Every year, the leaders of Mensa, the high IQ society, choose a city to host its convention. The competition is fierce, because hotels love convention business. This year, the winner was San Diego. It’s not a city familiar with many tourists, at least those from the Eastern and Midwest regions, mostly because airfare, flight duration, and hotel tariffs make it too tough to compete with Orlando, Vegas, or Broadway. On the other hand, this city has wow factors that make it irresistible. It has one of the two best summer climates in America as scored by The Weather Channel, and Forbes magazine listed San Diego as the ninth-safest city in the top 10 list of safest cities in the U.S. in 2010. Safety and perfect weather is only the tip of the iceberg, San Diego has cultural gems that are world class.
San Diego has a wonderful transit system; we loved “The Trolley,” a light-rail system that ran from our hotel down to the San Diego Convention Center, where Comic Con is held during the summer. Last year, 167,000 geeks and nerds showed up at Comic Con, the Mecca for comic books and science fiction/fantasy related elements. Imagine thousands of Sheldon Coopers costumed in Captain America garb and discussing the Higgs boson particle. Comic-Con is mentioned in the CBS television show The Big Bang Theory in several episodes as a treasured event for the geeky gang. Behind the Convention Center is a peninsula where the symphony holds starlight performances.
We attended the San Diego Symphony’s outdoor concert on July 4, when five different fireworks displays were in sight. The largest pyrotechnic show was immediately in front of us, and it was spectacular. Our concert was part of the Bayside Summer Nights series, an homage to The Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Other nights feature the one and only Diana Ross and Grammy-winning trumpeter Chris Botti. We sat in the “champagne” section, where waiters serve California wines and delicious snack plates to patrons. The sound was wonderful, not too loud, and richly amplified. Douglas Benson, once the only tribute artist endorsed by the official Johnny Cash web page, has the incredible honor of receiving great praise and accolades from many friends and family of Johnny Cash. The symphony also presents other homage bands (with fireworks following) such as The Classical Mystery Tours: A Tribute to the Beatles.
Mensa organized several tours for attendees to enjoy while in town. We went on the all-day excursion offered by Another Side Of San Diego Tours. This was a first-class tour from the very beginning, when a large Mercedes coach came to our hotel to pick us up. We saw so many cultural gems on this tour; my favorite was the House of Pacific Relations Cultural Cottages in Balboa Park. Like Epcot’s World Showcase, this set of cottages each houses representatives from various nations who share their art, history and culture with guests. The cottages proudly flew flags from their mother country – Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, England and many others. Inside Scotland, the gracious hosts served moist cake topped with delicious buttercream frosting. The Cottage of Sweden had photos of their Monarchs, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. The Cottage of Denmark had adorable Dam trolls. In the center field, dancers demonstrated folk dances from various countries.
Nearby the cultural cottages, we heard a magnificent concert in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. John D. and Adolph Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ, one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, to the City of San Diego for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Expo celebrated the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. This unique organ contains 4,725 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet and is housed in an ornate vaulted structure with highly embellished gables. Talented performers have been playing concerts on this imperial instrument every Sunday afternoon in the summer since 1917. The venue fonts a spectacular fountain surrounded by beautiful flowers.
Mensa organized an excursion to the zoo, also located in 1,200-acre Balboa Park. The zoo wasn’t originally planned; exotic animal exhibitions from the Central American Isthmus portion of the expo were simply abandoned after the show, left to die a cruel death of starvation and neglect. Since their owners were scumbags, a group of compassionate people led by Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth decided to take care of the abandoned creatures, and that’s how the world-famous zoo was born.
Another Side Of San Diego Tours took us to the fabulously rich neighborhoods of LaJolla, where famous people like Gregory Peck, Raquel Welch, Anne Rice, Jonas Salk, and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) lived. Geisel wrote his famous children’s books here, from his Mediterranean-style stucco home with a red tiled roof, perched high atop Mt. Soledad. Oh, Cat In A Hat, your view of LaJolla is breathtaking. We also took excursions to the popular beaches where the “beautiful people” hang out. I don’t qualify for that crowd.
But I did qualify for Mensa, so I guess I’m more of the geeky crowd. There were 2364 attendees at the annual gathering, held at the beautiful, garden-like Town and Country Resort. Now, 2364 is a special number for some geeks; it is the supposed year that Captain Jean-Luc Picard takes command of the USS Enterprise-D, and Star Trek: The Next Generation begins. One of the starship residents is a teenager, Wesley Crusher, portrayed by actor Wil Wheaton; Wil Wheaton was the featured speaker at the convention. The actor also appears as a fictionalized version of himself on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where his character is the unlikely enemy-turned-friend to Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Wheaton gave a moving speech, revealing “I have depression, and I know that depression lies. It lied to me for months while I was trying to put this talk together, tag teaming with its best friend, Anxiety…”
He talked about his life as a famous TV personality who, at the end of the day, is still human. He closed with a very dramatic “I love being a nerd, and I love having the tremendous privilege to occasionally stand up in front of other nerds, and talk about what it’s like when you’re us … we’re all we’ve got, and in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about how rapidly our species is destroying our planet, and how many stupid and dangerous people have the ability to wipe us out in the blink of an eye, it helps to know that there are smart, compassionate, empathetic nerds in the world to stop them.”
Mensa member Alan Baltis said Wheaton’s words “were some of the most personal and heartfelt, and really humanized him, and endeared him to the crowd.” Amy Harway said, “Listening to this speech made me cry.”
LaRae Bakerink was the genius who organized this incredible convention, leading some 100 volunteers. She and her committee chose a beautiful convention complex filled with thousands of flowering plants. The Town and Country Resort is so expansive, over 2000 people could enjoy the property and never feel crowded. Free meals were served daily, including wine and a large variety of soft drinks. All day there were snacks available, like heavenly brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Even after feeding a couple thousand people, there was food left over. This was the most exceptional Mensa convention in recent memory.
There was a plethora interesting speakers at the convention, such as Bill Marx, child of Harpo Marx (The Marx Brothers comedians). Marx spoke on what it was like to grow up with his famous dad and uncles. One of the interesting tidbits he shared was they never referred to each other by their real names, but by their stage names (omitting the final “o”). They called each other Zepp, Harp, Grouch and Chic. Other appearances were made by Paul Petersen (Jeff Stone from the Donna Reed Show, and teen on The Flying Nun), Sergeant Tom Rice, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and also participated in the battle of the bulge, and then there was Sara Jane Karloff (yes, Boris Karloff’s daughter!!). There were around 100 programs one could attend at the Mensa Annual Gathering; one of them was my presentation on my 38 trips to Hawaii. It is a fantastic opportunity for people who have a constellation of interests to learn something new, and explore a new town. Harley Berger, who was responsible for booking so many celebrities, escorted his speakers and took some of them to dinner. His wife, Toby Berger, said “I fell in love with Bill Marx after reading his book, “Son of Harpo Speaks”. He’s a real mensch!”
Another Side Of San Diego Tours brought us to the beautiful wooden Victorian beach resort Hotel del Coronado; this palatial complex has hosted presidents and royalty since 1888. Famous guests have included Thomas Edison, L. Frank Baum, Charlie Chaplin, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Clark Gable, Vincent Price, Babe Ruth, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Rudolf Valentino, Kevin Costner, Whoopi Goldberg, Gene Hackman, Mae West George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. The writer L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, was a resident of the hotel at one time, and he designed the crown-shaped chandeliers in the banquet room; this room is allegedly where Edward, Prince of Wales met the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The notorious relationship led to his scandalous downfall and abdication as King Edward VIII of Great Britain. Our lovely guide, Sara Baumann, explained the hotel achieved much fame in the film Some Like It Hot (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis, where it was called the “Seminole Ritz.” Each room has a large photo book showcasing the hotel; she showed us the shot with Marilyn posing in the foreground. Richard Matheson wrote the novel “Bid Time Return” here; his book was turned into the film “Somewhere in Time.” Although the novel’s setting is the Hotel del Coronado, the film had to be shot in Mackinac Island Michigan because Coronado had become too modern; Mackinac still has horse-drawn carriages architecture from the 20s. Actually, Hotel del Coronado is very modern; we saw one of the suites. It is to die for; the rooms facing the beach have million dollar views.
Disco queen Thelma Houston was one of the entertainers at the Mensa event. She performed her Grammy-award-winning number one hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and set the dance floor on fire. Not literally, of course. But there was a fire at the hotel on the last day; there were eight fire trucks, lots of police cars and plenty of hunky firemen running about to save the day. I guess somebody wanted the party to end with a bang.