Fans get their geek on at Houston convention
As people pass Alex Betsill’s booth at NRG Center Saturday, many could name exactly what he was selling: ocarinas, an ancient instruments that may date back 12,000 years.
How do they know? Legend of Zelda, of course. The ubiquitous video game series featured the instrument in 1998’s “Ocarina of Time” for the Nintendo 64.
Superfans and less-passionate onlookers alike strolled the aisles of Fandemic Tour’s weekend takeover of the NRG convention hall, where they shopped for sci-fi, video game or comic book-inspired collectibles in between meet-and-greets in between meet-and-greets with actors from the Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy and events such as “Just Add Zombies” and “Hamilton Sing-a-long.”
Vendors were at the ready, selling light sabers ready for combat, signed Captain America shields, action figures, posters and even rare, handmade musical instruments.
“It’s a full-time job,” said Betsill, who lives in Dallas and was in Salt Lake City last week for a fan convention. He travels to up to 36 conventions and renaissance fairs a year, making his living firing, painting and selling ocarinas and other instruments.
Betsill has been playing Legend of Zelda since the mid-1980s, when the series debuted, but now he spends more time making the instruments. Each takes about a week to make, but 20 can be finished each day.
Amanda Vanderbeek handmakes her art, too, but it’s wasn’t for sale. The 23-year-old Bellaire woman makes costumes — 62 and counting — for her service dog, Merly, to wear to conventions as they walk together.
Merly, known on Instagram to almost 17,000 followers as @thecosplaydog, was invited to Fandemic as a celebrity guest less than three years after Vanderbeek attended her first fan convention, Comicpalooza.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go check it out and see if anyone is selling Magneto artwork,’” she said. “And that’s when I started. I was like, ‘Oh, people dress up?’ I didn’t know. I mean, I like Halloween.”
Together, the duo has been to more than a dozen conventions. Cosplaying, or dressing up like popular characters, was common at all of them. Fans crowded around Merly’s booth on Saturday, hoping to give a few head scratches to the dog-turned-Batman. She was curled up alongside Vanderbeek’s other dog, a mini Dachshund named Kirby, who was attending her first convention as “Rob-ween.”
The costumes, while fun to make, serve another purpose for Vanderbeek: Helping her get out of her shell.
“When I’m in my regular clothes, I can’t talk to people,” she said. “When I’m all dressed up with an outfit on, a mask on and contacts in, no one really knows what I look like, and I feel more comfortable.”
Another photo-op ready guest at Fandemic was the Jurassic Park Jeep on display, surrounded by faux “10,000 volt” fencing. It’s still a work in progress, but fans still paid $10 to be photographed inside the car, owned by Houstonian Victor Portillo, 32.
“It’s a celebrity,” he said. “You’re driving the Jeep and seeing everybody waving and smiling and taking pictures. It’s quite an adventure.”
Portillo said he always loved the dinosaur movies and played with Jurassic Park toys as a kid. In high school, he customized and swapped parts in his Honda with other mechanic-minded teenagers.
And as an adult, he realized he could make the movie come to life.
“It started with something simple. I’ll buy a Jeep, paint it, and that’s it,” Portillo said. “And then I met others — a group of enthusiasts called the Jurassic Park Motor Pool. And it’s a global Jurassic Park building group. Once I found out that there’s more people obsessed with this, it just snowballed.”
His first custom Jeep sold for around $25,000, but he only just broke even after gutting the inside of the 1992 model.
Portillo said he plans to continue making custom Jeeps, especially now that he has discovered a market for his cars and all the gear is ready in his garage, waiting for a new project. He also loves visiting conventions — he tries to attend any within a five-hour drive of Houston.
“It’s just meeting different people who share the same passion,” he said. “There’s a big group for it, but my friends aren’t into the movies that much, so it’s not like I can sit there and geek out with them.”