Thirty-five women (and one man) sat at the edge of their seats in the Gold Ballroom at the Penn Plaza Pavilion Sunday morning as they listened to actor James Marsters' recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18. It was so quiet that you could hear a wand -- brought for Tom Felton from "Harry Potter" to sign later, of course -- drop.
So unfolded Marsters' two-hour long "Bard Seminar" at the Big Apple Comic Con (BACC) Spring Edition this past weekend. The convention, which was started in 1996 in the basement of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, had humble beginnings, but it was bought by Wizard Entertainment in 2009 and has since gone above ground.
"Shakespeare, man… you're immortal because little did you know one day you'd be read by some TV actor," said Marsters, who played Spike, the bleach-blond vampire on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Noting that Shakespeare had written sonnets for both a man and a woman, Marsters, 48, asked audience members whether they believed bisexuality was real. This devolved into a conversation about his sexuality (straight, which pleased his predominantly female fan base), the sexuality of the audience (mixed) and even that of a female attendee’s married, polyamorous son.
"It feels like group therapy," offered an audience member. An appropriate analysis for a seminar that covered love, sex, divorce, politics and some Buffy -- all for a fee of $200 per audience member, which included a photo-op with Marsters and his autograph.
Some paid an additional $200 to go to a cocktail reception, limited to 85 participants, with guaranteed one-on-one time with the actor.
Melissa Donnelly, who took avid notes during the Bard seminar so she could consult with her drama professor afterward, doled out $1,000 for the Platinum VIP Session -- paid via PayPal to Marsters’ manager. That package included all of the above, as well as a ticket to join Marsters at a performance of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" on Broadway and discussing it with him over coffee and a Danish the next day. The fee is on top of what Donnelly, 21, spent on her hotel and airfare from Toronto.
"I thought, 'why not?'" Donnelly said. "I just got my tax return."
Karen Flynt, another member of the exclusive twelve-person Platinum VIP group, said that she spends on Marsters what she doesn't spend on cigarettes. Now a teacher in Richmond, Virginia, Flynt was once a "freelance photographer" -- an admitted euphemism for paparazzi.
"I’ve met a lot of actors, but none as genuinely interested in his fans as James," said Flynt, who has gone as far as London to attend 28 Marsters-centric events since Buffy wrapped in 2003. "That’s why I’m so loyal."
Throughout the weekend, surges of convention-goers sporting a mix of costumes and television show T-shirts shifted between the first and third floors of the venue for autograph and photo sessions and Q&As, passing by signs posted on the elevator advertising auditions for the Newlywed Game on the floor in between.
While such conventions attract both men and women, certain panels and events have a particularly feminine pull. Attendees noted that this is especially true at smaller Cons that don’t necessarily include an anime element. At BACC, it was evident that Marsters and Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" films and is similar to Marsters in their shared tow-headed fame, had the most female attendees. Tickets for the Felton VIP Experience cost $99 and included guaranteed front row seating to his public Q&A and a signed photo-op.
The line of fans awaiting Felton's and Marsters' Q&A sessions snaked around rows of Magic: The Gathering playing tables. There were also stations in which 100 rare Magic cards were being sold for $25. (Thirty for $10.)
Of the 200 players competing in the Magic Pro Tour Qualifier, four were women.
"One of our judges could pass for Tom Felton—well, maybe not, but he’s blonde!" said scorekeeper Jeremy Smith. "Maybe we should have marketed that way."
Melanie Calderon was one of the female participants, "but I came because of my boyfriend," she said, continuing that it was better than waiting around for him or texting for seven hours.
While Felton greeted fans with a warm but generic "Hello, Lovely," Marsters knew the names of most of his VIP fans, who made up the first three rows of the ballroom, and would often have back and forth interactions with certain audience members. He and Krista Guthrie sparred over Chicago, a city Guthrie lives in and loves but Marsters sees as a cultural and intellectual void that wishes it could be Toronto.
"I don’t hold a grudge," Guthrie said. "It’s not like this is the first conversation I’ve had with him."
His fans range from elderly to elementary school-aged.
At ten years old, Jessica Rubinson represents the younger demographic of Marsters fans. After she devoured the "Twilight" series, her father Dana thought that "Buffy" would satiate her vampire-loving appetite. "He’s really hot and a good actor," Jessica said of Marsters. Her other friends are no longer allowed to watch the show due to its sexual content. (Spike and Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, once had a particularly violent sexual romp that resulted in the destruction of the abandoned house they were in, which of course hinted at the volatility of their relationship. Spoiler alert: "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is considering adopting this method of demolition for season eight.)
The Marsters core knows his middle name, hometown, and the lyrics to every song by his band, Ghost Of The Robot. They've seen the cameos he's made on "Torchwood," "Caprica" and "Smallville," and they know he doesn’t believe in wearing underwear ("You’re making yourself look fat!" he said.)
They keep in touch and room together when traveling to a convention.
After making Marsters promise to start a book club on his website and consider training them to act Shakespeare, his fans left, already looking forward to coming back for more.