The weekend of June 11th, 2016, I was lucky enough to spend two days with Nichelle Nichols at the River City Comic Expo as her liason for the show. This is my story of how this weekend came to be, Star Trek fans, and Tic-Tac-Toe.
A note about this story. As you read, understand that the dialogue and recounting of events is based solely on the author’s memory of events and some correspondence between certain parties in this story. That being said, please keep in mind that while the exact words used for individual dialogue might not be exactly what was said, the author worked hard to keep the underlying feel and meaning behind them intact.
How it came together
My love for Star Trek runs deep, and has a long history. Growing up, Saturday at 6pm our TV was always turned to the latest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And although I never saw the original series in its original run, for me, that show, it’s cast and the stories it told are still the gold standard for what makes Trek, Trek and for being the purest form of Roddenberry’s message.
Brent was someone I had worked with for years at a previous employer and he for years had run a local comic convention. We got to know each other and had a shared love of comics and general geek things. He also had gone to school with my sister, so we have quite a bit of intersecting lines throughout our history.
He had done a good job of building his show up, starting off as a smaller event that ran just a single day, to full weekend shows. As his show grew, he moved locations several times to accommodate this growth, ultimately landing at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock for his summer 2016 show. Oftentimes, he would bounce ideas off me about the show (I had some experience running similar shows) and we would discuss various ideas in general.
In the fall of 2015, Brent reached out with an idea for the show:
Hey man, got a question I wanted to run by you
Sure, what ya got?
What do you think about bringing in Nichelle Nichols for the show?
Yep. Her rep reached out to us. She was set to do a show in Texarkana but had to cancel
Trying to remove my Trek hat for a moment, I think Nichelle would be a huge draw. Plus next year is the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek. It’s a perfect opportunity to tie in with Nichelle as guest.
Good point. Still have quite a bit of logistics to run through, but I’m liking the idea of bringing her in for the show.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2016, I get another message from Brent:
Looks like we are going to bring her in
Let me do her Q&A panel 🙂
I was going to ask, they want to have a volunteer take care of her both days and they want it to be the same person. You want to do it?
Are you posing that as a question? Lol
Absolutely I would love to
And it was set. I was going to spend two days with one of the most iconic actors in Trek history. June couldn’t get here soon enough.
I arrived early the morning of Day 1 at Statehouse Convention Center, excited but also somewhat nervous. After getting into the Convention Center, I locate Brent and we walk over to the adjoining hotel to met Nichelle and her assistant, Catherine, down in the lobby before making our way back to the show floor and the space we would be setup at for the next two days.
We are in the lobby for a few minutes, making small talk as we wait. After about 5 minutes, I see a lady pushing Nichelle in her wheelchair over to us (at this time, Nichelle’s health had taken a downwards trend, and she made use of the wheelchair for portions of the weekend). As they approached, my throat dried up and I could feel could nerves kick in. With Vulcan like discipline, I quickly settled myself and reached out to shake Ms. Nichols hand.
“Hi Ms. Nichols, I’m Richard. I’ll be assisting you this weekend for the show. Whatever you need, i’ll make sure you have it. Welcome to Little Rock. We are happy you’re here.”
She shook my hand and placed her other hand on top warmly, smiled and said, “Thank you Richard. I’m glad to be here.”
Her assistant Catherine introduced herself as Brent led us out of the lobby and back to the Convention floor. As we made our way, I could sense that all eyes were on us as we moved through hotel and convention guests alike. We arrive at the booth (which was right next to Gil Gerard and Felix Silla from Buck Rogers fame) and quickly settle in to start the day.
If you’ve been to a Convention before, you’re probably aware that Celebrity guests are oftentimes a main draw for attendees. Fans come from all over for a chance to meet, shake hands with and possibly get a photo with their favorite actors from Film and TV. This was no exception, as Nichelle was the top guest at the show.
Catherine had a very good system in place for the booth. As fans came up, Catherine would ask them what they wanted (celebrity guests at cons make money in part by charging for either tableside photos with them, or various headshot type glossy photos that the celebrity usually signs for them), as she took their money. If they were getting something signed, she would write their name on a post it note and hand it to Nichelle along with the photo in question. This way there was no chance of the name being misspelled or any other confusion during the process.
My job was to take tableside photos with whatever device the guest would hand me, as well as make sure fans didn’t linger at the table. As well as make sure anything Nichelle needed, I got for her. The morning went by in a blur. There never seemed a time when we didn’t have fans at the booth. Most times, the line was 10 or more long. Early on I had some friends swing by the booth, as of course I had announced to anyone who would listen that I was going to be with Ms. Nichols for the weekend.
With every guest who came by, there was a singular commanility. Every one of them had a deep love and great reverence for Nichelle. Who she was, what she represented to them, both as a person and the character she made famous. More than one guest broke down in tears in front her as they told her how much she meant to them. And with every person, Ms. Nichols was kind, warm and very welcoming to her fans.
She was the consummate professional. I quickly realized that this was not her first rodeo when it came to the Convention circuit.
As we looked to break for lunch, I leaned over to Nichelle and asked her what I could get her for lunch.
“How about a Vodka/Tonic?”, she said as she gave me a smile.
I glanced over at Catherine as she gave frantically shook her head no.
This was the first of many moments over the weekend where Nichelle’s humor came to the surface. I took her question in stride and said, “I was thinking more of a traditional lunch. We do have the afternoon still to go after all.” After securing lunch, I returned to the VIP lounge, where Catherine, Ms. Nichols, along with Gil Gerard, Felix Silla and their party were enjoying lunch and each other’s company.
As lunch progressed, Nichelle and Gil engaged in conversation about a few other events that they had attended together, as well as talking about their careers in broader strokes. I took a moment to appreciate what I was witnessing. How lucky was I? I’m sitting here like a fly on the wall, watching two greats talk about all sorts of things. At one point the conversation turned to theater (or perhaps it was the old radio dramas of the day, I honestly can’t remember) and before you know it, they’re both signing a tune from some play or show they both were fans of.
After lunch we headed back to the booth to close out her day on the show floor. It went by just as quick as the morning and somewhat a blur. In between guests (as rare as that was), we would chit chat. She would ask about my family and I would ask about her’s. At one point she took out her phone and showed me wedding photos of one of her relatives back in California who had just got married (I assume it was a niece or nephew). We would chat about the activity we saw as the Convention patrons walked by the booth. And at one point she handed me a post-it note where she had taken her Sharpie and drew a tic-tac-toe board with an “X” in the middle square…
Tic-Tac-Toe…The Final Frontier
…I knew at that moment she was looking for a friendly game of Tic-Tac-Toe. My next thought however gave me great pause “Do I really try and beat Nichelle Nichols at a game of Tic-Tac-Toe?”
I put an “O” in the top right square and tell myself that what happens happens.
Nichelle wins the game, one of countless we play over the course of 2 days at the booth. Whenever we have a minute or two, she would invariably pass me a post-it note. Again I think to myself “Who else can say they’ve had this kind of experience with someone they’ve looked up to? A handful maybe?”
I still look back on those small moments and smile. I played Tic-Tac-Toe with Nichelle Nichols.
Try as I might, I was unable to locate some of the post-its I saved from that weekend. Perhaps one day they’ll pop up…
That afternoon my family made their way to the Convention.
When they walked up, I introduced my wife and kids to Nichelle and she greeted them as if they were part of her family. We took some a few pics before we started back up from our lunch break. At one point, Nichelle commented how adorable our son was and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
As you can see, my daughter that it was “super cool that the Star Trek lady” kissed Jacob on the cheek. I personally love the fact that we have this moment recorded. It’s just a great moment in time.
After my family left to roam the rest of the show, we finished out our day and I left to go home. Knowing we still had a full Sunday of guests to look forward to, and Ms. Nichols scheduled Q&A Sunday afternoon.
I arrive Sunday morning at the show, ready to greet troves of fans who came to see Nichelle. The day went by fairly uneventful. We saw fans a plenty, Nichelle and I played our share of Post-It Tic-Tac-Toe, we would talk about convention attendees as they passed by the booth. She especially enjoyed seeing Cosplayers, oftentimes commenting on their costumes and what it must have taken to make them.
My parents show up in the afternoon, shortly before Ms. Nichols scheduled Q&A is set to begin. Introducing my parents to Nichelle, she greets with the same warmness as all her other guests. For me, this was a little extra special as my parents were the ones who started me on Trek all those years ago.
Soon after my parents arrival, we prepare to go to the Q&A. Catherine had been asking me about the details of the Q&A, to which I didn’t really have any answers. I had been trying to get with Brent, knowing he was beyond busy with all the goes with running a show of this size. I knew where we were headed, and what time we needed to be there, and that was about it.
I found out shortly before we started heading to the place we needed to be, that another person would be the emcee for the Q&A. I hadn’t met him at the time, but since have got to know Michael Brown, comedian and geek through other friends and channels (we would be on several episodes of my friend’s show Shane Plays together, getting to know each other better).
When we got to the doors to the ballroom where the Q&A was being held, you could hear a light roar from inside. It was already filled to capacity with folks looking to get a glimpse of Nichelle up close. We entered the room to chorus of cheers and the Star Trek theme playing as we walked to the front of the room.
The Q&A lasted roughly an hour, with some questions to start off from the emcee Michael Brown and then quickly leading into questions from the audience. As I sat next to her on stage, you could feel the love pour out from the audience with every question. I’ve always wanted to attend the annual big Trek convention in Las Vegas, but have never been able to make it. I imagine what I experienced that afternoon was a small sample of what it might be like.
It felt like I had been sitting on stage for 5 minutes and all the sudden out time was up. The panel was over. Nichelle received a standing ovation and made our way back to the booth to finish out the show.
First star to the right, and straight on till morning
The final hours of the show went by quickly. Conventions typically see a dip in attendance on the final day, even more so the final hours of a show. RCCE was no exception. Nichelle still had her share of fans, but by and large we watched attendees pass by, made small talk and passed post-it notes back and forth.
As the show came to a close, I helped Catherine pack up the booth and I walked with her and Nichelle back over to the hotel. We made our way through the lobby and took the elevator up to their floor.
We get to the hotel room and I assisted Nichelle into the room.
“Richard, would you help me up dear?”
I reached down to help her out of her wheelchair.
“Well Ms. Nichols, this is where my time with you comes to an end. It’s been a great weekend and I hope you enjoyed your time in Little Rock.”
She reaches out to give me a hug goodbye. As she does, she kisses me on the cheek and says “Thank you dear.”
I shake Catherine’s hand and tell her i hope she enjoyed her weekend and let her know if she needs me to send any photos on my phone over for any promotional items, that I would be happy to. I exit the room. Halfway to the elevator I stop as if I forgotten something.
The entirety of the weekend rolls over me like a tidal wave and I feel tears start to form. I take a minute in the hallway to collect myself. I JUST SPENT A WEEKEND WITH NICHELLE NICHOLS!!! I resume making my way to the elevator, and as I enter, my mind does a triple lindy recounting the events of the weekend.
So looking back almost 5 years later, what are my takeaways, spending two days with Nichelle Nichols?
It was amazing! Are you kidding. There isn’t really any other way to think about it honestly.
I got to spend a weekend with not only one of the original castmates from the original series, but a truly amazing person and wonderfully beautiful soul. I will always remember that weekend as it holds a very special place for me.
Thanks for reading this very personal story and I hope you enjoyed it. LLAP!