so hard up for money or so desperate for an available room (or both) that you even booked into its sadly deteriorating accommodations. It was one of the cheaper places to sleep and con-goers took advantage of that up until June 2001 when the building was declared structurally unsafe and was closed down".


Will the real Princess Lea please stand up!


   Capacity attendance at Comic-Con in 2006 and 2007 has caused crowding issues. Concerns have been raised that the event is possibly too massive for the San Diego Convention Center, Comic-Con's home through at least 2015.   In 2006, Comic-Con for the first time, had to close registration for a few hours on Saturday to accommodate crowds. In response, for 2007, Comic-Con introduced a new three-day membership that did not include Saturday. Nevertheless, the 2007 show went on to sell out Saturday, as well as Friday and Sunday for the first time. Additionally, both the four-day and three-day memberships sold out for the first time. For 2008, the three-day memberships were abandoned and the convention decided to sell memberships only in advance, with no on-site registration.

People waiting to get inside Comic Con

   In 2008, all memberships were sold out before the convention for the first time ever. This sellout has given rise to the new phenomenon of Comic-Con memberships being scalped for exorbitant prices on websites such as eBay.
   In April 2008, David Glanzer, Comic-Con's director of marketing and public relations, commented on the organization's desire to remain in San Diego:
"We've been approached by other cities, [but] I don't think anybody wants to leave San Diego. I certainly don't. It's a perfect fit for us. It's expensive, whether it be paying for the street signs that tell you what streets are closed, or for any police or the hall or any of the myriad things, it's expensive. But it's a great city. There's been some talk of expansion of the center, which we would certainly welcome. Hopefully if everything lines up, we will be here for many more years."

So big that even Darth Vader need a ride to get around

   Heidi McDonald reported on her blog The Beat as of October 7, 2009 Preview Night for the 2010 show has already sold out. Glazner explained the early sell-out:
For 2010 the decision was made to offer an option (of whether they wanted to attend Preview Night) to those who pre-registered for four-day badges. We limited the number of badges for Preview Night to the number of those who attended in 2008.

More characters at Comic Con

   Mark Evanier on his blog News from ME noted as of November 9, 2009 all 4-day passes for the 2010 show had already been sold out.
   On February 23, 2010, The Orange County Register reported that the larger Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim would be making a bid to become the new home of Comic-Con starting in 2013.   On September 30, 2010 Comic Con announced that they have extended their stay up to 2015.
   The North County Times reported on July 26, 2010 that 4-day passes with access to Preview night for the 2011 Convention sold out two hours before the 2010 convention closed.