In 1993, Dragon Con officially incorporated in the state of Georgia, according to court documents, with Kramer and Henry the majority stakeholders. It made sense, Henry said, "since we were the two working the hardest." Most of the original board members from that first meeting made up the minority stakeholders, Henry said.
"We were the two that were absolutely dedicated to not letting Dragon Con fail at that point. Atlanta needed a nice convention, and that's what we were going to do," Henry said.
Vader's boys herald a new era
By 1998, Dragon Con had found a place on Atlanta's annual convention calendar. Other conventions that draw fans of science fiction and technology like World Con, E3 and Comdex had all called the city home at some point, and Dragon Con was starting to feel like a natural fit.
More hotels signed multiyear contracts to block off rooms for Dragon Con attendees, allowing more tickets to be sold. The star power grew as well, with 1998 panels featuring guests including Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen and Forrest Ackerman, a rarity for a convention anywhere at the time, Taylor said.
"There have been a lot of moments where I was like, 'I can't believe this is happening in Atlanta,' " he said.
Then came the guys wearing armor.
Albin Johnson was recovering from a car accident that cost him a leg. Daydreams of "Star Wars" kept his spirits up, and a fledgling Internet fueled a community of fellow fans. Johnson wanted to meet his friends at 1998 Dragon Con and, if the Force was with him, start a club of Stormtroopers. He would call it the 501st Squad.
He made a logo and got a 3-foot-by-3-foot foam board, "thinking we could have a flag to rally behind," Johnson said.
But, when he showed up in the lobby, no one was interested. Even Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C-3P0 in the "Star Wars" movies, refused to pose for a picture with the sign, he says.
But he managed to stoke the interest of a few fellow fans, and a movement began. Over the years, he drew more followers at the convention and beyond; today, the 501st counts 10,000 members from 48 countries, Johnson said. Members dress as Stormtroopers and use their powers for good to promote Star Wars fandom and raise money for local charities and volunteer groups.
The 501st is a now a Dragon Con fixture; the groups of Stormtroopers have even been known to associate with Klingons, Mayes joked.
A friend in trouble
By 2000, Pat Henry and his wife, Sherry, were feeling beaten down by Dragon Con after years of negotiating with hotels, working with celebrities and running day-to-day operations during the convention in addition to his day job running a comic book store. In their second-floor room in the Hyatt, they took a quiet moment to reflect.
"We're too old for this. This hurts too badly. We are way too heavily invested in this thing," Henry said, reflecting on the crux of their discussion.
And yet, below them, they heard the clomping of thousands of convention-goers' feet on the brick lobby floor. As they peered downstairs to watch the crowd of revelers, the 501st appeared, escorting Darth Vader and Boba Fett actors David Prowse and Jeremy Bullock to a panel.
The crowd went nuts and parted "like the Red Sea," Henry recalled.
"Sherry and I look, and we shake our heads, and we say, 'we can't quit,' " he said. "It was really moving."
But then in October 2000, Kramer was arrested and charged with four counts of child molestation involving two teen brothers in Gwinnett County, Georgia. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Henry's unhesitating reaction was to support him. Henry never observed such unsettling behavior in his friend, he said. Henry had two young daughters whom Kramer seemed to care about. Kramer was a counselor for troubled children.
"He would have been one of the six guys to carry me to my grave in a box," Henry said with a pained look on his face. "But I was sucked in, and I believed him, for a long time."
So did others in the gaming and convention circuit. In the immediate aftermath, Kramer resigned as CEO, and Henry agreed to take over as chairman, but only if he received a paycheck -- the first time anyone managing the event would get paid, Henry said.
The salary was the least of the group's worries. They had just signed aggressive deals with large downtown hotels to fill rooms for future Dragon Cons.
Dragon Con was stigmatized after Kramer's indictments, despite Kramer's protestations of innocence. Henry did his best to keep Dragon Con safe by staying silent toward the press and reassuring the convention's business associates.
As years passed and Kramer did not go to trial, Henry began to lose faith that his old friend was innocent. As soon as he entered Gwinnett County Jail, Kramer began filing grievance after grievance again his jailers and motions to delay his trial, citing medical conditions.