John V. Baltadonis, one of the most active fans of the late 1930s, died of lung cancer in July 1998. He was 77 years old. John was born in Philadelphia, in February 1921, and resided in that area all of his life, except for 3½ years in the Army during WWII. Prior to this, he obtained a degree in Art from Temple University and, after the war, supplemented it with a Masters in Fine Art from the Tyler School of Art.
Johnny and I met in first grade at the Vaughn School, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. We lived within a city block of each other and became the best of friends. This was 1927, during prohibition, and Johnny's father ran a 'speak easy' where beer and liquor was dispensed. It was a very large house, and I have fond memories of all the games we played there.
Both of us, apparently, had learned to read before starting first grade and we soon discovered boys' books. We were friendly rivals in most things we did from the beginning and thus it was we both assembled a worthy collection of such titles as The Outdoor Chums, The Battleship Boys, and The Grammar School Boys. These were the first items we ever collected and those books meant a lot to both of us.
Time went by and soon it was 1930. Several events of "great importance" occurred. Buck Rogers began to run in January 1930, Tarzan of the Apes appeared in the comics section of The Evening Bulletin, and a movie was released that shook us to our very foundations -- Just Imagine, starring El Brendel. It was a musical, as were most of the 'talkies' of that early period, but this movie took place in 1980, fifty years in the future! In reality, we had become science fiction fans already.
Johnny was tall, blonde, blue-eyed and handsome, even as a pre-teenager. And he always had to be first in all our activities. So, as he was able to obtain money from his parents (which was a rarity in those days), he had the best boys' book collection, the best chemistry set, the best set of skates. And when he discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, he was able to buy new books from the bookstores! (They cost all of 99 cents each!) But he let me read them as long as I kept them in perfect condition. I remember that, when reading those pristine copies, I would always remove the dust wrappers.
Then, in early 1931, we discovered S-F magazines. We were in a local junk shop when Johnny found two copies of Wonder Stories, with marvelous Frank R. Paul covers on them -- the December 1930 issue, featuring "The Synthetic Man" by Ed Earl Repp and the April 1931 issue, featuring "The Man Who Evolved" by Edmond Hamilton. Wow! Were we impressed! But we didn't know where to get other issues (remember, we were only nine years old) and it wasn't until the spring of 1933 that we discovered back-date magazines stores and the S-F magazines. And, beginning with the January 1934 issues, we were able to purchase them from the newsstands (this was very neatly accomplished by the method known as "not eating lunch" -- and spending our Junior High School lunch money, 15 cents a day, on S-F mags). But back issues were only five cents each (six for a quarter) and we both amassed our early collections in this manner. By this time, Jack Agnew, who is my cousin, joined us and we became a trio. Jack had no choice but to become an S-F fan, too.
In April of 1934, Hugo Gernsback started the Science Fiction League in the pages of Wonder Stories. This was probably the most important event ever to occur from the viewpoint of S-F and, particularly, S-F fandom. SFL chapters sprang up world-wide. One of these was the Philadelphia SFL, organized by Milton A. Rothman, with the first meeting occurring in January 1935. We attempted to contact Rothman but received no answer so we assumed he felt we were too juvenile. Little did we realize that Rothman was just a year or so older than us. So, about this same time, we organized the Boys' SF Club, consisting of John Baltadonis, Jack Agnew, Harvey Greenblatt, and me. And we actually produced a 'fan mag', as they were called then, titled The Science Fiction Fan. It was carbon-copied (there were only two or three copies), and featured some S-F magazine reviews plus a short story, "The Atom Smasher" by Donald Wandrei, which was copied from a 1934 Astounding Stories. But also featured were the first illustrations by John Baltadonis. They were acceptable -- I thought they were excellent -- but they gave no hint of the John's latent talent that would propel him to the top of the fan field and make him known as 'The Frank R. Paul of the Fan Artists'.
In 1935, John and I both had letters published in Amazing Stories and this time Rothman contacted us! We brought our Boys' SF Club to his home and the first reorganizational meeting of the Philadelphia SFL was held with our group plus Rothman, his fan friend Raymond Peel Mariella, Oswald Train (who had just moved to Phila-delphia), and a couple of others who never showed up again.
Baltadonis, Agnew, and I had been working on another carbon-copied fan mag, called Imaginative Fiction. After attending the first PSFL meeting, we added a couple of pages and Baltadonis did a remarkable cover (for a 14-year-old). And he had to do it twice, as we made two copies (there were no Xerox machines then!). The three of us then decided we were going to publish a printed fan mag, like Fantasy Magazine, to be titled Fantascience Digest. We actually bought a press, but had no idea how to set type -- and we didn't have any type, anyway! It had taken all we could beg, borrow, or steal to buy the press, so getting type would be another day. But all was not lost; that very week we received in the mail the initial issue of Morris Scott Dollens' The Science Fiction Collector, certainly one of the most amateurish fan mags published to that time. It was hand-written -- not even typed -- but it had illustrations and they were in a blue color! We found out it was done by a process called hektography.
Baltadonis managed to get some more money, did a little research, and called Agnew and I to come over one day to observe his new publishing equipment. We arrived to find that his 'publishing house' consisted of a pound of gelatine, a large rectangular cake pan, a purple typewriter ribbon, and a small jar of blue ink. The gelatine was heated until it became liquid, and was poured into the cake pan and allowed to harden. The typed page was placed face down on the gelatine and allowed to remain for a few minutes until the gelatine absorbed the purple ink, and then removed. A sheet of typewriter paper was then very carefully placed on the gelatine, pressed slightly and pulled off. Eureka! There was a marvelous reproduction of the purple-typed page. With luck, this could be repeated about 50 or even 60 times; thus was born the era of the hektographed fan magazine.
Philadelphia's first fan mag (not counting the carbon-copied ones) was called Fantasy Fiction Telegram; it was dated October 1936 and was about 20 half-size pages, all in purple, with blue illustrations, all by Baltadonis, and material by the local group plus an article by the leading fan of the time, Donald A. Wollheim. The original Baltadonis hektographed artwork didn't even begin to suggest the prolific talent he would display in the near future.
John made more trips to the store -- the gelatine was called 'Ditto' by the way -- and made an amazing discovery, one that would ultimately make him an immortal of early fandom: hektographed ink was available in many colors! From an artistic viewpoint, the possibilities were astounding. The third issue of FFT appeared in many colors, and Baltadonis received rave reviews of his artwork (the cover and all interiors). But FFT lasted only one more issue, the fifth issue never being completed.
Morris Dollens published the Science Fiction Collector for 13 issues, through June 1937 when Dollens announced that would be the last issue. But it wasn't really the last issue. A 14th issue (dated July 1937) appeared and what an issue it was! Sam Moskowitz described it in The Immortal Storm as follows:
"In late August of 1937, the first issue of the new Science Fiction Collector appeared under the editorship of Baltadonis and staffed by Train, Madle, and Moskowitz. The result set the fan world agog and unified its struggling remnants. For Baltadonis had done the near-impossible; not only was Collector ahead of the old insofar as quality of material was concerned, but Dollens' hektography had actually been surpassed. Some of the most important names of fandom were contributors, and in the space of one issue, the Science Fiction Collector became the leading representative fan journal."
Sam could have added that the Baltadonis artwork was extremely impressive -- and "all in color for a dime." It was at this junction that fandom almost universally recognized Baltadonis as the premier fan artist. Morris Scott Dollens had introduced the varied-colored hektograph fan mag but Baltadonis perfected it. He was not only outstanding in the handling of color and the mechanistic aspects of illustrating -- he was also a master of 'figure study', as the following anecdote shows.
Back in 1935, when we graduated from Penn Treaty Junior High School, we had read a letter in Wonder or Amazing from Philadelphia fan Raymond Peel Mariella, who mentioned that one of his teachers was an S-F writer who taught at Central High School. We also had read a letter from a Philadelphia writer named Stephen G. Hale who had several stories in Amazing, and who was also a high school teacher. It had to be the same writer, we assumed, and both of us attempted to attend Central -- to no avail. "You go to Northeast," we were told, and so we did.
But on the first day of art class, we were amazed to realize that Stephen G. Hale (author of "The Laughing Death" and "World's Apart") was our art teacher! He told us he had several other stories awaiting publication (Amazing Stories) -- but they never appeared. Anyway, one of our first assignments was 'figure study'. So far as drawing was concerned, I was as bad as Baltadonis was good. We came to the deadline, and I hadn't finished the assignment. "Not to worry," said the over-accommodating Baltadonis, "I'll do an extra one and give it to you at class." But it turned out to be a scantily-clad figure study of a female band leader named Ina Ray Hutton. She was drawn wearing short tight pants, and John made sure he disguised nothing. I turned it in and, in the next art period, Hale yelled out, "Madle! Come up here!" I stepped forward in fear and trepidation because I knew he was going to accuse me of turning in someone else's work. But that wasn't it at all -- he was extremely angry that I had turned in this "piece of pornography" and that he was considering sending me and the drawing down to the principal's office. But he relented -- perhaps because we had discovered his stories a few days earlier.
JVB, as Baltadonis became known in fandom, not only edited and published one of the leading fan journals of this period, but he also conceived of Comet Publications, which comprised all of the fan journals published by the Philadelphia group. At one time, circa 1938-39, Comet Publications comprised about 15 different fan mags. (It should be mentioned that the 1936-41 fandom was so small that some active fans used only initials. In addition to JVB, there was DAW [Wollheim], FJA [Ackerman], MAR [Rothman], RWL [Lowndes], and RAM [Madle].)
JVB was one of the attendees at the October 1936 meeting in Philadelphia when the New York group came to visit the Philadelphia group. This became known as the 'First S-F Convention', partly because, during the official meeting, Donald A. Wollheim suggested it. JVB was active in producing the annual Philadelphia conference and in helping produce Nycon in 1939 -- the First World S-F Convention.
JVB's activity in the 1936-41 period was amazing. He did everything a fan could do -- he wrote, illustrated, collected, corresponded, wrote to magazines, organized and attended conventions. During the years 1937-40, he was always voted one of the top fans in the world. In fact, in 1938 and 1939 he was elected as Number One Fan. And this was during the times that active fandom consisted of such as Ackerman, Bradbury, Wollheim, Moskowitz, Tucker, Pohl, Lowndes, and other great names.
Seventeen issues of Science Fiction Collector appeared under JVB's editorship from 1937-41. It was a treasure-trove of early S-F and fandom, beautifully illustrated in multi-color. The final issue was dated Winter 1941 and marked the end of JVB's tenure as an active fan; in reality, the start of World War II in December 1941 marked the end of the grandest of all fan periods.
After the war, Baltadonis rejoined the PSFS for a while, but upon starting graduate work, drifted into inactivity. He did illustrate the Program Book for the Philcon of 1947 and, in 1948, did the dust wrapper and illustrations for New Era's only book, "The Solitary Hunters" and "The Abyss" by David H. Keller. Despite his S-F illustrating talent, he appeared professionally only once when Lowndes reprinted "The Abyss" in Magazine of Horror in the 1960s. But his entire career was art-oriented -- he taught art in Haverford, Pennsylvania school system for 35 years, then became art programs coordinator for the district until his health forced him to retire.
Our paths crossed occasionally during the late `40s and early `50s when I was attending Drexel University. In 1953 I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and later to Washington, D.C., and we rarely made contact. However, beginning in the early `80s, Agnew, John, and I attended Philcons and PSFS Founders' Day dinners, and it was like the old days again. At the Philcons and dinners, John's wife Pat, my wife Billie, and Agnew's wife Agnes learned more than they wanted to when discussions of the old days came up.
John always retained his interest in S-F. He went from reader to collector to fan and back to reader. Fan history will certainly show him as one of the most important members of the 1936-41 period of fandom. (Just look at the indexes of Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm and Warner's All Our Yesterdays and this becomes quite evident.) It's difficult to accept that John V. Baltadonis is gone -- but the memories of the friendship and the numerous hobbies, interests, and activities we shared, will be remembered forever.
- - - - - - - - - -Harry Warner, Jr., noted that Baltadonis had actually been mostly and undeservedly forgotten by latter-day fandom: "It's a shame that no worldcon ever thought about making him the Fan Guest of Honor during his long life." Fred Smith wrote us in agreement about Baltadonis' importance in fandom's earliest era, but also remarked about how all is relative in fandom: "Robert Madle's tribute to John Baltadonis was engrossing. It's funny, but when I was active in fandom in the 1950s, those guys, along with Ackerman, Moskowitz, DeVore, and Kyle, were already legendary. We even had nostalgia for the 'Good Old Days' back then!"
Mimosa 24 was published in August 1999, just before we left on a two-week trip that would take us first to the 1999 NASFiC, Conucopia, where we were Fan Guests, and then to Australia for the 1999 Worldcon. M24 was a "Communications" theme issue, featuring an intriguing cover by Charlie Williams depicting the Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, where Ratatosk, the messenger squirrel dwelt. We began the issue with a remembrance of a great communicator. Aubrey Vincent Clarke was a contributor to Mimosa as well as a frequent correspondent, especially about matters of fan history of the golden decade of the 1950s. We were enriched by his friendship as we were immensely saddened by his passing.
Mimosa 24 cover by Charlie Williams
All other illustrations by Joe Mayhew